Leadership Q&A


What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? Why/how did you decide to take it?

Leaving the FBI after a terrific 10-year career was a big step. It’s relatively unusual that someone would leave that role after so many years of service. Despite the great work of the FBI, it is a government organization and it functions much differently than a for-profit business. After assessing my career goals, including some that I set during my college and law school days, I decided to take a risk and transition to a major corporation.

A close second was taking my first position as a CEO outside the United States. I had a great opportunity to join Mitre 10, the market-leading hardware and home improvement company in New Zealand. The obvious risks included being a first-time CEO along with making that transition 8,000 miles from home. In this case, I took the step only after I weighed the potential growth opportunities with my employer at the time, along with the professional growth and experience my family would gain through living abroad and learning a new culture and part of the world.

An important part of decisions like these – where naturally there is risk – is how you mitigate the risk. In each of these situations, while high-risk but potentially high-reward, I carefully thought through proactive steps I could take to mitigate some of the risk.

How do you keep a balanced perspective in the midst of chaos?

Some degree of “chaos” is normal, particularly when it comes to driving positive change within an organization. However, I think the majority of chaos that occurs in business is controllable.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the ability to prioritize and focus is critical. A key component has been self-discipline. This has enabled me to work on the most important things with enough time to make sound decisions. As Peter Drucker said, “You cannot manage time; you can only manage yourself.” He was spot-on.

Another thought here is process. I have worked in a number of organizations where there were many different ways to achieve a similar task. In addition to the lack of efficiency that creates, when people change roles or new folks join the company, they have to start from scratch. A clearly defined process is critical to managing time and resources. However, this shouldn’t be extrapolated to mean that creativity is dismissed or ignored. In fact, the constant creative effort to improve should be embraced.

It’s our responsibility as leaders to help our teams with clear prioritization and to put in place the appropriate business process so they can focus on the most critical work and accomplish it in a highly efficient manner.

What’s the most interesting/challenging conversation you’ve had with an employee?

Some of the most compelling conversations I’ve had with employees have revolved around improving the business, particularly with customer-facing parts of the business. To gain insights and a deeper understanding of the customer, you must be able to have that look-yourself-in-the-mirror, no-fear conversation about opportunities to improve.

In some company cultures, it can be difficult for people to focus on anything other than what is done well. It is, after all, critical to keep doing the things that are relevant in an effective way, but fixing the less-than-optimal relevant parts of the business is the real holy grail.

Creating a culture that allows people to be openly (and constructively) critical, especially across business units and functions, is what really exposes the improvement opportunities. People tend to want to talk more than they listen, and that is a major barrier to understanding what can be done better. Having a structured method to accomplish an ongoing “SWOT” analysis is key.

What’s your personal mission?

I have a few but number one is easy. My ultimate mission is to be a great father to my children. They are at the very top of my list.

Number two: never stop learning. I believe a major part of my personal growth and development has been my constant desire to learn new things. And, while important, it’s not just about reading. You can learn more every day by asking good questions. Asking good questions is a learned skill that comes only from practice.

From a purely business perspective, my mission is simple: to be an effective and empathetic leader while positively transforming businesses. I love what happens when a group of people come together with a common purpose, establish a thoughtful plan, and then effectively execute it.

And outside of work, I want to be a steadily improving motocross rider. I have been riding dirt bikes since I was 10, and now my son and I ride together and he is getting pretty close to besting me.

If you could go back 15 years, what advice would you give yourself?

Listen to your instincts. When you know the answer, don’t second-guess yourself. Say it out loud and follow up by acting on it. Quickly.

A smart guy once taught me: You can stay or go, now or later.

Think about it – it is amazingly simple and you can apply it to most decisions. I know from personal experience that you get your best results when you Go Now!

John Hartmann has more than 15 years of corporate experience at the senior executive level, including 11 years in the home improvement/hardware retail sector. Most recently, Hartmann served as Chief Executive Officer for Mitre 10, a New Zealand-based cooperative where he built and executed a strategic plan that increased members’ profitable sales over 25 percent in a four-year period.

Prior to Mitre 10, Hartmann spent eight years at Home Depot and HD Supply, in a variety of roles including long-range planning, strategic business development, operations, and sourcing, and finished his tenure as Chief Operating Officer for the electrical and plumbing divisions of then private-equity-owned HD Supply. 

For more than four years, Hartmann served as Vice President of Corporate Services for the Fortune 25 company Cardinal Health. Upon graduating from law school, Hartmann spent 10 years as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Hartmann holds a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law and a bachelor’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. Hartmann also received a certificate in the Accelerated Leadership Program from Emory University, Goizueta Business School. 

John Hartmann can be reached at john.hartmann@truevalue.com.