People and Strategy

Adam Bryant’s Guidance for People Managers Considering Senior Leadership Roles

Episode Summary

In this episode of People and Strategy, author Adam Bryant joins host Tony Lee to discuss topics including the self-examination necessary for people managers considering senior leadership roles, the traps leaders can fall into, and some of the most surprising answers CEOs have given in response to the question, “How do you hire?”

Episode Notes

Adam Bryant is the senior managing director of the ExCo Group, and author of the new book The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership. A self-described “insight junkie” driven by content that prompts new understanding of people, organizations, and the world at large, these interests effectively fueled his 30+ year career as a journalist, as well as his Corner Office series at the New York Times, where he interviewed more than 500 CEOs. In this episode of People and Strategy, Bryant joins host Tony Lee to discuss topics including the self-examination necessary for people managers considering senior leadership roles, the traps leaders can fall into, and some of the most surprising answers CEOs have given in response to the question, “How do you hire?”

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Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Announcer: This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by Safeguard Global.

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Tony Lee: Welcome to today's People and Strategy podcast. I'm Tony Lee, vice president of content for the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Executive Network, which is the premier network of executives, and thought leaders in the field of human resources.

I'm excited to speak today with Adam Bryant, senior managing director of the ExCo Group, where he also serves as the articles' editor for the People and Strategy journal. Adam is a prolific writer, and speaker, and author of the new book, the Leap to Leader, how Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership.

Adam, welcome to the People and Strategy podcast.

Adam Bryant: Thank you, Tony.

Tony Lee: I'm curious, so the leadership field is not something naturally, I don't think, a journalist dives into. How did it become something of interest to you?

Adam Bryant: Sure. So I was a journalist for 30 years. 18 years at the New York Times. I spent about half my career as a reporter, mostly covering business, and I interviewed a lot of CEOs. And after a while I realized that CEOs are pretty much always interviewed as strategists.

I mean, if you boil down most Q, and with CEOs, they're basically two questions. They're like, what's the company strategy, and what about the competitive landscape? And I enjoyed doing those interviews, but I just found the more time that I spent with CEOs, the more I became really curious about them as people, and how they got to where they are, and how they do what they do.

And so, I rolled all that up into a very simple, what-if, which is what if I sat down with CEOs, and never asked them a single question about their companies, and instead asked them about early influences that shaped who they are as a leader, key leadership lessons they've learned throughout their career, and how they think about the universal challenges of leadership like teams, and culture, and hiring, and all those things, rather than talking about strategy.

So I used that what-if to start the Corner office series, I created at the New York Times. Did that for a decade, interviewed more than 500 CEOs, and since leaving the Times, and joining the ExCo group, I've gone all in on LinkedIn where I've got a few interview series again, with this same focus of, let's just talk about leadership, not company strategy.

So by now, I've found myself in this position where I've interviewed more than a thousand mostly CEOs, but also board directors, CHROs, and just endlessly fascinating conversations. And I'm an insight junkie. I mean, tell me something that makes me feel smarter in terms of how the world works, how people work, how organizations work, and tell me a good story that bring that to life, make it memorable, and ideally some tool, technique, framework approach to put that insight into action.

So that's been my swim lane for a while now.

Tony Lee: Yeah, fascinating. So when you first decided to dive into this, you actually wrote a book called The CEO Test, about the challenges that leaders face. What brought that about, and why the follow-up?

Adam Bryant: Sure. So The CEO Test, even though it's called The CEO Test, it's not just for CEOs, but the subtitle says it all, which is master the challenges that make, or break all leaders.

And so, that's the only book I've written with a co-author, Kevin Sharer, the former CEO of Amgen. And we really tried to address that challenge of the subtitle, which is to ask, and then, answer why do people typically succeed, or fail in leadership roles? And of course, there's 300 reasons, there's 500 reasons, whatever, but we really try to distill it down to what are the key reasons why people succeed, or fail in these roles?

