Episode 19

Leadership Lessons from the Corner Office

with Adam Bryant

July 22, 2021

Adam Bryant
Managing Director, The ExCo Group; Author, "The CEO Test"

Adam Bryant joined The ExCo Group, an executive mentoring firm, as managing director in 2017 after a 30-year career in journalism, including 18 years at The New York Times. In addition to his many roles there as a reporter and editor, he created the weekly “Corner Office” column in 2009, and interviewed 525 CEOs and other leaders over a decade. He has written three books based on the themes that emerged from those interviews, including his latest: “THE CEO TEST: Master the Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders,” published by Harvard Business Review Press. Since joining The ExCo Group, he has started popular interview series on LinkedIn with board directors, CEOs and CHROs, and he writes a monthly column on leadership for Strategy+Business magazine.  Adam also is the senior adviser to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership at Columbia University.

I really think that listening is a leadership superpower and I think it's underappreciated.



Gary Bisbee  0:06

Washington, D.C., is my home away from home. I’ve worked here for the better part of three decades as a founder, entrepreneur, policy expert and author.

Don Rucker 0:10

Probably the longest title. Everybody sort of shortened it to ONC for sanity’s sake.

Gary Bisbee 0:15


I’ve learned leadership secrets from many health care executives who understand that Washington is the largest payer and regulator of health care.

Nancy-Ann DeParle 0:25

She said, well, because you’ll never get a husband if you do that.

Gary Bisbee 0:29

I began interviewing health care leaders many years ago because what better way to learn how they think, why they make it to the top and how they remain


Think about, what was your most challenging engagement.

Greg Carpenter 0:40

Health care has been the most difficult problem, as you said.

Gary Bisbee 0:43

We’ll talk about that later.


Adam Bryant wrote the “Corner Office” column at the New York Times for 10 years. During that time, he interviewed over 500 CEOs. He’s a virtual storehouse of information about how CEOs think about leadership. Although Adam has not studied healthcare, since his two daughters are nurses at Ochsner health system in New Orleans, we invited Adam into the health care family. This conversation with Adam was one leadership lesson after another and drew on his new book, The CEO Test. In fact, there are seven tests and we covered all of them in this conversation. For example, Adam discusses the question, can you lead transformation? Or can you really listen? Or can you build teams that are true teams? We work through how CEOs think about these questions and more. I asked Adam his view on whether there are natural leaders. You’ll be surprised at his answer. We discussed the characteristics of a successful CEO and the importance of handling uncertainty and risk. We wrapped up this thoughtful and engaging conversation by asking Adam for his advice to up-and-coming leaders.


Good morning, Adam, and welcome.


Adam Bryant  2:00  

Thanks so much, Gary. Thanks for having me.


Gary Bisbee  2:02  

We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. This show is all about leadership and, with the work you’ve done in your past as a journalist, you’re an acknowledged expert in that space. The leadership lessons apply to healthcare as they would to any industry. As I was mentioning earlier, we’re claiming you in health care because your two daughters work as nurses in emergency rooms, so welcome to the health care clan, Adam.


Adam Bryant  2:33  

Thank you.


Gary Bisbee  2:33  

Why don’t we kick-off? It’s always fun to explore the backgrounds of our guests. What was life like growing up for you, Adam?


Adam Bryant  2:42  

I was born in Montreal and we border hopped every five years between Canada and the United States, so I have two passports. I always joke that I’m bilingual. I speak Canadian and American. There are some lessons in having to move once in a while and be able to move into different groups of people. My father was a journalist. I think I saw him work and caught the journalism bug from him. When I was in my 20s, I decided I wanted to go into journalism. When I was a kid, I was basically one of those kids who couldn’t sit still. I was always doing something, played a ton of sports (pretty much every sport there is), and enjoyed it. I was a pretty good student since I was a quick study, but again, because I couldn’t really sit still, I sort of figured out the art of getting to the essence of something pretty quickly, which turned out to be pretty good training for journalism later on.


Gary Bisbee  3:40  

Given the fact that your father was a journalist, was he in any way influential? Did your parents participate in your decision to become a journalist?


Adam Bryant  3:49  

No, never pushed it at all. The thing I got from both my parents and my father, in particular, is that he was a world champion listener. He had this ability to listen really closely to people and have these transformative conversations. I would see him do this over and over just by showing real genuine interest in somebody, get them really animated, and telling stories, so I learned a lot of that from him.


