Wise Man to America’s Top Executives : Behavior: Industrial psychologist Mortimer R. Feinberg applies life’s lessons, quotes from the famous and not so famous in counseling managers.
When Mortimer R. Feinberg sits down to help a client figure out what’s wrong with a business, he relies not just on the standardized tests that any industrial psychologist employs.
He draws answers from a life of experience and perspective and the advice of people ranging from Socrates to Freud to his own parents.
The words “industrial psychology” might turn off someone who knows little about the topic. Listening to Feinberg talk, the subject comes alive.
Feinberg, 72, acts as a consultant, counselor, wise man and by, his own description, vizier to top managers of some of the country’s biggest companies. Clients bring a variety of problems to his office: disagreements with superiors or subordinates, marital difficulties, even problems with mistresses.
“They want to have somebody to just ventilate to,” he said. “They really can’t talk to their people about their anxieties. . . . You don’t want to be showing tremendous weakness or indecision in front of your people.
“You want to be able to talk to somebody who is non-judgmental, who will listen you out, who has experience--because if you just talk to yourself, you’re going to get the same answers.”
Sometimes a client has been fired. His advice: “You’ve not lost a spouse, you’ve not lost a child, you’ve not lost a mother, you have lost a job. Recognize that you’ve got to put it in perspective. Recognize what are your strengths and weaknesses.”
Feinberg is the author or co-author of six books and a former professor at New York’s Bernard M. Baruch College. He has traveled the world in his work and earned the respect of executives.
“He is a totally enjoyable person,” said Richard Voell, chief executive of the Rockefeller Group, the New York real estate management firm. “He is a healer . . . he is a confidant, he is totally trustworthy.”
“As a result of using him, we have had enormous success in attracting, retaining and keeping some of the best management we could possibly have,” Voell said.
Dennis Botorff, chairman of First American Corp., the Nashville-based bank holding company, said, “He has studied leadership styles from a wide range of people, CEOs and political figures, and has just got a tremendous amount of wisdom. . . . He’s a great resource.”
A conversation with Feinberg is exactly what you’d expect from someone who has spent half a century studying behavior. He is introspective, examining his own motives, and knows that his early life helped shape him.
“I was raised in the Depression,” Feinberg begins. His father worked as a salesman, and Feinberg remembers sitting on the stoop of his Bronx home, waiting for his father to come home and tell him whether he had made enough money so Feinberg and his brother could have 22 cents to go to the movies.
“I was a terribly anxious student,” he said. “I knew that without an education I would have to be a salesman like my father and I would have to worry whether I got paid on a commission basis.”
He gravitated toward psychology, a field in which he could make a living--"for me, being a professional was security, it was status.”
Feinberg didn’t want to become a psychotherapist. Business fascinated him, so he chose industrial psychology. He graduated from New York’s City College in 1944, got his master’s from Indiana University the next year and his doctorate from New York University in 1950.
Feinberg has learned from many people over the years, from his parents to great scholars and historical figures. He peppers his conversations with quotes borrowed from people like Franklin Roosevelt (“You have nothing to fear but fear itself”) and his mother (“What you have in your head is what matters, not what you have in your pocket”).
In his office, alongside the pictures of his wife, Gloria, two sons and grandchildren, there are bronze busts of public figures he admires, among them Lincoln, Churchill and Albert Schweitzer.
Great speakers also had an effect on Feinberg. His mother, a Romanian immigrant, loved to hear people who could make English fun to listen to. She took her son to hear speakers like Adam Clayton Powell, who preached at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
When Feinberg joined Baruch in 1950, he had the chance to impress students with his own verbal style. Feinberg worked the lecture hall the way a stand-up comic works a crowd. He moved around the floor, microphone in hand, sprinkling lectures on cognitive dissonance or abnormal psychology with anecdotes and jokes. When a student answered a question correctly, the professor tossed him or her sugarless candy as a reward.
“I loved teaching,” he said. Even when personal problems depressed him, “I went into that Psych 1 class, and I felt great. I felt I was doing something meaningful.”
When Feinberg started out, industrial psychology meant studying statistical data and IQ tests. Over the years, the field has changed along with the entire business world, giving his job more depth and meaning.
“I loved to advise, I loved to present options, I loved to think of things the CEO didn’t think of. I loved to be his vizier, like Joseph was to the Pharaoh,” he said.
Feinberg’s company, BFS Psychological Associates Inc., evaluates clients with tests, seeking to determine their strong points. He helps job-seekers with resumes and networking and gives them a sense of direction.
He helps those who have been fired see “what they did to contribute to their downfall.”
Feinberg retired from Baruch in 1980, but has not slowed down. The walls and shelves of his office are filled with photos from Egypt, India, Ireland and other places where Feinberg has given speeches and attended conferences. Besides his books, he’s written many articles, including contributions to The Wall Street Journal column Manager’s Journal.
His most recent book is “Why Smart People Do Dumb Things,” written with John J. Tarrant. It looks at prominent people--including Richard Nixon, Leona Helmsley and onetime presidential candidate Gary Hart--who did themselves in because of blindness or hubris. The book offers advice to people hoping to avoid those kinds of traps.