Mike Perlis — president and chief executive of Forbes Media since 2010, and before that publisher of Playboy, GQ and Men’s Health, and CEO of Ziff Davis — was the subject of Sunday’s New York Times International Business Q-and-A.
Mike is also a 1971 Staples High School graduate. His mother — Vivian Perlis — is well known to Westporters as a talented harpist, and to musicologists everywhere as founder and former director of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music.
The Times probably did not know that. They asked Mike about his first experiences as a manager, and he replied with a musical analogy.
Q. Do you remember the first time you became a manager?
A. Right out of college, I co-founded a small publishing company, in Camden, Maine. Because I love the outdoors, we published regional magazines on travel and outdoor sports, like canoeing and hiking. I’ve always felt that media is one of the great places where one can combine avocation and vocation. I remember being much younger than everyone else, and though I wanted to be a leader, I had to take into account that the people I was managing often had much more experience and were older than I was.
It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to hone my skill as a generalist. I learned to be a conductor rather than being the musician with a particular skill. And as time has gone by, I’ve come to realize that being that generalist is actually a specialty. It’s a real privilege to be in the role where you can orchestrate what others are doing, but it does become a specialty, and it’s very satisfying, to continue the metaphor, to listen to the music you can create with the group.
Q. What are the skills required to play that “conductor role” well?
A. You have to be able to listen carefully, you have to be patient, and you have to able to articulate to your group what the goals are, what will constitute success and then lay out, with some precision, what the overarching strategic goals are that will allow the group to get there. Perspective and being able to see the whole picture is really vital, and more than anything, listening, understanding where you have talent, where you need talent, where the market opportunities are, and then translating all of this into strategic plans.
Q. What’s the difference between a good leader and a great leader?
A. Great leaders walk the talk. They lead by example. There isn’t anything they ask people to do they’re not willing to do themselves. They’re willing to do the big things and the little things that project real support and the “we’re in it together” kind of feeling. And by the way, for me that’s when it’s the most fun. If you live in an ivory tower — and, as Donald Trump said the other night, “leadership is about telling people what to do and then having them do it” — that doesn’t sound fun to me.
Mike went on to talk about his career at a variety of different publications; his relationship with the Forbes family; his leadership style, and his growth as a leader.
The final question was, “What would you tell your younger self?” Mike replied:
“I wish I’d learned to speak Spanish or Chinese — not just to be more communicative and fluent, because I can always manage to get by, but to be more of a global citizen. Culturally, it says something about you if you can speak more than your mother tongue.”
(To read the entire Times Q-and-A with Mike Perlis, click here.)