Sue Desmond-Hellmann (chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) in “The Corner Office”

26-CORNER-blog427Adam 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 Sue Desmond-Hellmann, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She says, “There’s a saying in medicine: ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ Living the ‘teach one’ part of it was the most important management lesson I learned.” 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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Tell me about your early years. Were you in leadership roles?

I grew up in Reno, Nev., as one of seven kids. It was a magical childhood. My dad owned a drugstore that was just about a mile away from our home, and it was the center of family life. My brothers were delivery boys, and I was a bookkeeper for a while. I wouldn’t say I was a leader early on, but I was a fierce student. I loved everything — science, math, reading — and I loved learning.

My parents are really great, and they always had a sense that everybody has something to contribute, and they always thought about how to bring out the best in people. So when I meet people, I’m always thinking, “What am I going to like about you?” I’m not thinking, “How are you going to let me down?”

When you went to college, did you have an idea what you wanted to do for a career?

I knew when I was very young I wanted to be a physician. The pharmacy at our drugstore was raised a bit so they could look over the whole store, but it also had a side area with a door. My earliest memories that drove my fondness for medicine were seeing my dad at the side door. If something embarrassing needed to be discussed, and if someone just needed a kind word or a piece of advice or was struggling, it wasn’t uncommon for him to say, “Let’s talk over here.” Seeing how much that meant to people and the impact he had on people’s lives meant a lot to me.

What were your first experiences managing people?

When I was a chief resident. There’s a saying in medicine: “See one, do one, teach one.” Living the “teach one” part of it was the most important management lesson I learned. You have to be supportive enough so that someone feels capable, enabled and powerful, but you also have their back so that things don’t go wrong.

The stakes are so high in medicine, so that part of managing is stark. There’s a sweet spot in peak performance where you’re bringing all your intellect, assets and capabilities to the task, and you’re not paralyzed by the challenge. I think that’s what great management is all about — making sure people are right in that sweet spot, and not feeling incapable because they’re scared.

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

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. To contact him, please click here.

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