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Annotated for brevity.
Bruce Sewell, former General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Apple Inc. and the inaugural Leader-in- Residence for the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, sat down with Kristin Bresnahan, Co-Director of the Mark Initiative and Executive Director of the Ira M. Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership, to answer a few questions about leadership styles, Silicon Valley legends, and effective organizational culture.
Kristin: Bruce, how would you describe your leadership style?
Bruce: Over the course of my career, there is one universal when it comes to leadership, to successful leadership. It's sort of a fundamental principle, and I learned it from the great CEOs I’ve worked with – both Andy Grove and Steve Jobs: surround yourself with people that are just smarter than you are. And if you can create a team that just blows you away, the chances are that they're going to blow other people away too. So if you can do that, then, in my experience you've assembled that team, then let them play. So my style is to try to be hands-off, to try to set strategic direction, and be the compass for the team. But, with respect to my employees, my direct employees in particular, I think my style is more coach than boss.
Kristin: What qualities do you think you possess which allow you to be a great coach?
Bruce: I think I approach problems from a very big picture perspective. It's probably a limitation in some respects, but I tend to think big picture. And so I can set direction well, I can set strategic goals. I think I can sort of crystallize a vision for the group, but I'm not somebody who wants to be hovering over everyone's shoulder. It's just not my personality. I think you, as a leader, you want to find the things that you're good at, the things where you really add value, and focus on those. As opposed to trying to do people's jobs for them or try to be too involved in what the team is doing.
Kristin: How do you demonstrate to your employees how much you value them?
Bruce: It's a great question. And I think there are two ways to look at it. So from a foundational standpoint, I think the way that you communicate value to people is that you respect them, you listen to them when they talk, you're aware of what they're doing, you're there when they need you. And so at that sort of core level, I think it is about role modeling good leadership and showing that you care about your team and that you respect your team members. That's sort of the base line. Then, I think there are a lot of things that you can do on a more opportunistic level to show and recognize things that people are doing well. And so when a team member does something great, I think you want to try to recognize that in some way and there are lots of different ways you can do that.
Kristin: Can you share with us some examples of how you did this at Apple?
Bruce: The thing that we did at Apple, which I think is really important, when somebody does something, really a major victory, something that really represented a lot of effort and was a great result, we would do a bonus. So that's giving somebody cash. And cash is often really appreciated – this is a business after all. But, what I would do in addition to giving people cash is say, "Not only do I want you to take the money, but I really want you to take a couple of days off and do something fun with this." I mean, whatever your passion is – whether it's fly fishing in Montana or bicycling in Cuba, or going somewhere with your family. I don't want to just give you money, but I'd like to also recognize that what you really gave was a lot of your time to get this specific achievement done. And I want you to take some of that time back and enjoy it.
Kristin: One of the things I have heard you discuss with our students is a system of management principles you’ve dubbed Sewell’s Rules. Can you elaborate on those Rules?
Bruce: So Sewell's Rules was something that I came up with to try to have my employees think a little differently about their relationship to the company and to the people in the company. When you join an organization, you have an orientation process. Well, Sewell's Rules originally came out of my effort to do a disorientation with new people that were coming into the group, and say this is a different way to think about stuff. One of those “Rules” is around how to deal with people in a corporation - the notion of treating your peers as you would normally treat your boss. And then, by contrast, treating your boss more like a peer. And it sounds sort of odd to think about that, but if you back up and start analyzing a little bit, the things that your peers really need from you are good communication. They need to know that your word is your bond, that when you say that you'll deliver some piece of work or that you'll be a team member that you show up you're there.
And so if you think of your peers as your boss, you end up role modeling the kinds of behaviors that will establish that bond of trust between you and your peers. By contrast, if you think about the traditional relationship with bosses, bosses are often sort of isolated from what's going on in the rank and file part of the organization. They're making decisions, but they're often making decisions sort of in isolation. Bosses, I think, really appreciate having people who are willing to listen to them, to try to see the world from their perspective, to try to offer ideas to participate in discussions.
So if you approach your boss as if he or she was your peer, then you end up exhibiting the kinds of characteristics that I think not only will make your boss more inclined to trust you and want to talk to you, but also, then, when the opportunity ever arrives for someone to get a promotion into that position, in a sense you're already acting the way the boss acts.
Kristin: Bruce, we were so excited to have you serve as the inaugural Leader-in-Residence for this academic year as part of The Mark Initiative, which aims to bring law school and business school students together to learn crucial leadership lessons as well as develop the skills and strategies necessary to create an optimal organizational culture together. And the idea is to start that learning together while they're in school. Can you talk a little bit about why you were excited to join the initiative and its implications for future business and law school students?
Bruce: Absolutely. I think it's remarkable that we're doing this. I think it's high time that somebody was doing this and I certainly am delighted to endorse the concept. My experience has largely been in corporations, and I think this is where you most acutely understand the need for business people and legal people to speak a common language, not necessarily to always speak the same language, but to be able to communicate with one another in ways that the other, the person whom you're talking to, will understand. And so finding a kind of common vocabulary requires in part understanding something about what the other person is thinking, and about what their world looks like, and about how they analyze problems. So starting early, having law students understand the perspective that business students bring to the world and having business students, by contrast, understand the perspective that lawyers bring to the world is invaluable.
It is going to make the corporate experience more productive and enhance the value set that corporations are capable of conveying to the world.
Kristin: As a leader in the general counsel role at Apple, what processes did you put in place to ensure that the lawyers in your department had strong relationships with their business counterparts?
Bruce: To me that was really important. And there are different philosophies about this. I know some very successful general counsels who try to control the communications between the law department and the business group, and funnel those communications through senior lawyers. And I understand the motivation, it keeps the message very controlled, it keeps the message very unified. I actually know some law departments where general counsels have a rule that nobody communicates with the CEO except through the general counsel, and I can understand why. But, to me, that is counterproductive. I think what you want to do is to encourage people within your department to form relationships with people outside of the department, to become the go-to person for people that are at the same level in the organization.
Kristin: Most of our students will be graduating and entering the workforce, sometimes serving as a leader for the first time. What advice would you give to them to help them succeed in leading with vision, values, and inspiration?
Bruce: It helps to know your own particular leadership style, sort of understand what you're good at and understand what the team needs. And then, figure out how to make those two things mesh, so that you're adding value in the way that's most efficient for you to add value and you're not interfering with where other team players are adding value. So talk to your team, understand where the weaknesses are, and understand where the strengths are. And then be that sort of strategic compass. Set the goals, set the strategy.