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The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed

The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed

by Adam Bryant


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Dozens of top CEOs reveal their candid insights on the keys to effective leadership and the qualities that set high performers apart

What does it take to reach the top in business and to inspire others? Adam Bryant of The New York Times decided to answer this and other questions by sitting down with more than seventy CEOs and asking them how they do their jobs and the most important lessons they learned as they rose through the ranks. Over the course of extraordinary interviews, they shared memorable stories and eye-opening insights.

The Corner Office draws together lessons from chief executives such as Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Carol Bartz (Yahoo), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks), and Alan Mulally (Ford), from which Bryant has crafted an original work that reveals the keys to success in the business world, including the five essential personality traits that all high performers exhibit—qualities that the CEOs themselves value most and that separate the rising stars from their colleagues. Bryant also demystifies the art of leadership and shows how executives at the top of their game get the most out of others.

Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all skill, and these CEOs offer different perspectives that will help anyone who seeks to be a more effective leader and employee. For aspiring executives—of all ages—The Corner Office offers a path to future success.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250001740
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 521,140
Product dimensions: 5.58(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

ADAM BRYANT is the senior editor for features at The New York Times and writes the popular "Corner Office" feature in the paper's Sunday Business section. He was the lead editor for the team that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and is a former senior writer and business editor at Newsweek. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Corner Office

Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed

By Adam Bryant

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2011 Adam Bryant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5916-2



Imagine one hundred people working in a large company. They're roughly the same age, around thirty-five. They're all vice presidents and share many of the same qualities that got them where they are. They're smart, collegial, and hardworking. They consider themselves team players. They have positive attitudes and they're good communicators. They're conscientious about their jobs. They have integrity.

If everyone shares these qualities, what is going to determine who gets the next promotion? Who is going to move up not just one level, but the one after that, and the one after that? As they move up near the peak of their companies and the ranks thin out, the competition for the top spots is even tougher. Who will land the jobs that report directly to the CEO? What will set them apart from the crowd? When it's time for the CEO to move on, who will get the nod from the board to move into the corner office?

In other words, what does it take to lead an organization — whether it's an athletic team, a nonprofit, a start-up, or a multinational corporation? What, at the end of the day, are the keys, the x-factors, to achieving the highest levels of success?

Interviews with CEOs and other leading executives point to five essentials for success — qualities that most of the CEOs share, and which they look for in others when they hire.

The good news: these keys to success are not genetic. It's not as if you have to be tall or left-handed. You don't have to be born into the kind of family that has you swinging a golf club or playing chess not long after you're out of diapers. These qualities are developed through attitude, habit, and discipline — factors that are within everyone's control. They will make you stand out in any setting or organization. They will make you a better employee, manager, and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress along it.

The qualities these executives share: Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mindset. Fearlessness.

These aren't theories. They come from decades of collective experience of top executives who have shared their perspectives and stories about their own rise through the ranks, and why they promote some executives over others in their organizations. Each of these qualities is important and multifaceted enough to have a chapter of its own, starting with passionate curiosity.

* * *

Many successful CEOs are passionately curious people.

It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that. In business, CEOs are supposed to project calm confidence and breezy authority as they take an audience through presentations filled with charts predicting steady gains in revenue and profit. Certainty is the game face they wear. They are paid to have answers, to see around corners, and to have a firm grasp of the competitive landscape. When they are right, their pictures appear on the covers of glossy business magazines. The message is, they've got it figured out. They've cracked the code.

But get them away from these familiar scripts and settings and ask them instead about important lessons they've learned over the course of their lives, how they lead and manage day-to-day, and a different side emerges. They wrestle with tough issues. They share stories about failures and doubts and mistakes. They ask big-picture questions. They seem like eager students who devour insights and lessons, and are genuinely, enthusiastically interested in everything going on around them. Take them away from balance sheets and strategy and they seem more like natural teachers with agile minds. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people's stories, and what they do.

It's this relentless questioning that leads entrepreneurs to spot new opportunities and helps managers understand the people who work for them, and how to get them to work together effectively. It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the CEO's job: "I am a student of human nature."

The same mental agility enables a CEO to engage with every one of his or her direct reports — in marketing, finance, operations, R&D — and be able to grasp the key issues, without the specialized experience of each of their subordinates. The CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students — the letters could just as easily stand for Chief Education Officer. They learn, they teach, and they understand people and the business world, and then bring all that knowledge together to drive their organizations forward.

"You learn from everybody," said Alan R. Mulally, the CEO of the Ford Motor Company. "I've always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around — why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn't work."

Dawn Lepore, the CEO of, took advantage of her role as the chief technology officer at Schwab to learn from other CEOs about leadership.