And then, what can we learn from CEOs, about how to succeed in their roles? Because a lot of people, they look through the lens of, how is the CEO unique? How is their job unique? And we flip the lens around, and say, "In what way is the CEO's job the same as somebody who's running a team of a dozen people?" And then, really look at the leadership challenges.

And again, our goal is to provide a little bit of a playbook, rather than just identifying the challenges, say, well, here's how to navigate them. So we've got chapters on the importance of building a strategy that's clear, and simple for everybody, including people who just joined the company, and listening, and navigating crises, and things like that.

Tony Lee: So now, in the Leap to Leader, you're broadening your audience, you're reaching out to all people, managers, to say, you're ready to make the next step. And what should managers know before they raise their hand to say, I want to be a leader?

Adam Bryant: And just for context, I mean, the two books ideally provide a bit of a bookend for each other. So The CEO Test, the posted note on that is like, this is what leaders do. These are the seven challenges that leaders face, and how to, in effect, do them, and navigate those challenges.

The Leap to Leader, the book that I just wrote, is really gets more into how you need to be as a leader, the mindset shift.

And to your question, I mean, the book is organized around four sections, and the first section, or chapter, if you will is called, Do You Really Want to Lead? And really is italicized for a reason.

Because I think, look, we can argue about just the number, but I think leadership has gotten, pick a number, five to 10 times harder just in the last few years. And the conversations that frontline managers are now, having to have a much more complicated. There's so many pressures now, on senior leaders now. So the job has gotten so much harder.

And I think what happens in a lot of organizations is, there's this momentum, this inertia that just carries people along almost like a river like, "You're a high performer, Tony, you, of course, want to be a manager. You, of course, want to be a leader."

And that's just this implicit shared understanding. And I don't think people pause on either side, whether it's the company, or the individual, and say, "Wait a minute, do I really want to do this? Do you really want to do this? Because do you know what you're getting into?"

Because I think, a lot of people in their careers, if they're at all ambitious, they say, "Yeah, I want that bigger title, I want that promotion."

And they may have a theory of what managing people is, they may have a theory of what being a senior leader is like, but you don't really know until you get into these jobs. And when you do get into these jobs, you discover, wow, that's just most of your days dealing with people problems. You're putting fires out all day. These are stamina jobs. They're a three shift day.

And so, what I always encourage people, and we say in the book is like, you really need to take some time, and just for that in introspection, the reflection, so that you are very clear for yourself about why you want to do this. And I think that if your answers are, for money, or power, those aren't really the right answers, because the world has changed, the whole power command, and control thing doesn't really play anymore, and yes, there are financial rewards that come with these positions, but there's just so many sacrifices, and trade-offs that the money may not feel like it's worth it.

So again, I always encourage people to be very clear about why you're doing this, because if you're clear about your personal, why, that's going to help you navigate the tough parts.

Tony Lee: So would you say the Leap to Leader is better suited for the person who is ambitious, and wants to take that next step, or the person who has found themselves in a leadership role, and a little confused about what to do next?

Adam Bryant: Yeah, a bit of both. I mean, ideally, I tried to write it for, whether it's the MBA student even up to the C-suite, because ideally I'd wanted to provide a playbook for somebody who has already made the Leap to Leader, to give it to somebody who's trying to make the leap, so they're really trying to provide it for a pretty big audience.

But I think the core audience really, is that early to mid-career, maybe in your second management role, and the company has signaled to you it's like, "We see you as a future leader here." Maybe you're part of cohorts, you've been named a high potential.

And so, at that point, it really does become this mental shift, I think, it's being a leader is not about your title, it is really about how you think, and how you approach the job.

And that can be a bit amorphous, but I really wanted to explore that, and as much as I could, deconstruct what that means.

Tony Lee: So in that mental shift, terms that come up, authenticity, humanity, seem to have become a lot more important for leaders. What do they mean to you?

Adam Bryant: To me, it's about being very clear about what you stand for, and there's a section in the book around what I call your personal leadership brand.

