Corey E. Thomas (chief executive of Rapid7) in “The Corner Office”

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 Corey E. Thomas, chief executive of Rapid7, says that corporate culture can accentuate the collective or be a distraction.. 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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Were you in leadership roles or doing entrepreneurial things early on?

My first job was as a janitor for local churches in Georgia, where I grew up. And there were some important leadership lessons there. You learn a lot about the difference between how people act on the outside and how they behave when no one’s looking. They might seem upstanding, but you learn that they expect others to clean up after them.

Tell me about your parents.

They were working-class folks. My father was a self-taught electrician. He had an amazing work ethic and sense of humility. There was a period when he lost his job as a security guard at Sears. He became a janitor.

Someone made a comment about him doing menial work, and I asked him about it. His response was to never let your pride get in the way of doing what’s right. “Feeding and clothing our family is the right thing,” he said. “So therefore I’m proud to do it.”

My mom was a secretary, but she was always striving, learning, trying to figure out how to make things better. She has this never-ending curiosity. She’s always learning, and this idea of continuous learning is a core value at our company today.

Any favorite family expressions that would get repeated around the dinner table?

Not really, but they were always nurturing this combination of aggressiveness and humility. The idea was to put yourself out there and aspire for things, but be humble. That balance was constantly reinforced. My parents were not afraid to tell us if they thought either one of those were out of whack.

What was your first management role?

It was at AT&T. They made me a supervisor when I was 21 years old. I learned an important lesson in watching the decline of AT&T back then. I assumed that smart people building things would always win. So it was a bit of a shock to me to see what happened to that company.

I was really curious, and as I moved into consulting, I had to understand why this happened. Why are these smart people losing? What makes winners and losers?

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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 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.

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