Adam Bryant: An interview by Bob Morris

Adam Bryant is the deputy national editor of The New York Times, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the Sunday Business section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEO’s on How to Lead and Succeed, that draws out the broader themes and lessons from interviews with more than 70 CEO’s.

Adam has been editing at The Times since May 2006, and was a business reporter at the paper through the 1990s, when he covered a number of beats, including airlines, aviation safety, executive pay and corporate governance. From 1999 to 2006, he worked at Newsweek magazine as a senior writer and then as business editor. Before moving to the national desk in 2010, he was deputy business editor. Adam was the lead editor of a series on the dangers of distracted driving that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

To contact him, please click here

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Morris: I read your article featured by The New York Times (“Corner Office – The 5 Habits of Highly Effective C.E.O.’s,” May 17, 2011) in which you suggest that all great leaders share these habits in common: battle-hardened confidence, passionate curiosity, team smarts, a simple mind-set, and fearlessness. What about charisma?

Bryant: Good question. Charisma can be tricky, as many of the CEOs I’ve interviewed have noted. Several have acknowledged that their hiring mistakes include being won over by a charismatic personality, only to find out later that their charisma was not backed up by performance. Certainly, many leaders are charismatic. But I would say this one of those examples where it can be easy to mistake correlation for causation. Some successful CEOs are charismatic, but charisma is not necessary to be a successful CEO

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. Jack Dempsey once observed, “Champions get up when they can’t.” Is this what you mean by fearlessness?

Bryant: It’s part of it, certainly. That’s a great quote, by the way, which I think speaks more to the second quality I’ve identified as essential to high-performance – Battle-Hardened Confidence. That speaks more directly to this notion of facing adversity and powering through it.

Morris: In Geeks & Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have much of value to say about what happens to leaders who experience severe, perhaps even traumatic stress. In a word, they experience a “crucible.” My own opinion is that a crisis does not create character, crisis reveals it. What do you think about all this?

Bryant: I think it’s tough to parse the two, since they’re related so closely that they create a chicken-and-egg kind of debate. But I think it is important to note how many CEOs I interviewed told vivid stories about how they were tested in such moments, and the profound effect it had on them and their leadership.

Morris: In your opinion, is rigorous scrutiny of leaders by the media and others today better, worse, or about the same as it was (let’s say) five years ago? Please explain.

Bryant: I think it has gotten better. If you take a longer view of this than just five years, I think it’s fair to say the treatment and scrutiny of leaders have swung at times from one extreme to another. But the business press is getting smarter and more skeptical and reasonable about CEOs and their roles.

Morris: Based on what you’ve experienced as well as what you’ve observed, what is the single area of greatest need of immediate improvement among business schools, even those most highly regarded?

Bryant: More focus on leadership, communication, teamwork (not just my opinion – many of the CEOs I interviewed volunteered similar thoughts). Several top business schools, recognizing the importance of these issues in today’s environment, are starting to build more courses on these topics into their programs.

Morris: I recently learned that in April, Coca-Cola had 22.5 million visitors on Facebook and only 270,000 to its website—over 80 times as much traffic. To what extent (if any) has the emergence of social networks and their media such as Facebook had a significant impact on how people lead organizations?

Bryant: Many CEOs I’ve interviewed have added social media to their leadership toolkit. They blog, they hold virtual town halls. It helps flatten organizations, and makes the CEOs more accessible.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations. Reasons vary but, according to James O’Toole in Leading Change, much of the resistance is cultural, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What do you think?

Bryant: I agree. That is why the CEOs I interviewed speak with such reverence when they talk about people on their staffs who embody this quality of fearlessness. They want people with a bias toward taking action, toward taking calculated risks, to doing things. So they do what they can to send the message: they reward and promote and praise people who do these things. They hammer the point that their organizations have to be continually evolving and improving. They solicit everyone’s opinions. They set ambitious targets to get people out of their comfort zones. And they try to create a sense of mission so that people invest more of their passion and commitment to the workplace, rather than seeing it as just a place to show up and collect a paycheck.

Morris: To what extent (if any) is it still possible for what Jean Lipman-Blumen characterizes as a “toxic” leader to become CEO of a major corporation? Please explain.

Bryant: I think it is still possible. There is still some percentage of companies – though it is difficult to guess what that percentage is – that still operate with command-and-control, top-down hierarchies. And it’s inevitable that some people will achieve positions of great power, like the CEO role, and abuse the power they are granted. But on an optimistic note, I think such leadership styles get exposed more quickly now, and boards have lower tolerances for them. Why? Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about performance, and the quickening speed of business means that companies that wait for and follow only the orders of the boss at the top of the organization will be left behind.

