Behind the career: John Spitznagel

Position: Chief executive of NovaSom, a Glen Burnie company that provides sleep-testing technology.

After graduating from college, John Spitznagel headed to law school. He didn’t last long, realizing quickly he would rather try his hand at something else. He soon took a sales position at a pharmaceutical company. After much success, he moved to marketing, where he climbed to vice president. He eventually headed a few other companies in the health care industry before coming to NovaSom.

What do you consider to be some of the strengths of your career?

I wasn’t afraid to take some risks. I never understood the fear that people in an organization had of their higher ups. I always felt that just because someone was my boss or my boss’s boss, didn’t mean that person was better or more creative. They may have been smarter, but why would I be afraid of them? I welcome people telling me what they think we’re doing wrong or right or what we could do better, even if I don’t agree. People come up with good ideas. Why intimidate people?

How did you create that kind of culture in a company?

It’s not one thing. It’s everything you do. I think people feel good if they think, when they get up, “I’m going to a place where I’m spending a third of my life and half of my waking life. And I’m going to enjoy it.” That comes as a surprise to most people.

You have turned around a few companies that you led. How did you do it?

At Roberts Pharmaceutical, we energized the sales force by putting in a commission plan they could understand and get paid. We put in a fleet plan so sales reps could get a decent car to drive. We bumped everyone’s salary up in the field and many people in the office. I brought in some top-notch people to work with me. We promoted a woman from the field force to vice president of sales. Hired a doctor to run the medical group. We shrunk the finance group, which was overblown.

What leadership lessons did you learn from that?

Hire good people. Treat them well and let them make mistakes and get out of their way. They’ll prove themselves because they want to. Everyone wants to do well. No one goes to the office to look stupid or to come home at night and have to say, “Boy, I really messed up today.” Everyone really wants to excel and feel like they’re contributing. If you follow that model, all you can do is hire good people with great credentials. I can’t tell you how many Harvard MBAs I have not hired in my career because even though they were really smart, my assessment was they couldn’t work well with people. People have to work with people well. I would say 95 percent of the time, people will excel if you put them in the right position.

Have any secrets to hiring the right people?

I listen. I try to get the person to talk as much as I can after I give them a description of what we’re looking for. I ask questions and go with my gut. I don’t have a standardized form that I use. That’s what human resource people are for.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.

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