An Instructive View From the Top

Allen Rosenshine reviews 'The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed'

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Does the world really need to hear more advice on leadership and success from CEOs? After all, the seemingly endless parade of ethical and financial bankruptcies in the corporate sector would suggest that many CEOs have a deficiency in both qualities. The answer is yes, if the CEOs are among the impressive group Adam Bryant features in his coherently organized and genuinely instructive book, "The Corner Office."

Mr. Bryant, currently the senior editor for features at the New York Times, began the "Corner Office" in 2009 as a column for the Sunday business section. It provided the source material for this book about how CEOs think and operate. And because the executives focus largely on people, not process, their commentary has considerable relevance to the business of building brands and selling products.

Marketing depends on understanding customers' lifestyles and their emotional and rational attitudes toward the brands and products they do or don't buy. It's something I find sorely lacking in much of what passes for marketing strategy and advertising execution today. Yet, it remains an absolute prerequisite for persuasive communications. At its core, that 's what The Corner Office is about.

As Mr. Bryant observes, many executives refer to themselves as "student(s) of human nature." His chapter on "Passionate Curiosity" is a call to learn about the world we live in. "Leave home," one executive counsels. "Go as far away as possible from what you know… my best career advice would be life advice" -- reassuring words to this reviewer, because that 's essentially my answer when asked how to prepare for a career in advertising.

Mr. Bryant gives new context and relevance even to the formulaic vocabulary business writers have beaten into mindless jargon -- words like passion, confidence, team, mission and culture. He rightly debunks descriptions of "career management" and climbing the "career ladder" in favor of the metaphor of "an obstacle course, filled with surprises, ups and downs and lateral moves, [with] plenty of other people on the course, too."

Similarly, Mr. Bryant's chapter titles go beyond the cliché counsels of business management. In "Bananas, Bells and the Art of Running Meetings," he puts together various CEO practices to offer "a smart set of tools and tricks to elevate the quality of meetings" and avoid what we've all experienced too often, "walking out of the room muttering to yourself, 'Well, that was a waste of time.'" That said, I still doubt the comment of one executive, who claimed that people were encouraged to, and sometimes actually did, get up and leave the room when they thought the meeting agenda offered no reason for them to stay. It strikes me as requiring a rather rare dose of corporate cool to walk out on your boss. As to what the bananas and bells refer to, I'll leave that to your reading.

Unlike so many business books, "The Corner Office" doesn't portray CEOs celebrating themselves nor does it extol companies that are in fact headed for failure. In "Battle-Hardened Confidence," Mr. Bryant focuses on CEOs describing their shortcomings, providing welcome relief from the usual CEO and marketing-guru manifestos spawned by what he calls "a business culture that values jut-jawed certainty." The chapter "Type A to B" makes the salient point that type-A personalities often defeat the real values of leadership. And throughout, the clichéd notion of teamwork is in many important ways redefined as requiring "more than trust-building exercises like falling backwards into a colleague's arms."

There are some weak moments, to be sure. For example, Mr. Bryant is somewhat repetitious on the subject of collaboration. And then there are some curious statements like the CEO who said, "Every day I read about a thousand pages of documents. … I have learned what the critical things to read are." (The executive is obviously neither selective nor trained in math.) The chapter on "Time Management" offered little that was new or interesting, and "Smart Interviewing" was more about oh-so-clever personality questions and not enough about determining intelligence and talent.

But these are minor complaints and the positives far outweigh the negatives and my otherwise long-standing dislike of management and leadership proselytizing. I must admit "The Corner Office" could have helped me in any of the 19 years I had one.

Allen Rosenshine was the first chief executive of Omnicom and is the former CEO of BBDO Worldwide. He retired at the end of 2006 and is now Chairman Emeritus for BBDO.
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