The Business of Leadership: An Interview with Adam Bryant

January 2017
Camper pulling canoe to shore

Journalist Adam Bryant has spent two decades wearing multiple reporting and editing hats at The New York Times. Concentrating on the business world and what CEOs have to teach us about sound leadership and maintaining a positive corporate culture, Bryant launched his twice weekly column Corner Office in 2009, followed by his book The Corner Office; Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed in 2012, and his most recent Quick and Nimble; Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation in 2014. He also teaches The Practice of Leadership at Columbia University.

Through hundreds of interviews with CEOs from organizations of all shapes and sizes, Bryant has gleaned many valuable insights on the biggest drivers for successfully communicating and fostering an effective corporate culture — many of which can be applied to the business of camp.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I've been a journalist working for The New York Times for about 20 years — about half that time as a business reporter and half as an editor. Journalism is a wonderful career because you are constantly learning, and meeting smart and interesting people. I've also had some surprising new roles at the Times; for example, a few years ago, I was asked to oversee our coverage of climate change, even though I don't have a science background. It's always fun to be on a steep learning curve. And now I'm overseeing our conferences and live events from the news side.

Any experience with camp?

Both my daughters spent several years going to summer camp. They just loved it and made lifelong friends. My youngest daughter went to French Woods, a performing arts camp outside of New York City. She learned so much there, including how to ride a unicycle, though I think she was motivated partly to one-up me, as I had decided a few years earlier — don't ask me why — to learn how to ride one myself.

How did your column Corner Office come about?

Corner Office was a side project I started back in 2009. During that time I covered a lot of businesses and industries, and I realized that CEOs are always interviewed the same way in the business press — as strategists. I wanted to ask them really simple questions like, "How do you do what you do?"

There's this assumption that CEOs were born leaders and knew how to lead from the time they were in diapers. I wondered, What if I sat down with CEOs and never asked them a question about their company; and instead asked them for their insights on leadership?

When I started Corner Office I set some guidelines for myself. I was going to embrace diversity in every sense of the word, and I wasn't going to just focus on traditional industries; I would interview leaders of organizations of all different types and sizes. The other guideline I set was that I was going to interview a lot of women but never ask them any gender-specific questions. I'm sure they get really tired of being asked how they balance their work life with their home life. I interview them as leaders who happen to be women.

You have interviewed hundreds of CEOs for Corner Office, and your most recent book Quick and Nimble.

I'm getting close to the 500-interview milestone.

What do you believe are the most important personal qualities of effective leaders?

Certainly listening is sometimes underappreciated as an important communication tool. Truly listening to someone can be very hard, especially for leaders who have many things on their mind at any given moment.

Really listening to people is not only a great way to get ideas from those on the front lines of your organization, but it's also the most effective day-to-day tool for showing people respect. Bill Marriott (of the hotel chain) said the four most important words in the English language are "What do you think?" We live in an age where we carry devices and so much communication is done over texting and e-mail. It's just an important reminder that leadership is about authentic human relationships. Those are built when you're looking someone in the eye.

One of the primary goals of most summer camps is to provide an environment where young people can learn and practice the social and emotional skills that will help them become successful adults. Which specific skills do you think we should focus on to help them be successful in the 21st-century workplace?

I'll repeat what I said before. Anything that can encourage them to really listen to one another and be present in the moment and not have devices in front of them — they really need to have those fundamental interpersonal skills of knowing how to have a conversation.

I would also say developing confidence in reaching out and meeting new people is key. There might be a tendency to hide out in your cubicle at work, but you've got to build relationships with people, and that can often be as simple as saying, "I'm really fascinated to learn more about what you do. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

In Quick and Nimble you focus on the forces that shape corporate culture. Will you identify what some of the most important of these forces are?

One of them is what I call "rules of the road," which is about the values of an organization. Many companies and organizations go through the exercise of saying, "These are our values and how we want to treat one another." I think it's an important exercise, but I've seen some wrong ways to do that over the years. Sometimes they try to come up with too many values. I encourage people, if they're going to go through the exercise, to boil it down to three things. They sometimes think they need to capture all human behavior in a list. But if you focus on the three most important, those tend to take care of the rest.