Gary Bisbee  4:20  

We’ll talk about listening and leadership a bit later. You were at Newsweek, New York Times to distinguish publications. What got you into thinking about “Corner Office?”


Adam Bryant  4:36  

I was a reporter at the New York Times for 10 years in the 1990s. I wanted to go into business journalism, not because I’m particularly interested in “stocks go up, stocks go down” but more than that. I felt like business was a great lens to understand why people do what they do and see trends about the broader world. I covered a lot of different companies, a lot of industries, and I interviewed a lot of CEOs. I did those interviews in the way that most interviews with CEOs are done, which is essentially to interview them as strategists. It’s almost like you’re a Wall Street Analyst. Like, “How does next quarter look? And these new products? And these industry dynamics? How are you going to win?” That’s all well and good, but I found the more time I spent with CEOs, the more I was intrigued by them simply as people. I wanted to set aside those questions and ask them more timeless things like how did you do your job? And how did you learn to do your job? All of that ultimately rolled up into me launching this “Corner Office” series in 2009. It was based on one primary what-if question: what if I sat down with CEOs and never asked them a single question about their companies? Instead, I’ll ask them about leadership lessons they’ve learned over the course of their lives, how they think about culture, hiring, teams, career advice, and all these timeless rather than timely questions. That simple what-if has launched the series. I interviewed 525 CEOs every week, never missed a week for a decade, and wrote a couple of books based on it. Ultimately, that set me up for the new chapter of my career now working for the ExCo Group where we do leadership development and executive mentoring at the senior level. When I launched “The Corner Office,” there was a secondary what-if question that was important to me: what if I interviewed a lot of women and people of color and never asked them any race or gender-specific questions? So in effect, get rid of the adjectives that sometimes creep in front of the word “leader,” like “female leader” or “black CEO,” things like that. Get rid of those adjectives and just interview everybody the same way. I felt it’d be nice to imagine a day when female CEOs could have an interview that doesn’t begin with like, “So you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re a CEO. How do you do it all?” To this day, female CEOs are being interviewed that way and you can see this slow blink in their eyes of like, “Really? Are we going to have that conversation again?” So I try to make that contribution.


Gary Bisbee  7:12  

At what point in your 525 interviews did you realize you were building a library of information about leadership?


Adam Bryant  7:20  

It was more sort of a slow dawning of recognition. When I launched “Corner Office” it was a sort of like, “Let’s see what happens.” What happened over time is that—there is this idea that data is usually quantitative—but at some point I started feeling like I had enough data that was qualitative, that clear patterns were emerging about what set these leaders apart. Because I always asked open-ended questions, I felt like the data was pretty good. Obviously, you could say I had selection bias in who I was choosing to interview, but clear patterns around leadership started emerging. By now I have about 6 million words from the raw transcripts I’ve done. Also, what’s so interesting about leadership is it’s one of the hardest things to do period because it’s full of paradoxes and complexities and contradictions. The more CEOs I interviewed, the more I realized that everybody has their own approach. What works for one person isn’t going to work for another, might depend on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, but the best leaders figure out a way to make it work for themselves based on who they are and the people they’re leading and the context in which they’re leading. My brain is wired to always be searching for patterns. That’s ultimately what’s led to the now three books that I’ve written.


Gary Bisbee  8:52  

Not to necessarily get into the topic of interviewing, but I’ve always thought the interviewing I’ve done is collecting primary research. My background is a researcher so I consider 525 interviews to be a phenomenal amount of content and information and your ability to pick up trends very impressive.


Adam Bryant  9:15  

Thank you. What was interesting for me during the interviews every week is that, especially when I started out, I was road testing different questions to see what ultimately yielded the best stories and insights. I ultimately settled on this pattern of starting every interview have the same three questions: (1) tell me about when you were a kid, (2) tell me about your parents. What did they do (or whoever raised you) and how do they influence you? The third question was, how have your parents influenced the way you lead today? I generally found that once you got the answers to those three questions, you understood somebody. People were very open about the adversity they faced earlier in their lives. How they had an alcoholic parent, for example, and how that influences how they lead today. That level of self-awareness is incredibly important as a leader.


Gary Bisbee  10:10  

Do you think there are natural leaders just like there are natural athletes or natural musicians?


