GREAT LEADERS

5 Radical Leadership Moves

Some of the best--and most counterintuitive--management ideas gleaned from interviews with 200 high-profile CEOs.
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Adam Bryant knows a thing or two about radical leadership.

The New York Times reporter has interviewed about 200 high-profile CEOs to learn out about their leadership strategies. Over the past few years, he has collected quite a few ideas. His book, "Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation," which came out this past January, is full of sage wisdom on how to lead companies from founders like Zappos' Tony Hsieh.

Recently, I caught up with him to ask about some of the most radical advice he collected, including some of the biggest surprises from his interviews.

What was the edgiest or most controversial leadership tactic you encountered?

One standout is the decision by Dane Atkinson, the CEO of SumAll, a data analytics company, to make information available to all employees about their colleagues' compensation packages. It's just one example of the push toward greater transparency in many companies. The point of the transparency is to build trust.

"When we first started with this, we'd send out the package details of every new hire to the entire team," Atkinson told me. "That caused a lot of stress. So we've switched that and now just their peer group will know the new hire's compensation and be forced to a vote."

Give me one that surprised you the most.

I am consistently surprised by the questions that CEOs ask job candidates in interviews. For example, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, asks people, "On a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?" He also asks people to name the biggest misperception that others have about them. After the candidate answers, he then comes in with the punchline: "What's the difference between perception and misperception?"

What about a leadership style that goes against everything we think we know about leadership?

We generally think of CEOs as the people who have the right answers. After all, that's the image they, understandably, want portray to investors and customers to inspire confidence. But through my interviews, I've come to appreciate that effective CEOs play a very different role internally, where it's their job to have the right questions.

"I probably give fewer answers and I ask a lot more questions," said Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO of Nvidia, in my interview with him. Huang went on to say: "It's not possible for the CEO to know everything, but it is possible for us to add value to just about everything. And the reason for that is, if you're the CEO, you're probably better at looking around corners than most. You probably have better intuition than most. You're probably able to see the forest better than most. You're probably able to deal with complexity better than most."

Did any of these CEOs' insights stand out as particularly relevant for entrepreneurs starting a company?

Simplicity is hard to achieve. One skill that I've noticed is the ability to take a complex situation and distill it down to a simple and concise insight. This skill is particularly important in startups, because CEOs need to boil down the company's strategy into a tight presentation for potential investors. And they need to explain to their employees--who are always gripped by uncertainty in the early days--where the company is headed, how it's going to get there, and what are the two or three things that are going to be measured to drive progress. That's hard to do, but this skill is essential.

Of all the management ideas you came across, which do you think is key, but very hard to apply?

This may be a bit counterintuitive, but email and instant messaging can really damage corporate culture. This is how we often communicate now, but you can't read tone in emails, things get lost in translation, and arguments can easily spiral out of control.

I've talked to many CEOs about the deliberate steps they take to rip out the culture of email, and--here's a radical notion--encourage people to pick up the phone, Skype, or talk face-to-face. But email has a strong gravitational pull, and they often find themselves reminding their staffs to email less and talk more.

Last updated: Mar 25, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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