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 Bill Kling who is founder and president emeritus of the American Public Media Group, a producer of public radio programming and owner of radio stations and services. He says his parents taught him the importance of unstifled creativity.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Sometimes, You Need to Blow the Fuses
Bryant: What were some important early lessons for you?
Kling:I think we sometimes undervalue the experiences we have as small children. I used to go to my grandfather’s farm, where they didn’t have electricity. But he had this enormous radio, and it sat on the table next to his rocking chair. It was run on batteries, and it had a big antenna that went out to the orchard. I was younger than 7, and I’d sit on his lap. Out in the country with an antenna and a well-powered radio, you could pick up stations from all over the country.
So he would tune in to St. Louis or New York or New Orleans, and I just thought that was fascinating. It had to have had an influence on my lifelong interest in radio. I think we often undervalue the importance of giving young kids that kind of hands-on experience. It may not lead to their deciding what to do with their lives, but it’s surprising what they will absorb — and maybe their lives will turn out differently.
Bryant: What about your parents? How did they influence you?
Kling: They were wonderful. They absolutely left me alone. They left me up in my attic room to take everything apart and blow everything up and try everything I could try. I think I blew probably two dozen fuses as I tried different things. I took radios apart. I wanted to know how they worked, and then I wanted to know how I could make them better. I wanted to repackage them in some cases.
I can remember one point where I pulled a plug out of the wall about half an inch and then put a metal piece of an erector set across the two pins just to see what would happen. But they never said, “Why did you blow that fuse?” They just put in a new fuse. I think letting a kid’s imagination run is really important — though I don’t recommend that particular experiment.
Bryant: What do you consider the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Kling: Let me start by answering the question this way: I don’t think that there is one formula for leadership. There are cheerleaders who are really good at motivating people. There are innovative leaders who are really good at conceiving of products or spotting talent and who have a great vision for the company. There are leaders who are strong on personality, leaders who are strong on creativity. Some of the most effective leaders don’t fit a mold. The ones who I think make a real difference tend to be totally different from the standard definition. I think the strongest criterion is creativity or innovation.
I couldn’t have stayed, and shouldn’t have stayed, long term in this job if that wasn’t a characteristic of my personality, because the company would have stagnated. I could have been the best leader around, but after 10 years, it probably would have peaked. I can remember a very difficult time of trying to get our FM radio signal to extend from 50 miles to 100 miles. Now new technology allows us to be heard and seen anywhere in the world, streaming live, with full fidelity.
Bryant: Tell me more about your leadership style.
Kling: I think every C.E.O. needs an executive team to be balanced to fit their strengths. The key elements, such as strategy, innovation, management, finance, don’t need to be in any single position — but they need to be there in the executive team. It’s terrific if you can walk through the halls and say hello by name to every employee. I can’t. It’s terrific if you can stand up at a staff meeting and do it in a way that people feel really good about your company. I can do that. But you never have all the pieces.
A mentor of mine taught me that every perspective is additive, because every person sitting in a room is looking at things differently. Each of them has a different perspective. They come from a different way of thinking and different experiences. And their collective perspective gives you a better outcome. So you have to value the perspectives and try to organize those perspectives in some useful way that lets you go forward. Anybody who tells you that they can do it all themselves needs an ego adjustment.
Bryant: Have you received any feedback over the decades about your management or leadership style that caused you to make adjustments?
Kling: I think that I was generally perceived as aloof. That’s probably accurate. But not for the reasons you would think. It’s difficult for someone who has grown up with the company and who knows the veteran employees so well, to then find that there are so many other employees whom you don’t know well. And if you don’t know them well, you feel bad about it.
You may feel awkward when you don’t know enough about some people to make them feel as much a part of the company as you want them to feel or know enough about what they have to offer the company. And so you kind of avoid interactions with them. That’s a mistake because inevitably they have something to offer. And that comes off as aloof.
I’ve been on boards with C.E.O.’s who can stand up and say: “Here are 15 people who we promoted this month. And here are their names and here are their birthdays,” and they can recite the names of their children. They know everything about them. And I’m just in awe of that kind of ability to connect with employees.
I think it’s your DNA. It’s your personality. If you’re the kind of person who can’t resist walking around the floor and your mind absorbs names well, they’ll stick because there’s something about each person that intrigued you. That’s motivating to the employees. Other leaders spend more time thinking about what’s the new thing, what’s being invented right now that’s going to put us out of business unless we embrace it. I think you can’t easily do both. If you can do both, you’re probably underemployed.
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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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