How to Be a C.E.O., From a Decade’s Worth of Them

Adam Bryant has thus far interviewed 525 chief executives through his years writing the “In the Corner Office” column. Here’s an excerpt from an article in which he shares what he has learned.

Photo Credit: James Nieves/The New York Times

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It started with a simple idea: What if I sat down with chief executives, and never asked them about their companies?

The notion occurred to me roughly a decade ago, after spending years as a reporter and interviewing C.E.O.s about many of the expected things: their growth plans, the competition, the economic forces driving their industries. But the more time I spent doing this, the more I found myself wanting to ask instead about more expansive themes — not about pivoting, scaling or moving to the cloud, but how they lead their employees, how they hire, and the life advice they give or wish they had received.

That led to 525 Corner Office columns, and weekly reminders that questions like these can lead to unexpected places.

I met an executive who grew up in a dirt-floor home, and another who escaped the drugs and gangs of her dangerous neighborhood. I learned about different approaches to building culture, from doing away with titles to offering twice-a-month housecleaning to all employees as a retention tool.

And I have been endlessly surprised by the creative approaches that chief executives take to interviewing people for jobs, including tossing their car keys to a job candidate to drive them to a lunch spot, or asking them how weird they are, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Granted, not all chief executives are fonts of wisdom. And some of them, as headlines regularly remind us, are deeply challenged people.

That said, there’s no arguing that C.E.O.s have a rare vantage point for spotting patterns about management, leadership and human behavior.

After almost a decade of writing the Corner Office column, this will be my final one — and from all the interviews, and the five million words of transcripts from those conversations, I have learned valuable leadership lessons and heard some great stories. Here are some standouts.

So You Want to Be a C.E.O.?

The problem with values like respect and courage is that everybody interprets them differently. They’re too ambiguous and open to interpretation. Instead of uniting us, they can create friction.’

People often try to crack the code for the best path to becoming a chief executive. Do finance people have an edge over marketers? How many international postings should you have? A variety of experiences is good, but at what point does breadth suggest a lack of focus?

It’s a natural impulse. In this age of Moneyball and big data, why not look for patterns?

The problem is that the world doesn’t really work that way. There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control, including luck, timing and personal chemistry.

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Thank  you, Adam, for all the interviews and insights. You have made an enormous contribution to knowledge leadership. Bravo!

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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.

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