Adam Bryant  10:18  

Some people are born with a bit of an aptitude for it, but I also think it is definitely a muscle that can be developed. One of the things we tried to do with this latest book, The CEO Test, is frame things in terms of ROI. Leadership is about everything at some level and, if you want to get better as a leader, we wanted to help answer the question “If I’m going to spend an hour a week trying to become a better leader, where am I going to get the biggest return of investment on that effort?” That was a big part of the goal. A big part of leadership is understanding the things that really matter, that are going to impact the teams and build the teams and culture and listening, things like that because leadership is a puzzling field. I’ve come to appreciate the fact that you can say literally anything about leadership and it’s going to probably be right at some level. If you say, “Fill in the blank: leadership is all about x,” you can say it’s about anything and people are going to nod their heads and say, “Yeah, that’s right,” but just because something isn’t wrong doesn’t mean it’s an insight. In all my work around leadership, I’ve focused on true insight about how to lead more effectively rather than just repeating a truism or a platitude.


Gary Bisbee  11:46  

The CEO Test has seven tests that are articulated, some of which we’ll cover today. I found it really easy to pick up some kind of learning about comparing it to how I view myself and where I should spend my time and energy. I thought it was terrific and easily readable as well. I’m a board member of a large public company that’s currently searching for a CEO. How should I think about characteristics of a successful CEO?


Adam Bryant  12:24  

Some context is important because this is a question that boards are dealing with right now. We are talking to a lot of directors in our consulting work and heads of HR and CEOs. Coming out of the pandemic, we hear the same thing from everybody: “We are rethinking everything in terms of what we are looking for in leaders of the past.” The themes that come up most often now are agility and humanity. The wall between the personal and professional has come down. The way the idea of succession is changing is that, for a very long time, companies and consultancies would develop these lists of competencies that they would use for assessments. It’s very easy to get 50 or even 100 competencies that you would expect and need from an executive, like strategic mindset and executive presence, but there’s this dawning recognition that—even with all that work—nothing’s really changing. The fact of the matter is, the average tenure of CEOs is five years, and it’s been going down over time so you have to say, “Is something about the system not working as well as it should?” Part of the problem is the degree to which hope is part of a company’s talent strategy is too high. What they do is they’ll sort of look at a candidate and say, “Well, they’ve got a lot of the competencies. Now, this is a big new job we’re going to put them into.” Then they cross their fingers under the table and say, “Let’s hope they do well.” The way you close that gap and reduce the degree to which hope is a talent strategy is being clear about what that job entails. If we’re putting them into this job, what will be the biggest determinants of whether they succeed or fail in that role? Once you get clarity around that, then you can look at the candidate in a more holistic sense. Does this person have a track record in that? You can say as a CEO or something, “We need somebody for whom diversity is really important.” If you decide that’s really important, then you just look at their track record in all the teams they built in all their jobs. Were those diverse teams or not? You get sort of a recognition. It’s just getting really clear on what the job entails and then looking for, “Does this person have a demonstrated track record of doing that?” Again, there are 1,000s of leadership books out there, but one of the contributions we wanted to get clarity around “this is what the actual job entails.” It’s not like that sort of evil knievel motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon kind of hope. Will they make it or not? It’s like, let’s close the gap of that Canyon and say “this is what the job is.” If we agree this is what the job is, does this person have a demonstrated track record of doing this kind of work?


Gary Bisbee  15:26  

One point that was made in the book that I found particularly compelling is the difference between priorities and outcomes. Sometimes it’s easy to set your priorities but forget you’re driving toward outcomes. Can you share some of your thoughts about that, Adam?


Adam Bryant  15:43  

Some of the insights started with our work on leadership teams because, when we work with teams, we often ask them, “What are your priorities?” Often, we are given lists that are 12 things long. One of my partners told me that a leadership team handed him a list of priorities that was 182 items long. First of all, there’s that Jim Collins saying that if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have priorities, so I think the first insight is that most lists of priorities are too long. If you pause and say, “Why is that?” One of the reasons is leaders want to sort of demonstrate they have their arms around all the challenges. Another dynamic that kicks in is that, if you have a leadership team of eight people, then it’s natural for every one of them to want to get acknowledged, that what they’re doing is important. So suddenly, if you have eight people on your leadership team, then there are eight priorities reflecting each of those so there are all these traps that people fall into. The other thing is I realized that the word priority itself is problematic because it’s ambiguous, it’s amorphous. Implicit in it is this idea of “I’m always working on this.” As I said, I’m wired to sort of spot patterns, and as I’ve seen more and more lists of priorities, I started noticing how many bullet points start with the same two words: “continue to…” For me it’s like, “Okay, if that’s really a priority and you’re saying you’re going to continue to do it, isn’t that something you always do? Is it really a priority?” As a human being, I need to sleep and eat and breathe, but I wouldn’t put those on my list of priorities. Shifting the conversation to outcomes leads to a concrete and practical discussion, the simple question of “12 months from now, when we look back, what are the two or three things we need to have accomplished for this to be a good year?” Just that conversation has this breakthrough effect on leadership teams like, “Oh, okay, what do we need to achieve rather than stuff we’re always going to be working on in perpetuity?”


