Phil Martens (chief executive of Novelis) in “The Corner Office”

MartensAdam 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 Phil Martens, the chief executive of Novelis, the aluminum producer based in Atlanta. He says that if you’re inconsistent as a leader, “people are going to come at you from many different angles to get you to do something.”

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

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Bryant: Were you in leadership roles early on?

Martens: When I grew up, two things always drove me. The process of creating something was always thrilling, even though I made a lot of mistakes along the way. We built a treehouse in a willow tree by just smacking plywood onto the limbs and then realized that wouldn’t work. My dad said, “What you’ve got to do is put a foundation and structure on it.” And I said, “Oh, just like a house.” He said, “Yeah, just like a house.”

The second thing is that I always enjoyed pulling people together to do something. I was the guy making the calls and creating the enthusiasm. My mother always encouraged me not to be afraid of being involved and that if you want to do something, you’d better go make it happen, because if you wait for it to come to you, it will never happen. It’s important when you’re young to have a parent who teaches you how to have social confidence and not be afraid to pick up the phone and call friends. You learn how to handle “no” and you learn how to handle “yes.”

Bryant: What were some early lessons for you as a manager?

Martens: I learned that you have to have stable decision-making criteria so that people look at you and say, “I know you’re going to look for the same things in this type of situation every time.” You have to learn how to be very consistent and transparent. You can’t sit down with one person and say, “We’ll make it this way for you because I like you,” and then make it another way for somebody else. Because those two people will talk and word gets out that you’re really not consistent. If you don’t have a compass for true north — and you don’t stick to that — people are going to come at you from many different angles to get you to do something.

The other thing I learned is this issue of trust, and that you can’t get anywhere being a micromanager. You have to learn how to let go and let others make mistakes as long as they’re not catastrophic. The most important thing I can do is create a safe highway to operate in, and define clearly what the bumpers are — whether it’s code of conduct or how we make decisions. As long as people are within the boundaries of that highway, then let them go as fast as they can. But if they hit a bumper, pull them in and remind them what the bumper is and why it’s there.

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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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. His next book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, will also be published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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