Morris: What do you know now about business that you wish you knew when you sent to work in your first full-time job?

Bryant: I’ve come to appreciate – with my own experience, and hearing about the experiences from the CEOs I’ve interviewed – that it’s important to reach out and make connections with all sorts of people in your organization, not just those in your own department. They payoff of doing this is immeasurable, in so many ways.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Corner Office. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bryant: When I launched my weekly Corner Office feature in the New York Times in March 2009, I never expected to write a book. I figured the weekly column – a Q&A with CEOs on open-ended questions about the challenges of leadership and management – would simply stand on its own. Plus, the last thing the world needed was another business book.

But as the weeks and months went by, I started noticing patterns in the CEOs’ answers. I heard echoes of certain comments (more than one CEO, for example, said the exact same thing when describing what, ultimately, their job is: “I am a student of human nature.”). After conducting more than 70 interviews, I had about 1 million words of transcripts from my interviews. It was, in a sense, raw data, even though none of my conversations touched on the usual matters of strategy and stock performance.

And so, armed with many sheets of blank paper, pencils and an eraser, I started connecting dots and identifying patterns. After sifting the material many times, some insights occurred to me. I would ask the CEOs about important leadership lessons they had learned over the course of the lives. Very often, I would hear about qualities they embodied that helped explain their rise to the top. Then I would ask the CEOs about the qualities they looked for when they hired, and often I would hear that they particularly valued the very same qualities that helped explain their own rise. Because of the very nature of their position, they have first-hand experience about what it takes to succeed, and they can also see what qualities set people apart in the organizations they run.

Which led to another insight. To be clear, I am not the first person to sit down with CEOs to ask them about things that are important in their lives and what explains their success. Others have done this exercise and published books with the answers. But very often those answers have been reminders of the obvious – honesty, integrity, vision. What if the puzzle was framed a different way? Take, as a starting point, 100 vice presidents in a large corporation, and then assume they are all honest, good communicators, hard-working, and that they have integrity. The question then is, what separates people as they move up? Why do some people keep getting promoted over others? What are the qualities that set high-performers apart from the pack? The answer, I decided, lies in the five qualities that I discuss in the first third of my book, in a section on “Succeeding.” The middle third pulls together insights on managing, and the last third is on the art of leadership.

While I do not pretend to suggest that I have cracked some magical code, I have received tremendous feedback on the book, including many emails from people who say that they have seen evidence of the importance of these qualities in their own lives.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Bryant: It took me a while to get the balance right between including my views and points of analysis and the voices of the CEOs. In the end, I decided my role in the book was similar to a dinner party host – leading the discussion, introducing topics, but bringing out all the CEO’s insights and memorable stories.

Morris: Were there head-snapping revelations along the way?

Bryant: Just how clever their interviewing questions are for job candidates. People always come prepared and scripted to job interviews. The CEOs saw it as their role to get them off-script. Their questions are insightful and creative and surprising – like when Tony Hsieh of Zappos asks candidates, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?”

Morris: By what process did you select the material to include in it?

Bryant: The chapter and broader insights emerged from the material. But once they came into focus and I had the structure of the book and the chapters, then it was a matter of selecting the quotes that best illustrated and supported those insights.

Morris: The book’s subtitle refers to “unexpected lessons.” For example?

Bryant: There are many, but here’s one: CEOs are paid to have answers, and the face they present to the public is one of certainty. They see the competitive landscape, and they know how to win. But inside their company, their job is to ask the right questions, not provide answers, so that their staff takes ownership of their jobs, rather than just taking orders.

Morris: I commend you for interviewing many CEOs whose names (and even companies) are probably unfamiliar to most people. In your opinion, are any of them capable of being CEO of a major corporation?

Bryant: Hard to know, given the size and scale of a major corporation, but I think many of them could rise to the task. They have the five qualities discussed in the book, they are quick and eager students, and they seem to understand what leadership is about. Those insights about leadership, once you have them, can be scaled up to bigger organizations, I think.

Morris: Of all the challenges that CEOs now face, which was the one mentioned most often by those you have interviewed?

Bryant: A couple are worth mentioning. One is the challenge of time. They face pressures and demands from so many sides, and many of them spoke about how they have learned, out of necessity, to be more rigorous about time management. Many of them spoke of the need to make time to simply analyze how they were spending their time, to ensure that they are focusing on the right things to move their agenda forward. Secondly, many spoke about the challenge of learning to be more patient. It’s not easy for them, because business moves quickly. But they’ve also learned over time that they have to patient and make sure they bring everybody along.

