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Dottie Mattison (C.E.O. of Gracious Home New York) in “The Corner Office”

MattisonAdam 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 Dottie Mattison, C.E.O. ofGracious Home New York. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Caitlin Ochs for /The New York Times

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Tell me about your early years.

I grew up in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans. I have three older brothers who spent a lot of years making me into another brother in a lot of ways. And I have a younger sister. I come from a big, Irish Catholic family.

We were always out and about and doing stuff after school. I started a babysitting agency when I was 11 years old. I scooped a lot of ice cream. We did do entrepreneurial things, but we just did them so we could buy things, like clothes.

And your parents?

My dad worked at a delivery and warehousing business. And my mother was a secretary for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. They were real working-class people. They enjoyed living in New Orleans, and a lesson that they never articulated but that they exhibited was that you live where you live. You should be part of your community. It’s not just scenery.

My dad’s dream in life was to have a lot of children, because he grew up as an only child. So he was a happy man. He had five healthy children.

What were your college years like?

We had to put ourselves through school, so we just worked and worked and worked.

I had a job where I would wake up at 4 in the morning to collect canceled checks from bank branches and then bring them to the main branch. It was a great job, because I’d do it before school.

But everything was framed around whether I could afford it timewise and moneywise. It was difficult, but it gives you perspective because it builds your confidence about how you can take care of yourself. You make decisions based on the trust you have in yourself, and what you can make happen.

The thing that really stuck was retail operations at the Gap. In the early 1990s, there was nothing hotter on the planet than Gap Inc. The company was forming an inaugural retail management program, and Mickey Drexler and his team had an idea that seasoned managers and operators from the field would make great merchants and great planners. And so I flew to California, interviewed for that job and got it. The company moved me, and it was a dream.

Early leadership lessons for you?

It’s a simple point, but it’s very difficult to subordinate your value system and really meet people where they are, to understand what motivates them and how that is sometimes drastically different than what motivates you.

And by the way, that’s the best part of the job now. It’s very rewarding to put together a diverse team.

I’ve also become way more sensitive to other people’s tone and body language, and whether or not people want to be in the room. The worst feeling is when you’re in a meeting and you can tell someone doesn’t want to be there. It’s likely something you did.

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

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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