Adam Bryant is the creator of ‘The Corner Office’, a weekly feature of The New York Times in which he interviews business leaders from diverse industries. The Corner Office has been around since 2008, and if you haven’t come across it, I encourage you to go and explore the library of knowledge and insights it provides.
I talked to Adam about what he’s learned from interviewing hundred of business leaders, about a new description of the most important influences over a company’s culture and about the art of listening.
- Applied curiosity. The willingness to keep looking for what's next.
- Patience. That ability to juggle what we have to do today with the capacity to slow down long enough to think about it
- The awareness and willingness to hear another point of view before making a decision.
"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT
Episode 22: Adam Bryant
Charles: The listener.
Adam Bryant: I find the act of interviewing is the closest that I come to understanding what meditating is about, because to be truly present you have to completely clear your mind.
Charles: The noise of leadership is overwhelming, sometimes deafening. Customers, clients, shareholders, competitors, Wall Street and Main Street, board members, advisors, employees, consultants, friends and family, [00:01:00] and that's before you include the loudest voice of all, the one that's inside your head. Am I good enough? Smart enough? Worthy enough? Am I looking in the right direction? Am I moving too fast? Too slow? Do I trust the right people? Am I thinking about the right things? Am I doing the right things?
Running a creative business, an organization that by definition is fueled by ambiguity and inconsistency make the answers to all those questions and many others, [00:01:30] impossible to answer unless you're anchored by a couple of things. First is your own leadership philosophy. How do you measure success in terms of what you bring and how you show up? One of the best ways is to decide what you want people to say about working for you a year from now. Literally write that down. Nothing focuses the mind like seeing your own dreams in black and white.
Second is, what are you trying to achieve? What's your vision? [00:02:00] If you don't know where you're going, any road will do, as the old saying goes. Life is a journey, but building a business is not a wondering ramble along the way. Great businesses are built, not by hope but by design, with intention and resilience. Resilience, in fact, is the most frequently cited trait of the most successful leaders in study after study, but by itself, this misses a fundamental point. [00:02:30] Resilience is the manifestation of resisting an opposing force. It suggests fighting back or against. If you're not trying to get somewhere specific, then there's no reason to be resilient, just go where the wind takes you.
Resilient leaders fight a battle every day against the status quo and against the noise. One of the ways they fight the battle is by listening. Wendy Clark talked about it last week. In Episode 20, I highlighted [00:03:00] how often this theme has come up with some of my other guests. There's no more important leadership attribute than listening, so long as you learn how to turn down the volume on your own self doubts. Those are creativity and leadership killers.
Today's guest is Adam Bryant of the New York Times. Adam's the creator of the Corner Office, a weekly feature in which he interviews business leaders from a diverse set of industries. The Corner Office has been around since 2008. [00:03:30] If you haven't come across it, I encourage you to go and explore the library of knowledge and insights that it provides.
I talked to Adam about what he's learned from interviewing hundreds of business leaders, about what he believes is the greatest impact on a company's culture. It's a definition that I've never heard before and about listening.
Adam, thanks for being here. Welcome to the show.
Adam Bryant: Thanks for having me, Charles.
Charles: It's great to meet you. I've read your column for a long time. I think, [00:04:00] as you've just said, it's public that you're leaving the New York Times in the next couple of months, so I know we can't talk about where you're headed, but I'm curious actually to start off by talking about where you came from. I tend to ask my guests this question to begin with, which is, what's your first recollection of something striking you as being creative? What's your first memory of something being creative?
Adam Bryant: Wow, that's a great question. It was probably being when I was a kid, like obviously a little kid, and we would summer [00:04:30] every year in Prince Edward Island, in the Canadian Maritimes. We would go back to the same place every year and there was this pack of kids. The sandbars would go out for a quarter mile. It was just an almost a daily ritual when we build these massive sand castles, then have the tide come in and collapse the moats and the walls and everything. That was a great time.
Charles: Boy, that brings back some memories on my own part, actually. Did you ever read Swallows and Amazons?
Adam Bryant: No.
Charles: Wonderful [00:05:00] book and they just made a very good movie about it, actually. But that whole notion of kids by the water and around the water, there's a romance about that, isn't that? That's fantastic.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. We brought our own kids back to the same place just so they could have the same experience.
Charles: So you're Canadian, grew up in Canada?
Adam Bryant: Yeah, I border hopped all my life, sort of every five years between the states and Canada. I like to say I'm bilingual. I speak Canada and American.
Charles: I know that feeling. Yes, I try to speak English and American as well. I guess I get that. When did you move to the states?
Adam Bryant: For my [00:05:30] elementary school years, then back to Canada for high school, went to college in Toronto and then came down to the states for graduate school in New York. Worked at a couple smaller papers, then got my first job at the New York Times as a full time freelancer in the Detroit Bureau covering the auto industry.
Charles: What made you want to be a journalist?
Adam Bryant: I was just always fascinated by how things work. I've spent most of my years, most of my career as a business journalist, but I've never really felt like a business [00:06:00] journalist, in so far as, I'm not super passionate about, is the stock market going up or down or quarterly earnings, but I've always been intrigued by why do people do things the way they do them? And how do things work? I've always felt the best way to discover that is just kind of follow the money. I think just covering business really gives you an understanding of people in the world and society. I'm just kind of endlessly curious. [00:06:30] Journalism is a great job to indulge that. You're sort of paid to ask people questions.
Charles: Did you start writing early in life?
Adam Bryant: Fairly early, yeah. My father was a journalist. I was sort of typical rebellious teenager who said I'm never gonna be a journalist because my dad is one, but then got into college, started working for the college newspaper, worked at a TV news station in Toronto while I was going to college, but ultimately decided I wanted to go into newspapers. I had a couple of moments where I thought [00:07:00] I was intrigued in the business world and journalism, so I kind of married the two a little bit.
Charles: So you started working at the New York Times. What drew you to New York? What was the challenge of New York as a city and the Times as an opportunity?
