Tom Leighton (chief executive of Akamai Technologies) in “The Corner Office”

LeightonAdam 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 Tom Leighton, chief executive of the web content delivery company Akamai Technologies, and a former academic. He says leaders should know how to teach: “As a C.E.O., you can order something to happen, and sometimes you’ve got to. But it’s much better if you can explain why.”

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

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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You were an academic before you started Akamai. Tell me about that transition.

I grew up never thinking I’d be a C.E.O. or even in business. I never really had a desire for the limelight, per se. I liked working on research questions that were at the intersection of mathematics and computer science — solving a problem that nobody had solved before and then establishing that you had the answer with mathematical proof. I just loved doing that, and so my goal was to be a professor, and I ultimately became a faculty member at M.I.T. But it was more interesting to try to do something that would have a broader applicability, and I probably did have an itch in that direction.

Danny Lewin, my graduate student, and I entered the Sloan School’s business plan competition, and that’s how we started getting exposed to the process of creating a company. Ultimately, we took what was a big plunge for us, because we were academics — not just academics, but theoretical academics.

You brought in a C.E.O. to build the company, though.

We said, “We’ve got to get somebody who really understands business,” and so we recruited George Conrades to be our first C.E.O. Later, Paul Sagan became our C.E.O., and then I took over at the beginning of last year. I worked very closely with both of them, learned a ton, and that eventually enabled me to decide that I wanted to be a C.E.O. and that I could succeed in the role, because certainly that was not the case when we started out.

I do have a very odd career path. You don’t normally see academics go into business, much less become C.E.O. 14 years after starting the company. But I do think there are skill sets you develop as a researcher or professor that are useful for being a C.E.O.

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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.comthat 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.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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