Gary Bisbee  18:10  

Some say being a CEO is a good life, but a lonely life. You address that in the book. How did that discussion go when you were interviewing CEOs?


Adam Bryant  18:24  

A lot of them talked about listening. A big part of being a leader involves self-awareness and awareness of some of the traps you can fall into. One of the traps is this idea of like, the higher you go in the organization, the more messages and data gets massaged and managed before it reaches you. It was captured in this expression that a woman named Nell Minow who I interviewed shared with me: “Watch how funny your jokes get.” I’ve seen that dynamic myself, where the boss tells a joke that’s not very funny and everybody’s laughing at them like they’re Dave Chappelle or something. There’s a great scene in the HBO series The Sopranos that captures this dynamic where Tony is playing poker with some friends of his. His wife Carmela said to him at one point, “Look, these guys, they’re not your friends, they work for you. They laugh at your stupid jokes,” so he intentionally tells a stupid joke just to see the reaction. Of course, these guys burst out laughing and there’s this slow pan of the camera, so the first part is recognizing that you are trapped in a bubble. The second part of that is saying, “Okay, if I am trapped in a bubble, what am I going to do to break out of it?” So many companies fall into really big trouble because the leader may give off signals either explicit or just through their body language that they don’t want to hear bad news and they don’t want people to disagree with them. There’s always bad news in a company, so is it going to get to the top? Those are the key lessons that were brought to life by my co-author Kevin Sharer who is a former CEO of Amgen. He tells this story of how he’s the first acknowledge when he was a younger executive. He was a terrible listener. He said a lot of questions would just go like, “It’s going to take me five minutes for me to show you that I’m smarter than you. I’m going to tell you what you’re going to tell me and then I’m going to tell you what to do because it’s going to be very efficient.” It worked for him for a long time, but then Amgen had this horrible crisis with regulators and a particular drug. Kevin had this epiphany sitting by himself waiting for his daughter to show up for dinner. He just sort of said, “Look, what do I need to own for this problem? What did I do or not do?” He realized he was a horrible listener and, from that moment on, he became a much better listener. He created this ecosystem or infrastructure so he knew what was going on inside his organization, what regulators were thinking. As part of the annual employee service survey, he had this open field question where he would ask everybody in the company, “What do you think of the job that Kevin is doing?” And he would get unvarnished feedback, so I think listening is the leadership superpower and I think it’s underappreciated. I would be surprised if I found a business school that had “how to be a better listener” as part of its curriculum, but it should be.


Gary Bisbee  21:31  

That should be. Having graduated from the Wharton Business School, it was not on the agenda there, not part of the curriculum. It strikes me that a lot of us think we’re good listeners but probably aren’t, much like Kevin, perhaps. When you were interviewing these CEOs, could you pick up who was the better listener or who wasn’t?


Adam Bryant  21:57  

Yeah, a lot of it on their end was just whether they were actually answering my questions because some people would sort of sit down with these predetermined talk tracks in their head. It’s almost like a politician with a talking point. It doesn’t matter what you ask them. Soon after I started “Corner Office,” I was getting probably eight pitches every single day from companies saying “please interview our CEO,” so I was kind of like a bouncer at a club. I could determine who got in and I did a lot of work upfront to make sure they were the kind of person who was going to answer my questions. In all those interviews, I have thought a lot about listening. As much as I was focused on “are they listening to me,” it was a weekly test for me on being a good listener. When these CEOs would sit down with me (and I did plan 99% of them in person rather than over the phone), my job was to get them to trust me and open up to me and share with me stories that maybe they hadn’t shared before. Part of that is whether or not you seem trustworthy, but a big part of it is people can tell if you’re listening to them. You can see it in their eyes. I always say eye contact is the 5G of communication. You can tell if somebody is distracted. The closest I’ve probably ever come to meditating is I tried to be super present during all my interviews and not think about the meeting I just came from or the meeting I had to go to or some tough deadline I’m facing three hours from now. I learned over time that, if I started getting distracted, it had this butterfly effect on the interview. In some subtle way, I could tell the person was pulling back a little bit, so it was this great discipline for me week after week of being present. If you really are, it is so rare these days that it can lead to some incredible moments.


