What Will Separate Top CEOs from the Rest in a Post Pandemic World?
Listen to Episode 179:
Episode 179 Transcript:
Chris Curran: This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated: enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And sitting right across from me as always is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s great to join you again for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio, and as always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of game-changing innovation, transformation, and growth. And Pam as our regular listeners know over the past few months, we’ve been focusing episodes on what it will take to emerge from the pandemic that we’re experiencing and the economic volatility it’s brought upon us, to do this in a way that’s responsive to both current needs and the new needs that are going to be emerging in the world.
Pam Harper: Well, it’s clear that this is an evolving situation with a lot of uncertainty. But there is something that’s already certain — CEOs need to lead in ways that engage and enable a variety of stakeholders to envision the path forward and do what it takes to get there.
Scott Harper: It may seem mysterious to how this happens, but it doesn’t have to be.
Pam Harper: But what’s going to separate the top CEOs from the rest? That’s another question. Someone who has spent considerable time understanding this issue is our guest today, Adam Bryant. He’s managing director of Merryck & Company, an executive mentoring firm. A little bit more about Adam is he joined them in 2017 after a 30-year career in journalism, including 18 years at the New York Times. In addition to his many roles there as reporter and editor, he created the weekly Corner Office column in 2009, interviewing 525 CEOs and other leaders over a decade, and wrote two books based on the themes that emerged from those interviews.
Pam Harper: Since joining Merryck, he started several popular interview series on LinkedIn with board directors, CEOs, and CHROs, and writes a monthly column on leadership for Strategy+Business magazine. His next book, which he’s writing with former Amgen CEO, Kevin Sharer, is called The CEO Test: Mastering the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders. This will be published early next year by Harvard Business Review Press. Adam also is the senior advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership at Columbia University. You can read more about Adam Bryant by going to growthignitersradio.com, episode 179.
Pam Harper: Adam, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio!
Adam Bryant: Thanks for having me.
Pam Harper: So tell us a little bit about how you arrived at your unique approach to interviewing CEOs about leadership.
Adam Bryant: Sure. It’s a pretty simple story. I was a business reporter for many years at The Times, and I covered a lot of companies and industries, interviewed a lot of CEOs. And I found when I was interviewing them, asking them the usual questions about the competitive landscape and their strategy, that I really just wanted to set those aside and ask them, “how do you do what you do?” And so I launched The Corner Office on this simple “what if.” Which is, what if I sat down with CEOs and never asked them a single question about their companies, and instead just asked them questions about leadership lessons they’ve learned over the course of their lives from the time they were kids, parental influences, early mistakes as managers, and how they think about culture, and teams, and hiring now as CEOs. And so that was the framework.
Adam Bryant: The other “what if” that I used at the start was what if I interviewed a lot of female CEOs and also people of color in those senior leadership positions and never asked them any race- or gender-specific questions. So the idea was let’s interview everybody as leaders first, foremost, and only. And so that was the initial idea, and it just sort of took off over time. I interviewed 525 leaders, as you said in the intro; never missed a week in over a decade, and really looked for leadership in all aspects of life. It wasn’t just starting at the top of the Fortune 500 list and working down; I interviewed leaders in arts and entertainment. I interviewed Kenny Chesney, the country music star, a Broadway production stage manager, really just wanted to humanize and democratize leadership again, rather than just focusing on the CEOs of the Fortune 100.
Scott Harper: Adam, over the years, you’ve done a huge amount of synthesis in your books. You’ve pointed out some of the top leadership skills and abilities, and characteristics that CEOs have. But we’re kind of in uncharted territory now. What are the three top leadership challenges that CEOs have to be able to navigate in this post-pandemic world?
Adam Bryant: I think the first one is just this idea of embracing ambiguity. People have been talking about this for a long time, but it is very real now. It’s just very hard to see beyond the next quarter. I’m often reminded of the fact that a lot of leaders have grown up over the last 12 years without a crisis, right? I mean, it’s been a dozen years since the financial crisis of 2008.
