Adam Bryant is the deputy national editor of The New York Times, 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 Sunday Business section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEO’s on How to Lead and Succeed, which draws out the broader themes and lessons from interviews with more than 70 CEO’s.
Adam has been editing at The Times since May 2006, and was a business reporter at the paper through the 1990s, when he covered a number of beats, including airlines, aviation safety, executive pay and corporate governance. From 1999 to 2006, he worked at Newsweek magazine as a senior writer and then as business editor. Before moving to the national desk in 2010, he was deputy business editor. Adam was the lead editor of a series on the dangers of distracted driving that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Please click here to send an email to him.
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Morris: I read your article featured by The New York Times (“Corner Office – The 5 Habits of Highly Effective C.E.O.’s,” May 17, 2011) in which you suggest that all great leaders share these habits in common: battle-hardened confidence, passionate curiosity, team smarts, a simple mind-set, and fearlessness. What about charisma?
Bryant: Good question. Charisma can be tricky, as many of the CEOs I’ve interviewed have noted. Several have acknowledged that that their hiring mistakes include being won over by a charismatic personality, only to find out later that their charisma was not backed up by performance. Certainly, many leaders are charismatic. But I would say this one of those examples where it can be easy to mistake correlation for causation. Some successful CEOs are charismatic, but charisma is not necessary to be a successful CEO.
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. Jack Dempsey once observed, “Champions get up when they can’t.” Is this what you mean by fearlessness?
Bryant: It’s part of it, certainly. That’s a great quote, by the way, which I think speaks more to the second quality I’ve identified as essential to high-performance – Battle-Hardened Confidence. That speaks more directly to this notion of facing adversity and powering through it.
Morris: In Geeks & Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have much of value to say about what happens to leaders who experience severe, perhaps even traumatic stress. In a word, they experience a “crucible.” My own opinion is that a crisis does not create character, crisis reveals it. What do you think about all this?
Bryant: I think it’s tough to parse the two, since they’re related so closely that they create a chicken-and-egg kind of debate. But I think it is important to note how many CEOs I interviewed told vivid stories about how they were tested in such moments, and the profound effect it had on them and their leadership.
Morris: In your opinion, is rigorous scrutiny of leaders by the media and others today better, worse, or about the same as it was (let’s say) five years ago? Please explain.
Bryant: I think it has gotten better. If you take a longer view of this than just five years, I think it’s fair to say the treatment and scrutiny of leaders have swung at times from one extreme to another. But the business press is getting smarter and more skeptical and reasonable about CEOs and their roles.
Morris: Based on what you’ve experienced as well as what you’ve observed, what is the single area of greatest need of immediate improvement among business schools, even those most highly regarded?
Bryant: More focus on leadership, communication, teamwork (not just my opinion – many of the CEOs I interviewed volunteered similar thoughts). Several top business schools, recognizing the importance of these issues in today’s environment, are starting to build more courses on these topics into their programs.
Morris: I recently learned that in April, Coca-Cola had 22.5 million visitors on Facebook and only 270,000 to its website—over 80 times as much traffic. To what extent (if any) has the emergence of social networks and their media such as Facebook had a significant impact on how people lead organizations?
Bryant: Many CEOs I’ve interviewed have added social media to their leadership toolkit. They blog, they hold virtual town halls. It helps flatten organizations, and makes the CEOs more accessible.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations. Reasons vary but, according to James O’Toole in Leading Change, much of the resistance is cultural, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” What do you think?
Bryant: I agree. That is why the CEOs I interviewed speak with such reverence when they talk about people on their staffs who embody this quality of fearlessness. They want people with a bias toward taking action, toward taking calculated risks, to doing things. So they do what they can to send the message: they reward and promote and praise people who do these things. They hammer the point that their organizations have to be continually evolving and improving. They solicit everyone’s opinions. They set ambitious targets to get people out of their comfort zones. And they try to create a sense of mission so that people invest more of their passion and commitment to the workplace, rather than seeing it as just a place to show up and collect a paycheck.
Morris: To what extent (if any) is it still possible for what Jean Lipman-Blumen characterizes as a “toxic” leader to become CEO of a major corporation? Please explain.
Bryant: I think it is still possible. There is still some percentage of companies – though it is difficult to guess what that percentage is – that still operate with command-and-control, top-down hierarchies. And it’s inevitable that some people will achieve positions of great power, like the CEO role, and abuse the power they are granted. But on an optimistic note, I think such leadership styles get exposed more quickly now, and boards have lower tolerances for them. Why? Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about performance, and the quickening speed of business means that companies that wait for and follow only the orders of the boss at the top of the organization will be left behind.
Morris: What do you know now about business that you wish you knew when you sent to work in your first full-time job?
Bryant: I’ve come to appreciate – with my own experience, and hearing about the experiences from the CEOs I’ve interviewed – that it’s important to reach out and make connections with all sorts of people in your organization, not just those in your own department. They payoff of doing this is immeasurable, in so many ways.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
From time to time, I will let you know about an item of possible interest.
In the past, I have posted a few Q&As that provide an excerpt from the “Corner Office” column in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. In my opinion, Adam Bryant’s interview of John T. Chambers (chairman and CEO of Cisco Susyems) in the August 2, 2009, issue is far and away the most valuable I have read thus far.
This is a “must read.”
Here’s a link, then search for Corner Office:
In this series, Bob Morris poses a key question and then responds to it with material from one or more of the business books he has reviewed for Amazon and Borders.
Authors of the bestselling business books and business journalists tend to quote the same “celebrity” CEOs (e.g. Jack Welch of GE, A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble, Carlos Ghosn of Renault and Nissan) and they do indeed have much of value to share. However, I also pay attention to what lesser known CEOs have to say, such as Kosecoff who is the CEO of Prescription Solutions, a pharmacy benefit management company with more than 10 million customers. In the June 21, 2009, issue of The New York Times SundayBusiness section (“Corner Office,” Page 2), she explains her approach to leadership:
“I think a good leader has to do three things. It’s almost like a three-act play. The first act is to come up with the concept for a product or service to offer. And then you have to make sure that the entire team believes in that concept and understands it.
The second job is execution. You often hear people say, ‘The devil’s in the details.’ I think that’s divine.
The third act is measurement. ‘What are the metrics against which we’re going to measure our success?’ We do two things: We measure where we’re succeeding, and where we succeed we celebrate. And we also measure where we are not succeeding, and where that happens we ask ourselves, “Can we go back and fix something?’ And if nit, we make sure that we understand where we went wrong, put it into the corporate DNA, so that the next project won’t have that flaw.
And another thing I learned was that projects often morph. And when people become advocates of their project, they change some of the metrics so that they can claim success when perhaps it’s not 100 percent legitimate to do so. So creating metrics up front is very helpful.”
I suggest that you check out this interview and several others by visiting:
Comments, questions, requests, or suggestions? Please share them. They will be most welcome and I thank you for them. Best regards, Bob