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the ladder

Ravi SaligramDARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Ravi Saligram, 60, is chief executive of Ritchie Bros., based in Burnaby, B.C. Previously, he was CEO of OfficeMax, served in executive positions with global food services company Aramark and held various roles at InterContinental Hotels Group. He has an MBA from the University of Michigan and an electrical engineering degree from Bangalore University.

I was born in New Delhi but grew up mostly in Bangalore. I had two goals growing up; I aspired to be a writer and to come to America. I loved reading mystery and spy novels, inspired by author James Hadley Chase.

I wrote my first novel when I was 15 years old. A friend's sister typed it up for me. I sent it to the same publisher that published Hadley Chase and they rejected it, along with many other publishers. I sent it to Hadley Chase and he wrote me a letter telling me not to give up. Just getting that letter made up for the rejections.

I was accepted to get a bachelor of arts in English, but my family said I was nuts. They said, "You'll just be another rickshaw driver with a degree in English." I ended up going into engineering.

I learned about leadership in part from my father and grandfather. Both taught me the importance of character at a very young age. As a result, honesty and integrity are at the core of my being. My father was also a great leader of people.

My father died of cancer at a very young age, 52. It was 1980 and I was 24 at the time and had just started working in the United States. As the eldest son, there was a lot of pressure to go back to India and take care of my mother, my brother who was eight years old, and my sister, who was 16. My mother made a bold decision and told me to go back to America and follow my passions. Without her decision, I don't know that I would be where I am today.

I started my career in advertising at Leo Burnett. That's where I developed a passion for the consumer and customer. It was the best training ground. They emphasized the need to have a point of view. It can't be a gut feeling or ill-defined either; you had to have done your homework. Our job was not only to give the client what they want, but what they need. Early on, that created confidence. You could be arguing your point of view with someone 10 levels above you, but the hierarchy didn't matter.

Sometimes people think I have a strong personality because my natural instinct is, "Hey, I have a point of view on this." It doesn't mean that I'm stubborn. I love to hear what the other person has to say and expect them to push back.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was that, when you run a company, you have a lot of average people. Your job is to get them to perform above average. Just imagine the gains you'll see in the company rather than just focusing on two or three superstars. That advice became my guiding light.

With leadership, you need to make people want to follow you. People will follow you when they realize that you care about them – more than you care about yourself – and there isn't an expectation of a payback. For me, gratitude and loyalty are very important.

My style is to surround myself with people smarter than I am. I don't like to surround myself with yes men. I like to have people that compliment me in different ways: Someone's weaknesses are offset by someone else's strengths.

My end objective, as a CEO, is to drive stakeholder value. That includes employees, customers and shareholders, as well as the community in which you do business. The first three are key and have to be in harmony. You can't drive shareholder value if you aren't doing a fantastic job for your customers. You can't do a fantastic job for customers if you're not taking care of your employees.

I liken my job to an orchestra conductor. I pick the music, which is like creating a vision for the company. My people are the musicians. You have to get them aligned. I don't make the music; I only guide it. If I pick the wrong music, I take the blame. I want our people to feel empowered and take the credit.

As told to Brenda Bouw. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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