The Corner Office: A book review by Bob Morris

The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed
Adam Bryant
Times Books/Henry Holt & Company (2011)

Dining on brain food at a “metaphysical table” with mostly CEOs,

What we have in this volume is a “buffet” of “nuggets” from about 75 interviews of mostly CEOs that Adam Bryant conducted over a period of several years, interviews featured by The New York Times in its Sunday edition. Several of those interviewed are prominent but most were not familiar, at least to me, when I first read what they had to say about what they did as well as about how and why they did it.

Bryant is wise not to present one interview after another, in alpha or chronological order. Rather, he divides the material into three parts (Succeeding, Managing, and Leading) and cherry picks from the interviews whatever is most relevant to the given topic or insight. For example, consider this extended excerpt during which he shares what he learned about “passionate curiosity,” the subject of the first chapter.

“The C.E.O.’s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students — the letters could just as easily stand for ‘chief education officer.’

“‘You learn from everybody,’ said Alan R. Mulally, the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. `I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around — why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work.’

“Why `passionate curiosity’? The phrase is more than the sum of its parts, which individually fall short in capturing the quality that sets these C.E.O.’s apart. There are plenty of people who are passionate, but many of their passions are focused on just one area. There are a lot of curious people in the world, but they can also be wallflowers.

“But `passionate curiosity’ — a phrase used by Nell Minow, the co-founder of the Corporate Library — better captures the infectious sense of fascination that some people have with everything around them.

“‘Passionate curiosity,’ Ms. Minow said, `is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.’

“Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions. They recognize that they can’t have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.”

Bryant carefully selected chapter titles that, with few exceptions, specify or at least imply one of the core ingredients of great leadership at the C-level. They range from “Battle-Hardened Confidence” (Chapter 2) through “Bananas, Bells, and the Art of Running Meetings” (Chapter 9) to “Small Gestures, Big Payoffs” (Chapter 14). Those interviewed acknowledge mistakes made and what they learned from them, they explain how they interview and what they do (and do not) look for, and at least some of them indicate an endearing sense of vulnerability when citing the pressures and frustrations as well as loneliness when having to make tough decisions. Most of those interviewed seem to spend much more time in the trenches than in a corner office.

Bryant notes that he was reminded of the first line of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, after interviewing dozens of executives: “‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Many of the CEOs I interviewed resembled one another in their approach. They listen, learn, assess what’s working, what’s not and why, and then make adjustments. They are quick studies and they also tend to be good teachers, because they understand the process of learning and can explain what they’ve learned to others. They seem eager to discuss their hard-earned insights, rather than holding on to them as if they were proprietary software.”

To a significant extent, the same can be said of Bryant. He not only asks the right questions and elicits thoughtful responses; he also creates what (to me) resembles a mosaic of insights, revelations actually, that suggest all great leaders are alike but each has her or his own unique ways of deciding what is most important and, therefore, what must be done. Bryant characterizes his role as “dinner-party host, encouraging lively discussion and pointing out connections among the people gathered.” He succeeds brilliantly but, in my opinion, he accomplishes much more than merely allowing those interviewed “to share their stories in their own voices.” Those interviewed comprise a chorus of great voices and he is the skillful conductor of what now awaits those who read the book.


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