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Adam Bryant: And so I think a lot of this notion of ambiguity, it was kind of an amorphous thing, like I get it, but now everybody’s living this. We’re sort of getting a master class and a real test on how to embrace that ambiguity. I mean the Coronavirus, as it has swept around the world, in some ways, it’s affected everybody. It’s nobody’s fault, and the patterns are very similar, but just in those early weeks and now months into it, there’s a pattern that’s evolving of first stabilizing the business and then looking forward. And how do you do a reset? How do you see it as an opportunity? How do you come out stronger than the other side? So I would put that at the top of the list.
Second, I also think we need to talk about remote working as being part of the new normal.
Scott Harper: Right.
Adam Bryant: We’re seeing more and more companies saying, “Yeah, we’re moving to this permanently,” but I think even companies that aren’t — I don’t think we’re going to get back to the day where a full parking lot is a sign of productivity for the boss. Right? I think people are recognizing that we can all do this; it works, there’s not a whole heck of a lot lost. I mean, it’s always good to break bread with somebody in person, but if you know the people you’re meeting with you can have productive meetings and there’s not the wear and tear on commuting, and business travel, and all those things.
Adam Bryant: But I do think this creates an extra challenge for CEOs leading in that environment, because as the name goes, “remote working,” you do feel very remote. You can feel very isolated, people can get very much up in their own heads a little bit. And if you’re an employee and you get an email from your boss that says, “Fine,” you sort of look at that word and it’s like, is that like fine, like grudging, okay? Or “sure,” enthusiastic support? And I’ve heard stories like this from a lot of people and just friends. I think there’s some extra challenges.
Scott Harper: It’s going to take new leadership muscles. Yeah.
Adam Bryant: Yeah, exactly. And I would put that as number two. And third, I think — obviously coinciding with COVID — we’ve had this incredibly heightened awareness around systemic racism in our society. The optimist in me believes that we are going through an inflection point and that there is going to be a permanently increased focus on that. The skeptic in me worries, however, that as other news cycles take over, some of this is going to fade, but I think this broader notion of the different stakeholders that you have… I mean, the business round table started that discussion, and I think it’s been broadened even more through the MeToo movement, various social movements, and the amplification effect of social media. I think just being a CEO is just getting so much harder. I think with some of these big companies, there’s a sense of responsibility for the mental health of your employees, if you’re going to be asking them to work at home, there’s just a greater level of care. So, the list of things that you for which you are responsible and have to worry about as a CEO has grown considerably just in the last few months, I think.
Pam Harper: So it’s a tsunami of new challenges that are descending upon us. And we ourselves see that a number of companies are making decisions where they’ll go two steps forward and then two steps backward or sideways. It’s hard to know because the customers that they have are making new decisions. I mean, we see it with companies of all sizes. Do you see that as well?
Adam Bryant: We do. Certainly also in all the interviews that I’ve done, maybe I am an optimist at heart. So I have been intrigued by the conversations I’ve been having under the heading of “silver linings” of this crisis. And it seems like a lot of companies are either building or working new muscles in this kind of speed of decision making. I mean, post-crisis, everybody increased their cadence in meetings, so decisions are being made faster, and the expectation for execution is faster. Big companies struggle with prioritization; small companies struggle with prioritization. We see this a lot in our work, and I’m sure you do too. When you ask people what their priorities are, they say, “well, we’ve got these 10 things,” and those aren’t priorities, right?
Pam Harper: It depends. It depends.
Adam Bryant: But I have found that a lot of companies were saying, “Okay, in this crisis, let’s focus on the things that really matter and we’ll push everything to the back burner.” And so there is the sense of… I’ve heard some interesting lines from leaders who in effect say, it’d be nice to have a crisis without the crisis, because there is this sense of look what we can do. I mean, many of them point out that if you had said we want to get everybody working remotely at a big company before the crisis, people would have said that would have taken 18 months and six committees, and ultimately the answer would be no, but when you have to do it, you can do it in a matter of days. So I think there’s a bit of a sense of, “can we bottle this?” So hold onto this, on the other side of the crisis.