Gary Bisbee  24:03  

I’ve noticed some people have the capacity to act like they’re listening. They seem attentive and take notes and whatnot but then they don’t actually go implement what we’re talking about. Have you run into that in your career?


Adam Bryant  24:23  

Yeah. I heard this great expression that a lot of conversations are just serial monologues where somebody is talking and the other person is not listening, they’re just waiting for you to stop talking. The question is like, “What is your goal when you’re listening?” Are you really listening for understanding, for comprehension, to learn something that maybe you didn’t know? I’ll confess it, I’m a pretty hardcore introvert and I don’t particularly like to go to a lot of parties, but I always feel like when I do go to parties I want to wear a big button that says “Do you want an audience or do you want a conversation?” because a lot of people don’t want to have a conversation, they just want to have an audience. I’m a pretty good listener, so I can be a pretty good audience and ask them questions on that. I’m always so shocked if somebody starts asking me questions because for the most part they never do.


Gary Bisbee  25:10  

Let’s go back to teams for a moment. The term in the book is “true teams” and I wondered what you meant by “true teams?”


Adam Bryant  25:21  

It starts with this insight (and your listeners and viewers will have to agree with me or not on this upfront threshold insight): do you think that the phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant? I think most families are dysfunctional at some level. If you agree with me on that point, then there’s a following logic that comes from that: if every family is dysfunctional, then putting a bunch of strangers around the table is not by definition going to make them a high performing team, even if you want them to be. You put high performing, high achieving, ambitious people on a leadership team together where they are fighting for both resources and attention, you’re naturally going to get a zero-sum culture. I always make the joke that there’s a reason why HBO ran Game of Thrones on Sunday night: to get people ready for work the next day because that’s how a lot of leadership teams operate. “I have to take you down if I’m going to succeed.” Even though every leadership team says “we want to have each other’s back” when you meet with them, everybody wants that, but again, when you’re fighting for resources and attention and all those other things, the Game of Thrones dynamics kick in. You have to have an explicit counterweight that starts at the top. The leader has to be super intentional about it and have those kind of meta discussions about how we’re going to operate as a team to provide that kind of clear counterweight to all those instincts that kick in. I’ve seen too many leaders who are a little bit passive. There are some leaders who call it “creative tension,” so they like watching the whole Game of Thrones things operate. Some leaders have this hands-off attitude where they scratch their head and say, “Why doesn’t my leadership team get along?” not realizing they are the ones setting the tone. In the book, we tried to create this framework: If you’re a leader with a leadership team, be clear on these four questions because otherwise you’re just going to get Game of Thrones.


Gary Bisbee  27:36  

Another observation in the book that somebody said is that really good companies only have about 75% of their people at the right job at the right time and that poor companies probably have 25% of the people in the right job. Do you subscribe to that?


Adam Bryant  27:57  

When I heard that from Greg Brennaman—who, by the way, was the very first CEO I interviewed for “Corner Office”—it was a pretty stark observation on his part. You may quibble with the numbers, the exact percentages, but I think the insight is important because at a lot of companies there’s not that clarity on what is expected of the person in the role and accountability. A lot of people go out of their way to avoid having tough conversations, to deliver bad performance reviews, and some cultures take literally this idea, “Well, we’re a family here.” You hear that from a lot of companies. The danger of that is that, like in true families, you can’t fire your Uncle Joe. For a family, you have to put up with Uncle Joe’s weird behavior at the Thanksgiving table. That kind of mindset is like, “Well, people are weird and this person isn’t really doing their job, so we’ll leave them in their job, but we’ll get three other people to do a part of their job.” That dynamic kicks in. That’s why you have to start with getting the strategy right because that’s the cornerstone of the foundation. Once you’re clear on what you want to achieve, how you’re going to get there, the challenges that have to be overcome, and the scoreboard, then that will cascade or flow through the rest of the organization. Otherwise, at too many companies the strategy is mushy, which makes it hard for everybody to hold people accountable. The other thing that happens is human nature kicks in because, if the overall strategy is mushy, then people say, “Well, I’m just going to determine for myself how I’m going to contribute to this company.” Then you have people going off in a whole bunch of different directions.