Adam Bryant: I think just from an early age when I decided I wanted to get into journalism, back then, for me, the Times was this distant mountain range I assumed I would never get to. If you had told me [00:07:30] when I was younger that a New York Times reporter was within a 100 miles of me, I would have hitchhiked or somehow just got, because the Times brand it seemed like it was the best, so I kind of set my compass for it and I've been thrilled to spend the better part of 17 years there and I have done so many different jobs.
Charles: What was the interview process like? Were you nervous walking in the door for that first job?
Adam Bryant: Sure. My first job, as I said, was in the [00:08:00] Detroit Bureau as a full time freelancer covering the auto industry. I'd been a car nut since I was a kid, so I felt like I had a little bit of a running start, but I always remember the interview. The Bureau Chief at the time was this guy Doron Levin, and he was talking to me about the job and the role. We kind of hit it off. At the end of the interview, again, he was the Bureau Chief. I was gonna be his number two. He said to me, "You know, this is a very simple relationship. I'm Batman and you're Robin." [00:08:30] And so, to this day, I call him Batman and he calls me Robin.
Charles: That's great context, frames everything you ever needed to know about that relationship.
Adam Bryant: Exactly. It's like, got it. I'm not gonna wear a cape, but I got it.
Charles: As you were getting in to that, when did they offer you a full time job? When did you decide that was the thing you wanted to do?
Adam Bryant: Well, at about six months into that, the Wall Street Journal offered me a full time job. That gave me some leverage against the Times and then I came back to New York City. I did sort of a year long probationary [00:09:00] period and then, as I said, spent seven years there as a reporter in the business section.
Charles: What did you think reporting was gonna be like and what did it actually turn out to be like?
Adam Bryant: I'd had a pretty good feel for, because I'd worked on the college newspaper and I'd always been interested in it. Reporting, to me, when I talk to journalism students, the thing that I always stress is you've really gotta do your homework and just kind of read everything before you sit down with somebody or go into a story. [00:09:30] Print up all the clips. Back in the day when you would print them up. I would just be kind of relentless about doing my homework because I really wanted to ask smart questions.
We talk about the art form in journalism of the art of the good dumb question, and that's actually a smart question as well. But I always tried to, especially when I'm interviewing people to do as much homework, because I think that's the best strategy for creating a moment. If you want people to start opening up to you, to start [00:10:00] asking them good questions, just like you're doing to me.
Charles: It's somewhat intimidating to be with a life long journalist, especially one who's interviewed as many leaders as you have. I think the whole art of interviewing, actually, is fascinating, isn't it? We were talking before we started recording about developing, in my case, a podcast. One of the things that I've come to appreciate is the art of interviewing and decided to start studying it, actually. It's important. What have you learned about interviewing? What have you learned other than doing background research? What [00:10:30] have you learned about the process of extracting stuff from people that's interesting and meaningful?
Adam Bryant: Sure. I think about and talk a lot about when I'm talking to students just about the importance of truly listening, because I think that in our society these days, especially with devices, I think you truly listening to somebody and being listened to is a very rare experience. Somebody once said to me that a lot of conversations are just serial monologues. It's sort of like-
Charles: That's well put isn't it?
Adam Bryant: I'm talking and you're kind of waiting for me [00:11:00] to stop talking so you can tell me what you think. To have that actual engagement.
Charles: That would be the polite version of that.
Adam Bryant: Yes, exactly. I think that is very common place. When I sit down with the CEOs that I interview for Corner Office, it's typically I interview them for about 75 minutes. I've never met them before. And very quickly, I need them to start opening up to me. I ask questions about, tell me about your parents and how they influenced your leadership styles, questions that people generally [00:11:30] never ask them. When I'm talking to them, I really try to and be completely present. I don't think I would ever be good at really meditating, but I find the act of interviewing is the closest that I come to understanding what meditating is about, because to be truly present, you have to completely clear your mind. There's always a subtle effect if I'm doing an interview and my mind starts wondering to a meeting I came out of or [00:12:00] something I have to do that afternoon, to me there's a very subtle butterfly effect on the interview. I think, I would say, that eye contact is the broadband of communication. I think you can almost always tell if somebody's not really listening to you.
It's an incredible discipline for me for 75 minutes to be completely present and to show that I'm listening. Again, between questions and all that other stuff, just to sort of create that moment. My favorite interviews is where [00:12:30] they're connecting dots in real time, with that question about when I start taking back to their childhood, just like you did with me, then I talk about the arc of their leadership style and how it developed. My favorite moment's when they realize, oh yeah, I run meetings the way my family use to argue around the dinner table.
Charles: That's so great, isn't it?
Adam Bryant: Yeah.
Charles: A flash of realization.
Adam Bryant: Yes.
Charles: You're watching them figure it out themselves.
Adam Bryant: I also think a big part of it, interviewing effectively is [00:13:00] not just clearing your mind, but again, in a very subtle way, you somehow communicate that you don't have an agenda and that there's no judging. I really try to embody that and live that. It's easy for me because I'm not judging them and I'm truly interested. I think people pick up on that, just with again, whether it's eye contact, your body language, but if somebody's telling me about how they were an alcoholic when they were younger or they dropped out college, I don't [00:13:30] have any judgment. I'm just curious what were the lessons. I think that helps get people to open up, especially, if you're a CEO, I've come to appreciate that pretty much every interaction you have with anybody, that person probably has some agenda. They want something from you, a raise, or promotion, or they want to throw a colleague under the bus or sell you something, but there's always an agenda.
Adam Bryant: I think part of it at some point during the interviews that I do with them, they realize that I have no agenda other than to have a good conversation.
Charles: [00:14:00] Yeah, I think that's absolutely consistent with the experience that I've had. I do a lot of leadership advisory work, so podcasting for me came out of the enjoyment of those conversations and watching people have those moments. I think your point about the art of listening, the importance of listening has absolutely become home to me. I'm not sure I that I could have even been a leadership advisor even five years ago, because I don't think I listened well enough to do it particularly well back then. I think podcasting, to your point, [00:14:30] meeting people that you've never met before, so requires you to find that connection very quickly.
