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 Cathy Choi, president of Bulbrite, a lighting maker and supply company in Moonachie, N.J. After accepting her father’s offer to join it, she says, she “made a concerted effort to make the company the leader, not me or my dad.”
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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Bryant: From reading your bio, it seems that you’ve had an interesting career path.
Choi: I started as a math major at Cornell. In my sophomore year, I came across an English and theater class. I fell in love with it, so I switched my major to theater. Then I got my M.B.A. from N.Y.U. and went to work for a big accounting firm.
But I then had an opportunity to work for a Hollywood producer. He told me I would start as his assistant. “In Hollywood, the more degrees you have, the lower you start,” he told me. I did everything — picking up his dry cleaning, getting his Starbucks, taking his calls and reading scripts. I learned how to run a small business.
But as my producer’s financing was ending, we were coming up on the 30th anniversary of the company that my father started. “I have to make plans,” my father said, “to either sell or, if you’re going to come in, then I would pass the reins to you.”
Bryant: Was that a tough decision for you?
Choi: It was. You always wonder: “What is it going to be like working with my dad?” There were 15 employees, and my father had built up a really strong core team. But would they accept me? What would my role be? I have two parents and an uncle there. The hardest thing was walking into a set culture and trying to adapt to that culture, while still making an impression.
Bryant: What has your father taught you about leadership?
Choi: How to exercise patience. When you’re young, you’re ready to change the whole world. I would walk down the hallway, excited about something, and say to him: “I have a great idea. We’re doing this.”
Before I even got to the next word, he’d say: “Take a deep breath. O.K. Now we’re going to talk.”
And just by having that moment, it resets you, in good times and bad.
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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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.
Whitney L. Johnson dared to dream when she began her Wall Street career as a secretary. With courage and persistence, by her forties she had risen to become an Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst. Whitney is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm, Rose Park Advisors, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and the Harvard Business Review blogs, and the author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream, published by Bibliomotion (May 2012). Whitney was recognized by Inc. magazine as one of “12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012″ and one of Business Insider’s “54 Smart Thinkers Everyone Should Follow on Twitter.” For more, follow her blog, find her on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. Having invested in her own dreams, Whitney is passionate about encouraging others to take stock in theirs. She and her husband reside with their two children in Boston, Massachusetts.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Dare, Dream, Do, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Johnson: I started to write — my husband. Crossed that out, thinking my parents. Scratch that, because it’s my children. Or maybe… it’s. Scores of people have influenced my personal growth, but alas, I must list my parents as I think most of us must.
They provided me with many opportunities apart from school, including sewing, piano, and ice skating lessons. But as the oldest child of parents who married because my mother was pregnant with me, and then later divorced, I always wondered if there might have been a different outcome had I been brilliant or attractive enough.
Though these memories pain me, I recognize these formative experiences have shaped who I am and what I value. My desire to have a happy marriage and a happy family life is resolute. Period. When someone I know is affected by divorce, I understand. I know the situation is complicated, regardless of why the marriage is dissolving. My drive, my intense focus on improvement is likely a means of trying to measure up, and I’m quite certain my laser-like focus on encouraging and mentoring is my attempt to be the encouraging voice I wanted to hear. Without a doubt, my parents have had the greatest influence on my personal growth. But my husband is a close, and crucial, close second. It is he who has helped me grow into a person that believes she measures up – at least most days.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Johnson: Michael Brown, one of my bosses at BA-Merrill Lynch. I was already an award-winning equity analyst, but I still didn’t quite see my potential. He challenged me to step up my game – not in a you-can-do-better military style. Instead, he was the first boss to ask for my ideas, and gave me the latitude to go do them. During his tenure, I significantly outperformed myself in every measurable category. The slope of the trajectory of my career steepened significantly because of Michael Brown.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Johnson: My husband and I arrived in New York twenty years ago, so he could pursue his PhD at Columbia. I would never have gone to New York on my own, and I was terrified. But someone had to earn the bread, so I began to look for a job. We were in New York; I wanted to work on Wall Street.
But there were a few problems. My degree was in music – meaning I’d never stepped foot in an accounting, finance or economics class, I had zero connections in New York, and women who came to Wall Street in the late 80s — became secretaries. Which is what I did.
Across from my desk at 1345 Ave of the Americas, there was a bullpen of up-and-coming brokers, essentially a locker-room for twenty-something guys aspiring to become masters of the universe. In order to open accounts, they’d dial the phone, people would hang up, dial, hang up. When they finally got someone on the phone, the pressure was so intense in this testosterone-filled room they inevitably went for the hard sell. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this is a good investment.” I’d always know the prospects were waffling, when I’d hear “throw down your pom-poms and get in the game.”
Initially I was offended, because I was a cheerleader in high school. But one day after hearing “throw down your pom-poms” yet again, I thought – when am I going to throw down MY pom-poms – and get in MY game. After all, my husband’s degree will take 5-7 years. Why would I earn x if 10x is possible?
That was my turning point. I began to take accounting and finance courses at night – and three years later – I had a boss who was willing to sponsor me in making the jump from secretary to investment banking analyst.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Johnson: Early on in my career, my musical training (practicing piano three hours a day, understanding music theory and music history, learning to sight read, to accompanying vocalist and instrumentalists, playing in a jazz band, playing a senior recital with 45 minutes of music fully memorized) was of little use.
But once I had the investment banking technical training (building a financial model, etc), my formal musical training allowed me to really kick up my career. As Howard Gardner’s posits in his theory of multiple intelligences, musical intelligence isn’t “just about composing music, playing an instrument, singing well, or even learning a new language, the principles of organization involved in almost any kind of public presentation, whether organizing a conference, producing a play, or giving a speech have their origin in musical structure.” Now, whether writing a research report, coaching entrepreneurs on how to pitch their ideas, or giving a speech, I have an innate sense of an idea’s arc and the requisite musicality in order to communicate my ideas. Meta – but invaluable.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Whitney invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
To visit her homepage, please click here.
To visit her Amazon page, please click here.
To visit her HBR blog page, please click here.
To visit the Rose Park Advisors page, please click here.