Bernard J. Tyson, chief executive of health care system Kaiser Permanente, says the freedom of speech applies to anyone who comes into his office.
What were some early leadership lessons for you?
I grew up in a large family, with two brothers and four sisters. My father was a carpenter and a minister, so I grew up in a very religious environment. Telling stories is a big part of my communication style.
The second thing is, I am a man of my word. My father set an example that your word is your bond, and that if you say something and commit to it, you deliver on it. And if you can’t deliver on it, you owe the person the respect to explain why. Commitments to me are very important, and it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. It means that you live by your word.
Any expressions you heard often from your parents?
I used to hear this all the time: “Be careful how you treat people. If you walk over people going up, those are the same people you’ll need on your way down.” That has always stayed with me about the right way to treat people. The other one is, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I am a very giving person in terms of time and energy and resources. I don’t do it for me; I view it as a way to contribute.
What were some lessons you learned early on in your career?
I was hired as an administrative analyst at Vallejo General Hospital in California, and worked closely with Jack Manley, the hospital administrator who was essentially the C.E.O. That gave me a chance to see how a leader thought. I was fascinated by the questions he would ask, which I would then try to answer by researching the data. It was almost like I was solving a mystery.
And what was it about the way he asked questions?
I’ve seen leaders who asked questions in a way that was meant to show you who’s the smartest person in the room. It’s a degrading way of asking questions — in effect: “I have the power in this room. I’m going to put a question on the table, and I dare anyone to answer it, because I’m going to show you how smart I am.” We’ve all experienced those kinds of bosses. Jack would truly try to engage with you in a joint exploration, and it was more about getting to the right conclusion than who gets credit.
What are some insights about leadership that you’ve gained more recently in your career?
At the end of the day, we all are complex beings, and I’m on top of my game when I have the whole person engaged in whatever it is we’re trying to do. I pay much more attention now to the nuances of individuals. I used to think that because I am the kind of leader who likes to think out loud, then everybody is supposed to think out loud. I later came to better understand differences in personalities and how people process information. Some people need to think and reflect, and then articulate what they have to say.
What are some details about the culture you’re trying to foster?
If you came into my office, you would see the American flag. It sits right on my desk, and there’s an American flag in the boardroom where I sit. I talk about this all the time. It’s a great country that we live in. I’ve come to appreciate it even more as I’ve grown older. And the reason the flag is in my office is that one of the beauties of living in this country is the freedom of speech.
Now, why would I ever want anyone to walk into my office and not exercise the freedom of speech? One of the things I am working extremely hard on is to create an environment of transparency and the freedom of speech. I tell people: “You can say whatever you want to say in this office to me. Just understand that I also have the freedom not to agree, but I want to know what you’re thinking. I want to know what’s on your mind, because I want to make the best decision that’s going to make this organization thrive.”
A lot of companies struggle with making sure employees get honest and candid feedback. What do you do?
I use a lot of analogies in my organization. I have a little airplane on my desk, and if I have to have a difficult conversation with somebody, I will say: “Put on your seatbelt. We’re going to be fine, but we’re going to go through some turbulence.” Feedback, to me, is a gift. If you and I are on the same team, then I am totally dependent on you, and you are dependent on me. The feedback I’m giving is to help you be even more effective, and therefore the team will be more effective.
How do you hire?
I let people know that I’ve read their résumé, and then I’ll ask: “What really stands out for you? What do you want me to understand in your story here?”
And I assess all my leaders on three dimensions: the head, the heart and the guts. I want to get a sense of the head — how do you think, how do you work, and how do you take in information and synthesize it to drive forward? Then I want to know about the heart. How do you relate to people? How do you get people excited about doing something?
And the gut is the ethical compass, what guides your inner motivations. That one is critically important to me, because my executives make a lot of decisions. If I ever begin to question the ethics or the value system of an individual, then we’ve got a problem.
How do you get at that quality in your interviews?
I’ll ask some judgment questions: Give me an example of when you were conflicted by something. How did you handle it? Then I’ll listen to the words and watch the body language. Most of the time what you’ll sense is a real conflict that the person struggled through, and you start to hear judgments where someone might say, “While I was conflicted by this, it didn’t cross the line, and so I was able to reconcile it.” Or they might say, “I couldn’t live with that.” I learn a lot from those kinds of questions.