Book Review: The Corner Office

corner office

Adam Bryant was curious about CEOs. Specifically, are there certain traits they have in common that set them apart from others? And are those traits necessarily what we would expect?

To find out, he interviewed more than 70 CEOs and executives, then grouped the nuggets he gleaned into chapters under three broad headings: “Succeeding,” “Managing,” and “Leading.”

The student of business, the regular reader of HBR and Fast Company and the trendy books, will not find much that’s new here. Confidence, not wasting your people’s time in badly-run meetings, preparation, and time management are all covered here in their own chapters. But the book contains some surprises, which I suspect are different for everyone.

The surprise for me was the chapter titled “Passionate Curiosity.” He leads off by saying:

Many CEOs are passionately curious people. It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that. In business, CEOs are supposed to project calm confidence and breezy authority…. But get them away from these familiar scripts and… they seem like eager students who devour insights and lessons, and are genuinely, enthusiastically interested in everything going on around them. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether they can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories, and what they do.

He shares the story of Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox. Several times in her early career she asked bold questions in meetings – the kind of question most people, including Burns, would expect to get them in trouble – that brought her to the attention of executives. In particular she relates a story about the monthly meeting Xerox’s President, Paul Allaire, had with top managers.

Burns noticed a pattern. Allaire would announce, “We have to stop hiring.” But then the company would hire a thousand people. The next month, same thing. So she raised her hand. “I’m a little confused, Mr. Allaire,” she said. “If you keep saying, ‘No hiring,’ and we hire a thousand people every month, who can say ‘No hiring’ and make it actually happen?”

After the meeting she was invited to Allaire’s office and offered a job as his executive assistant.

It’s a tough lesson. For one thing, if CEOs see their job as asking good questions, that must mean they expect the organization to provide them. An employee who does nothing but parrot back other questions is probably going to get annoying. Not to mention that most bosses, as a statistical necessity, are not going to be as enlightened as those that rise to the top of the world’s largest organizations, and some of them might well feel threatened by an employee who challenged them or the status quo. Even Byant acknowledges that we have “a business culture that values jut-jawed certainty.”

And yet a great number of the CEOs said they look for this quality in their employees, that they notice them, hire them, promote them. “If you give positive vibes, if you show an interest, by and large a lot of people will react,” said one.

This is perhaps the key: not always challenging, but showing enthusiasm, trying, as the saying goes, to be interested rather than trying to be interesting. “People who show this kind of initiative will find that it leads to important relationships – at work and outside of work. That’s how people find mentors.”

And that is the secret of this book. It’s titled “The Corner Office,” but it’s not only about business. Many of the tips it contains can be applied anywhere in life:

  • The chapter about conducting interviews, while entertaining in itself and a huge help to anyone preparing to be interviewed, could be used more generally to find out about anyone you meet.
  • The chapter about how people often have to be Type A on their way up the ladder and Type B once they reach the top expands on the idea that “Every strength taken to an extreme can be a weakness,” as one person put it. Even strengths have to be managed effectively.
  • The chapter titled “Small Gestures, Big Payoffs” reminds us that it’s the small things in life that matter, that the kind things we do that we think nothing of that are the biggest building blocks in relationships.

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