Advice on Leading and Succeeding the CEO-Way

Cow in BrusselsA riddle: You are beginning a trip through the desert. As you set off, you see a lion, a horse, a cow, a rabbit and a monkey. You are asked to choose four of the five animals to accompany you. Which do you leave behind?

In the summer issue of PRSA’s The Strategist, author and New York Times columnist Adam Bryant tells the story of his interview of Arkadi Kuhlman, CEO of ING Direct. However, unexpectedly for Bryant, the CEO switches roles, putting him under the microscope by posing a Japanese personality test. Bryant chooses the rabbit.  

Kuhlman then reveals what each animal in the riddle stands for. The lion represents pride. The horse means work. The cow stands for family. The monkey symbolizes friendship, and the rabbit is love.

To Kuhlman, Bryant’s choice indicates that under stressful working conditions, the writer would give up love, knowing he could make up for it with his loved ones when the stress subsided.

Above average CEO
Although Kuhlman’s interviewing technique falls outside the best practice of the competency-based method, it shows his determination to hire people who look at things creatively. He calls them outliers.

Kuhlman himself approaches his job in an unconventional way. So committed is he to associate engagement, he puts his own tenure as CEO up to an anonymous vote each year.

Why? He wants the company’s associates to see he values his position and is committed to ING’s mission.

“So if I keep walking around saying all the time that our associates are so important,” says Kuhlman, “then why don’t they have a say in terms of whether or not I’m leading?”

Listening to the corner office
The Corner OfficeKuhlman is just one of more than 70 leaders whom Bryant interviewed for his new book titled The Corner Office: Indispensable And Unexpected Lessons From CEOs On How To Lead And Succeed.

The CEOs shared their experiences and philosophies of leadership with Bryant, who observes that leadership is an art. “People report to managers, but they follow leaders,” he writes.

In examining the backgrounds of these leaders, Bryant found that there is no “rule book” for attaining the top job. In truth, the CEOs’ career paths often showed zigs and zags. For example, Barbara Krumsiek, CEO of the Calvert Group, dismissed the idea of a career ladder. She prefers the metaphor of an obstacle course.

Takeaway: If you aspire to a top job, open yourself to serendipity. The role of chance in life can lead to interesting career developments.

Communication as the foundation
Bryant identified five qualities that these inspirational leaders have in common. The good news is that we can develop them and improve our career prospects.

“These qualities are developed through attitude, habit and discipline — factors that are within your control,” says Bryant.

Significantly, but not surprisingly, good communication links all five leadership qualities. Many of the CEOs realized this only after early stumbles on the job. They learned how important repetition is to message retention, building awareness and behavior change. They gradually transformed themselves into coaches and true team leaders.

In the riddle above, which animal did you choose to leave behind and why?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. 

Thanks to Spigoo for the colorful cow via Flickr.


About creativeconsiderations

Christine Sullivan is a communications strategist with expertise in communications planning, writing and content development, and executive communications. She can be reached at
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