How did the Corner Office come about?
Adam Bryant: It's a pretty simple story. As I mentioned, I was a business reporter for many years, covered a lot of different companies and industries and I interviewed a lot of CEOs. I realized at some point, it sort of sounds obvious to say it now, but I realized that CEOs are always interviewed the same way in the business press, which is as strategists. So if you look at most Q&As with CEOs and boil them down, they're essentially [00:15:00] two questions, what's your growth plan? And what's the competitive landscape? That's fine. I enjoyed doing them, but I just found the more time I spent with CEOs, the more I just wanted to set outside all those questions and just ask them really simple questions like, how do you do what you do, because they seem very wise and smart and funny. I'm just like, how do you do what you do? Then I became a manager myself about a dozen years ago, and discovered firsthand the joys and challenges of managing people and that made me want to ask CEOs, [00:15:30] how did you learn to do what you do?
I do find in our society people have this funny notion about CEOs. They almost treat them like this subspecies of the human race. They were born leaders. From the time they were in diapers they knew exactly how to do this. I thought, there has to be a learning curve there. So I rolled all of that up into a very simple, what if. What if I sat down with CEOs and literally never asked them a single question about their company, their business and strategy and stuff, and instead, just asked them about leadership lessons they've learned over the course of their life, starting from the time [00:16:00] they were a kid, how they lead inside their company in terms of culture as opposed to how they lead in their industry with customers, which is how a lot of people talk about leadership and business. I always ask them how they hire, what advice they give to new college grads. I have these broad categories, but as you know, the magic is in the follow up. The fourth time of asking them, why, why, why, why, that's where the real gold comes out.
Charles: Did you have a requirement that you haven't met them before you interviewed them?
Adam Bryant: Not [00:16:30] at all. Not at all. Some guidelines I set for myself when I started, that I was gonna embrace diversity in every sense of the word, not just the traditional ones, race, gender, nationality, size of company industry. I interview a lot of not for profit CEOs. I look for leadership everywhere. I interviewed Mario Batali, the famous chef. I interviewed Kenny Chesney, the country music star. I interviewed a Broadway production stage manager. One of the other guidelines I set [00:17:00] for myself was that I was gonna interview as close as I could get to half women and I think I've come quite close to that, but with a twist.
I decided I was never gonna ask them any gender specific questions. I was gonna interview them as leaders who happen to be women as opposed to women leaders, because I'm still shocked, even to this day, not just by the low numbers of women in top positions, like the Fortune 1000, but I'm still surprised, very often, when you see females CEOs being [00:17:30] interviewed, there's a good bet that the interview's gonna start like this. So, you're a wife, you're a mother, you're a CEO, how do you do it all? If you watch the CEOs being interviewed, like if it's on a YouTube video or something, the CEO, there's this moment where they sort of slow blink and there's this kind of, really? We're gonna do this again?
So I figured I'd try to make a small contribution and imagine a world where females CEOs were interviewed the same way as male CEOs.
Charles: What [00:18:00] surprised you most over the course of the Corner Office?
Adam Bryant: A whole bunch of things. Probably the biggest one is the simple question that I ask, how do you hire? What questions do you ask? To this day, I'm still hearing questions I've never heard before, more than 500 interviews later. What I've come to appreciate is that at some level these CEOs have to be master psychologists, because by the time somebody gets to them, they're probably fairly senior. The person has been coached [00:18:30] and scripted and trained. They know all the right answers. Say it with me now, Charles, my biggest weakness is I care too much, right? Or I'm a perfect-
To them, it's like elevator music. They've just heard it all before, so almost out of necessity, they've had to come up with what I call, bank shot questions, which is how do you ask something that gets around that polished façade that people present just to find out what they're really like and sort of get them off the scripts? I found that so fascinating.
[00:19:00] Also, just this simple question I ask about tell me about your parents and how they influenced your leadership style? There's some kind of broad categories that have emerged from that. I hear a lot of CEOs who grow up with parents who were truly kind of yin and yang, the sort of analytical father who was an engineer and the artist mother. Or the father was an entrepreneur and the mother was in the EQ business, psychologist or something. They're getting [00:19:30] those dual influences.
I hear a lot of stories about adversity, because you always have to ask yourself, what is the drive here? What is propelling these people to want these jobs? I kind of reject the cartoon idea of well, they're just greedy. They just want the money. There's easier ways to make money than being a CEO.
Charles: A lot easier.
Adam Bryant: They're short tenure jobs. They're lonely and the responsibility.
Charles: Hugely pressurized.
Adam Bryant: Yeah, and all that. I do think it's [00:20:00] a good question, what is driving these people? I hear a lot of stories about adversity when they were growing up. I had this remarkable experience, two guys I interviewed. I think it was on consecutive days and they both told me almost exactly the same story, which is, when they were younger, growing up, comfortable middle class life, father worked, mother stayed at home and the father dropped dead and there was no life insurance.
Charles: Oh my God.
Adam Bryant: Exact same story from each of the guys [00:20:30] in consecutive days, so suddenly everybody in the family had to start working to put food on the table. I think that was such a searing experience for them and they both said the exactly the same phrase. They said, "I never want to put my own family in that position." You always have to ask yourself, when other people are running out of gas at 13 hour work days, what makes people go to 16 hours? I always find sifting through that question interesting.
Charles: There's a couple of places [00:21:00] I want to go. Let me start with this one. I have a friend who does very similar work to me who brings with him the background of being a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. He was on one of the earlier episodes, Kerry Sulkowicz. Kerry offered me a proposition during our podcast and subsequent to that, that he believes that every ... He works with Uber CEOs. He believes that every leader he's encountered is dealing with the manifestation of some childhood trauma. Now, I don't [00:21:30] know whether I believe it's everyone, but I could see how it's probably almost everyone. What's your perception of that? What's your reaction to that proposition?
Adam Bryant: Yeah. I don't know if it's so much trauma. I would say they're probably ... I just told a story that would fall into that category.
Charles: Right, exactly.
