Sharon Napier (Partners + Napier) in “The Corner Office”

Sharon Napier

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 Sharon Napier, president and C.E.O. of Partners + Napier, an ad agency based in Rochester. She says basketball taught her that all teammates have vital roles.

To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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On Her Team, It’s All About Bench Strength

Bryant: What were some important leadership lessons for you?

Napier: Much of what I learned about leadership I learned playing basketball, whether it was as a player or from my coaches. I use basketball analogies a lot.

Bryant: What are your favorites?

Napier: I always tell people it’s not about the big game. And what I mean by that is it takes hours and hours of practice to be good. I’ll tell a younger person in the agency: “You’re going to be at an internal agency meeting to present your work, so practice. Act like it’s real.

Go home, prepare, practice. Because when you get to the big game, you’ll be able to really be good.”And I always say that the stats don’t lie. It’s not subjective. It’s just, what are your goals and did you meet them?Bryant: What else?

Napier: I went from playing high school basketball to college basketball. You can be a star in high school, and you can be the ninth player in college. It’s just the way it is. So I always talk about understanding the bench strength.First of all, every player has a role. Know what it is. If you’re the seventh player who’s supposed to go in and get five rebounds because we need them, that’s your role. So I talk about that a lot — we don’t have the starting team and the not-starting team.

We have a bench, and everybody has to be strong. They come in and they bring different things to the table. And you learn that by playing.You learn that if you’re not worried about your own success, and you’re worried about the success of the team, you go a lot further.

Bryant: Anything besides sports?

Napier: I grew up in a big Italian family. Fighting and being loud at the kitchen table was really normal. I didn’t realize when you went to somebody else’s house they didn’t argue about something. So I love what I always call creative tension in the agency.I like having a good debate. At first, people think that’s combative. I really want to hear if you have a different opinion. I sat at the kitchen table and I watched everybody really argue, and usually at the end everyone’s hugging and kissing. If I’m really hot about something, once it’s over, it’s over.

And so to do that, there’s a trust. There has to be enough trust to do that. I think people really believe that when I give them really direct input, it’s because I just want them to succeed.

Bryant: Any other family lessons?

Napier: My father always used to say — I love this one — he would say, “Be prepared, be overly prepared.” Because, he said, in life a lot of people are going to be smarter than you, but not a lot of people are going to be really prepared. I say that to my kids all the time — “You’re smart, but did you prepare for it?”

Bryant: Talk about the culture of your agency.

Napier: We asked ourselves, “What are going to be the values that are going to guide this agency?” They started out as seven, but the three that are on the wall when you walk into our office are “courage, ingenuity and family.”The family one is really interesting to me because I ended up getting my M.B.A. at 45 years old. And one of the professors said to me, “How are you going to grow your company with a family value?” It made me really think.

I thought about it as mutual respect: “I’ve got your back. We’re going to create a family. We’re going to cover for each other.”We’re three times as big since then, so he was wrong. I think people have to come to work every day and have something that’s part of their DNA, something that helps them make decisions, and so I think that was really important, and it has really shaped my leadership.

Bryant: Let’s talk about hiring.

Napier: I think the one attribute that’s really, really important to me is, are you curious? And I try to ask that in all sorts of ways because if you don’t really want to know how something works, if you don’t read a lot, then you’re not a very curious person. And in our business you really have to be.If I’m going to put you on an account like Kodak, I want you to learn how to make a photo book, and I want you learn a little photography and I want you to learn how mothers keep memories. If you’re not interested in digging in, then that’ll say a lot about you.

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Adam Bryant

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 Sunday Business section and on that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.

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