Morris: Several of those interviewed were not CEOs but all were C-level executives. Here’s my question:  Which of the lessons learned from them would be, in your opinion, most valuable to those who aspire to be a –level executive? Why?

Bryant: People who have new insights and fresh ideas on how to contribute to the company and help the whole organization will be rewarded for showing initiative.

I’ve also found an expression I heard from David Novak of Yum Brands to be particularly memorable. He said: “I tell people that once you get a job you should act like you run the place. Not in terms of ego, but in terms of how you think about the business. Don’t just think about your piece of the business. Think about your piece of the business and the total business. This way you’ll always represent a broader perspective.”

People who do this are rare, and they will be noticed by their bosses, and move up.

Morris: You interviewed several female executives. Which of the insights many of them shared gender-specific? Please explain.

Bryant: Thank you for noticing. I confess I continue to be surprised how few women run large corporations – 14 of the top 1,000 companies, at last count, I believe. So I set a goal to interview many women, but also to never ask them about gender specific issues, unless they brought it up themselves. Few of them did.

Morris: To what extent (if any) do those who have interviewed differentiated leadership skills from management skills?

Bryant: Many of them did differentiate, explicitly or implicitly. Management refers to more the day-to-day operations and work of running a company. Leadership is more about ways to create a sense of mission and to get employees to commit more of themselves to the work, to unleash their passions.

Morris: I commend you on the clever chapter titles and will now cite a few, asking you to explain the essential insight that each suggests. Let’s start with “Passionate Curiosity.”

Bryant: It refers to a deep sense of engagement with the world. These CEOs I’ve met are curious about people, their stories, how things work, and how they can be made to work better. I like this phrase – passionate curiosity — because it’s more than the sum of its parts. We’ve all met people who are passionate, but not necessarily curious, and people who are curious but not necessarily passionate.

Morris: “A Simple Mindset”

Bryant: This refers to the ability to look at an ocean of data – which we all have at our fingertips now because of the Internet – and be able to pick out the one or two or three things that really matter. It’s the ability to boil things down to their essence. As an editor at the Times, I spend a lot of my day asking reporters and other editors, what’s the 10-word pitch on that?

Morris: “Bananas, Bells, and The Art of Running Meetings”

Bryant: We’ve all sat through a lot of bad meetings – unfocused, no clear agenda or endpoint, people being overly defensive if questions are asked about their area of responsibility, or people simply sitting back and not contributing to the discussion. This chapter is about the various strategies the CEOs use to set clear ground rules about the meetings so that they are effective and reduce politics to a minimum. “Bananas” is a funny way Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines, let people in a meeting signal that they didn’t understand somebody’s point. “Bells” is a simple thing that Richard Anderson of Delta Air Lines does to let people signal that they felt a criticism crossed over the line and became personal (the full stories are in the book).

Morris: “Lock Yourself Out of Your Office”

Bryant: CEOs recognize that their office can be a trap, and that if they stay in it, they will lose a feel for what’s actually going on in their company. After all, people generally only bring good news to the CEO, and presentations are always polished and sanitized by the time they are made to the boss. Many CEOs said they schedule time for simply walking around and asking people what they’re working on (and even what’s keeping them up at night).

Morris: “Type A to Type B”

Bryant: The drive, impatience and ambition (Type A qualities) that help an executive reach the Corner Office can become a liability once they are there. Many of the CEOs I interviewed said they had to learn to slow down and have more patience (more Type B qualities) because they had a greater appreciation for listening – not just to hear others’ ideas, but to also signal that everyone’s input is valued. They also recognize that they have to make sure they bring everyone along in support of a goal, rather than simply rushing ahead and risking leaving others behind.

Morris: Based on what you have learned from those interviewed, what seem to be the most important skills that are needed to help to master the confidence, passionate curiosity, team smarts, a simple mind-set, and fearlessness?

Bryant: I think it starts with the simple awareness that these qualities matter. And because people encounter situations every day that are small or big tests for these qualities, then people can make more effort to improve in these qualities. It’s really a matter of habit and discipline. Sure, some of it is innate, but a lot of it can be developed, I believe.

Morris: Which of the CEOs seems to have had the most fun? How so?

Bryant: It’s a good but tough question. One way to answer is this: many CEOs I interviewed came from surprising backgrounds – film, theater, education, research science. I sensed that some of them were surprised themselves to have ended up as CEO, which speaks to a mindset that embraces serendipity.

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Adam Bryant cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

http://www.adambryantbooks.com/

http://projects.nytimes.com/corner-office

 

 

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