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 Joshua Reeves, C.E.O. and co-founder of Gusto, an online payroll, benefits and workers’ compensation firm. 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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What were some early influences for you?
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but my mother is from Bolivia and my father’s from a small town outside Pittsburgh. His family grew up working in the steel mills, and I learned a lot from them about respect for an honest day’s work. They’re both teachers.
I have one brother, and both of us are Eagle Scouts, so that was a formative part of our childhood, too. In high school, I was a varsity athlete on the crew team, and that was a pretty big time commitment.
I’ve used crew as a metaphor for leadership. Everybody has to pull on their oar as hard as they can, but then it’s all about balance in the boat, and how the eight individuals connect and flow with each other. The coxswain isn’t telling anyone what to do, but they’re guiding and steering.
There is one story from fifth grade. During a parent-teacher conference, my teacher said that Josh had the ability to succeed, but he had to choose to do so. Up to that point, I wasn’t as focused on academics, but that became a priority for me afterward. And it was high school that was the most transformative time for me.
I was pretty out of shape when I started 10th grade. I chose to become an athlete as a way to both get in shape but also to work with a team and overcome some of my fears of being in a more collaborative setting.
I also remember watching my dad study for his doctorate at night and on weekends. We spent a lot of time in the library. A lot of the lessons I learned from him were around focus and setting a goal. I remember him having to take a statistics class, which really wasn’t his comfort zone, but he did well in the class through effort. That’s been the approach I always take in life — I can do anything if I put the time in.
How has your leadership style evolved?
One way is this idea of letting go. Companies, especially in Silicon Valley, celebrate heroics, and I have a saying that “heroism doesn’t scale, heroes become martyrs.”
I realized that obviously there are a lot of ways to do something beyond the way I want to do it. It means working with my team for an outcome that we can all commit to, but there are many avenues to get there.
Another lesson was understanding how alignment works, especially in terms of hiring. It’s never about a company convincing someone to join, or people convincing the company to hire them. It’s a search for alignment and realizing they can do amazing things together.
If that motivation is aligned, then leadership is in many ways about removing barriers for someone to go do their greatest work. And so it changes how I think about my role. When I have one-on-ones with teammates, it’s their time, their meeting. It’s a chance for them to help me understand whatever I can do to enable and empower them to do their work better. Someone who is here because they actually care about what we’re trying to do makes all the difference.
What’s unusual about the culture of your company?
We started the company in a house in Palo Alto, and because I was raised with shoes off in the home, that house was a shoes-off home, too. When we moved to a proper office in San Francisco, people said, “Let’s keep this.”
Now we’re in two locations, San Francisco and Denver, and we have these huge shoe racks at the entrance. We have socks and slippers and spa sandals for people who come in as guests.
Companies can be sterile and cold. We want our workplace to be really comfortable. In some ways, people feel more like themselves when their shoes are off
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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 of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.