Pam Harper: Oh, there is something to be said for that. So let’s narrow it down here. What would you say is the most critical attribute that will separate the top CEOs from the rest in meeting all of these different challenges?
Adam Bryant: I keep coming back to this notion of the ability to simplify complexity, and as the world is getting more complex, to be able to kind of create a simple model and framework for where the company’s going, why, how are we going to get there, and then communicating the heck out of it. And I think that’s becoming more important, especially in this remote world. To me, that’s the answer to these challenges of both the ambiguity and the remote nature of work — to be able to say, look, we may be a big multinational corporation with a lot of different businesses, but to create a simple framework that people can hold in their heads, and that is meaningful, that is not just a statement of the obvious.
Adam Bryant: In all our mentoring work in the C suite, in all my interviews, this theme has come up over, and over, and over again. And the percentage of people who have that ability to do that is relatively small, but when they do it and they get it right, it is so powerful. We’ve seen examples of that. I think in many ways, Bob Iger is a great example. I mean, from the day he took over as CEO of Disney, he said, “We are going to focus on three things: global expansion, great content, and we’re going to embrace technology and all its platforms.”
Pam Harper: Right. Simplify, simplify, simplify — except that it’s not simple.
Adam Bryant: Right, but everybody in the company can look at that. There is a sweet spot, because in our work with leaders, sometimes they go, “Well, that’s obvious.” And there is a sweet spot there, when you think of that Bob Iger example. If you’re working at Disney, you’re probably working on one of those three things. And in hindsight, it always looks obvious, but if you see the through-line of Disney’s growth and Iger’s career, everything he has done has been to build those three things. And to me, that’s the art form.
Pam Harper: Yes. It’s art, and more. And we’re going to dig deeper on that, but first, we’re going to take a quick break, then we’ll come back with our guest, Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Company, and author of the bestselling book, The Corner Office, and the upcoming book, The CEO Test. Stay with us…
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper — that’s me — and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today about what sets top CEOs apart from the rest with our guest, Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Company, who is also the author of multiple bestselling books, including The Corner Office, and is author of the upcoming book, The CEO Test. Adam, how can people find out more about you and your books?
Adam Bryant: At adambryantbooks.com. And I also encourage people to connect with me on LinkedIn.
Pam Harper: Okay. And for everybody listening, you can see more by visiting growthignitersradio.com, episode 179, and scroll down to resources.
When we left off, we were talking about “simplify, simplify, simplify,” and it is an art for sure. You talked a little bit about what led you to this conclusion. Let’s talk more about that. Do you have a story?
Adam Bryant: Sure. And I think the story is focused around the disconnect I experienced and saw over time in my interviews with hundreds of leaders. This theme of simplifying complexity would come up. Kevin Sharer, my coauthor, said “it is a leader’s job to simplify complexity — and to be right.” I think that’s an important insight. I talked to the CEO of Novartis; he said that the real test for strategy is can people hold it in their heads? I interviewed Susan Salka, who runs AMN healthcare, and she had this wonderful line about her father who would sometimes say, “put that in terms of cows, chickens, and taters for me.” That’s shorthand for just make it simple so that I can understand it.
Adam Bryant: So you hear this smart advice from CEOs. But in my career as a journalist and now as a consultant, I’ll go into these companies and then you might see, “okay, we’re going to put up our strategy slide now.” And very often they’ll have like six or seven bullet points next to a tiered colored triangle, and then there are corkscrew arrows going through it, and it kind of all makes sense at the moment, but obviously nobody can remember this. And so I just kept seeing these disconnects that this is important to do, yet so few people can do it.