Gary Bisbee  29:49  

Another one of the seven tests in the book The CEO Test is transformation. Of course, that warms the heart of any healthcare leader because we think we’ve been in transforming situations for years, that’s just part of the job. You read the book, and you get the feeling that that’s happening probably in most industries these days. Is that what you picked up in your interviews?


Adam Bryant  30:15  

Yeah, and I think everything has been accelerated since the pandemic started. Part of the step back is we have to acknowledge there are three big tsunamis rolling across corporations right now. One is the nature of work itself: hybrid, remote, just how work is being done. The second one is the role of companies in society, and not just because of the racial injustice of that coming to the fore last year. We are in this moment where it’s stakeholder capitalism, not shareholder capitalism. Employees increasingly feel like they should have a voice and a vote in the company’s policies. The third thing is leadership itself and what’s expected of leaders and the idea of “command and control” leadership, I think that era is officially dead. Then you layer on top of that, everybody’s made the point that five years of digital acceleration happened in a matter of months, so it has been a transformative time and I think all companies are doing that. The big challenge for anybody who’s in a leadership position is that most people don’t like change. Some people love it and they love the ambiguity and the uncertainty and the gray areas and all that and they really lean into it, but most people don’t like change because uncertainty means risk and people like to go into work and have a sense of stability. The challenge then for leaders is how to get your people to be open to risk because. Otherwise, people are just going to freeze and not do anything, so how do you get them to actually want to help with that transformation? There’s a few key parts of the playbook: being really clear on the simple “this is the state of our company in the world today” and “these are the things these are the reasons why we have to change.” Also then paint a picture of what you will look like when you change to create a very simple picture nobody can argue with based on data. Like, here are the trend lines. We show the New York Times as one of the case studies in the book. Print advertising, which was the mothership of revenue was going down like this so status quo was not an option. They had to change. That’s the first thing that you have to do: clarity about the world today, status quo isn’t an option, and this is where we need to get to. Another important insight that I heard from some leaders is framing up the conversation in terms being clear about what is not going to change. Fundamentals, whether it’s values or mission or purpose and what we stand for and the contribution of you saying, “That is not going to change. Mission is not going to change, but maybe traditions are, like the processes and how we get there.” Setting up that framework makes people a little more open to being up for that. The final point is that, if you imagine a leader on a stage setting out the case for transformation, inevitably somebody is going to put up their hand and go, “Well, how do we know this is going to work?” That’s one of those CEO tests. A simple monologue I’ve heard from some of the leaders I’ve talked to is like, “Look, just be honest. I cannot be certain that 100% this is going to work. I can only be like 70% certain that this is going to work, but I need everybody to be 100% committed to making this work. If the world changes or if our theory changes, we’ll let people know when we’ll adjust.” Having those simple frameworks so people go, “Okay, I can sign up for this.”


Gary Bisbee  34:07  

Do you think CEOs have a greater capacity for dealing with uncertainty and risk than other leaders?


Adam Bryant  34:15  

They need to, whether all of them do, if you ask yourself why people succeed or fail in these roles. Anybody who goes into a big leadership job with a rigid view of their theory of how the company should work, how the world should work, or what’s not going to change, is not going to last long in those roles. Being a CEO, being an effective leader is an almost infinite series of balancing acts. In the last chapter we talk about the paradoxes of leadership. It’s an important insight because you can’t go into leadership with a “is it this or that,” because it’s never “this or that,” it’s “this and that.” It’s like, what is the moment demand? The way that plays out, if you ask yourself, “What is it about the way a CEO’s brain works or needs to work?” We’ve heard these big labels about agility and curiosity and all that but, when I think of how leaders and effective leaders’ brains works, one part is sort of this periscope or radar that’s constantly scanning the horizon, and it’s a broad horizon full of new information. What’s going on in our industry? Think of healthcare. What’s going on in healthcare? What’s Amazon doing? What can we learn from all these other industries? What are the macroeconomic forces. This sense of always scanning the horizon, taking that data, and then building the core skill of leadership we talked about in the first chapter: simplifying complexity. Then take all that data and develop a model (a theory of how our company is going to succeed in the world now and in five years) that you can then communicate in an all-hands meeting, and keep it simple. Then constantly test those back and forth. You build the model (the theory of how the company works and how it’s going to win in the world) and then it’s this constant back and forth, always scanning the horizon for new information that might make you tweak that model. If you go inside an effective CEO’s brain, that’s what it looks like to me.