The second thing I've seen is companies that have values but don't necessarily live by them every day. People are getting promoted even though they're not following those values. It can be harmful to the organization because it makes people cynical. Values should be followed every day and used for promoting, hiring, and firing.

How does corporate culture impact the ability of the organization to innovate?

The way I think about innovation is what happens if somebody has a somewhat crazy idea. I also think innovation comes from people on the front lines doing the actual work. What cultures are for is to encourage people to bring their best selves to work every day, and that includes brainstorming and bringing up ideas, particularly if they're out of the box, because those can be great ideas. I also think that's not how most organizations work. The focus tends to be on results; that's most important and innovation ends up at the bottom of the list. I think it should be flipped.

What are some of the most important factors in building a culture of respect?

I've already mentioned the importance of listening. There's this expression I heard from one of the people I interviewed: most respectful interpretation (MRI). If somebody does something you don't understand, MRI is a good reminder to start with the most respectful interpretation, which is that the person wants to perform well.

The other point I would make is there is an art to having difficult conversations at work. Companies that know how to do them well start from a place of making sure the conversations are respectful. But companies don't often train people on how to do that. The shorthand I heard from one CEO is "they go over the net." They make assumptions about why someone is the way he or she is instead of focusing on the actions themselves.

How important is the mission statement to the success of an organization?

I think having a simple plan is actually more important than a mission statement, and I do think they are generally different. A mission statement is generally a lofty goal. Pretty much every tech company in Silicon Valley wants to change the world. At camp you're probably going to hear a lot about enriching the lives of campers. I think it's good to have that, but it's even more important to be able to answer the question, "Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?" Have an external scoreboard to measure if you are progressing toward achieving those goals. As in sports, if you have an external scoreboard, then everyone feels like they're on the same team. Without that shared scoreboard everyone is just going to be pursuing their own goals, and you don't get that sense of teamwork.

Most camps have a sizable seasonal staff with a limited amount of time (usually a week or so) to train them and teach them camps' values and goals. What should we be focusing on during this short time period?

I think this goes back to the importance of having a short list of core values of the particular camp and repeating them, showing them how to put those values into action and what that looks like.

You have to have discipline to get that list down to three things. People can remember three things. One of the CEOs I interviewed compared values to religion. Everyone who is a part of it understands the importance of the core principles.

I think the other thing for camp leaders to understand is that there is no such thing as too much communication. You have to keep repeating things in different ways and it will eventually sink in. I've heard that many times from CEOs over the years.

What are the most effective ways to get everyone to buy in to a camp's core values?

You need to bring them up during the hiring process. If you have awards for the employees (of the week, etc.), they should speak to the values — meaning this person got the award because he or she demonstrated this behavior that speaks to our values. This notion of communication says, "This is actually how we live here, not just a poster on the wall."

Many of the CEOs you interview talk about the value of teamwork and collaboration. This is one of the skill sets we value and teach at camp. Can you share advice about how to create organizations that model and inspire positive collaboration?

It goes back to having respect and listening to each other. If part of the culture is that you're having a brainstorming session or working together as a team, one of the ironclad ground rules has to be that nobody gets criticized for brainstorming. There is that key moment when people censor themselves because they feel they're going to get criticized. If they know that won't happen, they'll bring their best selves to the table.

Have any of the CEOs you've interviewed provided valuable suggestions for building multigenerational teams?

A lot of it comes down to mindset. For someone running a camp there is a balancing act. On the one hand, as the guardians of the culture, there has to be a clear vision of how things are done and what is unique and special about it. On the other hand, there is a great opportunity in hiring new staff every year. They have fresh eyes on the operation and may provide new ideas for improvement. Keeping the balance is hard but can be a real strength.

How important is it for a leader to provide honest feedback to employees?

It's super important. I suggest telling the staff up front that they're going to get feedback. A lot of people generally get their back up and are surprised when they are given feedback. But if on the first day you say to them, "We all want to get better and have an amazing experience for our campers. Part of that is giving feedback and that's a twoway street," then they won't be surprised. If you couch everything as setting them up for success in later jobs, they'll be more open to your suggestions.

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Photo courtesy of Camp Meriwether, Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, Luthersville, Georgia.