Adam Bryant: But I do think, I've met a lot of CEOs who I just think the whole kind of nature nurture debate. I think there are people who are just born with an almost volcanic amount of energy where their skin is just there to hold in all [00:22:00] their energy. They just gotta do stuff. There's just a lot of that. I think that's not just manifested with physical energy, but just intellectual energy. I think business is a good way to engage with the world and make stuff happen, build teams and accomplish things together. So I think I've seen a lot of that. Again, we could talk for hours about nature versus nurture and what qualities are people born with? What can be developed? I [00:22:30] do find there's just that physical, mental energy.
The best phrase that I've come up with, sometimes I'm asked, what is the through line on all these CEOs? What quality do they share? The first book I wrote was trying to wrestle with that question, but since then if you twist my arm, Charles, and boil it down to sort of one, the best phrase that I can come up with is, what I call applied curiosity. [00:23:00] I think it just speaks to this habit of mind of just always wanting to understand, whether it's people or things or how things work, the point is to have that knowledge build on itself. I use applied curiosity because I think that's different from idle curiosity, which I think of like Jeopardy. You just got a good head for facts and things like that.
To me, it's this habit of mind I've come to appreciate that I think some of these CEOs are probably difficult to be married [00:23:30] two because I think, for a lot of them, and I've heard this from some of them, and I see it in others too, it's like Saturday, honey, let's go to the mall. So maybe the spouse is inside. This isn't gender specific, could be either one. But the spouse is inside the store, meanwhile the CEO is sitting there and they start looking around. They start doing math in their head. All right, square footage on this store is this, looking around this part of the country, lease is this, through put revenue. Next thing you know, they're talking [00:24:00] to the manager, saying, "You know, if you move the line, you can triple your through ..." then the spouse comes up and says, "Can we just go shopping, please?" I see a lot of that.
Charles: Do you think that the applied curiosity is brought to focus on a specific problem? Is there a context within which that has to exist for them to be successful?
Adam Bryant: I don't think so. I just think they seek out interesting problems because so [00:24:30] much of business is seeing an opportunity. You look for those gaps in society and you make bets. Let's face it, a lot of business is just making bets. I would have loved to been in that initial pitch meeting with Uber and Airbnb. It's like, we're gonna have strangers get in, strangers get in people's cars or people's stay ... That's never gonna happen. Those bets paid off.
I think it's just that eye where you're always trying to understand how things work and then once you do that, then you start seeing the gaps. [00:25:00] You start seeing the disconnects, the opportunities. I think that's where a lot of ideas come from.
Charles: What do you think they're afraid of?
Adam Bryant: What are they afraid of? I think part of it is, in those cases where there was that childhood trauma, I think they're running away from that. If they grew up poor, they don't want to be poor. That story that I told of the CEOs and their fathers dying. What are they afraid of? [00:25:30] I think a lot of them feel the weight of the responsibility of all the employees' lives, the extended families and all that and not letting them down.
Charles: It's interesting how often that phrase comes up, isn't it?
Adam Bryant: Yeah. Again, I'm not ... I look at these jobs. I wouldn't want that job, but something is driving them to want to do it. Some people just like being in charge. I interviewed Nancy Zimpher, who is [00:26:00] the chancellor of SUNY in the university system in New York. She said, "My mother liked to be in charge and she was good at it. I like to be in charge and I'm good at it."
Charles: I find that so refreshing. I interviewed Joanna Coles a few weeks ago and she said, "I like being in charge. I figured out I like being in charge." I talked to Emma Cookson and she said the same thing. Please let me make this decision. I'm just more comfortable when I get to make that decision.
Adam Bryant: Right. If you have specific ideas on how things should be done, it can be painful working for somebody [00:26:30] who isn't good at their job because there's a little bit of let me drive the car. You're not driving well.
Charles: Yeah. I think that's true. I think it's also a challenge within creative industries, specifically, because creative people, people who present themselves or express themselves through what we describe as more of traditional creative outlets, writing, art direction, visual media, they tend not to react well to being told what to do. I think that the art of leading a creative [00:27:00] environment is much more about, how do I create alignment around a shared goal, a shared ambition? I think essentially when you work with brands or big corporations, their kind of leadership that's required in there is, there's a lot of similarities, clearly, but there is a different acceptance of power, structure, and hierarchy, I think, in those companies.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. That's a question I love to talk about all day long is, how do you lead creative people effectively? To me, and I've talked to CEOs [00:27:30] about this, but there is that almost instinctive sense of how much chaos can you and should you tolerate, because you need a little bit of chaos for the magic to happen.
Charles: Yeah, or a lot in some cases.
Adam Bryant: Yeah.
Charles: The most creative companies are highly, highly chaotic.
Adam Bryant: Right. So how do you know when to blow the whistle and say, "All right, guys. We're getting off the rails here. We've been doing this too long or take off your Game of Thrones outfits and let's get back to ..." You know what I mean?
Adam Bryant: [00:28:00] I find that fascinating.
Charles: Yeah. I think it is fascinating. I was talking to people, leaders from Widening Canada a few weeks ago, and they stressed, chaos is fundamental. It's our fuel system and leading successfully in that environment, you have to not just put up with it, but actually embrace it and relish it and celebrate it. They want all of that diversity in the truest and best senses of the word.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. And how do you, being able to recognize those employees who maybe 90% of the time look [00:28:30] like they're not doing anything or drive you crazy, but they're capable of 10% absolute magic. Knowing who those people are and encouraging them, that takes really great fingertips.
Charles: It really does. Then mindset, which I use as sort of the caption quote from that conversation was, I'm gonna get this wrong now, of course, but something along the lines of, if it's possible and we can afford it, we're not interested, as an idea. Bring us ideas that aren't possible, can't be made and [00:29:00] we have no money for and we can't begin to, because when we start to wrestle with that and figure out how to do that, that's when the stuff becomes really magically. But the context, the environment in which that kind of thinking is celebrated and valued is very different from one in which the predictability of what's the initial report gonna look like in Q3 and managing that.