Gary Bisbee  36:39  

Another one of the seven tests is handling a crisis. How did you dig into that during your CEO interviews to figure out how they would approach a crisis?


Adam Bryant  36:52  

It was the toughest chapter to write in the sense that we were writing the book in the middle of the pandemic. It was the last chapter we sent to the editor and probably took us about three months to write. An important part whenever you talk about crisis is a simple framework: at the end of the day, there are two kinds of crises. One is something like the pandemic that affects everybody. You think of the financial crisis of 2008. The sense of “we’re all in this together.” The other type of crisis is something that happens in your sandbox, whatever that sandbox is. The company you’re running, the team you’re running and you’re the leader and this is a reflection of you and your reputation. To have a fruitful discussion about navigating a crisis, you need to set up that framework. I’ve been really intrigued by doing a lot of interviews with leaders about the leadership lessons they’re learning during this pandemic, literally in real-time. How are they thinking about navigating a crisis? There are fascinating insights there. To me, the main one is, when you’re in a crisis like that, you see it as an opportunity. You have that mindset of ripping off the rearview mirror. “We’re not talking about going back to normal. What is the opportunity here to help us rethink how we do our business, to try different things, to maybe take care of some momentum killers that we had in the past, to experiment?” There have been so many silver linings through this tragedy. I’ve heard so many leaders talk about the muscles we build, the speed of innovation. I hope we can hold on to that as we get on the other side of this. There is that phenomenon. Again, a lot of us as human nature. I’ve always felt, if you give enough people enough time sitting around the table, they’re going to come up with reasons not to do something. That whole dynamic went away during the crisis because, when the pandemic happened, it was like, “We need to get everybody working at home in three days, like right now.” There was no time to think about why it can’t be done. Again, so many lessons around that. You shift to the other one of when crisis happens on your watch. There are a couple of key insights. One is to recognize that most leaders go into denial, like, “This can’t be happening to me. The world doesn’t understand. We’re all well-intended, hard-working people. How can this be happening?” A big part is recognizing that every word that comes out of your mouth is going to be a test of your credibility, so you simply cannot say anything you’re going to regret later or things you don’t know to be true. The history books are filled with this lesson over and over. We talked to this guy, Tom Strickland. He’s a partner at Wilmer Hale. He advises a lot of big companies on crises and he says this is the core lesson that people forget over and over: don’t say anything you don’t know. If there’s a cyber attack and there’s a breach of customers credit card information and it’s like 10 million people who were affected it’s like, “That’s it. It’s only 10 million. We’re on top of this.” Then a week later it’s like, “Well, it turned out to be 40 million.” Then two weeks later it’s like, “It’s actually 110 million.” Then your credibility is shot and you can’t get that back.


Gary Bisbee  40:20  

That’s true. As I’ve been talking to the healthcare CEOs, healthcare leaders, one of the things they say they took away from this crisis is humbleness because they were forced to make decisions. There was so little data available at the beginning or the data that was available was wrong that they were constantly in a situation of having to say, “We’re going to make a decision based on the data we have. It might change.” Well, sure enough, it did change. In this series of back and forth, they took away that they just needed to be more humble in terms of how they approach their employees.


Adam Bryant  41:03  

A big part of that is being secure enough to be able to say, “I don’t know. What does everybody else think?” My point earlier that I think the era of “command and control” leadership is dead, it is over because anybody who sits at the head of a table right now and says they know exactly what’s going to happen is going to lose credibility. I love this expression about teams, that the smartest person in the room is the room. Collectively, we’ll come up with the right answer together, but again, that takes a level of confidence and being grounded and security as a leader to be able to say, “I don’t know. What does everybody else think?” Also to be able to say, “I don’t know, but I am confident we’ll figure this out, but I don’t know the answer right now.”


Gary Bisbee  41:55  

The last chapter in the book is managing the inner game of leadership. I was curious as to why you use the word “game,” Adam.