Adam Bryant: And the other gap is that there’s also a big disconnect between how clear it is in the leader’s head. They may think “it’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to everybody else, everybody knows this,” yet often it isn’t. In our consulting work, if we’re mentoring a CEO, sometimes we’ll reach out to their leadership team. We always start off with the same question, which is before we talk about Joe or Jane, we’d just like to hear in your own words, what’s the strategy? And it is amazing how you can sometimes ask 12 people that question and hear 12 different answers.
Pam Harper: Yes, it is. It is.
Adam Bryant: And so I just keep this constant feedback loop about how important it is to do it, and yet so many people struggle with it.
Pam Harper: I agree. Do you think that it’s also personal to the leader, so that if maybe I think in cows and potatoes and somebody else thinks in a different way that becomes almost a cultural metaphor for how to help simplify this to the organization that they lead?
Adam Bryant: I think that’s right. I mean, as I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about leadership, I’ve adopted this notion of Russian nesting dolls to talk about leadership, because when people say what’s important to leadership and you start putting all those words and phrases on a whiteboard, I think a lot of them conceptually nest inside each other, or they’re very similar. So when we’re talking about this art of simplifying complexity, I think it’s partly being able to communicate and what makes a good communicator? I think it’s having empathy for understanding how the audience is going to hear it. And then on top of that, I think there’s a curiosity layer to it where, as you’re building those communication muscles over years, and years, and years, just being able to read a room and see the audience and you talk to people afterward, it’s like, “is this landing? Does everybody understand this?”
Adam Bryant: And so with that, you just increasingly understand the importance of simple communication. I do think it’s a muscle that has to be worked. I heard this great expression from a guy named Marcus Ryu, he’s the chairman of a company called Guidewire in Silicon Valley, and my shorthand for his insight, it’s the Einstein theory of communication. And what he said is, “You can have a room full of Einstein’s, the smartest people on the planet, but there’s something about the human brain that the bigger the audience, the more the collective IQ drops.” And I thought that was just so fascinating. And I give a fair amount of talks myself and the message is the bigger the audience, the bigger the font, the shorter the list of bullet points, and keep that message simple. And then you have to keep communicating it over and over almost like a politician where you get tired of hearing yourself, say it, but you need to keep saying it.
Adam Bryant: I heard a great test from one CEO, he said, “You know your message is starting to land when people start teasing you and making fun of you, that they know exactly what you’re going to say. And even though that might seem awkward, that’s your sign that you are breaking through.”
Scott Harper: And then the trick, once you have this Russian doll, is to un-nest it and go from that simple idea — which can’t be simplistic — to all of the things that have to happen and cascade down the line, so that there is a consistency among all the different parts of the organization, that people know what has to happen, and they can figure out what I have to do with those other people to make it happen.
Adam Bryant: That’s exactly right. Kevin, my coauthor, he talks about when he was in his 20’s, he was the chief engineer of a nuclear submarine when he was in the Navy, and he had to understand in his head how to be able to take apart and put back together an entire nuclear sub. And so what he called it for himself was “I had to develop an idiot diagram for myself,” and it’s that kind of very high level. And as you said, Scott, it’s almost as if you keep double-clicking and from that idiot diagram, you go into greater and greater depths of complexity. But he had that habit of mind, and then when he went to run Amgen Bio-pharmaceuticals, he had to develop an idiot diagram for himself. And I have to say, I mean, I asked him once I said, “Okay, so how does a nuclear submarine work?” And in about a minute and a half, he explained it to me. And I said, “I know how a nuclear submarine works.”
Scott Harper: That’s great. Now we talk about all the skills that top leaders, CEOs, have to have. Going beyond simplifying communication, excellent execution; beyond the skill sets — what are some of the values and beliefs that you’ve come to discover over the years, the values and beliefs about leadership that top CEOs share that separate them from the rest?
Adam Bryant: Especially with this underscored notion of in a post-pandemic world.
Scott Harper: In a post-pandemic world.
