By Dr. Ichak Adizes

Recently I was asked to say a few words at the retirement party for Dan Maydan, president of Applied Materials, Silicon Valley, California.

What came to my mind, as I thought about my long acquaintance with Dan, was his unique wisdom as a leader.

It has been my privilege to coach and consult to companies throughout the world for more than forty years. In doing so, I have met and worked with many top executives and even prime ministers and presidents of nations. Once in a while, I come across an executive we all can learn from. Dan Maydan stands out in that crowd.

I came to consult to Dan and the company almost twelve years ago, when it had $400 million in sales. When Dan started leading the company, it had only $40 million in sales; by 2000, at its peak, the company had grown to over $10 billion in sales. We sure had lots of work and learning to do.

Listening Instead of Talking

Let me tell you why Dan stands out and what we can learn from him.

I have met many outstanding executives who know how to speak well. But there are very few who know how not to speak.

Sitting in meetings with him, I noticed that although Dan is the company chairman, he almost never leads the meeting. He simply lets the meeting take place, allowing anyone to speak as they will. He sits quietly and seems to be dozing. If you did not know him well, you might believe the guy had retired on the job. But if the discussion takes the wrong turn, he perks up – and suddenly you’ve got the distinct feeling you’ve just touched a hot stove. He informs everyone in the most assertive terms why it is the wrong direction and what the direction should be – and he articulates well why that is so.

Working with him, I learned how to interpret his silence: As long as he is quiet, the meeting is going well.

Why this style is functional becomes clear when you understand the other characteristic of Dan’s work.

Dan’s calendar is almost always empty. Whenever anyone asks to see him, the answer is, “Come in now!” – not in two months’ time. And he has all the time in the world for you. He is never hurried.

Again: he listens carefully and does not give you a solution. “What do you think we should do?” is his usual question, and if the answer is a good one he says, “Great! A wonderful idea! Why don’t you go ahead and do that?” If it is a bad idea or bad analysis of the problem, he will tell you why, but again without giving you a solution. He’ll send you back to think some more until you have the right solution.

Vision and Direction

The common denominator in both characteristics of Dan’s managerial style is this:

He never tells people what, specifically, to do.

He provides the vision and the direction, and from there he lets people figure out for themselves what to do. As people articulate their decisions, he listens intently, only getting involved when he feels that what they want to do is inappropriate or misdirected.

Thus, his focus is on continuously articulating the company’s vision – by setting direction and then monitoring people to ensure they do not deviate from it in their decisions. When they do, he explains the problem clearly so they can learn.

This has several advantages. One: it stimulates creativity. Executives have to think, not just carry out orders. And when they are corrected, they learn why their plan or idea had inherent problems they hadn’t carefully considered or did not even know existed. That is called true coaching. People learn nothing from just following orders. People learn when they decide what to do, having done their best in making that decision, and then someone else who knows better shows them where the faults are.

The second advantage is that Dan is obviously respectful of those reporting to him. He values what people think, and if what they want to do makes sense to him, he enthusiastically supports them. A leader who always tells his subordinates what to do is insinuating that those subordinates cannot think, and that he alone can make the right decisions. Since Dan supports the decisions his people arrive at, they leave his office filled with energy and ready to implement the plan. They own the decision fully. They feel respected and accountable – and they have learned a lot already.

The third advantage to Dan’s style is that it takes far less time to correct wrong ideas, which happens only periodically, than to solve every problem in detail and then supervise its execution.

That is why he always has time. Why his calendar is empty. Why he has opportunities to listen. And in listening he learns a lot – both about the company’s problems and about the quality of the people reporting to him.

Balancing Time and Ego

What does it take to have such a style?

There is no question Dan has an ego. How could he have become a president and built a $10 billion company from scratch – without an ego? But unlike others, he knows how to control his ego and how to nourish the egos of others: how to build people up. And he has succeeded. Many of the people in attendance at Dan’s retirement party – his former employees – are now CEOs or presidents of their own companies. You might say that Applied Materials, under Dan’s leadership, was the best experiential school for CEOs.

One more characteristic of Dan’s style is worth mentioning.

For most people who are busy building a global company, time is at a premium; a complaint I hear almost universally is that there is no time for personal life, for family.

Watching Dan work, I was impressed by how well he balanced work with family: his absolute dedication to his late wife, Dalia, may her memory be blessed; his children and grandchildren; his community; and to his own good health and exercise.

It takes just this kind of balance in life, together with a controlled ego, to build a successful family and successful executives – which are the true assets of any company and any conscious person.

Dan, I thank you for a wonderful time we had together, for the excitement and learning, and for showing me as well as many others the path.