What have you discovered, what have you found about the difference between leading creative environments and more traditional businesses? What do you think are keys to success? [00:29:30] It's a completely unfair question without prep, but I'm gonna throw it to you anyway.
Adam Bryant: I think so much of it is creating the right environment. I think very hard about how to create an effective culture and what are the key drivers of culture. I think just so often those, the small gestures send such important signals. I think in a creative operation, [00:30:00] I think hierarchy and status and all the status markers can really be killers, because if you really want to create an environment that says, "Look, the best idea can come from anywhere and anybody", to truly nail that as opposed to just say it, you've gotta send a powerful signal that we're all in this together.
You hear from some people ... I've heard some people talk about this whole idea of having internal teams compete against each other. They think that's [00:30:30] sort of ultimately destructive and not very creative. I think, I've heard some tricks. I know you interviewed Susan Credle from-
Charles: You did too as well, right?
Adam Bryant: Yeah, yeah. CBNA. I remember her telling me about a couple of things she did. Instead of one all hands meeting, she asked everybody to pull out their business card to somehow send the message that look, if we all work together, [00:31:00] we will be stronger and the value of you working here will ultimately be better for your career. She also implemented a lot of things internally that celebrated the work of everybody's colleagues, sort of put them up on the stage, not just the one person or the team, the two partners that did it, but the whole team. I've heard a lot of CEOs who have used that to good effect, including [00:31:30] Kenneth Feld who runs the big circus operation, Barnum and Bailey. He said he talks about when all the different acts are practicing, he has one night where everybody does their act for the other people in the circus. There's no audience, but it's just to sort of say, "Look, this is the best of what I do and to appreciate and admire each other's work."
Charles: That's fantastic.
Adam Bryant: I think you need to create a little bit of culture internally of celebrating each other's work [00:32:00] as opposed to ... Because it's easy to get in business environments, like people are just saying what's wrong with stuff? There's gotta be that element of celebration.
I've heard other tricks in ad agencies where they put literally all the work on the wall, all the stuff that's in process and the whole thing is to send a message. It's like look, everybody can look at anybody else's work and make notes and suggestions, but again, all these sort of powerful subtle signals to say we're all in this together.
Charles: [00:32:30] Yeah, 72andSunny, in particular, and there's a number of companies that do that well, but 72andSunny have built a culture and a physical space around supporting that concept that construct. They built a ... John Boiler is the CEO. He told me very funny story. John is very, very specific about the kind of space he wanted to create at that agency. They had some electrical conduit running along in front of these walls, these work walls as they call them. He said, "We had to build a plinth [00:33:00] to wrap this conduit in a three sided painted plinth, just to protect the conduit and prevent people from tripping over it. He said it was about 18 inches off the wall. He said, what we realized started to happen, what we discovered, was that as groups gathered around these walls to discuss their work, these conduits, these wraps around the conduits, these plinths became natural podiums, so people would step up to make their point.
Adam Bryant: [00:33:30] That's great.
Charles: Then step down and become part of the ground again. But I think, to your point, one of the big shifts in creative business whether the business is expressing its output through the form of creative work, whether they just depend on original thinking, creativity, and innovation for their success these days, is I think a pretty dramatic shift over certainly the last five years and maybe over the last ten in terms of this sort of hierarchal approach. I think long gone or rapidly leaving [00:34:00] are the days in which the celebrated individual was the star of the show and everybody revered them. Now we're getting into this place where, to your point, ideas have to come from everywhere and everybody has to feel included. And the most successful companies are doing that.
That's a big mindset shift and it's a huge leadership challenge. What are the shifts you've seen in terms of requirements of leaders as the world has changed, society has changed, over the last decade since you've been doing [00:34:30] the Corner Office?
Adam Bryant: I interview a lot of tech CEOs, not because I'm particularly enamored of tech or anything, but I do think their Silicon Valley is at the leading edge of an important shift in the way companies are being managed and led. I think it starts with the fact that there is a pretty obvious imbalance in terms of supply and demand of talented coders and developers and software engineers. Everybody is chasing that same top talent.
[00:35:00] I've come to appreciate the fact that if you're a tech CEO, your two initial jobs out of the gate are set a strategy and then go raise some money, but then beyond that, your two main jobs are to attract the best talent and that's a zero sum game a little bit. Then once you've hired them hold on to them, because as soon as they start at your company, they're getting headhunted by everybody else.
I know it sounds very obvious, but to truly [00:35:30] create a workplace that people want to come to work every day. I also found that tech CEOs usually come from an engineering background, they think about culture almost like an engineer, like what are the different inputs? If we play with the inputs do we get a different output? I find them much more experimental about just trying different things to see what has the bigger impact.
Phil Libin, the former CEO of Evernote, he [00:36:00] said they decided at one point to offer free housekeeping. I can't remember. It was like every other week or something, for all employees. Think about that. If the employee's at home with their spouse, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, and they have a conversation, you know, I'm thinking of leaving Evernote, that partner's gonna say, "No you're not. No you're not." So, what's the impact of that dollar?
Charles: Pick up the bucket, pick up the mop, then we can have that conversation.
Adam Bryant: Exactly. [00:36:30] I just find there's a lot more creativity. Again, it's kind of reversed the power dynamic that the org charts not necessarily the CEO at the top, but they're at the bottom trying to attract the best talent and holding on to them.
Charles: The other adjunct to that story that I've always really appreciated is one of the stories about Netflix. I think I've talked to a number of guests on the podcast. I see this a lot in my work about the challenges that leaders have in terms of [00:37:00] firing people and doing that quickly enough. In many cases I think many leaders tend to hang on to people too long. Netflix recognized that tendency. You've probably heard this story, but they built into their operating system and their leadership and management model the incentive for middle managers to fire people who weren't working for them, who weren't making it [00:37:30] quickly, by saying, "If you fire them within the first 90 days, I think it was, we will pay them 120% of their salary to go away, because it's so important for us to have the right people who are really committed and really capable and we don't want you to feel bad that they're gonna struggle. We actually want to incentivize you to get rid of them if you think that that's the right thing to do."
