Hannah Paramore (president of Paramore) in “The Corner Office”

ParamoreAdam 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 Hannah Paramore, president of Paramore. “Have you heard the theory that a weakness is a strength taken too far?” an executive asks. In building your company’s culture, she says, you have to know when to say, “All right, a little too far.”

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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Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?

If you asked my mother and my high school teachers, they would say I was a rebel. But I was always the one in charge. I was always captain of this and captain of that. Everyone in my family was willing to take on an almost unreasonable amount of responsibility. Our grandparents were all farmers. That was built into our DNA — you’re supposed to work all day long.

And what did you study in college?

I was a classical-piano major in college. I had studied the piano forever, and had been the pianist for everything, including at my church, schools and community competitions.

But I found out at college that while three hours a day of practice is one thing, eight hours a day is a whole other thing. It didn’t fit my personality. I had a certain level of skill, but it wasn’t really what I was meant to do. It became clear early on that I was going to have to figure out how to make some money. So I never graduated. I went to work.

Doing what?

I had terrible jobs for a long time, and they were just entry-level. I started getting promoted pretty quickly when I worked for a life insurance estate-planning company. But I was never happy. I was never liked or accepted, and it was a tough place to be. I was get-things-done aggressive, and there was a lot of passive-aggressive stuff going on. It was weird, though, because I kept getting promoted. It was never comfortable.

Then dot-coms came along, and I got an opportunity with a start-up, Citysearch.com. It was young, and it was aggressive, and it was new. We got to try lots of new things. It was exciting, it was honest, and we would have these great conversations. I learned a lot about transparency and getting people aligned behind a goal and letting them know what’s happening in the organization. The Internet is about transparency. You can’t run a company in this space and not have that as a core value.

I ultimately decided to start my own business. I didn’t have this great business plan, honestly, but I decided that being on my own was safer. The other thing I learned during that time was that I don’t want to work for a company that can’t deliver what it says it will deliver. When clients pay you for a job, you need to deliver.

What have you learned about culture as your company has grown?

Have you heard the theory that a weakness is a strength taken too far? The best example of that in our company is that we used to allow dogs in the office. It started with me bringing in my very old dog once or twice a month. We ended up with nine dogs in the office. One of them was a hound dog, and it was about the size of a bus. I should have known it was a bad idea when the person who owned him had to chain him to the desk. Dogs were a big part of our culture, but I just had this moment of clarity one day: no more dogs.

You do things like that to build a culture, but you have to know when to say, “All right, a little too far.”

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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.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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