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Chief enlightenment officer

Published on Thursday, 01 Sep 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: The Corner Office
Author: Adam Bryant
Publisher: Times Books

All the world's CEOs started their first "journey of a thousand steps" to the top when they were young - sometimes in their teens and never later than in their 20s. Hence, taking in their accumulated wisdom - and applying it - at a relatively tender age is likely to help your career enormously.

There is no guarantee you will end up in the CEO's corner office yourself. However, clever career-minded individuals will swiftly see just how useful Adam Bryant's first book is.

This is a well-researched and valuable work, which compiles insights and pearls of wisdom from more than 75 CEOs and other Big Potatoes, from companies of all sizes.

A journalist for more than two decades, Bryant is no ordinary hack - he is a New York Times business columnist. Three years ago, he started his weekly column, TheCorner Office, which has become hugely popular.

For this book, Bryant studied the transcripts from dozens of interviews with business leaders and executives that he had used for his column. And the outcome is impressive.

Bryant's large group of interview subjects is actually more diverse than the executive community itself. For instance, a third of the executives he talked with are women, a much higher proportion than in the real world. Nevertheless, a great deal of common ground is established.

As Bryant explains: "Many of the CEOs who I interviewed resembled one another in their approach. They listen, learn, assess what's working, what's not and why, and then make adjustments. They are quick studiers and they also tend to be good teachers, because they understand the process of learning and can explain what they've learned to others. They seem eager to discuss their hard-earned insights, rather than holding on to them as if they were proprietary software."

One lesson The Corner Office provides is that a leader always needs to create a culture of candour. Offices have a notorious tendency to nurture self-deceit, rumours, and outright falsehoods. The canny boss flushes away the BS before it stinks out the whole office. Transparency nurtures trust.

One featured CEO, Cristóbal Conde of IT giant SunGard, talks about collaboration, and how he utilises social-networking technology to foster this. "I think top-down organisations got started because the bosses either knew more or they had access to more information," he says. "None of that applies now. Everybody has access to identical amounts of information." 

A revealing insight Conde shares is that he tries to set aside 90 minutes every day when he's totally free from his phone and computer. "There are many times where you need solid focus. So I've learned that it's incredibly useful to reserve some time," he says.

Another challenge to being at the top of the pyramid is finding ways to learn what employees are really doing and thinking. Almost all CEOs, Bryant writes, believe that it's a good idea to "get out and walk around".

Deborah Dunsire of Millennium Pharmaceuticals routinely schedules "walkabout" time, during which she asks employees what keeps them up at night and what they feel good about.

Another CEO, a marketing-agency maestro, confesses that he used to return from his frequent out-of-town trips and simply retreat to his office. He soon discovered that "holing yourself up in your office is not the way to learn about what's happening in the organisation." 

Unfortunately for Asia-Pacific readers, The Corner Office is rather US-centric, featuring mostly American companies, but the advice comes across as universal. On a globalised planet, what works for SunGard and Yahoo will also likely work for and Shanghai Tang.

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