How to Be a C.E.O. ?

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It started with a simple idea: What if I sat down with chief executives, and never asked them about their companies?

The notion occurred to me roughly a decade ago, after spending years as a reporter and interviewing C.E.O.s about many of the expected things: their growth plans, the competition, the economic forces driving their industries. But the more time I spent doing this, the more I found myself wanting to ask instead about more expansive themes — not about pivoting, scaling or moving to the cloud, but how they lead their employees, how they hire, and the life advice they give or wish they had received.

That led to 525 Corner Office columns, and weekly reminders that questions like these can lead to unexpected places.

I met an executive who grew up in a dirt-floor home, and another whoescaped the drugs and gangs of her dangerous neighborhood. I learned about different approaches to building culture, from doing away with titles to offering twice-a-month housecleaning to all employees as a retention tool.

And I have been endlessly surprised by the creative approaches that chief executives take to interviewing people for jobs, including tossing their car keys to a job candidate to drive them to a lunch spot, or asking them how weird they are, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Granted, not all chief executives are fonts of wisdom. And some of them, as headlines regularly remind us, are deeply challenged people.

That said, there’s no arguing that C.E.O.s have a rare vantage point for spotting patterns about management, leadership and human behavior.

After almost a decade of writing the Corner Office column, this will be my final one — and from all the interviews, and the five million words of transcripts from those conversations, I have learned valuable leadership lessons and heard some great stories. Here are some standouts.

So You Want to Be a C.E.O.?

People often try to crack the codefor the best path to becoming a chief executive. Do finance people have an edge over marketers? How many international postings should you have? A variety of experiences is good, but at what point does breadth suggest a lack of focus?

It’s a natural impulse. In this age of Moneyball and big data, why not look for patterns?

The problem is that the world doesn’t really work that way. There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control, including luck, timing and personal chemistry.

The career trajectories of the C.E.O.s I’ve interviewed are so varied that spotting trends is difficult, and a surprising number of the executives do not fit the stereotype of the straight-A student and class president who seemed destined to run a big company someday. I’ve met C.E.O.s who started out in theater, music andteaching. Others had surprisingly low grades in school.

So what explains it? Are there some qualities — beyond the obvious, like hard work and perseverance — that explain why these people ultimately got the top jobs?

I’ve noticed three recurring themes.

First, they share a habit of mind that is best described as “applied curiosity.” They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They’re curious about people and their back stories.

And rather than wondering if they are on the right career path, they make the most of whatever path they’re on, wringing lessons from all their experiences.

“I can find interest in a lot of different things and try to put that to work in a positive way, connecting the dots and considering how the pieces fit together,” said Gregory Maffei, whose background includes a college degree in religious studies, and is now the chief executive of Liberty Media, the giant company with interests in everything from SiriusXM to Formula One racing.

Second, C.E.O.s seem to love a challenge. Discomfort is their comfort zone.

“Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire,” said Arkadi Kuhlmann, a veteran banking chief. “Some people have a desire for that, I’ve noticed, and some people don’t. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that’s a characteristic that you have, that’s in your DNA.”

The third theme is how they managed their own careers on their way to the top. They focus on doing their current job well, and that earns them promotions.

That may sound obvious. But many people can seem more concerned about the job they want than the job they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean keeping ambition in check. By all means, have career goals, share them with your bosses, and learn everything you can about how the broader business works. And yes, be savvy about company politics (watch out in particular for the show ponies who try to take credit for everything).

But focus on building a track record of success, and people will keep betting on you. “You shouldn’t be looking just to climb the ladder, but be open to opportunities that let you climb that ladder,” said Kim Lubel, the former chief executive of CST Brands, a big operator of convenience stores.

Ms. Lubel’s career twists embody that mind-set in an unusual way. She told me a remarkable story of applying for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency, and then — thinking she didn’t get the job — going to grad school instead. Only later did Ms. Lubel (whose maiden name was Smith) learn that the C.I.A. did try to hire her, but that they had offered the job to a different Kim Smith.

The Most Important Thing About Leadership, Part I

Because leadership is so hard, there is a boundless appetite for somebody to come along and say, “Here’s the one thing you need to know.” Such headlines are theclickbait of business websites.

If only it were that simple. But one thing isn’t necessarily more important than another. And people are, well, complicated. Better to understand leadership as a series of paradoxes.

Leaders, for example, need humility to know what they don’t know, but have the confidence to make a decision amid the ambiguity. A bit of chaos can help foster creativity and innovation, but too much can feel like anarchy. You need to be empathetic and care about people, but also be willing to let them go if they’re dragging down the team. You have to create a sense of urgency, but also have the patience to bring everybody on the team along.

“We think about our values in pairs, and there is a tension or a balance between them,” said Jacqueline Novogratz, chief executive of Acumen Fund, a venture philanthropy organization that focuses on the world’s poor. “We talk about listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity. You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and in our world, working with poor communities, that’s not easy to do — but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be.”

The Most Important Thing About Leadership, Part II

Go ahead. Twist my arm.

Despite what I just wrote, if you were to force me to rank the most important qualities of effective leadership, I would put trustworthiness at the top.

We all have a gut sense of….

Continue at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/business/how-to-be-a-ceo.html
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