Harry West (Continuum) in “The Corner Office”

Harry West (Photo credit: Marilynn K. Yee/NYT)

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Harry West, C.E.O. of Continuum, an innovation design consulting firm, says that many companies’ Web sites and office lobbies proclaim their past successes, but that leaders must encourage employees to think in new directions, too.

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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Bryant: What were some early influences on your leadership style? What about your family?

West: I’m the eldest of six kids, and I think that may have some significance. One of the main groups in our company is the strategy group, and we once looked at the family position of most of the people in the group, and they’re pretty much 100 percent the eldest kid. So I think there’s some correlation between maybe being the eldest and wanting to blaze a trail. I think that probably helps in some way. But I think that’s just one type of leadership, which is the type I have: the need to find a new way and take responsibility for other people.

Bryant: I’ve been surprised by the number of C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed who come from big families.

West: Well, there’s probably a good reason for it — you’re surrounded by other people all the time. And you have to take responsibility if you’re the eldest or one of the older siblings, and you’re constantly communicating in a way that perhaps you aren’t if you’re in a smaller family.

Bryant:  What about lessons from your parents?

West: My father builds homes. So I grew up around the idea that you can take a piece of land, and you can bulldozer it and build new homes on it. You can create something new. My parents both left school at 14, but my parents are incredibly smart, successful, thoughtful people. So one of the lessons I learned from my parents is that the fancy degree is just a foot in the door, and there are a lot of very smart people out there who don’t necessarily have the fancy degrees. And given the opportunity, they can do amazing things.

But the only explicit lesson I got from my father was when I was not doing very well in school, and he had a little chat with me and said, “You know, there are people who work for me who dig trenches, and there are people who are professionals, and if you keep going the way you’re going, you’re going to be digging trenches for the rest of your life.” So that shook me up.

Bryant: How would you describe your leadership style to a new hire who’s going to work with you every day?

West: I trust people, and I respect their areas of responsibility. People who work for me know that they have a lot of autonomy. I like to know what’s going on, and I’ll offer my opinion, but I want people to feel that they can say to me, “That’s great that you have that opinion, but, no, we’re not going to do that.” I really appreciate it when people say “no” to me. I want people to understand that I’m totally supportive of what it is they’re trying to do as long as we’re all on the same team.

Bryant:  That can be a tricky balance to strike.

West: I have to trust those people. There’s no system of controls that can replace trust, so I need to reinforce that trust, and part of reinforcing trust is making sure that people feel accountability, and with accountability comes some degree of autonomy. You don’t have one without the other.

Bryant: What other lessons have you learned over the years as a manager and leader?

West: Pacing is really important in an organization. When you’re leading, you’re generally trying to lead change, and I think it was Roy Amara, who said about technology, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” And I think the same applies to change within an organization.

I have in the past tended to overestimate the amount of change I can affect in the short run and then not fully appreciate the change I can affect in the long run. And so I’ve learned that it’s critical to think carefully about the pace of change, and it’s something that I’ve learned the hard way. It’s important to manage that carefully, because it’s not just about the pace of change that certain people in the company can manage.

It’s about the pace of change that the company as a whole can manage. You can push and push and nothing seems to happen, and then suddenly it takes off and you’re sort of running to catch up.

Bryant: And why is that?

West: I think in most companies you’re surrounded by the past. This is true for most of the companies that we consult with. And, to some extent, I’ve realized it’s true for us, too, because you can look back and see what you have done. You may have a Web site or archives or a lobby that sort of shows off your work of the past. The future is not as tangible. It’s not as clear, and so there’s always a tendency for people to go: “Well, I know the business we’re in because I can see it. I see it every day. That’s the business we’re in, right?” Well, that was the business you were in.

Right now we are in the process of inventing the business we will be in. When people see that, it takes off. But until people can see it, until it’s in some way real and relevant to them, they don’t know what they can do to be part of it.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, 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 SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.


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