"I had the benefit of being able to interact with a lot of technology CEOs, because they would come to sell to me," Lepore said. "So I got to meet with Scott McNealy, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, John Chambers, and others. And I would always say to them, 'Let's talk about your product, but I'd really love to hear more about your company, your culture, your leadership.' So I really picked their brains. I learned something from every single one of them. And I've served on a bunch of different boards, and I've had an opportunity to just learn from the CEO of the company as well as all the other board members."

Some people consider themselves more left-brained, analytical thinkers, while others see themselves as more creative, right-brained types. But not these executives. Nothing is ruled out. Everything can be important and interesting, a new area to be studied and grasped.

"I'm not a high numbers person and I'm not a high emotional person," said Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group, which publishes Elle magazine. "I'm a total combination of the two. I definitely have a middle brain, which I think might be a very nice brain to have in this position. I think it's served me well."

David C. Novak, the CEO of Yum Brands, which operates fast-food chains like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC, likes to hire people who have this balance.

"In the best of all worlds," Novak said, "you want someone who's whole-brained — someone who is analytical and can also be creative enough to come up with the ideas and galvanize the organization around a direction that's going to take us to someplace that we might not have known we could go to. I think it's easier to find left-brained people than it is to find truly creative people. I think what we need in our leaders, the people who ultimately run our companies and run our functions, is whole-brained people — people who can be analytical but also have that creativity, the right-brain side of the equation. There's more and more of a premium on that today than ever before."

Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO of Nvidia, the computer graphics company, said both sides of his brain play important roles in finding new opportunities.

"I don't like making decisions with analytics," he said. "I actually like making decisions with intuition. I like to validate the decision with analytics. I don't believe you can analyze your way into success. I think it's too complicated. You have to use intuition, which is everything — your artistic sensibility, your intellectual sensibility, experience. Now once you pick a direction, you want to try to validate it as often as you can. I think successful people have wonderful capabilities with both."

* * *

Why "passionate curiosity"? The phrase is more than the sum of its parts. Many CEOs will cite passion or curiosity as an important trait in the people they look to hire.

They make persuasive cases for why each is important.

"What I really want to know is what kind of person I'm dealing with," said Joseph J. Plumeri, the CEO of Willis Group Holdings, an insurance broker. "So I only ask one question. I say, 'Tell me what you're passionate about.' That's it. Whatever you want to talk about. Tell me what you're passionate about. Digging holes. Riding bikes. I'm looking to see if they've got a passion. I'm looking to see if there's anything inside, other than what they do. And how passionate could they be, therefore, about being here? And how excited and involved could they be? I'm not looking for a mirror image of me. I'm just looking for somebody who gets turned on about something. If you find that kind of person, then these are the people you want to climb hills with and climb mountains with."

Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, said curiosity was a key quality he looked for in job candidates.

"I love curiosity, particularly in our business — being curious about the world, but also being curious about your business, new business models, new technology," he said. "If you're not curious about technology and its potential impact on your life, then you'll have no clue what its impact might be on someone else's life."

Passion. Curiosity. Both are important. But those words, separately, fall short of capturing the quality that sets these CEOs apart. There are plenty of people who are passionate, but many of their passions are focused on just one area. There are a lot of curious people in the world, but they can also be wallflowers.

But "passionate curiosity" — a phrase used by Nell Minow, the co-founder of The Corporate Library — is a better description of the quality that helps set CEOs apart: an infectious sense of fascination with everything around them.

Passionate curiosity, Minow said, "is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more."

People with this quality are sponges for information, for insights, wherever they are, whatever they're doing.

"I think that the best leaders are really pattern thinkers," said David Novak of Yum Brands. "They want to get better. Are they continually trying to better themselves? Are they looking outside for ideas that will help them grow the business? I look at it in the context of their own personal development. They're constantly trying to learn how they can become better leaders and they're constantly trying to learn how they can build a better business. They soak up everything they can possibly soak up so that they can become the best possible leaders they can be. And then they share that with others."

* * *

Though CEOs are paid to have answers, their greatest contribution to their organizations may be asking the right questions — a skill that starts with passionate curiosity.

They recognize that they can't have the answer to everything — that's why they hire specialists to handle different parts of their organization — but they can push their company in the right direction and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions. That, after all, is where the new opportunities are.

"In business, the big prizes are found when you can ask a question that challenges the corporate orthodoxy that exists in every business," said Andrew Cosslett, the CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group. "In every business I've worked in, there's been a lot of cost and value locked up in things that are deemed to be 'the way we do things around here,' or they're deemed to be critical to — in the hotel world — a guest experience. So you have to talk to people and ask questions. I just keep asking people, 'Why do you do that?'"

