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 Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi Strauss, who says that leaders have to be straight with employees, and tell them if their performance is falling short.. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times
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What were your early years like?
I grew up in the suburbs north of New York City. My life was a little bit like “Mad Men.” My dad worked for NBC, in sales. He was out the door at 6 every morning and would roll back home at 8 at night.
I played sports in high school, baseball mostly but also basketball. I still run and swim and do triathlons. Sports has contributed to me always wanting to be a winner. I’m competitive. Not a stab-you-in-the-back kind of competitiveness. I like a clean fight, but I always like to come out on top.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
Parts of the story aren’t necessarily the best parts of my life. My dad was an alcoholic, and the family was somewhat dysfunctional until about the time I got into high school. One night, my dad came home very drunk, and my mom threatened to throw him out, change the locks and never let him back in the house again.
That day, my dad sobered up and never had a drink the rest of his life. As the oldest, I shouldered a lot of that family dysfunction.
My mother was a preschool teacher at the Presbyterian Church. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was in college, and the doctors told her she had six months to live. She lived for 20 more years. She was tough.
The fact that my family was a bit broken in my younger years is part of what drove me into sports, and team sports especially, where you’re surrounded by friends and constantly supported.
I put on a face that my family was normal and I was going to get good grades, persevere and be disciplined to push through, despite everything. I’m still very disciplined about how I manage my time.
Early leadership lessons for you?
I was at Procter & Gamble, which was a promote-from-within company that placed a huge emphasis on the role of the manager to develop their people. In fact, it was part of your performance review.
My first hire was supersmart, but he really wasn’t performing over time, and I felt pressure to get this guy promoted. I basically carried him and got him promoted. But about four months later, he was gone for performance reasons.
The big lesson for me, and it stuck with me forever, is that you’ve got to be really transparent and straight with people, and if they’re not cutting it, you’ve got to tell them where they’re not cutting it. Hold the bar up high, and if it’s not a good fit, call it.
Being extremely transparent builds trust over time. I’m not a big fan of organizations where people backstab or talk behind others’ backs. So when I’ve led teams, it’s always been about how we work together to get the best results.
But politics can creep pretty quickly into any organization.
I’ve got some trusted people who will tell me if that stuff’s going on behind my back. If I see it, you’ve just got to squash it like a bug as soon as it happens and not tolerate it.
You have to be really clear about how we’re going to operate, and if you can’t play that way, then you should probably find another team to play on.
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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 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 of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.