Adam Bryant  42:06  

It’s not a game in a literal sense, but maybe it has some of the dynamics of a game in the sense that it is challenging. It’s not something you win necessarily, but you do get better at it. Your edit is well taken. I guess it could have been called other things, but a big part of the insight for me was in the mentoring work we do with new leaders. When you move in a leadership position for the first time, it’s overwhelming. You’re under so much scrutiny, you’re trying to figure this out. If you start looking for advice on how to be a better leader, the more you read, the more you get all sorts of contradictory information. For every leader I’ve interviewed over the years who said to me, “I lead from the back,” I’ve heard just as many say, “I leave from the front.” You have to create a sense of urgency, but you have to be patient, and you need to be compassionate, but you really need to hold people accountable and have tough conversations. You just go through the list. What we tried to do in that chapter is help create some frameworks settle down the noise and understand this is how you need to be as a leader. The first six chapters of the book are what you need to do, like this is the job, what you have to do as a leader. I thought there was an interesting framing for the last one: how do you need to be? It goes back to the paradoxes I was talking about earlier. Once you understand that all that conflicting advice is not conflict, it’s just understanding what the balance point is. I mentioned this whole idea of eye contact. The vast majority of the people I’ve interviewed, I’ve interviewed in person. I was struck by this quality that so many of them had: they seemed to be calm, confident, and credible. I spent a lot of time reflecting on why that is because being a CEO is a tough job. Like every 30 seconds, you’re getting barraged from some different angle, some new challenge. How do you stay calm and confident within that? I think a big part of it is coming up with a framework—not only for the strategy for the company—but also coming up with a framework that works for yourself for leadership. It starts with understanding what’s important to you, what your belief system is on how to build a high-performing culture as a team, how to deal with people, and all those things and coming to those valid points. Some people need different things and some situations need different things, but understanding at least what your theory of the case is will allow you to then flex as need be. That’s a big part of why effective leaders look calm and confident. We want to share the best advice we could and experiences Kevin has lived himself to help people achieve that sense and not feel overwhelmed. At the end of the day, part of the contribution we want to make is to help leaders become better because there are too many bad bosses out there. We’re moving into this era where bad bosses are on alert a little bit and are going to get called out by their employees more than they have in the past, but there are still too many bad bosses. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I want to be a bad boss.” They don’t do that, but then you ask yourself, why are there so many bad bosses? Part of it is they have this rigid approach of like, “this is my leadership style, and all my employees need to accommodate my style” and “this is my approach for driving success” and they expect the world to accommodate their worldview. It doesn’t work that way. When it doesn’t work, they get frustrated. They double down and start pounding the table. Stepping back and saying, “How do you need to be as a leader?” So much of it, again, is about finding the balance point in all these paradoxes.


Gary Bisbee  46:25  

I hope all these bad bosses read The CEO Test because they will become better. Adam, this has been a terrific interview, we very much appreciate your time. I’d like to ask one final question, if I could, a number of our audience are up-and-coming leaders. I’m sure you’re asked all the time for advice by people that are in that up-and-coming class, but what advice would you give for up-and-coming leaders?


Adam Bryant  46:54  

I go back to this core skill of simplifying complexity. One of the questions I’ve asked myself is, “I’ve interviewed hundreds of leaders from such diverse backgrounds and different paths, what is the through line?” It is this habit of mind that they can simplify complexity. They can take all the complexity of their industry and the strategy and all that and articulate it and communicate it in a simple way to get people to understand and follow. My advice to aspiring leaders is to build that muscle for yourself. If you’re writing a memo, how can it be shorter, more concise? If you’re building a PowerPoint deck, how can you use fewer slides? Always be building that muscle for yourself, but also be watching other people. When you’re watching other leaders, watch them through the lens of who does this well? What do they do that helps them do it well? Who doesn’t do it well? It’s an effective lens for looking at the world and also becoming a better leader yourself.


Gary Bisbee  48:03  

Adam, thanks again. A terrific interview. I love the book you and Kevin wrote. For all the viewers and listeners, it’s a good one.


Adam Bryant  48:14  

Really appreciate it. Gary, thanks for the conversation.


Gary Bisbee  48:18  

New episodes will debut every Thursday. Join me in conversations to gain advice and wisdom from CEOs, presidents, and healthcare experts. Health care leadership is hard work, but it becomes more manageable as we learn from the remarkable lives and careers of our guests. I’ll see you there.

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