We interviewed Adam Bryant, author of Quick and Nimbleabout his new book and the ‘X’ factor that makes some companies succeed while others fail. 

1. For your book, you interviewed hundreds of CEOs on how to drive a culture of innovation in today’s competitive workplace. What was the most interesting insight or strategy you took away?

When people talk about innovation at companies, they often talk about process, or setting up teams in offsite locations. But the message from my interviews is that innovation starts with getting the culture right, so that everybody is pulling in the same direction, with an environment that encourages teamwork and collaboration.

Culture, to me, is the ‘X’ factor that separates good companies from bad. Two companies may have the same strategy, funding, etc., but the one with the more effective culture will win.

Stephen Sadove, the former CEO of Saks, put a particularly fine point on this idea during our interview.

“I have a very simple model to run a company,” he said. “It starts with leadership at the top, which drives a culture. Culture drives innovation and whatever else you’re trying to drive within a company. And that then drives results. When I talk to Wall Street, people really want to know your results, what are your strategies, what are the issues, what it is that you’re doing to drive your business. They’re focused on the bottom line. Never do you get people asking about the culture, about leadership, about the people in the organization. Yet, it’s the reverse, because it’s the people, the leadership, the culture, and the ideas that are ultimately driving the numbers and the results.”

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2. What are key ways companies can attract and retain the best and brightest talent?

Tech CEOs, in particular, face a daunting challenge in hiring. Because talented coders and developers are in short supply, relative to demand, the CEOs have to work hard to recruit these people. But that’s only part of the battle. Once they’ve hired them, they have to create a culture and environment where these workers want to stay, because they are faced with opportunities every day to leave and go elsewhere. It’s really a remarkable shift, and it’s transforming the way companies think about culture.

To recruit people, CEOs have to be able to articulate a clear mission about the company (something beyond “change the world” that has became the standard mantra at so many firms), and then crystallize a simple plan, so that everyone at the company can understand where the company is headed, how progress is going to be measured along the way, and how everyone’s work contributes to those goals. People want to feel like they’re a part of a team, and they want to contribute. In the absence of a simple plan, silos form inside companies, with each department pursuing its own goals. And silos are what topple great companies.

There are several other important drivers of culture that are explained in my new book, but creating a simple plan is a key building block.

3. It’s common to see employees on the same team email back and forth over issues that could be handled much more quickly in person. How does over-reliance on email hurt company culture, and what can we do about it?  

Email was created as a productivity tool, but I’ve come to appreciate how unproductive it can be, and how dangerous email is for culture. The reason, as one CEO explained, is that simple messages get “lost in translation” over email. People can’t read tone or nuance in emails, so a simple back and forth can be blown out of proportion.

Culture is built on the connective tissue of relationships among employees, and the problem with email is that it does nothing to build those connections, and in fact it is likely to harm what little connection is there in the first place.

I’ve interviewed a number of CEOs who have explicit policies about not arguing over email, and limiting to the use of the ‘cc’ function. They want people to talk to each other in person, or pick up the phone, or Skype. You can resolve things much quicker that way. Actually talking to people is the real productivity tool.

4. If you could choose any leader (dead or alive) you wish you could have been able to interview for this book, who would it be? What would you ask? 

Winston Churchill, because he had a remarkable ability to crystallize ideas in memorable ways. I’d want to really dig in with him on his thought process to understand how he captures complex ideas in such powerful sayings.

Posted on 2/1/2014

adam-bryant2-pressWritten by Adam Bryant

Adam Bryant conducts interviews with chief executives for Corner Office, a feature about leadership and management in The New York Times and on NYTimes.com that he started in March 2009. It now appears twice weekly, on Friday and Sunday.

Adam has had many roles at The Times, including business reporter, deputy business editor, deputy national editor and senior editor for features. He is also a former senior writer and business editor at Newsweek magazine. Adam was the lead editor of a series on the dangers of distracted driving that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

He is the author of two books. His most recent, Quick and Nimble; Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was published in January 2014. His first book, The Corner Office; Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, was a New York Times bestseller. He also teaches a course, “The Practice of Leadership,” at Columbia University.

Follow Adam on LinkedIn LinkedIn and Twitter Twitter.

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