The Corner Office by Adam Bryant

The Big Idea: Successful CEOs share these qualities. Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mindset. Fearlessness.


While setting overall business strategy is certainly an important part of a CEO’s job, leadership shapes every part of their day.

The culture and tone starts at the top, and each company reflects the personalities of its CEO.

The leader who understands how to get his employees to work together as a team has an advantage.

Most businesses fail because they want the right things but measure the wrong things, and they get the wrong results.

You can hire a brain surgeon, or you can hire a proctologist at half-price who wants to learn. Invest in better service and employee morale instead of single-mindedly cutting costs.

One good story about leadership and management from an executive who has worked hard to learn it – is equal to ten theories.

Successful CEOs put a premium on direct and frank communication, and flattening the organization.

Successful CEOs try to use questions more than statements, so that their employees take ownership of their roles rather than simply take orders from the CEO.

Many successful CEOs reward honesty and input, and show their interest in learning what others think, by holding town-hall meetings, seeking the advice of people at all levels of the company, and asking employees what they would do if they were in charge.

Successful CEOs also try to create a culture of learning.

There is no single way to lead or to manage. We all have to figure out what makes sense on our own.



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

The CEO’s ultimate job: student of human nature.

The CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students.

In the best of all worlds you want someone who’s whole-brained—someone who is analytical and can also be creative.

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.”

Ask: ‘Tell me what you’re passionate about.’

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

A trait that sets CEOs apart: an infectious sense of fascination with everything around them.

Though CEOs are paid to have answers, their greatest contribution to their organizations may be asking the right questions.

In business, the big prizes are found when you can ask a question that challenges the corporate orthodoxy.

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?

Ask questions. Show genuine enthusiasm. Be interested in the world.

CEOs focus on being interested rather than trying to be interesting.


You can never really tell how somebody deals with adversity.

Many CEOs seem driven by a strong work ethic forged in adversity.

So when I interview potential executives, I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, and what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it?’

If I’m recruiting people for very senior positions, I will delve quite extensively into their personal lives.

The number one most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control.

Many CEOs recognize that failure is part of success.

The best hitters in Major League Baseball, world class, they can strike out six times out of ten and still be the greatest hitters of all time. That’s my philosophy—the key is to get up in that batter’s box and take a swing.

This ability to celebrate failure needs to be an important part of any company that’s in a rapidly changing world.

It is okay for a CEO to say that the strategy didn’t work, that the technology didn’t work, that the product didn’t work, but we’re still going to be great.

I don’t think you can create culture and develop core values during great times.

‘Culture’ is a big word for corporate character. It’s the personality of the company.

What does it take to have a great company? It takes major setbacks and overcoming those. I mean a near-death experience.

Leadership, in my opinion, is best learned, or honed, through adversity. In abundance, it’s very easy to lose focus. But in adversity, one must have extreme focus.

Understand what you can control.

Challenges become learning experiences rather than disappointments.

A dream employee will eagerly accept a challenge, and say those words that are music to a manager’s ears: “Got it. I’m on it.”


The most effective executives are more than team players. They understand how teams work, the different roles of individual players, and how to get the most out of the group. They know how to create a sense of mission and how to make people feel like everyone’s getting credit. They know how to build a sense of commitment in the group.

Team smarts is an essential skill.

Teamwork is developed by conveying a sense that you are looking out for a colleague, that you’ve got her back.

Try to add value to everything.

You know you’re going to drop the ball. If you’re good with people and people like you and you treat them right, they’re going to pick up the ball for you, and they’re going to run and they’re going to score a touchdown for you. But if they don’t like you, they’re going to let that ball lie there and you’re going to get in trouble.

Part of team building is understanding the roles that different personalities play in a group.

People are either “glue” or “solvent” within a team. People who are glue within the team disseminate things effectively, motivate and improve the morale of people around them.

So much of leadership is about trust and belief. People have to believe in you.

