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 John W. Rogers Jr., chairman, chief executive and chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, based in Chicago. He says, “It’s so critical to keep reminding people that you really do want to listen, then letting people know how much you’ve heard them, and that you respect their ideas.”
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
* * *
Were you in leadership roles early on?
Sports were a big part of my life. I was the captain of the basketball team in high school, and captain of the basketball team at Princeton. I had some informal roles, too. I was a vendor at Wrigley Field and White Sox Park from the age of 16 to 22. I sold Cokes, beer, peanuts and popcorn. Ultimately, I got a lot of my friends to come along and work as vendors.
Tell me about your parents.
My father was a Tuskegee Airmen captain in the Air Force and a very strong personality. He believed in fairness and ethics and living up to the commitments you make to others. He ultimately became a judge, and he would talk to me over and over about how important it is to be fair.
My mom was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School, in 1946. She had leadership roles in the law, in government and the corporate world. She was a great role model in that she felt anything was possible.
What were some lessons you learned playing basketball at Princeton?
I was not a great player, so I don’t want to give any false impressions. I was fortunate to be on the team, and the coach, Pete Carril, said he kept me around because I worked so hard. I spent most of the time on the bench, but senior year, he asked me if I would be captain.
And Coach Carril taught two things better than anyone. The first lesson was about teamwork and caring about your teammates first. He pounded it home and eventually it became such a freeing and fun way to play. There was a transformation. He no longer had to push the idea; the team fully embraced it. You’re not thinking about who scores the points or who gets the credit; you’re thinking instead about how you can help your teammate succeed on the court. Coaches talk about it, but they don’t always get it through to the kids. Many kids still play selfishly. Princeton basketball is all about the team. It was just transformative. It changed my life.
The other key thing is that he was very demanding about precision. The angle of the cut mattered; the footwork mattered. If the pass was off just a few inches, it mattered. Every detail mattered for the ultimate success of the team. He’d always say, “Do you want me not to notice?” He would stop you and constantly show you what you needed to see and what you needed to understand.
How are you a different leader today than when you started out?
I constantly make sure we’ve created an environment that encourages people on the team to really say what they think, to get their ideas out on the table and to give them the opportunity to argue those perspectives and make sure they’re not holding them inside and going home and talking to their family about the idea. That’s something I’m constantly working at — how can I create that environment, how can I ask the right questions, how do I go around and make sure people tell you what they really think? That takes patience, but it’s the right thing to do.
Early on, I was impatient. I’d think, “I’ve got the answer here and I don’t want to take the time to hear everyone’s perspective.” It’s so critical to keep reminding people that you really do want to listen, then letting people know how much you’ve heard them, and that you respect their ideas. If you’re going to be an ultimate teammate, you’ve got to be a great listener.
* * *
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.