As some of you may know, on page two of the Business Section of the Sunday New York Times you’ll find a weekly feature called “Corner Office.”
It’s curated by Adam Bryant, and each installment consists of an interview with a different “top executive,” in which the two discuss management and leadership. And as you might expect, much of what is said consists of advice on how to best manage a business.
So for this edition in my “Paradox of the week” series of posts, a closer look at Mr. Bryant’s series and what it has to offer. But this time around I’m not going to focus on the contradictory statements or paradoxical assertions frequently offered by the executives he interviews – although there would seem to be no shortage of them. For instance:
- In Mr. Bryant’s interview with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson (CEO of Glamsquad, an app-based beauty provider), Ms. Wilson confessed that one of the things she liked least about investment banking (her previous career) was the “long hours.” But when asked about what she looks for when hiring, she replied: “I look for people who are willing to put in the hours.”
- In her 2016 interview, Jane Rosenthal (movie producer, founder and Exec Chair of Tribeca Film Festival) had this to say about her childhood upbringing: “She [Rosenthal’s mother] also always said to me that you can absolutely do whatever you want. It never occurred to me that ‘no’ was an option.” And yet later, Rosenthal explains why she majored in film and television in college, instead of acting: “My parents said no.”
- And Beth Comstock (Vice Chairperson of GE) went on record as saying: “When you get teamwork right, its like magic because everyone has a role. You’re different, but you come together [my emphasis]…” But later she explains: “Tension is actually good. If everybody on the team thinks something is good, it’s probably not that good… I’ve lately tried to incorporate more tension…”
So yes, the contradictions are there if you look for them.
For this week’s post, however, I’d like to offer you something a little different. I’d like to take a moment to point out that contradiction and paradox seems to have become entirely acceptable to the management advice world. Far from being unaware of it, there would seem to be many out there who actually embrace it. And based on his column, I’d argue that Mr. Bryant’s is one such individual.
Here’s an example of what I mean: In October of last year, Bryant interviewed Austin McChord (CEO of Datto, a data protection company), and Mr. McChord is quoted as saying:
There is this trend, especially with millennials, where everything is awesome all the time. At Datto, very few things are awesome, and it takes exceptional achievement to receive an honest pat on the back.
And as a result, Bryant made an editorial choice to title this particular piece: “It’s Not Awesome Till It’s Awesome.”
Clever, to be sure. Catchy even. And it obviously calls to my mind the sort of homespun wisdom that former New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra might have offered. (Remember “It ain’t over till its over”?).
But does this really say anything useful/meaningful/insightful about managing?
No – of course not.
Consider it: What would be the reaction if an engineer or building inspector were to reply “It’s not ready until it’s ready” when asked whether a particular structure is safe to occupy? Or, imagine what might happen if your company’s chief financial officer were to stand up at a shareholder’s meeting and assert: “We won’t make any money until we turn a profit.” That might get a chuckle from the audience (if you’re lucky), but my guess is that those shareholders would expect a pretty robust analysis of the company’s finances to follow.
In other words, in either case such comments wouldn’t satisfy anyone, and would likely be considered inappropriate.
And yet when it comes to managing, these sorts of paradoxical quips seem to be seen not only as acceptable, but are often viewed as savvy business advice.
Here’s another one. After his 2011 interview with Robin Domeniconi (senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group), Mr. Bryant titled that “Corner Office” installment:
“Say anything, but phrase it the right way”
Sure, it sort of makes sense…I guess. But technically speaking, if you have to phrase things a certain way, you can’t really say anything.
My own introduction to this sort of contradiction/paradox being passed off as bona fide management knowledge came when I first read In Search of Excellence (1982), which is still considered one of the most influential management advice books of all time. In it, authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. articulate 8 “core management practices” of successful companies. And one of those—the final, “summary principle”—is “Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties.”
Simultaneous loose-tight? What could that possibly mean?
According to Peters and Waterman, it is “the co-existence of firm central direction and maximum individual autonomy.” Or as they explain “having one’s cake and eating it too.”
Well, forgive me for saying so, but I don’t buy it. Not because I think Peters and Waterman aren’t being sincere, though. I’m sure they mean what they say. But to me—as a scientist—it just doesn’t make sense. Or at least it doesn’t make any more sense that telling someone to “whisper at the top of your lungs.”
So how did it come to this?
Why, in other words, is it that what wouldn’t be acceptable in many other disciplines (such as math, engineering, or physics) not only seems to be tolerated, but lauded as insight by the management community?
In my opinion, it’s because when it comes to managing, no one has yet to figure any of it out in any sort of meaningful way. Good management. Bad management. We know it when we see it (sort of), but that’s about it. We have yet to come up with a defining principle (or principles) for what it really is, and how to practice it.
That’s my thought for the week. But before I go, here’s a few more titles crafted by Mr. Bryant for his “Corner Office” interviews. I consider them all to be just as contradictory/paradoxical/nonsensical as those others – but let me know what you think. Or, if you’ve come across something similar in your own reading, or in your experiences as a manager, please let me know as well. (You can post your responses in the comment section below.)
“Learn to See the Plan A in Your Plan B” (October 21, 2016)
“The Truth May Hurt, but It Also Heals” (March 18, 2016)
“If it can’t be done, you haven’t tried” (Feb 12, 2016)
“Find the Questions in Every Answer” (December 17, 2015)
“Lead With Strengths, and Weaknesses” (June 30, 2015)
“A Believer and Skeptic in One” (June 26, 2015)
“Achieving Breakthroughs in Small Bites” (June 20, 2015)
“Your Imperfection can be Your Strength” (August 9, 2014)
“On putting it together (after taking it apart)” (July 5, 2014)
“On achieving the unachievable” (May 15, 2014)
“On making judgments instead of decisions” (May 3, 2014)
“On putting your followers first” (March 22, 2014)
“On embracing ‘organized chaos’” (February 8, 2014)
See you next Friday.
 Peters, Thomas, and Robert Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence. (1982) New York: HarperBusiness, p. 318.
 Ibid., p. 318.