Adam Bryant: Yeah, I don’t think this is going to be a news flash, but I keep coming back to humanity and humility. We’ve just really come to understand the importance of those things at this moment we are living in, that anybody, any leader who thinks that I have the answers and relies on command and control leadership — it’s just not going to work. Nobody’s going to believe you let alone follow you. So people have to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know, what does everybody else think?”
Adam Bryant: And I think just this notion of humanity, I mean, there’s been such a premium on connecting over Zoom calls and through phone lines. And the simple question of “how are you” has become much more meaningful rather than just an obligatory hello. And especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, I mean, just being willing and able to have what might be awkward or difficult conversations, whatever elephants there are in the room just to be comfortable introducing them. It’s like, we need to talk about this. How is everybody feeling about this? This is how I feel about it. This is a story in my life. What about everybody else? And again, back to the Russian nesting dolls, I think all of that feeds into this idea of trust, because if we play the dinner party game of what is the single most important aspect of leadership, there’s no right answer. Nobody has the lock on the right answer, but I would put trust at the top of the list.
Adam Bryant: And you can unpack trust, it’s a multilayered word, but I think part of it is just I understand your belief system, that you live your beliefs, there’s not some gap between what you say is important and what you actually do, and making sure that cascades down through the organization, because without that you’re going to have cynicism, right? There’s going to be a sense of hypocrisy. You can’t say diversity is important to us and then have an all-white male leadership team. Over time, it’s just not going to fly.
Scott Harper: Yeah; they say that authenticity is the key to great actors and the key to great musicians. It’s also the key to great leaders.
Adam Bryant: Right. I agree.
Pam Harper: That’s true. So it seems like the greater the complexity that we’re facing, the more it comes down to things that are simple, like trust, but not simple, it takes art, it takes skill, it takes values of believing that we don’t have all the answers.
And we’re going to take another quick break. And when we come back, we’ll speak more with Adam Bryant, managing director at Merryck & Company and author of the bestselling book, The Corner Office, and an upcoming book, The CEO Test about immediately useful ideas to successfully navigate new CEO leadership challenges in the post-pandemic world. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com. Pam, as we’ve been speaking with Adam Bryant about the type of leadership that separates top CEOs from all the others, it’s clear that one of the things that really matters is the ability to adapt and deal with disruption, and that’s only going to become more critical in this world.
Pam Harper: That’s right. And this brings to mind a related conversation we had with Peter Gleason, CEO of the National Association for Corporate Directors, about the new keys for leadership success in a disruptive world. This was based on NACD’s 2019 Blue Ribbon Commission Report on adaptive governance. We discussed with Peter the board’s oversight of disruptive risk, what more boards are looking for from their CEOs and top leadership teams, and the advantage this brings in these turbulent times, and this was before the pandemic.
Scott Harper: To listen to our interview with Peter Gleason, go to Growth Igniters Radio, select episode 179, and click on the link in the resources section.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Company and bestselling author of books, including The Corner Office and his upcoming book, The CEO Test about the values and skills that set top CEOs apart from the rest. Adam, remind us again, how people can find out more about you and your book.
Adam Bryant: Sure. Thank you. My website is adambryantbooks.com, and just Google me on LinkedIn, Adam Bryant and reach out and connect.
Pam Harper: Okay. And remember, you can also see more by visiting growthignitersradio.com, episode 179, and scroll down to resources.
Adam, this is the part of our podcast when we discuss the practical ways to bring all these ideas that we’ve been discussing to life, let’s start with an immediately useful tip for CEOs to navigate the new leadership challenges in the post-pandemic world. What is the first one?
Adam Bryant: Let’s come back to this idea of simplifying complexity. Just for context, I used to think that the word “strategy” was clear to everybody who said it, and everybody had a shared understanding of what that meant. But I’ve really come to appreciate that, that word is like a Rorschach test, a classic inkblot; everybody has a different idea of what it means. It’s really come out of our mentoring work with C suite executives, but also from my hundreds of interviews with leaders. I’ve always been searching for, okay, “well, how do you create a tool to help simplify complexity?” It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to do it if strategy is such an amorphous concept.
