Joe Andrew (global chairman of Dentons) in “The Corner Office”

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 Joe Andrew, global chairman of Dentons. 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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Tell me about your early years.

I grew up in a small farming town in Indiana with great parents who cared a lot about me. After my parents got divorced, my mom managed the family farm. She was also a schoolteacher and an entrepreneur who went on to set up and run a school.

She taught me early on the difference between management and leadership, which is about creating the circumstances for creativity. The people who become leaders are not just creative themselves, but they create circumstances for others to be creative.

My mom did that as a schoolteacher, administrator and headmistress, and she did that at home. I have all these unbelievably creative siblings. They make fun of me because I’m a lawyer, so by definition, I’m perceived as the least creative of them.

But in our household, questioning and being a rebel were expected. At the dinner table, she would ask, “What are you doing that’s creative? What have you created that you’re proud of, and that you think is fun and fascinating?”

She would ask those questions explicitly?

Literally those questions. If my mother met someone — and I do this now myself — she would never ask them, “What do you do?” She would say, “What are you doing?” That little distinction makes a big difference.

It’s not about whether the person is a doctor or lawyer or whatever. It’s about, “What are you in the process of doing right now?” It’s a great question.

Let’s go deeper on creating circumstances for creativity. How do you do that?

The most important thing is having the humility to understand that it’s about creating opportunities for other people. I love the phrase “The smartest person in the room is the room.” It’s all of us together.

The leader’s job is to create the ability for people to feel comfortable to share their thoughts and ideas, whatever crazy thoughts they might have. Their ability to be willing to express it is really important.

You have to identify and root out people who try to slam the door on creativity. You’ve got to be pretty religious about communicating to someone that just because they’re smart, they shouldn’t be closing down conversations. The rules of this game are that you’re going to listen to others.

You also have to constantly communicate the importance of creativity. That can be tough with professionals. Every single day, I go into a room of people who have succeeded since the day they graduated from kindergarten. They were the best in their class, they went to the very best schools, they do fantastically on standardized tests, they go to the best universities in the world, and they come out and make a lot of money.

My job is to convince them that despite all those things, they’ve still got to change. They’ve still got to be creative. They’ve got to be re-evaluating constantly and asking the tough questions.

Every day, I’m saying to people, don’t stop asking the tough questions. Because you’ve got to be challenged. And people have to be comfortable challenging you, and feel like they’re actually going to be rewarded by appropriately challenging you.

Finally, you’ve got to actually be willing to try things that might fail.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

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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