I think that kind of recognition of the challenges, the emotional challenges of what leadership looks like is very powerful and to your point, tech companies tend to be more flexible [00:38:00] in how they look at that kind of problem.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. That's a really thoughtful idea. I often find the best cultures are ... Let me back up. I don't think there is a right culture. I do think there are important drivers of culture, but the way I've come to think about culture, if I may borrow a sports analogy. I think people are pretty adaptable. I think when you go into a company, there's a little bit of a dynamic that's like, okay, what are the rules [00:38:30] of this game? If the corporate culture were a sport, tell me what the rules are. What can we do here? What can't we do here? All that other stuff. Again, I think people are pretty adaptable. You go to a different company, it's like, what are they? Okay. I can play that.
But companies get into trouble when there's no refs on the field.
Adam Bryant: If they say these are the rules of the game, there's no refs on the field, then people are roughing each other up and kicking them and punching them and all that. That's when you get the sort of the Lord of the Flies. [00:39:00] You get the anarchy. That's when the culture starts bringing out the worst in people as opposed to the best in people. I've really come to appreciate that it's like, as long as there aren't too many rules, and as long as they're clear and they kind of make sense. They don't have to make perfect sense, but they feel like they make sense. It's gotta start at the top that there's a sense that they're enforced. We'll tolerate a little bit of bad behavior, but not a lot [00:39:30] and that people are going. I think people are pretty adaptable.
Somebody said to me once and it was pretty provocative. They said, "For all the talk of like values and you go through the values, at the end of the day, culture comes down to two very simple things, who gets promoted, and who gets fired." He said, "That's what determines the culture, because everybody picks up on those cues. It's like, this is how to get ahead and this is how to lose your job." That's a pretty good point.
Charles: It's a great reference [00:40:00] point, actually. I've never heard it espoused that way. I agree with you. I believe culture is such a critical reference point. I think that's commonly recognized. I do believe that culture is a consequence of values. I've never heard it articulated that clearly and that precisely. I think that's actually really interesting and really useful. I think the companies that do best are the ones that are prepared to focus on behaviors, including, especially, perhaps, including the ones you just mentioned. The ones who struggle are the ones who see their culture [00:40:30] as a fixed and permanent point of reference and say, "All behavior has to fit within this." The way you behave as a 20 person company will always and has to be different than the way you behave as a 2000 person company. It can't be the same.
I talked to one of the founders of Warby Parker a number of years ago for something, and I was impressed by their description about how they had navigated that, that when they were 20 people as a start up, they had sat down for two and a half days and said, "What are our values? We're gonna live by these." They came up with eight. Then four years later, they were 400 [00:41:00] people and they thought, I'm not sure we're living to those. I'm not even sure they're relevant anymore and they broke the company down into groups of 20 and spent serious time and cumulatively came back and said, "We believe that the first seven are right. The eighth one needs to change and here's how it needs to change."
I think that kind of commitment to values, however you do it, gives you the ability to scale and improvise the rules.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. Just to build on a point that you made of about values being about behaviors. The CEO I interviewed recently made this point. I thought it was very smart. [00:41:30] Behaviors that are concrete and specific, we encourage this kind of behavior. We discourage that kind of behavior. I think people can look at that and say, "I get that." She made the point that companies run into trouble when you have these values that are somewhat ambiguous words. If we say one of our values, Charles, is courage. Well, courage might mean something very different to you than it does to me in different context. She said, "That can actually have the opposite effect, because it can actually create friction." [00:42:00] I thought that point was very smart just to make them more concrete.
The other thing that I've come to realize about values, companies go through these exercises. They might bring in an outsider or the founders will get together or do an employee survey, but they go through these exercises. We need to come up with values. I think companies get into trouble when they start off somehow thinking that they're gonna try and capture every possible human behavior, positive or negative, [00:42:30] on a list. Because if you start out with that goal, you're gonna start out with 40 of them. Then you're gonna look at each other and say, "That's too many. We've gotta cut them." You cut them maybe down 20 and you're feeling good about yourself because you cut them in half. And you say, "Nah, that's still too many." So you cut it down 10 or 9 or 8 and you're high-fiving each other because you cut it down so much.
But the fact of the matter is, if you stick your nose in some neuroscience books, all the data show most people can't remember more [00:43:00] than three things day to day. I think people get into trouble. They say, "Okay, let's capture all human behavior on this list." When in fact, I've found the most compelling list to just be like three things because I think what happens if you say, "These are the three key things here," it tends to take care of everything else. It creates a focal point.
I'll be honest with you, a lot of the CEOs that I interview when I start asking them about have you codified your values, done that exercise? If they have [00:43:30] more than six of them, I would say more than 80% of the time they can't remember them all. So, if the CEO can't remember them, how do they expect everybody else to?
Again, the way to do it is either have a short list or have an acronym that's not too long or back to advertising, have an advertising jingle. I still to this day resent the fact that I know all the ingredients in a Big Mac.
Charles: Thanks to Keith Reinhard. Two all beef patties special sauce, yes, exactly. We can both do that. [00:44:00] I think the point about, the most important point about that is, picking up on your point is that they have to be meaningful to you. I interviewed Wendy Clark yesterday, actually, and in talking to her, doing the background research for her, I read a quote that I had never seen before, but resonated with me. Bill Bernbach once said, "A principle is not a principle until it costs you money." I think too many times, whether you have leaders of companies setting [00:44:30] values for organizations or whether you have what I believe are actually even more important, individual leaders setting their own personal values and declaring them, people are far too willing to use words like courage. Honesty is the other one.
Really? You don't mean that. No, I do. Really? Let's create any scenario, which would take us about two seconds. You're gonna be honest in that situation? I'm not saying you're gonna lie, but really? You're gonna be honest? I don't think you are, because you'll get fired if you are. But I think this notion of declaring things and standing by things that actually [00:45:00] are so important to you that you would be willing to be fired for them, that you'd be willing to spend money to protect them. That's when they're meaningful. That's when the decision about who gets fired and who gets promoted comes to bear, right?
