The New York Times journalist Adam Bryant has been dazzling readers of his Corner Office column for a decade. He says the ambition behind it all started with a simple idea. “What if I sat down with chief executives, and never asked them about their companies?”
The feature quickly developed a loyal following of readers looking for insights, takeaways and broader life lessons from top leaders. It also spawned a best-selling book by the same title, where Bryant compiled insights from interviews with 75 CEOs and other top executives to answer questions like “what does it take to lead an organization?” and “what are the keys to achieving the highest levels of success?”
Now that he’s hanging up the cleats, he dazzled one last time with his final Corner Office column published last week. There are enough gold nuggets to fill a whole cart, but the key takeaways for me boil down to the three qualities that Bryant says go “beyond the obvious, like hard work and perseverance” and explain why such leaders are so wildly successful.
1. They are obsessively curious.
Bryant says top leaders question everything and share a mindset of “applied curiosity.” He describes them as people that “want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better.”
One lesson comes from Gregory Maffei, chief executive of Liberty Media, who told Bryant, “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.”
Being curious and asking questions about why and how things work, for example, inspires creative thinking. It also opens up doors for your team to share their input and ideas, which fosters innovation and keeps you from growing stagnant.
Several studies published in the Greater Good Science Center reveal that curious people have better relationships and connect better with others. In fact, other people are more easily attracted and feel socially closer to individuals that display curiosity.
2. They love a good challenge.
Bryant says “discomfort is their comfort zone.” He quotes Arkadi Kuhlmann, a veteran banking chief, who said “Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire. 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.”
3. They focus on doing their current job well.
While that seems like a no-brainer, Bryant says too many people “can seem more concerned about the job they want than the job they’re doing.” The key is to be focused on the present, building a track record of success at every stop along your journey. When you do that, “people will keep betting on you,” says Bryant.
He adds, “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.”
Bryant quotes Kim Lubel, the former chief executive of CST Brands, a big operator of convenience stores, who told Bryant in one of his interviews: “You shouldn’t be looking just to climb the ladder, but be open to opportunities that let you climb that ladder.”
Best Career Advice
I couldn’t close this out without highlighting the best career advice Bryant ever heard from digging through hundreds of interviews. It came via Joseph Plumeri, the vice chairman of First Data, a payments-processing company, who told him: “Play in traffic.”
“It means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens,” Plumeri told Bryant.
When Plumeri was looking for a job while in law school, he knocked on the doors of several law firms, including one called Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt, which wasn’t a law firm at all but, in fact, a brokerage firm.
Embarrassed at the awkward moment, he still got the attention of one of the firm’s partners, who gave him a part-time job. Plumeri moved up the ranks as the firm evolved into Citigroup, where he spent 32 years, many of those years in top jobs.
“I tell people, just show up, get in the game, go play in traffic. Something good will come of it, but you’ve got to show up,” Plumeri told Bryant.