Adam Bryant: I really liked the approach adopted by Dinesh Paliwal, who ran Harman International; he stepped down recently. He talks about just this one-page document with four components. The first one is just one or two concrete sentences about what you’re trying to achieve, the actual outcomes, where you are going, what you want to do. So many companies, when they talk about strategy, it’s really just a static description of what they do as opposed to, we want to go from point A to point B. So you start with that.
Adam Bryant: The second section is, well, what are the three big levers you want to pull to achieve that, that you have to do to achieve that goal? The third section is, well, what are the headwinds you’ve got to navigate? What are the challenges in reaching those? And the fourth component into it is like, well, how are you going to measure progress? There are so many tools and systems for doing this, but we’ve just found in our work that this one-page approach that Dinesh came up with really resonates with people. And there’s a real art form to it. I mean, as much as it’s simple, a lot of people struggle with it, but again, to me, that’s the most effective kind of tip and tool that we use.
Pam Harper: Yeah. So the simpler, the better, and to a certain extent, it also sounds like you’re saying the more visual you can be about it, the more likely it is that people will be able to see it with you.
Adam Bryant: Definitely, and to that point, I interviewed the lead director of Home Depot and he told me that for a lot of their board meetings, rather than getting like the 200-page board deck beforehand, that if there’s an issue that they’re discussing, that the company actually creates like an 11 by 14 placemat, where it’s essentially graphics to explain the concept. We understand and remember visuals and that’s just a great forcing function to get people to simplify things.
Pam Harper: Okay.
Scott Harper: What’s another practical thing that people can do to up their leadership abilities?
Adam Bryant: I think CEOs, and frankly, all senior leaders, really have to make sure that they build a listening system. They need to approach it like that because a lot of leaders think they’re good listeners, but they do it in the context of “when I’m in a meeting and somebody’s sitting across the table from me, I’m a good listener,” but the higher up you go, the more that you’re surrounded by a bubble, and bad news everybody’s massaging the news so that you don’t hear any bad news. So this idea of building a proactive system, to make sure that you understand what people are thinking and feeling, and part of it is through employee surveys and getting more granular with those, because a lot of people say, “Well, how do you feel about the company?” But they’re missing the point that your experience at the company is probably more determined by your boss.
Adam Bryant: And a company like Kronos, the CEO there, Aron Ain, and he’s got this whole system that he’s set up asking a lot of questions. It’s like, “how do you feel about your boss? Is your boss doing these things for you?” Asking questions like, “is your manager living the values that we’ve articulated for this company? What do you think of the job the CEO is doing?” So it’s not just through survey data, but it’s about getting out in small groups, but it’s this kind of healthy paranoia that you don’t know what’s actually going on in the organization and approaching that as just part of your job and your responsibility because otherwise, you’re just going to be a prisoner of anecdote. And you’re going to think, “when I walk around the office, everybody’s smiling at me, I guess everybody’s happy. We’ve got a great culture.”
Pam Harper: Yes, that’s a risk. And now here we are in the post-pandemic world, and part of your employees are virtual and some of them are located here and there. So if we’re looking at that particular aspect of it, because I agree with you, listening is really key. Is there something that might be special that somebody could do right away that would help them to know that people really… that everybody’s listening to each other? What do you find?
Adam Bryant: Well, I think there’s in the moment listening and a lot of people struggle with that. So with your immediate team, I mean, I think there are too many meetings where people aren’t present, right? They’re on their laptops, they’re on their phones, and so there’s… Listening has to start in sort of a localized fashion and then beyond that, it’s really creating the forums to get the feedback and make sure it’s unvarnished and honest, and that that you approach it like data in the same way that you’re looking for data on the financial spreadsheet about the company’s performance. You need proof in many ways, it goes back to this idea of like, how do you know what you don’t know?