And the context for it, I mean, I've just learned so much in this consulting chapter my career working with very senior leaders, and what dawned on me was that when people are earlier in their career, they're always told, "You got to have your elevator pitch, Tony." And I think that typically means one of two things.

One is, if CEO's on an elevator with you, and be prepared with an answer, if they say, "What are you working on?" Right? Elevator pitch number one, elevator pitch number two. So what do you want to do next, to have that quick pitch about what you want to do?

But I think there's a third elevator pitch that people don't spend much time thinking about, which is your answer. If, come the day somebody asks you, maybe you're taking over a new team, you're at that first day meeting, and somebody says, "Tony, who are you as a leader?"

And I know that sounds like a simple question. I think a lot of people are going to go through their entire career, and nobody is ever going to ask you that. But I think it's a really good investment of your time to spend the time, again, introspection, reflection, to be able to come up with the answer for, what are the values that are really important to you?

And we're also in this era, I call this triple click era of leadership. It's not enough to just say the first level answer, and say, "Tony, these are my three personal values," and the conversations over, no, because people are going to keep asking, they're going to keep double, and triple clicking. It's like, "Well, why?"

And so, when you think about your say three, or four key personal values as a leader, it's not just what they are, but why are they important to you? Tell the story about how they became important to you. Share how you have found those to be really important for driving success in your career.

And I think if you just have that sense, it just helps with so many things. It helps with self-awareness, it helps with executive presence. If you do have that explicit conversation with your team, it helps with predictability, because I think being predictable in the best sense of the word as a leader is really important, because you don't want your team always trying to figure out what mood are they in today? And it's like, okay, they usually act like this, but now, we're under stress. Are they going to act differently?

And if you just state, up front, "These are the three things that are really important to me." There's a little bit of a social contract there, and you're saying, "These are going to be important to me, even under pressure, even under stress." And if you live those values, I think that sets a great tone, because then people can focus on the work instead of trying to figure you out as a boss.

Tony Lee: And it sounds very motivating as well. Everyone wants to support you, wants to be there with you.

Now, you talk about in the book, the traps that leaders can fall into. What would some of those be?

Adam Bryant: Sure, and it starts with an insight I heard from a young CEO I interviewed years ago. And sadly she passed away in 2020 from cancer, but I was interviewing, her name is Layla Jana. And I was asking about her early life, early influences, and she had a really rough childhood. I mean, moved around a ton, was bullied, didn't have a lot of money, really rocky relationship with her parents. I mean, just one thing after another.

And yet, when I was talking to her, I was really struck by her positive attitude. And at one point I asked her, I said, "Where do you get this positive sense?" And she said five words that they were burned into my brain when she said it. And those five words are reality is just source material. And her point is, yes, we go through life experiencing stuff, but we are always editing our own films of our life, and deciding what story to tell ourselves about our experience, and that is a choice that we're all making at every moment of every day.

And so, I think, first of all, that's a super handy tool to step outside yourself, and almost be a mentor, or coach to yourself, just maybe to check your own thinking like, "Is there another way to think about that?"

And so, I, given that, it's also a helpful check just on some of the traps that we all fall into, look, it's just human nature. One is the victim trap. You can feel like stuff is happening to you, rather than it being another learning experience, or challenge. I think the fairness trap is another big one. You just start feeling things are not fair, and again, that's not how the world works. There's just reality, and our perception of it.

So to me, those are a couple of the key things.

A third trap that I often see, and it's a tough thing. It's one of those things that you really have to decide if you're cut out for these leadership roles. And I'm talking about in terms of the ability to compartmentalize, because as you know, Tony, you move up into these senior leadership positions, you're making really tough decisions all day long. There's a lot of gray areas. There's often no right, or wrong answer, and almost every decision you make is probably going to make somebody unhappy.

