Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Adam Bryant joined The ExCo Group, a senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm, as managing director in 2017 after a 30-year career in journalism, including 18 years at The[…]

Adam Bryant was a journalist at the New York Times for nearly 18 years. In that time, he interviewed over 1,000 CEOs and found that each one had three key skills that keep their companies, their employees, and themselves, afloat. 

According to Bryant, being a CEO isn’t all private jets and big checks. Since the pandemic, leadership has become even more challenging, as society has turned to companies for direction, support, and even solutions to global issues. Still, founders have found a way to thrive, thanks to these common characteristics.

ADAM BRYANTIf you look at a CEO job on paper, nobody would ever want to do that. The jobs are crazy. The weight on your back, the responsibility, the 24/7. Every decision that comes to your desk, there's no obvious answer, and you're probably going to anger a lot of people, whatever decision you make.

I was a journalist for about 18 years at the New York Times, and I interviewed a lot of CEOs in my "Corner Office" series. By now, I've interviewed more than a thousand CEOs from all walks of life. I just found, the more time I spent with CEOs, the more I wanted to ask them, what is the playbook you are writing in real time as we all try and navigate this complicated moment of change in history?

I'm Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director of the EXCO Group, and my latest book is called "The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership." I think a lot of people want to be CEO until they become CEO. These jobs look very attractive, there's a lot of status and power and entourage and corporate jets and lots of money. Nobody ever feels sorry for CEOs, because they are paid so much and a lot of them don't do themselves any favors in public perception.

At the same time, these jobs are incredibly difficult, and since the start of the pandemic, it's only gotten harder. Historically, leadership was pretty simple and pretty straightforward. You served your investors, and companies were still largely run on the militaristic model of command and control. Because I'm your boss, you will do what I tell you to do.

In the last few years, we've seen these kind of tsunamis of change in the business world. The great resignation, quiet quitting, and the tension between employers and employees about expectations on each side is pretty overwhelming. On top of that, the world is increasingly looking to companies to solve all these big societal problems. The big issues in the world are now rolling past the front door of governments, up to the front door of companies and saying, you solve this. That helps explain why leadership is so hard and why it's getting harder and why these CEO jobs are not for the faint of heart.

I often think about leadership, especially the CEO job, as just being a series of paradoxes. You have to be human, be authentic, be compassionate, while also holding people accountable for performance. You have to create a sense of urgency, but you also have to be patient. You have to create an inclusive culture. On the other hand, you have to be very direct about what you stand for. The key to leadership, to being an effective CEO, is not only understanding that leadership is hard because of all these paradoxes, but seeing them not as paradoxes and more as a balancing act.

To be a CEO, the first skill you need to have is the ability to simplify complexity. Take all the things that are complicated in the world, your industry, your company, and boil it down to a simple message that you can convey to all your employees that they will understand and remember. And the best way to do that is to embrace complexity. It can be tempting to just put on some blinders and say, I just want to focus on my company or my industry, but there's so much going on around, you really have to keep your eyes open.

And secondly, to sign up for a leadership role means you have to sign up to be fully accountable for the decisions you make. You have to be able to acknowledge that the buck does stop with you and that you're going to be held accountable. You are fully accountable individually for your actions and also for the decisions that you make for the company.

And, it sounds simple and obvious, but being a good listener is a superpower of leadership. People want to feel like they are heard, and I think the most important way to do that is to listen to them. Their opinion matters. You may not agree with them, you might go a different direction at the end of the day, but if people feel like they're listened to, they're going to feel respected, and even if you make a different call than what they're suggesting, they're much more likely to follow you.

A lot of people say, yeah, I really want that promotion, I want to be a leader. All those jobs look really great. Well, they're not great. Yes, they come with some rewards, but they also come with a tremendous amount of sacrifice and trade-offs in your life. It takes a certain constitution, a certain drive, the way you're wired as a person, to want to do those jobs.