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 Vivian S. Lee, . 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.
I grew up in Norman, Okla. I was mostly very carefree as a child. I was the exact opposite of the overprogrammed child of today. My parents let me do whatever I felt like doing, and they never pushed me. I never really excelled in anything. I did a lot of different things but nothing very well. And I was often getting in trouble.
What flavor of trouble?
My parents tell stories of me doing things early on like sticking car keys in the electrical outlet at the post office, dropping my dad’s watch in the toilet and trying to shave one day.
And then in school — I’m embarrassed to admit it now — I used to get in trouble and have to go to the principal’s office. I was just doing goofy things. I remember in seventh grade, my best friend decided to take our Oklahoma history book and pretend to read it upside down in class. I could not stop laughing, and the teacher finally sent me to the principal’s office.
Tell me about your parents.
My parents are both university professors. My mother is a statistician and epidemiologist who became the dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health. My father is an electrical engineer and a serial inventor.
We used to come up with all these ideas for crazy inventions. When I retire, one thing I’m going to work on is reinventing the umbrella. You walk down the street on a rainy day and the trash bins are filled with broken umbrellas.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
They are immigrants. Very successful, but when they came to this country, they didn’t really know anybody, they had no guidance, and there were language barriers. So I have a much deeper appreciation and empathy for the wide range of backgrounds that people may be coming from.
My parents didn’t understand a lot about American culture early on, including the politics of the academic world. You think you can learn English, but there are all the subtleties and implications of how people choose their words, and they struggled with that early on.
From an early age, I had some insights as to what they were doing right and maybe what they weren’t doing right. They would sometimes talk over dinner about an encounter they had at the office. That actually gave me early insights into the dynamics between people and how important those dynamics are for managing and leading people: understanding what they want and getting that alignment between their interests and the organization’s.
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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.