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 Lloyd Carney, C.E.O. of Brocade, a data and storage networking 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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Tell me about your early years.
I was pretty fortunate growing up in Jamaica. I had a grandfather who was an entrepreneur and started all kinds of businesses, and my father had his own business. I grew up around people who had to make payroll.
And my high school was very good. It’s still there: Wolmer’s Boys School, in Kingston. It’s almost 300 years old. The British set it up so that their overseers, their soldiers and military officers had a place to send their kids when they were stationed there. So we were brought up on the British education system. My exams were boxed up and shipped to the U.K. to be graded.
By the time I’d left high school, I’d done three years of physics, two years of calculus and two years of chemistry. In my first year in college here in the United States, I was tutoring other kids. They used to call me “4.0 Carney” because I aced everything. I had a really good start. The cards were stacked in my favor.
What were some business lessons you learned growing up?
There were aunts and uncles who were always trying to start businesses of their own. And my grandfather would always be focused on profitability. He had a saying: “Any fool can lose money.” He wouldn’t care whether you were selling shirts or tomatoes or you were in the trucking business. It’s in the back of my head every time I see a business plan. I’m always focused on “When will we make money doing this?”
My grandfather also built great teams. I watched him put some of his children, aunts, uncles in positions of authority and then fire them if they didn’t perform. He didn’t care. Either you can do the work or you can’t do it.
He used to say all the time that everybody is replaceable. He used to do this thing called a bucket test. He would be arguing with one of his employees, and he’d call me in and say, “Get a bucket of water.” So I’d bring the bucket of water to the room, and he’d say, “Lloydie, put your hand in the water.” Then I’d take it out, and he’d say to his employee, “See that hole that Lloyd left in the water? That’s the hole you’re going to leave when you leave here.”
The guy was usually trying to get some big salary, trying to explain how invaluable and important he was. Once every eight months or so, my grandfather would call for the bucket of water. So I have a pretty high bar for calling someone irreplaceable. If I hear that, I’ll say, “Why? Is it Steve Jobs? Is it Einstein?” Everybody’s replaceable.
When you went to college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?
I wanted to be a medical doctor. But when I looked at how long it would take, and how much debt I’d be in afterward, I decided to go into electrical engineering. There weren’t enough people with engineering skills at the time. I didn’t even have to interview for my first job. They just came to my school and said, “Send the kids with the four best grade-point averages. We need them to start on Monday.”
I had a great mentor, Ed Cramer. He took a liking to me and said, “I’m going to make you the best engineer here.” He looked out for me. I remember there were a bunch of different projects we could take on, from the easiest to the hardest. And he said, “You’re going to take the hardest one.” And I said, “Really? O.K.” The project had been around for three years, and they hadn’t made any progress on it.
He said to me later, “Here’s the deal. If you take the easy project and you nail it, so what? It was easy. If you take the easy project and you fail, you’re a bum. If you take the hardest project and you fall flat on your face, you’re as good as the guy who did the easy project. But, if you take the hardest project and you nail it, you’re a superstar.” And we did. We nailed it.
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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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.