Alcoa CEO and Chairman Klaus Kleinfeld Discusses the Ingredients for Leadership

When recruiters at Alcoa evaluate job candidate as future business leaders, they look for more than impressive credentials. “A real, full, developed individual” is what the organization seeks, said chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld.

Kleinfeld spoke to students at the Yale School of Management on February 11 as part of the Leaders Forum lecture series.

When assessing job candidates, Alcoa focuses on the “critical categories” of performance and values, Kleinfeld said. Newly minted MBAs, he suggested, should have both broad, general management skills and demonstrated areas of expertise. Kleinfeld said he looks for “a passion and endurance to master a certain subject.”

Mastery of complex subjects is critical, because it reflects the discipline that business leaders need today, Kleinfeld said. “The real business world is about large, unstructured, complex problems of uncertainty that you somehow have to master,” he said.

Learning how to receive feedback is “super important” for aspiring business leaders,  as is cultivating a degree of self-awareness. “The more you know about yourself, the better you can become as a leader, bring out your strengths and work on your weaknesses,” Kleinfeld said.

Kleinfeld told students that they should be launching their careers with a strong set of personal values, including integrity, respect for co-workers on all levels of an organization, and courage. Courage, in particular, is critical to lifelong career satisfaction, he said, because it enables individuals to confront difficult work situations and make changes that enable them to thrive.

Young leaders without a strong sense of values are likely to let difficult circumstances fester, Kleinfeld said, telling the metaphorical story of the frog who sits in a pot of cold water as it is slowly heated until it’s too late. “When I see large organizations, I see a lot of boiled frogs very often,” Kleinfeld said. “It’s very sad. These are people who came into these organizations with big ideas and somehow got boiled.”

The underlying determinants of satisfaction in both career and personal life are energy and balance, Kleinfeld said. Individuals must learn how to cultivate their energy, which is created when the physical, spiritual, and vocational aspects of their lives are balanced, Kleinfeld said. “If you neglect one of these areas entirely, it’s going to eventually harm you,” he said. “Don’t manage time; manage energy.”