Nell Minow of The Corporate Library said her best lesson for building a sense of teamwork is to organize a group around a simple word: we.

Another key strategy for building a sense of teamwork is learning to share credit.

Teamwork can be built by being explicit about the roles people play, and insisting on rules and routines.

If you’re not worried about your own success, but you’re worried about the success of the team, you go a lot further.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to think about teamwork is to forget organizational charts and titles. Companies increasingly operate through ad hoc teams, formed and disbanded to accomplish various tasks.

The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilize people who are not their direct reports.


Be concise, be brief, get to the point, make it simple.

Few people can deliver the simplicity that many bosses want.

Next time you’re in a meeting, ask somebody to give you the ten-word summary of his or her idea.

The shorter your business plan is, the more succinct and to the point it is, the better.

Some CEOs put strict limits on PowerPoint slides.

Simplifying the complex is the CEO’s job, and CEOs do it all day long.

Create order out of chaos, to identify the three or five things employees need to focus.

If I can’t simply put what needs to be done on one page, I probably haven’t thought it through very well.

You need to show you care. Nothing today is about one individual. This is all about the team, and in the end, this is about giving a damn about your customers, your company, the people around you.

I don’t micromanage, but I have micro-interest. I do know the details. I do care about the details. I feel like I have intimate knowledge of what’s going on, but I don’t tell people what to do.

As a CEO, part of my job is not only to help develop direction but to teach storytelling.

Be brief, be bright and be gone.


Many successful CEOs try to create a culture of action, in which employees are encouraged to make decisions that are outside the strategy playbook.

I had to learn to make decisions quicker, on the spot, and follow my gut. You’re not going to have all the information.

You have to have people in an organization who are willing to truly embrace change,

CEO of HSN, the parent company of Home Shopping Network, likes to see evidence of risk-taking in the resumes.


Think of a career as an obstacle course.

Much of the CEOs’ advice for succeeding on the career obstacle course falls into two broad categories: preparation and patience.

Prepare for a career, they say, don’t plan it.

On the whole, many professional people are more worried and more afraid than they should be.

The most important thing is to focus on learning experiences.

Several CEOs mentioned selling as an important skill that can pay off throughout a career.

Several CEOs said that travel is the best preparation for a career.

Patience is extremely important because people set goals for themselves that often are unrealistic,”

Do the work well, they say, and the promotions will follow.

New employees should focus on figuring out the culture of an organization. Catch on to who really pulls the strings and where the real power base is, whom you have to collaborate with, whom you have to inform, whom you have to seek out for advice.

I tell people, just show up, get in the game. Something good will come of it, but you’ve got to show up.

Take the time to meet people and to build relationships.



Read everything by Peter Drucker.

As the leader, people are looking at you in a way you could not have imagined in other roles. You have this megaphone attached to your shoulder that amplifies everything you do. Everything that you say or do or amplified. You can’t have a bad day.

You need to be always authentic.

I’ve learned to overcommunicate in a way I never did before.

Be open with employees so that they are not left wondering what’s on your mind.

Be as open as possible about who you are, what they should know about you, what they should understand about you, and how you like to operate.

People like the fact that you’re one of them and that you’re going to sacrifice as much as you’re going to ask them to sacrifice.

People put the CEO on such a high pedestal, and that you get more credit than you deserve for just being friendly and approachable.


Ask yourself whether what you’re doing is “action” or “activity.”

Make sure you spend time on the action that’s going to drive results.

One of the things you have to worry about as a leader is to make sure that you’re not just creating activity.

Constantly assess and reassess your top priorities.

What are the three most important things I need to do today?

End each of my three most important meetings each month by saying, ‘Okay, here are the three most important things we’re doing.’

Mark Pincus of Zynga adopted a system called OKRs. The idea is that the whole company and every group has one objective and three measurable key results.

Ask everybody to write down on Sunday night or Monday morning what your three priorities are for the week, and then on Friday see how you did against them.

