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 Kathy Button Bell, vice president and chief marketing officer of Emerson, the manufacturing and technology company in St. Louis. A sports background, she says, “makes you a good sharer” and more empathetic in the office.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Endurance on the Field, and at Work
Bryant: What were some important lessons you’ve learned through the years?
Bell: I learned a lot being a commodities trader. Trading teaches you a lot of lessons. It’s like life, because things come and go really quickly, and really bad things and really great things happen. I learned you have to get over the bad things quickly because you have to stay present in the moment to make the next choice.
That lesson of getting over things, especially as a woman in business, is super-helpful, so you don’t linger on things and you don’t lie in bed at night awake worrying about stuff. You move on to things that you can make better. If you look at employees or bosses, the best ones have great energy and are good at applying it fast enough to solve problems.
Bryant: What about earlier in life — high school, college? Were you in leadership roles there?
Bell: I went to a high school that let you be a great leader. I was in a terrific group of women. There were only 19 girls in my class, and I got 15 varsity letters in sports. One of my best friends and I were captains of the basketball team. We won 33 consecutive games.
Then I went to Princeton and played varsity field hockey. And I actually played lacrosse my freshman year. I hadn’t played before but made the J.V. team. I played varsity field hockey, and my second year there, the U.S. Olympic coach became our coach. That taught me everything about myself, about how hard you can work at something, how you can die trying. I would have done anything for that woman. She inspired us to do stuff that was impossible.
Bryant: And looking back, what was it about her leadership style?
Bell: She just knew how to inspire you to do more. The thing she always tried to teach me to do is not say I’m sorry. I was so painfully polite, and if I missed a pass or something I’d apologize. She said, “You need to get over that.” She was kind and tough, which are maybe the two best things that a boss could be.
I think everybody benefits from having played sports. It makes you a good sharer, for one thing, in lots of ways. And it makes you more empathetic in general. I love to see sports in a résumé. A woman who works for me right now was a Harvard swimmer, and I can tell that every time I talk to her about something. She’s an endurance athlete. She’s tough in a pinch. She will get it done. And I respect that enormously.
It’s your middle that you depend on — the hard part of you, the tough part in the middle that goes: “Oh, I can stand up in that storm. That’s O.K.”
Bryant: Do you think people can get those qualities just as much from being in an orchestra, or in a dance troupe?
Bell: There’s something about how hard sports are physically that’s helpful. I travel a lot internationally. I do think it’s an endurance sport. I don’t know how you do that without the energy it takes to do the other things. And you have to have energy so you can think smart when you’re tired. Some people just lie down and just die when they’re tired. I always say travel is a callus. And you get better and better and better and better at it. I think the travel thing is a big deal, and I think it separates people.
Bryant: What were some other big influences on the way you lead and manage?
Bell: At Converse, I had a fabulous boss. She solved problems the moment they happened. I mean, you weren’t even finished with your sentence, and she was picking up the phone starting to solve it, because it just seems those little problems can all of a sudden balloon into something. The faster you deal with them, the more you nip them in the bud.
By the same token, you prioritize better as you get older, and you realize that time can also be your friend. Some things actually simply will go away, and you have to get smarter and smarter to know which ones are which. I think I do a much better job of saying: “You know what? Let that sit.”
There’s some old marketing axiom of, “You never need to make a marketing decision too soon.” It means that more truth and information will emerge over time. But usually you have to solve interpersonal problems right away. Also, when something good happens, take wild advantage of it right away because sometimes it goes away.
Bryant: In terms of celebrating?
Bell: Yes, or just calling the person to say, “Oh, this great thing happened.” Because it may be the only good news you have to tell a superior or somebody who works for you, before you have to give them bad news later sometime. Because bad things happen all the time.
Bryant: When you think back over your leadership and management style, how would you say it’s evolved? What are you doing more of, less of?
Bell: I am much more patient — a hundred times more patient than I was. I also prioritize much better, which comes out of patience. I think patience, by far, teaches you what to do. The mistake people make is they try to do everything. Dave Farr, our C.E.O., says that if you have a to-do list of 10 things, rip it and do three. Just do three.
I’m really better at putting my time and attention on the business issues that matter the most. I always say that one does what one likes to do. If you really think about it, you should like the things that are the biggest things.
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To read the complete interview, 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 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.
Saturday, July 2, 2011 Posted by Bob Morris | Bob's blog entries | Adam Bryant, Corner Office column, Emerson, Kathy Button Bell, SundayBusiness section, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, The New York Times, Times Books | Leave a Comment
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