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 Gary B. Smith, chief executive of Ciena, the broadband and telecommunications company. 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 some early influences for you?
I was born in Birmingham, an industrialized part of the U.K. I played rugby — I was captain of the high school team — and I also played soccer and was a sprinter. My parents were factory workers, and I grew up with a very blue-collar background.
I remember going to what was the equivalent of a career day. We got on this old bus, traveled to a coal mine in the morning, went down into the mine, and then visited a smelting works after that. I remember getting back on the bus and thinking, “This is not for me.”
I always wanted to get out and see the world. So I left when I was about 16. I didn’t go straight to college. Photography was my passion, and I worked in London doing that and did various jobs to pay the rent, including bartending. That gives you a good understanding of people from all walks of life.
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
And what did you do after photography and bartending?
My first real job was in sales, working for a company called Telephone Rentals. I basically had to knock on doors of small companies and try to sell them phone systems.
I survived, mostly because I figured out the rule that 90 percent of success is turning up. If I worked really hard and had a lot of meetings, I’d get a better hit rate. I was recruited to another company and rose up very quickly into a management role, overseeing their European business outside the U.K. I was about 21. They needed a warm body that was vaguely competent, and they gave me a shot at it.
What were some early management lessons for you?
My learning curve was pretty steep. I just managed by the numbers early on. If people were successful, they were fine. If they were not, that wasn’t good. It was pretty simplistic. And I was also exposed at a young age to some pretty harsh management techniques from people above me.
Eventually the penny dropped, and I realized that my role was to facilitate and create an environment that people could be successful in. And I learned to listen more than I talked.
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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 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.