Successful CEOs make time — daily, weekly, or quarterly—to study their time. The best time-management thing I do is reflect an hour a week on the overall strategic plan for myself. Make sure I can carve out a certain period of time every week to step back and think about the big picture. This gives you long-term focus.

Build thinking time into your daily schedule. Flying time is often a useful opportunity to think in peace and quiet.

Many executives make time for themselves away from their gadgets.

Turns off your work phone and email at the end of the week and encourage your staff to do the same. You want your people to have a life.


Having a clear agenda and sticking to a timetable certainly helps.

People will be more engaged if they’re clear about the point of the meeting from the start.

People I work with know I don’t like meetings and that they will do better to just keep it moving.

Too many leadership meetings are all focused on internals, so half of meetings has to be externally facing — our market share, our clients.

Encourage everybody to be a hall monitor. ‘Hey, are we wasting our time here, or not?’

People like rules in meetings, and they like them even more when the rules are enforced fairly.

The best idea wins.

Being succinct and efficient is also a measure of preparation and command of the facts.

If you don’t speak up in the meeting, you can’t later come back and say: ‘I really hated that.

Meetings can easily descend into a conversation between two people, with others watching.

“Every Friday, we have the senior leadership team come for about an hour-and-a-half operations check, and we have the checklist of items we need to get to, and we will go through that list, but I will never lead that meeting,” she said. “Each one of the executives leads the meeting.”

Waiting for people to contribute doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to seek out opinions.

CEOs said they make it a point to hold back on sharing what they think until they get more input.

As you become more senior in a company, you tend to be viewed as more authoritative when you speak and therefore you have to back off a little bit.

If meetings are fun rather than a slog through an agenda, people will be more engaged and listen to the rest of the group more intently.


I love asking people what the meaning of life is.

‘On your deathbed, what do you want to be remembered for?’

‘What’s the most important thing that’s happened to you over the last three years?’

‘Just tell me about your life.’

‘Wherever you worked before, what made it a good day?’

Ask questions about their families, friends, and social networks.

‘What are you passionate about?’

Hire people who are Tiggers, not Eeyores.

Several CEOs said they ask candidates about the last few books they read, the value of teamwork and how to contribute to a team effort. They listen carefully to how often the person says “I” and “me.”

“Who are the best people you recruited and developed and where are they today?”

“I’ll ask somebody to teach me something,” he said. “They’ll get on the whiteboard.”

‘Can you describe a decision you made, or a situation you were involved in, that was a failure?’

Find out if the person he’s interviewing can handle working without a clear road map.

‘Do you know what you’re good at, and what you need to work on to get better?’

‘If you had to name something, what would you say is the biggest misperception that people have of you?’

Know what skills people are trying to develop more, as a way to gauge their self-awareness.

‘Do you know why you want to work at this company?’

They want to know if people have done their homework, and believe in what the company does and its mission.

‘If you could be in my shoes today, what would be the top three things you’d do?’”

Some CEOs know that a piece of writing can provide a window on the way job candidates think.

Many CEOs said an absolute must of the hiring process is to share a meal with someone. Do they talk down to the busboy? Can they read social cues and keep a conversation going? Many candidates have lost job opportunities based on their performance at a restaurant.

I have to remind myself that there’s no pressure so great to fill a job.


Executives have to make the time to get out and walk around. The less time spent in the office, the better.

CEOs say that the investment of time delivers enormous rewards on all fronts — employee retention, insights on company strategy, and worthwhile feedback.

People generally want to bring only good news. When you move into the corner office: “Watch how funny your jokes become.”

Management By Walking Around is essential.

Leadership is about ensuring that you have the right people within your organization. You do that through actively knowing the people.

Try to see a client every day.

The best thing you can do is spend at least 50 percent of your time in the office communicating with as many staff as you have time to communicate with.

