The Public Relations Strategist

Thoughts From the Corner Office

June 1, 2011

Adam Bryant, author of “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed” and  New York Times Corner Office” weekly columnist, spoke with The Strategist about the five habits of highly effective CEOs, the importance of communications and transparency, and lessons learned from CEOs.  — Amy Jacques

How did you decide which 70-plus leaders and executives to interview for this book?

I’m looking for people who are thoughtful about leadership and management and do things that are unusual — a little different. I discarded the traditional screens for deciding who are successful CEOs — like stock price, for example — because I don’t think they’re that useful, [although] they can sometimes be a good indication. But stock prices go up and down. I was looking for CEOs who would be open, candid and have good stories to tell.

How accessible and transparent were the CEOs  you interviewed?

On a typical day, I get seven to 15 pitches from PR people. I don’t just go by the pitches and companies that want me to interview their CEO. There have been many CEOs I’ve reached out to myself who I wanted to interview.

But [with] the ones that come to me, [we] have a lot of discussions up front before I decide to interview the CEO — to make sure that the person is going to be candid and open, and that they’re willing to talk about their mistakes. I like to hear stories about lessons they’ve learned.

Not everybody’s comfortable doing that. There was one CEO who shall remain nameless who I interviewed for 90 minutes, and I didn’t run the interview because they never really opened up. The whole point of “The Corner Office” is [that] I’m looking to get CEOs away from the usual bullet points and strategy talking points that they’re used to discussing and get them to talk about themselves in a personal way.

Was there anything unexpected that a CEO said that stands out?

[Laughs.] Yes, there is. This one came after the book, but it was a surprising moment for me. One CEO turned the tables on me and gave me something he picked up in Japan. It’s a sort of Japanese personality test. So here’s the idea: You’re about to go on a journey, and there are five animals, and you have to decide which one you’re going to leave behind. There’s a lion, a horse, a cow, a rabbit and a monkey. I said the rabbit.

So [he tells me that] the lion stands for pride, the horse represents work, the monkey represents friendship, the cow represents family and the rabbit represents love. The CEO said, “Now, what I’ve learned from you is that you would be willing to set aside love if there was a big project and we needed to work 14 days straight.”

So you can imagine that my wife was amused by this story! This is one of those moments when he turned the tables on me. I reprinted some of it. It was with Arkadi Kuhlmann, the CEO of ING Direct, the online bank. That stands out as, “Boy, this is not what I expected!”

What advice would you offer an aspiring executive?

One thing we could talk about is career. One good piece of advice is to throw out the traditional notion of a career ladder, which is, “I have a clear idea of the job I ultimately want to get, and I’m going to move steadily up this career ladder to get that job.” A lot of the CEOs said [that this] sounds good, but it’s not the way the world works — especially now.

One CEO, Barbara Krumsiek of the Calvert Group, uses this expression of an obstacle course rather than a career ladder. She said that is a better metaphor because when you’re going over the obstacle course, there are going to be times when people help you get over a wall, and there are going to be times when you help them. An obstacle course doesn’t have an endpoint. It’s not always going up. Sometimes you take lateral moves.

And [the CEOs] also made the point that people need to be open to serendipity in their careers. Sometimes chance meetings with people can change the course of somebody’s professional life. There’s this wonderful expression from the CEO [of Willis Group Holdings], Joseph Plumeri, who I interviewed, and the advice he gives to people is, “play in traffic.” He doesn’t mean send your 5 year old into traffic, but more the idea of getting out there, meeting people, doing things and being open to the opportunities that come your way.

It’s clear to me, talking to all these CEOs, that if you were to plot their careers, there would be a lot of surprising turns. It’s not like they said, “Oh, I’m going to be a CEO someday, and then I work toward that.” I’ve interviewed a lot of CEOs who started out in education, who have a background in theater [or] film — they might have been professors. These CEOs are living proof that people’s careers are not straight trajectories.

You classified the five habits of highly effective CEOs in your book, which all  touch on communications. How important is communications to leadership?

It’s near the top. It’s a theme that came up over and over in all the interviews. A lot of CEOs told me that when they became CEO, they had to learn how important communication was. They came to understand that they had to repeat themselves often. They would start off in these roles thinking, “Here’s the mission statement,” and then give a speech about it. They said to themselves: “OK, everybody heard that.” But what they learned over time is that they have to keep repeating themselves for people to hear it, then internalize it and [have it] affect their behavior.

What could the average employee — who might not have leadership aspirations — learn from your book about how to be a better employee?

One theme that runs through the book is that in every workplace these days, much of the work is being done in teams. A lot of those teams are always changing. So you may be part of a designated team, but for some internal project, an ad hoc team is created.

And at its core, the book is about how to work with other people. Whether you’re their peer or whether you’re managing them or whether you’re leading a large organization, it’s [about] how you work on the team and get the most out of the team.

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