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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sander Flaum

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-05

Sander Flaum believes in paranoia.

"It can be good for you - especially if you are a CEO," the managing partner of Flaum Partners said yesterday. "Great CEO's are paranoid as hell. That enables them to stay ahead of the competition. It's what I call benign paranoia."

Mr. Flaum is a veteran CEO himself. At a global advertising organization, Robert A. Becker, Euro RSCG, he managed seven $2 billion brands. As founder and CEO of Flaum Partners, he's been dispensing marketing advice to the health-care and pharmaceutical industries. And as an adjunct professor of management at Fordham University Graduate School of Business, he's been inviting scores of CEO's to the Fordham Leadership Forum, which he chairs.

"I point out to my students - especially when these CEO's attend - the importance of the 'Nine P's' in leadership," Mr. Flaum said.

In his playbook, they are: People, purpose, passion, performance, persistence, perspective, paranoia, principles and practice.

Not long ago, he compiled some of his thoughts on leadership in a book that he co-wrote with his son, Jonathon. Titled "The 100-Mile Walk: A Father and Son On A Quest To Find The Essence of Leadership," it has sold robustly.

While his leadership characteristics primarily represent a synthesis of Mr. Flaum's business acumen and academic knowledge - he holds an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University - they also flow from a personal history that includes exposure to sound business practices at an early age as he grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

His father, Joseph Flaum, ran four fine-food stores in Brooklyn, "Flaum's Appetizers." The young Sander would frequently accompany his father to the stores, observing him deal with customers.

But it was his mother, Rose, who had a greater influence on him, Mr. Flaum said.

"She was my role model," he said. "She even taught me to play baseball."

As a child, Mr. Flaum stuttered.

"You're just going to have to work harder in life to do well," his mother would say to him, as Mr. Flaum recalled.

"I discovered early in life that all I wanted to do was to escape Williamsburg and become a CEO," he said.

His first independent foray outside Brooklyn was to Ohio State University, where he majored in psychology.

Why Ohio?

"It was as far from Brooklyn as I could get at the time," Mr. Flaum said.

He worked his way through college at clothing stores near the campus.

During summers, he worked as a waiter at hotels in the borscht belt. A stint in the army followed. Later he worked as a junior speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, and then wound up at the erstwhile pharmaceutical giant, Lederle.

"Through all those years, I studied what was it that made good leaders," Mr. Flaum said.

His nine principles of leadership evolved out of that examination.

At the heart of Mr. Flaum's inquiry is a simple question: "How does a CEO become great rather than just good?"

A starting point for an incipient great CEO is to surround himself - or herself - with smart people.

"The great CEO's always focus on developing their smart people - and moving out those who aren't," Mr. Flaum said.
Personal integrity is also a key element.

""If you don't have integrity and credibility, people will laugh behind your back," Mr. Flaum said.

But his principles aren't only intended to burnish the CEO's reputation. The bottom line is the bottom line.

"The important question is how the CEO exceeds the revenue curve," Mr. Flaum said.

Another question that he believes will become increasingly important is the role of corporate directors.

"The next major suits will be against boards of directors," Mr. Flaum said.
He endorsed the widespread concern of critics of corporate America that overly pliable boards have overcompensated CEO's, among other things.

"How much is enough? How much is too much?" Mr. Flaum said.

Such questions can sometimes take on philosophical dimensions - something that Mr. Flaum realized when he and his son went for a 100-mile walk that led to the writing of their book.

Mr. Flaum often uses vignettes from that walk with his son - who's CEO of a communications company - to illustrate his talks on the lecture circuit, and during his classes at Fordham.

"I always tell my students, 'What's the legacy that you want to leave at the end of your career?'" Mr. Flaum said. "I tell them that their ultimate goal should always to be the best in whatever they do. If you can't be the best - then do something else."

Then, echoing what his mother would tell him when he was very young, Mr. Flaum said:

"I tell my students, 'You're just going to have to work harder to do well in life.'"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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