Brian Dunn, the CEO of Best Buy, also visits stores, and he approaches his company like a customer so he understands the experience. “I surf our Web pages. I call our call center. I visit our stores.”

Talk to people who are leaving. When people are leaving, they’re often in a very reflective state. And because they’ve often made a very difficult decision, they’re also stunningly direct, because it’s like they have nothing to lose.

Every boss needs people in the organization who are going to tell her that her jokes aren’t funny — in other words, give her straight feedback.

One way to avoid the isolating trap of the corner office is to eliminate the corner office.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask for feedback.

Dan Rosensweig of Chegg often uses annual performance reviews to ask for feedback on how he is managing.


As a coach, a manager’s job is to elevate individual players, make the team better, and try to give guidance and input.

A boss will get more out of the people who work for her if her goal is to make them better.

Get a sense of what the one thing is that makes their eyes light up, that they get excited about and won’t stop talking about.

There is no single right way to give feedback.

One way is the “criticism sandwich”.

Tachi Yamada prefers not to mix positive and negative feedback.

“By listening first and trying to understand how we got here and their story, I think it allows them to then hear my point of view later. And then we can move into solutions. When people feel judged right out of the gate, it’s hard for them to open up and listen and improve.”

In sports, this is what coaches do — giving constant feedback in practice to help people get better and help the team win.

Being direct is not a personal attack.



What’s the difference between management and leadership? Management is about results. Management is quantifiable, measurable.

Leadership is an art. People report to managers, but they follow leaders.

Leaders who can create a sense of mission are far more likely to succeed.

Employees like to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and to work toward an ambitious goal.

The job of leaders is to set a goal that people can believe in.

There is no formula for creating a sense of mission, though certainly one necessary ingredient is conviction, since nobody will follow a leader who doesn’t believe wholeheartedly in what he or she is saying.

Apple is often talked of as a place where people want to build products that will change the world. “We believed in the Mac division that we were making the world a better place.”

What are we? What is our real purpose?

The higher the calling, the higher the compelling vision you can articulate, then the more it pulls everybody in.

A reporter asks a bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’

People love to compete, of course, so another way to marshal the collective energy of a workforce is to establish a clear scoreboard to measure performance against competitors, and then reward the team when it wins.

There’s got to be measurable goals that everybody understands, and then you start strategizing on how to get there, and figure out how everybody wins.

Once you’ve established what your organization’s mission is, you must repeat it endlessly. Even when you’re tired of what the message is, you need to do it again and again and again. You’ll know that you’re effective as a leader, because you hear them saying it.

Many CEOs agree on this point — that there is a need for relentless communication.

We share everything. We believe in complete transparency.

There’s nothing quite as powerful as people feeling they can have impact and make a difference.

Employees need to be won over constantly.


Many CEOs said they made time for the small gestures — the handwritten note, the phone call, taking time to drop by an office to chat—because they recognize their power.

Continue to motivate people to do better and better. Get them excited and create the right environment.

There’s an innate need for well-deserved recognition.

There are two things that are very important about recognition. One, it needs to be deserved. And two, it needs to come from the heart.

People leave companies for two reasons. One, they don’t feel appreciated. And two, they don’t get along with their boss.


Once they’ve won the top job, many CEOs said they’ve had to learn how to pull back and listen more so that they are not dominating every conversation and meeting.

You really want to get the best out of people, you have to really hear them, and they have to feel like they’ve been really heard.

Being too exciting and too motivational is overbearing, and it turns people off.

The job of leadership is developing people and that it involves not doing everything for them.

Many executives said that one of their biggest challenges was learning to listen more.

Make sure you have the right people in place and they’re motivated correctly. The way to do that is to listen to them.

If I wanted to stay surrounded by great people, I had to get out of their way and create the room and make sure they started to get the recognition and the credit.

What defines successful leadership — earning people’s respect.


One of the most demanding aspects of leadership is to create a positive culture that engages employees at a personal level.

