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A Journalist Who Interviewed 585 CEOs Says They All Have These 3 Things in Common

The journalist who has interviewed CEOs for the New York Times for a decade shares his observations.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 20 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you're aiming to make it to the very pinnacle of business success, one way to go is to follow in the footsteps of exceptional leaders who have already scaled those heights. But what CEO should you emulate?

Some started their companies in vans, others have been disciplined overachievers all their lives. Some preach work-life balance, others claim extreme dedication is the only way. The differences between CEOs, in other words, often seem more obvious than the commonalities.

But not if you look deeper, insists journalist Adam Bryant, and he's well positioned to know. As the man behind the New York Times' long-running Corner Office column, Bryant has interviewed 585 CEOs over the last decade. He recently shared his key takeaways from the experience.

The must-read article explores tons of interesting territory from the differences between male and female CEOs (Bryant's conclusion: there aren't many) to the truth about company culture and values (you can say what you want but it all comes down to who you hire and fire). But perhaps the most interesting section for ambitious up-and-comers aiming for the C-suite is his rundown of the common traits he saw across almost all his interviews, despite their glaring surface differences.

1. Applied curiosity

Are CEOs smart? Sure, but maybe not in the way you expect. Most are bright, though plenty didn't particularly thrive in an academic environment. Instead of being universally good at book learning, Bryant observed that most if not all were fiercely curious about the world around them.

"They share a habit of mind that is best described as 'applied curiosity,'" he writes. "They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They're curious about people and their back stories."

2. Comfort with discomfort

It's not exactly breaking news that fighting your way to the top of a company involves plenty of hard work and sacrifice. But some aspiring CEOs fail to understand the full implications of that obvious truth. It's not simply that you have to be able to take some lumps to get to the top, Bryant insists. To thrive as a leader you have to actually like the challenge and the pain.

"Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire," banking industry CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann explained in his interview. "Some people have a desire for that, I've noticed, and some people don't. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that's a characteristic that you have, that's in your DNA."

3. Focus on the present

You might think that most successful CEOs are super ambitious, and in many ways you'd be right, according to Bryant's interviews, but the high-achieving leaders he spoke with had a very special type of ambition. Yes, they have big goals, but they don't let those big goals distract them from whatever they're currently working on.

The top CEOs Bryant spoke to "focus on doing their current job well, and that earns them promotions," he writes. "That may sound obvious. But many people can seem more concerned about the job they want than the job they're doing."

"That doesn't mean keeping ambition in check," he clarifies. "By all means, have career goals, share them with your bosses, and learn everything you can about how the broader business works. And yes, be savvy about company politics... But focus on building a track record of success, and people will keep betting on you."

"You shouldn't be looking just to climb the ladder, but be open to opportunities that let you climb that ladder," Kim Lubel, the former CEO of CST Brands, once told Bryant, summing up this approach.

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