And so, just the reality of that, you have to be able to keep things in perspective, because if you have too much empathy, and you're worried about the consequences on people, and the impact of your decisions, you're going to internalize that, and you're going to be staring at the ceiling for two hours in the middle every night.

And so, just the mental skill of being able to compartmentalize, I just think is so important, and I honestly don't think we talk about it enough. And it is a balance point, because we're always told leaders, "You got to have empathy." You got to have empathy, but you can have too much empathy.

You can overindex on that, and you can also overindex the other way. I mean, I've met leaders, and who are quite open about the fact that one of their big challenge is that they're not very good at empathy, and in fact, they're so good at compartmentalizing, that it may in fact be a weakness.

So just recognizing that everything is a sweet spot, and a balancing act, and that's just another example of that, I think.

Tony Lee: Yeah, and it's funny, because you can talk to a lot of leaders today, who say, "During the pandemic, we were too empathetic, and we gave too much flexibility, and freedom, and now, we're trying to reel it back, and people don't want to hear it." So yeah, it goes both ways. I guess

Adam Bryant: It does. I mean, we could talk about this for hours, but it does feel to me like we're living through this massive tug of war between employers, and employees, right, around expectations.

Tony Lee: Absolutely. So Adam, I mean, you have talked to a lot of very interesting, amazing people. Can you share who some of the most memorable people were, some of your most memorable conversations?

Adam Bryant: When I started the interview series back in 2000, I didn't really know what to expect. I mean, again, what-if was like, I'm not going to ask you about your company, and it was a weekly opportunity to try out new questions to see where interesting insights would come from.

And I have to say, one of the biggest surprises I've had from doing all these interviews is the answers I've heard to the simple question, how do you hire? And then, I'll probe on what qualities are you looking for?

But then, I always ask, "Well, what questions do you ask in the job interview? I mean, if you were interviewing me, what questions would you ask?" And I have heard some bizarre interview questions over the years, and at some point, at some level, it makes a lot of sense, because by the time, if you're a CEO, by the time somebody gets to that level, they're being interviewed.

Everybody knows the games, the humblebrags, and my biggest weakness is, I care too much, and I work too hard. And it's like all these things, for the CEOs, they say it's like elevator music, they've heard it all before.

And so, their challenge is to come up with what I call, bank shot questions like, somebody's presenting that polished facade, how do you ask a question to get around that?

And to me, it's just been this infinite game, and full of surprises, and really clever questions. And I've often started just using them as good icebreakers, even in social gatherings. I mean, there's one CEO I met who likes to ask people if there's no humans on the planet, only animals, what animal would you be? But there's a second part of the question, which is even more important, which is, and why?

So it's one thing to say, this is the animal I would be, but to then have the explanation about why you chose that animal. It is amazing how much you can learn about somebody in a really short period of time.

There was another CEO who would like to ask people. So think about your parents, or whoever raised you, but what are their qualities that you like the most, and that you like the least? So blank, page four squares. Let's say you had two parents, right? They're qualities that you like the most, and the least, and I've thought about that a lot, because I do think at the end of the day, we can't escape our parents.

There's things that they do that we like, and you can pretty much bet we do that too. And there's inevitably stuff about our parents that drive us crazy, and we will do the complete opposite.

So if you think of a job interview as a imperfect crystal ball, right? You're trying to figure out, what is this person going to be like six months from now? To me, that's a pretty good crystal ball.

Tony Lee: Yeah, that's great. I have to share, there used to be a recruiter at the Wall Street Journal who would ask, "If you could be any tree, what tree would you be?" And the answer he was looking for is, "What a stupid question?"

Adam Bryant: That's pretty funny. That's pretty funny.

Tony Lee: Yeah.

Adam Bryant: And it's the CEO who asked the animal question, she says if she was hiring for a sales position, that she always wanted to hear some predator.

Tony Lee: Right. That makes perfect sense. Very good. Well, Adam, this has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it. Thank you for sharing your expertise. And for those of you who have not had a chance to pick up the Leap to Leader, please go check it out.

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