Adam Bryant: Exactly, because when employees start seeing exceptions being made, either because of a special situation or because of an employee-
Charles: Too talented, can't get rid of them.
Adam Bryant: Yeah. Exactly. We have the no jerks rule, strictly enforced, except for this jerk and actually that kind of jerk over there too, but they're really great so we can't fire them. It's like, okay, then it's meaningless. Again, just a [00:45:30] point I heard from one of my CEOs. They made the point that if people see a difference between the stated values on the poster on the wall in the conference room and how people behave, she said, "That makes people cynical." She also made the point, I think was pretty provocative, that cynicism is like cancer that metastasizes through the organization. Because if you're silently eye rolling to yourself, and someone goes, oh, this is one of those companies, [00:46:00] that's when you start shutting down a little bit.
Charles: And update your LinkedIn profile.
Adam Bryant: Exactly.
Charles: What's the biggest struggle that you see CEOs dealing with? What are they wrestling with?
Adam Bryant: I think patience is a particular challenge for them because if they're the CEO, they usually have a pretty clear idea of where they want to go, want the company to go, and where it needs to go. [00:46:30] They're feeling that pressure on their head and shoulders from their investors, from their board, so there's very much feelings of, okay, we need to hurry up offense. We need to get where they're going. They just learn through trial and error that they have to slow down and bring people along and just to find that sweet spot of how fast can I move?
You move it too fast, you're gonna leave people behind. I [00:47:00] think that's a constant struggle for them. I think at the end of the day, leadership, there's this temptation in the leadership field to write very simple sentences. Leadership is about X. It's about this one thing. There's so many blog posts like that. I get the impulse. Leadership, at some level, is kind of simple, but I also believe it's the hardest thing in the world to do well. There's an infinite learning curve.
The [00:47:30] way that I've come to think about leadership is just everything's a paradox. Every single aspect of leadership is a paradox. Just like you're supposed to move fast in business, but you can't move too fast. I hear leaders say, "Well, I lead from the front." Then the next one says, "I lead from the back." It's like, first of all, what does that mean? But secondly, you don't do that all the time. I think the best CEOs have this [00:48:00] sweet spot mix of humility and confidence. Confidence to make a decision and believe in your instincts and all that, but it's gotta be paired with humility. You gotta know what you don't know and be willing to do research.
The visual I use and keep in my head is of a unicycle. Every CEO lives on a unicycle, just trying to find that balance point on every single plain.
Charles: I want to circle back to the issue of diversity, because I think we'd be remiss not to talk [00:48:30] about it. It's a massive issue.
Adam Bryant: Sure.
Charles: What's your perspective having talked to as many people, as many CEOs that you have? What's your perspective about, not only the current state, but how do we address this? How do you think companies actually do something meaningful rather than talk about it?
Adam Bryant: Boy, how much time have you got? I just think there are so much built in bias. People talk about unconscious bias. I've had explicit conversation with about eight of the [00:49:00] women that I've interviewed over the years. I went back and had a second conversation with them that I wrote about in the Times, just to ask them, what are the headwinds that they've had to navigate to get to the top job? Now they're in the top job, what advice do they have for other women? And boy the stories. Just the little subtle stuff that guys says or don't say and accuse. I just think that we still have a lot work. [00:49:30] I hear from a lot of the women that I've interviewed that they are surprised how frustrated they are in 2017. They thought we would be farther along.
One woman I interviewed had another sort of provocative point. She said that a lot of the power dynamics, they aren't really about gender. They're just about power. That the air gets pretty thin at the top and people are competing for top jobs and so they inevitably exploit whatever weakness [00:50:00] they perceive there is, rightly or wrongly, and whether it's real or not. But she said, "Look. It's not about men and women. This is about power." I thought that was an interesting lens on this issue as well.
Charles: Does that resonate with you? Does that strike you as true?
Adam Bryant: Yeah. I do think so.
Charles: I'm conscious of the irony of two white men discussing what's working for women or not.
Adam Bryant: Exactly. And again, we could talk about this for hours, but I am curious about all the subtle signals our society send kids from [00:50:30] a very young age. I'm the father of two daughters. We're empty nesters now, but when my kids were graduating, at their high school, they had these two acapella groups. I was struck by this sort of difference, that all guys acapella. The girls were far more talented and how clearly rehearsed and were a heck of a lot better. The guys just came out to have fun. They were just like, they didn't really ... The girls seemed very concerned about doing a good job, [00:51:00] just in their body language. The guys were up there pretending like they were surfing. It was a remarkable moment. What is this? Where does it come from?
But again, we could talk for hours.
Charles: We definitely could. I think it is more than sad, tragic really, that we are still sitting here having this conversation in 2017, in some ways going backwards at the moment. Hopefully we'll springboard forward, but not without a tremendous amount of work and honesty and openness. Have [00:51:30] you met Madonna Badger? Have you come across Madonna? Madonna is a friend of mine. You'll know her story I think. She's a woman who has her own agency who lost her family in a fire on Christmas morning about, I think it was four years ago, five years ago. Lost her three children, lost her three daughters and her two parents to a house fire in Greenwich.
Adam Bryant: Oh, right.
Charles: Somehow is still upright and surviving and contributing [00:52:00] enormously. She has started a movement about 18 months ago called Women not Objects, in which she has dedicated herself to eradicating the objectification of women in all advertising marketing communication, on the basis that, I think pretty much the point you just made, that the early symbolism through which young boys and girls see the world, is framed through this lens that is utterly minimizing and objectifying of women. So changing that perspective I think is fundamentally [00:52:30] important, clearly making men more conscious. But I also think helping to find language that makes sense.
I think the point about some of the issues are about power. I hadn't really thought about it through that lens, but I made a comment in Canada this year that somebody, my wife actually who coaches women, said to me one day, "What do you think the difference is in the leaders, male leaders versus female?" I said, "I think men tend to show up like Superman and women tend to show up like Clark Kent," which I don't know was all that helpful until I thought about it more. What [00:53:00] I meant then, what I still mean is that, I think men more naturally tend to just jump in, often uninvited and often in an unwelcome way, but they're just prepared to go. Women tend to wait for, either permission or a sense from themselves that they have checked the box and are now qualified.
