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 J.W. Marriott Jr. (known as Bill), executive chairman and former C.E.O. of Marriott International. Hesays a brief chat with President Eisenhower in 1954 taught him the importance of always asking others, “What do you think we should do?”
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: Did you have an explicit conversation with your father, J. W. Marriott, about leadership and management?
Marriott: He was an interesting mentor in that he would rarely praise. Nothing was ever good enough. He was a perfectionist, and very critical, very tough. He would never really come right out and tell me what I ought to do. He tried to make me figure out what I should do.
I remember one time when I had a problem that I couldn’t solve. I struggled and struggled. I had a meeting with him, and he wouldn’t help me, and he saw that I was just about at the end of my tether. Then he walked in my office and gave me all the answers. He knew them all along, but he wasn’t about to give them to me. I just thought to myself: “He’s forced me to think. He’s forced me to step up.”
It’s an interesting way to mentor somebody, but it was extremely tough and hard. I think that if I hadn’t been his son, he wouldn’t have been as hard on me. I think a father who’s in the business with his son is usually pretty rough on the son.
Bryant: Other leadership lessons?
Marriott: In 1954, I had just finished Supply Corps School and came home for Christmas to our farm in Virginia. Dad’s best friend at the time was Ezra Taft Benson, who was secretary of agriculture and later became president of the L.D.S. church [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. And he invited Ike and Mamie Eisenhower. So here’s the president and the secretary of agriculture, here’s my father, and here I am. They wanted to take Ike to shoot some quail, but it was cold and the wind was blowing like crazy. My dad said, “Should we go and shoot quail or should we stand by the fire?”
And Eisenhower turned around and looked at me and he said, “What do you think we should do?”
That made me realize how he got along with de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and others — by including them in the decision and asking them what they thought. So I tried to adopt that style of management as I progressed in life, by asking my people, “What do you think?” Now, I didn’t always go with what they thought. But I felt that if I included them in the decision-making process, and asked them what they thought, and I listened to what they had to say and considered it, they usually got on board because they knew they’d been respected and heard, even if I went in a different direction than what they were recommending.
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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.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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.