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Chuck Rubin’s View on Leadership

The ceo of Ulta believes good ideas, hard work and measured risk taking are what propel executives up the corporate ladder.

Chuck Rubin

Chuck Rubin is a believer in democracy — just not in corporate America.

This story first appeared in the June 1, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“The best path forward is a meritocracy…an environment where all people are provided the opportunity to contribute. But only those who actually do contribute are rewarded — not just financially — but with a seat at the table of leadership,” said Rubin, president and chief executive officer of Ulta Beauty. In his view, consensus building and popularity contests are best left to the upcoming general election. He also declared that the era of the “dictatorial, iconic ceo leading corporate America” has come to an end.

In his view, good ideas, hard work and measured risk taking are what propel executives up the corporate ladder.

“We need to challenge people and provide an environment that has some components of tough love,” he said. “Instead of reinforcing the idea that everyone is a winner and can share in rewards, we need to create an environment where meritocracy can thrive, where people who contribute, offer good ideas and execute are given opportunities to grow, to earn more, to realize their potential.”

Rubin said he learned this lesson early on, while he was a freshman in college. He assumed he’d earn stellar grades with little effort, as he had done in high school. He quickly learned he couldn’t. “I almost flunked out of college,” he said bluntly. “I realized that good grades didn’t come simply because I showed up. I realized it wasn’t as easy as every Little Leaguer getting a trophy whether they come in first place or last. I realized that ultimately entitlement — be it entitlement to good grades or entitlement to anything else — didn’t work, or at least it didn’t work for me.”

Rubin’s wake-up call prompted him to open the books and study diligently, which ultimately landed him on the dean’s list. “I learned that entitlement doesn’t buy you much, but working hard sure does.”

He acknowledged that implementing a meritocracy isn’t always the smoothest path. It’s one that requires honesty and tough decisions. “Nobody likes to tell [people] that their idea isn’t good enough. Being direct is sometimes the toughest thing to do, but it’s also difficult for a leader to acknowledge that they are wrong or that their idea is not the best,” he said. “I would suggest we be direct and we have to tell people when they struggle, we have to tell people when they fail, but we also have to tell people when they succeed and encourage them to do that.”

Rubin sees new challenges as a motivational tool. “I don’t believe people shy away from challenges and opportunities as easily as others might think they do. And I believe we are more likely to keep people engaged and happy by rewarding hard work and supporting this culture of meritocracy.”