Michelle Munson (C.E.O. of Aspera) in “The Corner Office”

MunsonAdam 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 Michelle Munson, C.E.O. of Aspera, a unit of IBM that provides software for high-speed file transfer.

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 when you were younger?

I was raised on a wheat and cattle farm in Kansas. My mother is a retired professor, and my father is a fifth-generation leader of our farm. The combination of the two of them framed the way my brother and I were raised.

They emphasized two things. One was education, and the other was participating in 4-H, the community-based leadership organization. We both ended up learning public speaking and group leadership. That led us to be very responsible early on.

Our interest in entrepreneurship came from watching our dad emphasize productivity and creation over having a set career path. My mom and dad were comfortable with risk and trying new things, and they pushed us to work outside our comfort zone. My mother was interested in technology. She was adamant about getting a personal computer in the early 1980s.

Tell me about your college years.

I started in chemical engineering and switched to electrical engineering and physics. I was also very involved in student leadership. Then I got a Fulbright and went to Cambridge for my graduate studies in computer science. After Cambridge, I uprooted myself and moved to California for a research job with IBM. I ended up joining a start-up from there, and I co-founded Aspera 10 years ago.

How has your leadership style evolved?

I’ve made my share of mistakes. But the most important lesson I learned is that there is a degree of forgiveness from people you work with if your intentions are right and you follow through. Because I’ve been sincere, the team has forgiven my mistakes along the way. That’s given me peace of mind and confidence to keep evolving.

Maturity has also helped. When I started the company I was 31; now I’m 41. In that time, I married and had a child — transformational personal experiences that help you to grow outside yourself and be able to stand in other people’s shoes.

Another lesson — which is probably quite obvious, but wasn’t obvious to me early on — is that not everyone values the same things I do. Some things are universal, like the gratification of achievement, but other things are not, like work styles. I have backed off and allowed people to work the way they do best.

* * *

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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

Posted in

Leave a Comment





%d bloggers like this: