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 Shellye Archambeau is C.E.O. of MetricStream, which helps companies meet compliance standards. In her career, she says, she wouldn’t directly approach anyone about becoming her mentor, “but I would just start treating them like it.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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How to Adopt Mentors Without Really Asking
Bryant: What do you consider some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Archambeau: My mother had a definite influence on my leadership style. She was very involved in the community. She would say that whenever you run into challenges or you’re trying to make things happen, you’ve got to understand what makes people tick, what motivates them. Even though she was a business major in college, I think psychology was more of a passion for her.
Bryant: What else?
Archambeau: I was involved in sports early on, but I went through this amazing growth spurt, and my bones grew faster than my ligaments, so I ended up in knee braces. I couldn’t play sports anymore, but I took that same energy and got involved in clubs like the French Club and the National Honors Society. I learned that you have to figure out how to make people want to do something, and then make them believe they can.
Bryant: Other lessons?
Archambeau: Another big one is about mentors. Throughout my career, I had a lot of mentors, and I just adopted them. What I found is that, especially if you’re young, when you go up to people and say, ‘Would you mind being my mentor?,’ their eyes widen. They literally step back. What they’re thinking about is the commitment and time involved if they say yes. And time is something they don’t have. So I would not ask them to be my mentor, but I would just start treating them like it. And that worked very well for me
Bryant: How did you do it?
Archambeau: It depended on the person, but it can be really simple.
Let’s say you interact with someone, and at the end of the conversation you just say: “I’ve got just a quick question for you. Any thoughts on how … ?” It has to be quick, and it can’t be something big. And usually people will throw out an idea.
I know this sounds odd, but I find that a lot of people don’t take the advice they’re given. But I would do what they suggested, and then follow up with them and say: “Hey, thanks so much. Here’s what I did. It worked out great.” Now what happens? They feel pretty good about giving you the advice because they had a positive impact. So when I reach out to them again, they’re more likely to actually respond to my e-mail or my call. And then they might be more willing to have coffee with me.
Bryant: Tell me about your approach to leadership.
Archambeau: A big part of my job is coaching and developing. I’ve hired the right team. But everyone has areas where we need to improve. One of the things that I do is discuss a leadership topic at our regular meetings. And it makes a difference, because through these leadership topics, I get to reinforce our culture, the style, what’s expected
Bryant: What are some examples?
Archambeau: One is, don’t be a mama bear. What that means is, when people come to you with problems or challenges, don’t automatically solve them. As a mama bear, you want to take care of your cubs, so you tend to be protective and insulate them against all those things. But that doesn’t help. If you keep solving problems for your people, they don’t learn how to actually solve problems for themselves, and it doesn’t scale.
Make sure that when people come in with challenges and problems, the first thing you’re doing is actually putting it back to them and saying: “What do you think we should do about it? How do you think we should approach this?”
Bryant: What other leadership topics have you discussed?
Archambeau: Another one that resonated for people was around, “Who’s got the ball?” When you’re in sports, and the ball is thrown to you, then you’ve got the ball, and you’re now in control of what happens next. Which means you own it. So it’s important to know who’s got the ball. If you’re in a meeting and you’ve had a great conversation and then everybody leaves, who has the ball? It becomes a very visible concept for making sure that there’s actually ownership to make sure things get done. And it’s one thing if you always catch the ball if people toss it to you. It’s another thing if you are proactively going after that ball. As leaders, you’ve got to make sure that you’re actually going after that ball.
Bryant: What are your thoughts on culture?
Archambeau: I’ve definitely been in places with cultures that were harsh. I was at a company once where you went through a whole series of interviews to get hired. Then, once you were hired, you still had to prove something before people would accept you. So what happens in those kinds of environments is that there’s more fear than there should be.
I don’t think people perform well when there’s fear. Maybe people aren’t physically afraid, but they feel fear. And when people are afraid, the whole chemistry in their body changes. You just can’t be as successful in that kind of environment. I think the best environments are when you enable people to actually perform their best, but you’re still clear about what’s expected.
Bryant: Tell me a bit about your culture.
Archambeau: Everybody understands that no matter what your day-to-day job is, when something happens, everybody gets involved to get it fixed and make it right. It really comes down to teamwork. We all play a role to make things happen. When people come into the culture and see that, they also act. When people don’t, then it just doesn’t work, and they don’t make it.
Bryant: What career advice do you give people?
Archambeau: I think people in general don’t take enough risks. Some people feel that before they can take on that next challenge they need to be 100 percent ready. It’s just not true. Even people in their jobs aren’t perfect at their jobs.
So my biggest advice to people is to step out there. Take the risk and deal with it. What is the worst that could happen? It’s about thriving on risk instead of shrinking from risk.
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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 nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new 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. To contact him, please click here.