Creating an effective culture is an art.

Many CEOs recognize that culture is the engine that drives results.

Some of the most successful CEOs have taken steps — symbolic and practical — to create a culture that is less hierarchical, where people can make decisions themselves and learn from one another.

CEOs become facilitators of the culture rather than the focus of the culture.

If you see your job not as chief strategy officer and the guy who has all the ideas but rather as the guy who is obsessed with enabling employees to create value, you will succeed.

How do we push the envelope of trust? By creating transparency. All our company’s financial performance information is on our internal Web site.

Collaboration is one of the most difficult challenges in management.

The point is to get people talking to each other rather than always trying to involve the CEO in every decision.

When you start telling people what to do, they no longer are responsible; you are.

Values in a corporation act as a guide to help make tough decisions. Values also appeal to employees who want a sense of mission beyond dollars and cents.

At Zappos, the company tells employees that values are not just suggestions — they can be used as grounds for dismissal if employees aren’t abiding by them.

“At Zappos, we view culture as our number-one priority,” Tony Hsieh said. “We decided that if we get the culture right, most of the stuff, like building a brand around delivering the very best customer service, will just take care of itself. We would actually be willing to hire and fire people based on those values, regardless of their individual job performance.”

Zappos pushes the culture of transparency to an extreme that might make some companies uncomfortable. It publishes a “culture book” every year.

It’s a real cliché to say that the boss is the one that sets the tone, but it’s absolutely true.

It’s not the words of the mission statement or the words on the value statement, it’s how a company deals with the people who breach the core values. That’s what really defines the values.

Have very clear goals and clear compensation schemes. People don’t feel that they need to be talking about compensation or about their bonus.

For leaders, the ability to laugh at yourself is key.

Does the CEO, as a role model, encourage healthy debate and appreciate tough questions and challenges? Or does she set a my-way-or-the-highway rule?

Ursula Burns of Xerox, who has talked to her employees about overcoming what she described as the company’s “terminal niceness.” Meetings are all about challenging the status quo and questioning what’s wrong and what can be done better.

Jen-Hsun Huang of Nvidia said “intellectual honesty” is one of the core values of his company. “One of our other principles is that people who are successful are the ones who ask for help.”

Some CEOs make sure that people are rewarded in ways beyond their paychecks.

It’s always interesting for me to hear how newcomers feel after they’ve been in the brand for a period of time and to get feedback.


What are the intangibles that serve as a kind of connective tissue for all the skills of leadership?

Unbridled Passion for What’s Possible

Why does a line of followers form behind some leaders?

Employees have to trust a visionary leader before they will follow him.

“Trust has a couple of dimensions,” Barrett said. “It starts with competence.” People have to trust that you have a point of view about what the enterprise is going to look like. They have to trust that you understand them.

Build a Story Around Their Capabilities

Leaders also have a feel, an instinct, for what people are capable of becoming, even if they can’t see it themselves.

Leaders who are committed to helping the people who work for them will have committed followers.

Bringing the Group Together

The ability to bring a team together to achieve a goal is a rare skill.

Command-and-control leadership won’t cut it in a world where the real competition is for talent.

“I think of myself less as a leader,” said Tony Hsieh of Zappos, “and more of being almost an architect of an environment that enables employees to come up with their own ideas. My associates can work anywhere they want, and my job is to re-recruit them every day and give them a reason to choose to work for us.”

Leaders think about others first.

You don’t make all the decisions.

A leader has to be comfortable with having the weight on his shoulders. And that’s not for everybody.

Effective leaders must care about people enough to get the best work out of them, yet they must keep a distance so that any difficult conversations are about performance.

People want to follow a confident but not overconfident leader.

Have a sense of everything that is going on at the company, and what needs to be done, yet be present when talking to employees so they don’t get the impression you’re distracted.

Sometimes leadership is about having the right answer. Other times it’s about having the right question.

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