As I thought about this more, I thought, I'm a man that used to show up like Clark Kent. I used to wait for permission in many cases and I realized, finally, that wasn't gonna work. [00:53:30] It doesn't work. I think when you look at women who are successful, they are people who are prepared.
Talking to Wendy, Wendy made the point at one point in the conversation I had with here about the fact she got called for a massively senior job at Coke and said to the headhunter, "I'm not ready for that. I'm not qualified." Her mother and her husband said, "Get in there and have that meeting. You're crazy. Of course you are." We agree. We couldn't think of a man who would have said, "No, I'm not ready for that."
I think, obviously massively complicated, but I [00:54:00] really hope that through lots of different means and hopefully to some extent this podcast can contribute to that, having this conversation, not just conversation, but starting to change the behavior and the change the mindset is so important as a legacy for this generation.
Adam Bryant: I agree. We are having an interesting cultural moment right now with the Wonder Woman movie. You look at that arc of Game of Thrones, from the early days where women were sort of side characters, just kind of objectified to now. Basically, Game of Thrones is about-
Charles: Don't [00:54:30] tell me too much, I'm still trying to catch up.
Adam Bryant: That's fine. There is this great cultural moment we're having. I'm just hopeful that something will come of it. It does seem to, these sticking things just in society, I hope we're, ten years from now, the number of female CEOs of companies will have jumped significantly. I wouldn't put a massive bet down [00:55:00] on that, but I hope that's the case.
Charles: I agree, because I suspect we would both agree that the qualities of great leaders tend to manifest as more feminine qualities, the empathy, sympathy, the ability and willingness to listen, to see the other point of view. All of those kinds of qualities we tend to associate with women, are I think, fundamental to really successful leaders. I don't know that you can be a sustainably successful leader today, certainly not in creative industries, without those qualities.
Adam Bryant: Right. I agree.
Charles: What do you [00:55:30] think the future of leadership looks like?
Adam Bryant: I think the millennial question is, again, something we could talk about for hours, I do think, let's start with stating the obvious, the whole command and control org chart, companies whose business wouldn't change for 10 year cycles, that's well past us. As I was saying earlier, I think CEOs have to be much more mindful of creating a culture [00:56:00] that people want to stay, not just to attract talent, but to hold on to them. But the millennial question comes up a lot and, again, I think it's fascinating and there's no judgment. It's not right or wrong, but something's changed and what does that mean for leadership?
Somebody once said that millennials, most people go into companies and they see hierarchy. Millennials go into companies and they see a network. [00:56:30] They don't see that sort of vertical who's above, it's sort of an informal network. It gets back to the balance point. I hear from a lot of CEOs that it's great that they come in and they're very confident and they know a lot, but they also wish they would have a little more patience.
I think social media too is another great dinner party discussion. As a society, are we better or worse off [00:57:00] because of social media? But I think that's created a lot of pressure on kids between LinkedIn and Facebook to be a very title hungry, because they come out, they're a sophomore and they decide they want to be brand content market strategist. I want to always say, you have no idea what that is, but it sounds good, right? They're very title hungry. I hear that a lot.
I interviewed Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, [00:57:30] several years ago, she had this great story that she told me that when she has those conversations with people, she said she draws a literal or metaphorical line and says, "Okay, at the left end of the line, let's shade the part under it. This is when you start. This is when you don't know where the bathrooms are and you're figuring out how to do the job. I don't want you coming to me six months later saying that you [00:58:00] want another job, because the point is, you gotta give back. We trained you how to do this job, got you up to speed, so I want you on that line to shade in at the other end, above it, to transform the job."
She calls it getting to zero on a job, that you want that mix of like, look, we taught you how to do the job. We gave you time to learn how to do the job, you've gotta stay in it long enough to transform the job. I thought that was pretty powerful. But again, there is that impatience that you hear.
Charles: [00:58:30] Interesting. That's so interesting. I try to wrap every show with three themes that I've heard that resonate for me, so I'll throw these at you and tell me whether you think that these are relevant. I loved your opening line and I'm not sure I'm gonna get it quite right but, your notion of that one of the things that leaders show up with is, which word did you call it, relentless curiosity or persistent curiosity.
Adam Bryant: Applied curiosity is what I call it.
Charles: Applied curiosity. I think that's a great phrase. I see that a lot too, [00:59:00] that willingness to just keep looking for what's next and what else should we be doing, I think, is the mark of many great leaders that I've encountered and read about.
Two is, I think this notion that you've raised of patience actually, is really important. That ability to juggle what do we have to do today with how do we just slow down and think about it and be prepared for really meaningful change to take a little while. And again, I think I see that a lot in leaders that I've encountered who I think are really successful.
And I think the third [00:59:30] thing, you've talked about and I've seen as well in other conversations is actually this growing awareness and willingness to hear another point of view before making a decision. I don't think that was a characteristic of CEOs a decade ago, but I think it's clearly become one and is becoming one more regularly, more reliably.
Adam Bryant: Right.
Charles: Do those resonate with you?
Adam Bryant: Yeah. The last one certainly does, because I think there is so much that they don't know now. If you were the CEO of an auto company 30 years ago, it was a pretty predictable business, right? Now, [01:00:00] I just think in this world, you get blindsided by almost anything. Every company is a tech company now. I think just more and more you have to look to the 20 somethings to tell you, did you know about this? No. Because something that could be a blip now, like six months from now could be this tsunami that swamps social media or something. I think there's a sense of you gotta look to everybody and everywhere for answers [01:00:30] and clues.
Again, it goes back to I think, leadership is tougher now than it has ever been.
Charles: I think that's absolutely right. Adam, thank you so much for doing this. Thanks for being here.
Adam Bryant: Thank you, Charles.
Charles: I've really enjoyed this conversation.
Adam Bryant: Me too. Thank you.