Pam Harper: Exactly. Yes.
Adam Bryant: What’s really going on in the organization? And you have to go out and get it because it’s not going to come to you. This whole notion of no news is good news, that is so not true for leaders because if you’re not hearing the news, that just means you’re not hearing the bad news.
Scott Harper: And we’ve heard more than once people at the top, CEOs, saying, “The thing that frightens me the most is a feeling that my head is cut off from my feet. I don’t know what’s really going on.”
Adam Bryant: Right.
Scott Harper: And I can ask people; I can have an open door, but no one comes in the open door.
Adam Bryant: Yep.
Scott Harper: And one of the best ways you can close that gap is to reward people for telling you what they think you don’t want to hear.
Adam Bryant: Right. And on that very specific point, Scott, I know you guys are looking for tips. One CEO I talked to, he tells his teams whenever he’s working with a new team, “Here’s the rule everybody — if you have bad news, I want you to text me. If you have good news, wait until we see each other in person.”
Scott Harper: All right! Now, what’s the third tip?
Adam Bryant: I think one of the biggest challenges that leaders face, and we see this over and over in our mentoring work, is just being clear and honest with yourself about how good the people are on your team. You simply can’t succeed as a leader if you don’t have a good team under you. And we find over and over that people tend to tolerate mediocre behavior, and they hold onto people, and maybe there’s some long history there. So in terms of a concrete tip or tool, I like the simple question of if everybody left the team, who would you hire back? And I think that’s just a very quick and immediate gut check.
Adam Bryant: The other great framework that I heard from one of our colleagues at Merryck named Bruce Gordon, he talked about the idea of a golden age of management. And he said, “If you’re a leader, and if you’re lucky, over the course of your career, you may have three golden ages where everybody on your team is great. They work together well, you’re productive, and it’s just a lot of fun.” But again, over the course of your career, if you’re lucky, you’re going to have three of those moments. So then the test to ask yourself is, the people on my team are they going to create that golden age for us and for me? And I find those questions serve as forcing functions to really stare at this question of am I tolerating mediocre performance here or are these people really good enough to get us there?
Pam Harper: A very good thing for people to be thinking about. So here we are at the end of the episode, do you have some final thoughts you can leave us with as far as what will separate top CEOs from the rest in a post-pandemic world?
Adam Bryant: So much of success comes back to hiring, right? And it’s something that I’ve been so intrigued about, because if you are going to succeed in the post-pandemic world, you need people on your team who can do that, and who are comfortable in those moments. And I think there’s got to be just a lot of questions in the interview about that, of share some moments where the answer wasn’t clear and how did you navigate that? Because if you as a leader are going to be good at embracing ambiguity and you want your organization to be good at it, you’ve got to have other people on your team.
Adam Bryant: When I interviewed the CEO of Twilio in San Francisco, a guy named Jeff Lawson, he asked people in interviews, “what have you built?” And it doesn’t mean just in the literal construction sense, but looking for people who are entrepreneurial thinkers, who have tried to build things, who have tried to create things, and you simply need those people on your team, because we are in this age where we’re all writing the playbook in real time. You can’t be an employee anymore who says, “Okay, you’ve given me this job. Now give me the playbook for how to do it.” You have to write the playbook.
Scott Harper: Yeah.
Adam Bryant: And just figuring out the right questions to test that and making sure that people can do that, I think that’s the way you scale yourself as a leader, is to get people who can do that as well.
Pam Harper: Adam, thank you so much for being a guest on Growth Igniters Radio.
Adam Bryant: I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Adam. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, read Adam’s bio and the episode transcript, or even open a conversation with us, go to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 179.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success and leaving you with this question to consider:
Scott Harper: What is one thing, start with one, that I can do differently or better as a CEO that will enable me to successfully navigate the new leadership challenges in this post-pandemic world?