Sheryl Palmer (the chief executive of Taylor Morrison) in “The Corner Office”

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 Sheryl Palmer , the chief executive of Taylor Morrison, the home-building company. 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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What were your early years like?

I was born in L.A. but grew up moving a lot, and usually it was because of my mom. She was on the design side of the clothing industry, and my dad was on the retail side.

It taught me to be flexible, because when you’re at that age, you have to reinvent yourself, to be social and to make friends, in different parts of the country. It really taught me about understanding that there are all kinds of people, learning to get along, and making the best out of most situations.

I wanted to work at a young age and make my own money. Because my mom was a designer, we never got to go shopping because she always brought home clothes. And so, as a normal teenager, you don’t want to do that. You want to get your own clothes and look like everybody else.

At 15, I got a job at McDonald’s, and worked there through high school and college. I went into marketing, doing a lot of community functions. When I was 20, I became McDonald’s marketing manager for San Diego.

Every 16-year-old should have to work at McDonald’s, because you really do learn how to work. You have to pull back the equipment and sweep behind. There are no shortcuts. You had to do it right because it was such a part of their brand. There were a lot of life lessons in that job.

What were some early leadership lessons for you?

I was asked to be the sales manager at Sun City West in Phoenix, and I was responsible for about two dozen sales associates who were on average about 25 years older than me. I knew nothing, and I was surrounded by all these experts, but I needed to be a resource.

So what did you do?

It’s about building relationships. It doesn’t matter what the task is, it still comes down to people first. If I owned the responsibility for building a relationship with them, and communicated with them in a way they liked, it was amazing. I also respected their knowledge, and had the humility to know what I didn’t know and not pretend I did.

Other lessons?

There are a number of attributes that form leaders, including the courage to try new things. It’s also about being accessible, approachable and authentic. This role is what I do, but it’s not who I am, and I stay grounded with that.

I started an internal video blog, “Shoes Off with Sheryl.” I named it that because I hate shoes. If I’m in a meeting, my shoes are probably off under the table. As silly as that sounds, that’s who I am, and the day that I have to change who I am to do my job will be the day I really don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve watched so many people lose sight of their personal reality because they felt they had to act or look a certain part.

This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We get one shot at this, and I really do live that way. I had a really tough medical situation about six years ago. I had a brain tumor. So you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

You have to ask yourself, if you really had only 10 days to live, would you be doing what you’re doing? We make choices, and I choose to be happy, and I think that resonates through the organization.

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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 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.

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