Kevin Liles (KWL Enterprises) 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 Kevin Liles, founder and C.E.O. of KWL Enterprises, a talent management and brand development firm. He says it’s important to be “willing to sacrifice everything for what you believe in.” To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Ruby Washington /The New York Times

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What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

I’ll start with one of my early failures. I wanted to be the host of a new hip-hop show, and I didn’t get the job. I was the biggest guy in the marketplace. Given what I’d done, that should have sold me. But I didn’t sell myself. So, after that, I realized that no matter what I have done before, I had to learn the art of selling. I had to learn the art of explaining my value proposition when I show up somewhere. How do I differentiate myself? I know who I am. I’m very clear. If I’m meeting someone, I’m very clear about their value proposition, and I know what my value proposition is. So as long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll get everything done.

Let’s say I’m about to start working for you as a direct report. What do I need to know about the kind of boss you are?

Well, the reason I’m hiring you or having you directly report to me is because I want to be influenced by you, period. No. 2, there are things I love to do, things I’m great at, things I’m good at, and things I’m bad at. The things I’m bad at and the things that I don’t love to do, you should learn to really do. Because I want you to become an asset, not just somebody like me. And that is what I constantly push any new hire to do — “You cannot be like me. You can’t outdo me. I’m the best at what I do. But the reason I want you on my team is because I think you add something different to the team.”

And I constantly push myself and I push the team. Don’t be the same person you were yesterday. If I’m not helping you grow, if I’m not helping you put a new tool in your toolbox, then I’m not doing the job, and you shouldn’t be working for me. Because I have to inspire people when they’re with me, and I have to be inspired.

What kind of behaviors do you have zero tolerance for?

Lack of commitment. Lack of passion. I would never fire somebody for a mistake. I would fire them because they don’t have passion, and they let me knock them off their point of view too easily. If you love something, I’ve got to let you do it. That’s how I came up. I allow people to make the mistake — not to the detriment of the company, but to a point where they feel like they have ownership of it.

I’ve always felt that whatever I did, I owned it. I mean, call it arrogance. Call it passion. Call it taking on the weight of the world. Call it responsibility. The point is, you were not going to outperform me at something that I felt I owned. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of life. If I’m the intern, I’m the president of interns. If I’m a regional manager, I approach the job like I’m the president of regional managers. But that’s every day in anything I do. I don’t get involved in things halfway. I create foundations. I tell people I’m going to change somebody’s life because I really feel that I’m going to change their life. I take ownership in it. It’s not about having a share in something; it’s about taking ownership of every single thing you do.

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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 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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