Leadership Advice for Global Challenges: 5 Tips from CEOs

If you had a relaxed chat with a reflective CEO over the weekend, your workweek might be inspired by a valuable insight or two. And if you set out to interview a different CEO every week for a decade -- 525 of them in total, from Airbnb to Zappos -- you’d begin to spot patterns of successful behavior within a burgeoning context of leadership. Adam Bryant has done just that, in his New York Times “Corner Office” column.

Instead of posing the CEO predictably for us – uptight in an expensive suit and perched on a pedestal embellished with quarterly-earnings data -- Bryant probes who is this human being as a person. What were they like as a kid? In college? At their very first job? The result, as Forbes describes it, is “an aquarium-like view into the worlds and psychologies of one of the more wildly romanticized characters in the American cultural landscape: the CEO.”

Bryant’s first question invariably concerns childhood, and the conversation moves along from there, usually concluding with advice for recent college graduates. “Figure out what you really like and what you’re really passionate about, advises Bryan Roberts, the CEO of Venrock. “The only thing that’s worse than really hard work is really hard work on something you don’t love.” “Learn how to sell,” advises Basecamp’s CEO. “Your entire career is going to be filled with sales in some way. You have to sell yourself. You have to learn how to persuade people.”

It’s juicy fodder for anyone who’s interested in how leaders develop over a lifetime, how they finally arrive at the top spot and stay there. You’ll find unexpected lessons (a summer job as a lifeguard ingrained the importance of simply paying attention) as well as basics worth repeating. Jive’s CEO tells Bryant her biggest pet peeve is “people who show up not prepared — you didn’t do your homework, you don’t know what the competition is doing, you don’t have a point of view. Don’t do that. Please come prepared.”

Bryant is moving on to other projects, and he recently posted a farewell wrap-up brimming with gleanings that are most timely and trenchant in this season of inspiring leadership and dismaying disgrace. Five of my favorite takeaways follow; access the archive here.

1) The Big Picture: You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be.

2) R E S P E C T: If there’s leadership, it means there are followers, and you’re only as good as the followers…. the quality of the followers is in direct correlation to the respect you hold them in. It’s not how much they respect you that is most important. It’s actually how much you respect them. It’s everything.”

3) Actions Speak Louder Than Words: “No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired. You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”

4) Always Be Ready: ‘You have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.’

5) Best Job Interview Question: ‘What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?’ “I’m hard pressed to think of a better crystal ball for predicting how somebody is likely to behave in the weeks, months and years after you hire them,” Bryant says. “After all, people often adopt the qualities of their parents that they like, and work hard to do the opposite of what they don’t like.”

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