It's an important lesson. For all the furrowed-brow seriousness and certainty that you often encounter in the business world, some of the most important advances come from asking, much like a persistent five-year-old, the simplest questions. Why do you do that? How come it's done this way? Is there a better way?

"I do think that's something we forget," said Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, the design consulting firm. "As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions. But the bit we forget is that it is, in itself, a creative process. Those right questions aren't just kind of lying around on the ground to be picked up and asked. When I go back and look at the great leaders — Roosevelt, Churchill — one of the things that occur to me is they somehow had the ability to frame the question in a way that nobody else would have thought about. In design, that's everything, right? If you don't ask the right questions, then you're never going to get the right solution. I spent too much of my career feeling like I'd done a really good job answering the wrong question. And that was because I was letting other people give me the question. One of the things that I've tried to do more and more — and I obviously have the opportunity to do as a leader — is to take ownership of the question. And so I'm much more interested these days in having debates about what the questions should be than I necessarily am about the solutions."

Jen-Hsun Huang of Nvidia said that his leadership style today is defined by questions rather than answers.

"It's not possible for the CEO to know everything, but it is possible for us to add value to literally everything," Huang said. "And the reason for that is, if you're the CEO, you're probably better at looking around corners than most. You probably have better intuition than most. You're probably able to see the forest better than most. You're probably able to deal with complexity better than most. And so you bring a perspective that is unique. By asking the right questions, you can get to the heart of the issue right away. It's almost possible now for me to go through a day and do nothing but ask questions and have my sensibility, my perspective and what's important to me be perfectly clear to everybody without making a statement at all."

* * *

Asking questions. Showing genuine enthusiasm. Being interested in the world. It sounds so simple, yet not everyone displays those qualities, particularly in a business culture that values jut-jawed certainty. Top executives who are passionately curious can also spot like-minded people from a mile away. They will pick them out of a crowd, and even hire them on the spot — another sign of how rare this quality is.

"I once hired somebody who wasn't looking for a job," said Nell Minow of The Corporate Library. "A guy called to ask me some questions about some corporate governance issue and I just thought he was so bright. I said, 'I'll put some materials together for you and put them in the mail.' And he said, 'Can I come over and pick them up right now?' I said, 'Are you looking for a job?' And he said, 'Well, I'm in an internship right now. I just graduated from college and my internship is going to finish up at the end of the summer.' I told him, 'If you are looking for a job when the internship ends, I'm going to hire you.' And I did."

James J. Schiro, CEO of Zurich Financial Services, said he sometimes picked assistants — to travel with him and help him get things done — just by keeping his eye out for young people who are "smart, bright, energetic."

"The person who works with me now I met on a road show," Schiro said. "He was one of the bankers, and I said, 'I'd like to talk to him.' He came in, and I said, 'Philippe, how would you like to work for me?' He said, 'Doing what?' I said, 'I don't know. I've watched you. You understand this industry. You know more about this industry than I do, and you can just work for me for a year, and then after that year, somebody in this organization will hire you."

Some CEOs worked early on as an assistant — a right-hand man or woman — to a top executive. Did they then ultimately rise to top jobs because of that early experience as an assistant, seeing the world through a CEO's eyes at a young age? Or were they chosen for those assistant jobs because top executives had a keen eye for people who displayed passionate curiosity? Undoubtedly both are true.

The early career of Ursula M. Burns, the CEO of Xerox, is a case in point. She was noticed by top executives early on, and promoted to a level in the organization that few get to see at a young age.

The sharp inflection point in her career at Xerox came in 1989, when she was working in product development and planning. She was invited to a work-life discussion. Diversity initiatives came up, and somebody asked whether such initiatives lowered hiring standards. Wayland Hicks, a senior Xerox executive running the meeting, patiently explained that that was not true.


Excerpted from The Corner Office by Adam Bryant. Copyright © 2011 Adam Bryant. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Interviews xi

Author's Note xv

Introduction 1

Part One Succeeding

1. Passionate Curiosity 11

2. Battle-Hardened Confidence 24

3. Team Smarts 40

4. A Simple Mindset 52

5. Fearlessness 62

6. Preparation, Patience, and Obstacle Courses 69

Part Two Managing

7. The Surprises That Await You 87

8. Time Management 97

9. Bananas, Bells, and the Art of Running Meetings 107

10. Smart Interviewing 120

11. Lock Yourself Out of Your Office 138

12. Be a Coach, Not a Critic 152

Part Three Leading

13. Creating a Sense of Mission 167

14. Small Gestures, Big Payoffs 181

15. Type A to B 191

16. Creating a Culture 201

17. So What Is Leadership? 224

Acknowledgments 237

Index 239

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