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 David Rosenblatt, chief executive of 1stdibs, an online marketplace for high-end goods including art, antiques, jewelry and furniture. He observes, “Companies are like families, in the sense that if the parents get along, then it’s likely that the rest of the family will be relatively harmonious.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times
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Bryant: Were you in leadership roles early on?
Rosenblatt: I was president of my class and co-president of my debating society in high school. But leadership was never my goal. I studied liberal arts, and majored in East Asian studies in college. My father was in Foreign Service roles, and I always assumed I would end up in the Foreign Service. After I graduated, I lived in Asia for a few years.
My first real work experience after school was in investment banking. I learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t a world I wanted to be a part of. What I love about the Internet is the ability to create or change an industry as opposed to simply participate in one that already exists.
Bryant: Tell me more about your parents.
Rosenblatt: My father had a lot of work in the Pacific. I traveled quite a bit with him, which kind of stoked my interest in Asia in particular. He’s a lawyer by training and he’s very much a linear thinker. My mother’s a psychotherapist, author and teacher, and she’s much more of an intuitive and empathetic thinker. I probably skew more to her side than I do my father’s. Leadership is about people, so having that sensitivity is important.
There’s a story about my mother that had a big impact on me. When I was a kid growing up in Washington, I used to take the same bus home every day. One day, my mother happened to take the bus with me, and the place we were going to was between two stops. She’s Israeli, so she has the same healthy disregard for rules that many Israelis have.
She walked up to the bus driver and said, “Excuse me, but would it be possible to stop the bus in between these two stops so we can get out?” The bus driver agreed to do it, and probably two-thirds of the other people on the bus got out.
I just remember thinking that all these people are taking the bus every single day of their lives, and two-thirds of them really wanted to get off at a spot other than the bus stops. Yet it took someone to ask the bus driver a question to do something different, and many people benefited from it. That story has always stuck in my mind as an example of the importance of not taking things as a given. That’s sort of the philosophy of the Internet as a whole.
Bryant: Other important lessons you’ve learned over your career?
Rosenblatt: When I was first promoted to C.E.O., the hardest thing to figure out was, how do I spend my time? On any given day, a C.E.O. could do almost anything or nothing, and it would likely have little or no impact on the company, at least in the short term. So I had to develop a set of rules to figure out how to manage my time.
I learned Rule No. 1 from Irv Grousbeck, who teaches an entrepreneurship class at Stanford Business School. And that is, very simply, “You can hire people to do everything but hire people.” Rule No. 2 that I think about every day is, “Only do the things that only I can do.” So if it’s someone else’s job to do it, I try not to do it. If I find myself doing too many of those things that are actually someone else’s job, then it relates back to Rule No. 1 — I probably don’t have the right person in that role.
But just like anyone in any role, it’s important to understand, where is my comparative advantage? What am I better at than almost anyone else? To the extent that there is something you’re better at than most other people, you should do it, and then you should just make sure that your team complements you. The hard thing for many C.E.O.’s, because this job requires a certain level of confidence, is to figure out what you’re not good at and acknowledge that, and then hire to offset your own limitations.
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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.comthat 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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.