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 Terry Tietzen, founder and C.E.O. of Edatanetworks, a developer of customer loyalty software. He suggests selling innovation in an organization gradually — in nibbles — so that all will “start liking the idea and not feel so overwhelmed.”
Photo credit: Librado Romero/The New York Times
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Want to Innovate? Feed a Cookie to the Monster
Bryant: Tell me about some early leadership lessons.
Tietzen: I started caddying at a young age. I basically interviewed the people I was caddying for, figuring how they got to where they were, and what principles guided them. I memorized everything they said, and listened to them talk about deals they were making. You can learn a lot about people by the way they play golf. The game is self-policing. You declare if your ball is out of bounds, and you penalize yourself. If you abuse the game, you’re only cheating yourself.
Bryant: What about other influences?
Tietzen: Certainly my parents. My mom drove my creativity and my dad told me that when you give your word, it’s your bond. When I was 14, I got my first Honda minibike. My dad brought me into his office and typed up a contract for me about where I could go on the bike, that I’d always wear a helmet and never give anyone a ride on the back of the bike.
So on the first day with my bike, I have a friend on the back, neither of us wearing a helmet. My dad takes me into the house, and said, “Hey, did you just sign this?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said: “Well, I’m going to teach you something. You need to understand that a contract is a two-way agreement. You broke your responsibilities.” So he sold the minibike back to the people we bought it from the same day. That taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.
It was like that when I worked for Arnold Palmer’s golf course design company. They taught me the ethics of a handshake. When you work for Arnold, it starts with a handshake, and then you’re on the team.
Bryant: Now you’re running an innovation and technology company. How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?
Tietzen: I like a person with communication skills, first and foremost. I love a person who’s worked and volunteered in a meaningful way for a not-for-profit or community organization. They tend to be more understanding of other people’s needs, and not so self-interested. And you’ve got to guard against negativity in a creative company. Negativity will wipe out innovation. You get one guy saying, “I don’t think we can,” and then everybody starts thinking that.
Bryant: What other lessons have you learned about innovation?
Tietzen: Innovation doesn’t just happen at your desk. It happens in the weirdest places and times. You get ideas through watching the world, and through relationships. You get ideas from looking down the road. You have to be available to adapt on the fly. In real innovation, being comfortable isn’t good. I don’t want to be comfortable. I always want to be on edge, because that edge gives you energy and excitement. What’s new? What’s next? That’s how you stay ahead.
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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.