Northwestern Students Learn Lessons from the Corner Office

New York Times columnist Adam Bryant shares insights distilled from interviews with 250-plus CEOs

Ask a CEO what it takes to succeed and you’re likely to get a cookie-cutter answer peppered with the words “hard work” and “determination.” But for a person seeking advice in a competitive business world, such truisms are not very helpful.

In 2009, New York Times columnist Adam Bryant went in search of the real answers with “Corner Office,” now a twice-weekly feature in which he interviews chief executives about leadership and management.

Adam Bryant“CEOs are pretty much always interviewed in the business media about their strategies,” Bryant said November 19 in a talk at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I wanted to ask, ‘How do you do what you do?’”

Over the course of more than 250 interviews with CEOs, Bryant has distilled a list of five qualities that give successful employees an edge over their competition. They tend to have a passionate curiosity or a “relentlessly questioning mind,” a quality that is especially important in leadership positions.

“The role of the CEO inside the company is to ask all the right questions,” not to have all the answers, Bryant said.

CEOs also exhibit battle-hardened confidence — “I look for scars,” Cintrix CEO Mark Templeton told Bryant, referring to past learning experiences — and emotional intelligence when working on teams. They are able to distill complex concepts into a small number of ideas that employees can act upon, and they are fearless in their quest for improvements.

“Fearlessness is seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken,” said Xerox CEO Ursula Burns.

Like everyone, CEOs’ strength in these five areas vary, Bryant said, but the best recognize their shortcomings and fill their senior leadership teams with people whose strengths balance their own.

Today, one of chief executives’ most important roles is creating a company culture that attracts and retains talent — and also finding that talent in the first place. Many successful CEOs have learned to navigate interviews to force prospective employees off their “speaking points” and see their true nature.

Bryant shared some of the more memorable interview questions he has heard: what makes you mad? What is the meaning of life? If there were no humans on the planet, only animals, what kind of animal would you be?

Bryant’s columns have resulted in the New York Times bestseller The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, which draws out broader lessons from his interviews. His second book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, will be published in January. 

His lecture was hosted by the McCormick Dean’s Seminar Series, a set of talks that invites top researchers, entrepreneurs, and others to speak to the McCormick community, and Northwestern’s Center for Leadership, which offers programming and courses to help students, faculty, and others advance as leaders in their fields.