New York Times

James E. Rogers: The C.E.O. as a General and a Scout

James E. Rogers, the chairman, C.E.O. and president of Duke Energy, says it's one thing for a leader to say "Go take this hill" but quite another "to be there when the hill's being taken."

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

James E. Rogers, the chairman, C.E.O. and president of Duke Energy, says it's one thing for a leader to say "Go take this hill" but quite another "to be there when the hill's being taken."

Published: October 11, 2009

This interview with James E. Rogers, chairman, chief executive and president of Duke Energy, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Tell me about your leadership style.

A. I've always had a bias for being engaged and being on the front lines. I think about the example of Normandy, where they had all these elaborate plans, and then when they landed on the beaches, they didn't quite work and they had to make it up as they went along.

Particularly now, as I've been a C.E.O. for over 20 years, it's really important to be on the front lines and to remember kind of the sound of the bullets whizzing by, to be on the ground. It's one thing to make policy or direction or say, "Go take this hill." It's another thing to be there when the hill's being taken.

Q. With all the responsibilities of a C.E.O., how do you make time to be on the front lines?

A. When you're a C.E.O., the tendency is to get removed from the day-to-day activities. You deal with strategy, you deal with Wall Street, you deal with a wide array of stakeholders, but the fact of the matter is, you're operating at 30,000 feet.

I think it's important, if you're going to lead an organization, to have some sense of what everyone does every day. It gives you an empathy that really helps you in terms of telling a story about the company and leading them in terms of where you're trying to go.

Q. Can you elaborate?

A. At one level, I'm like a general. I make the strategic plans, the five-year plan, take this hill, hit these objectives, etc. But also, since I'm in an industry that's going through great transformation, I'm uniquely positioned to be a scout, to really go out and deal with clean-tech development, to deal with national environmental leaders or national consumer advocates. It gives me the freedom, because I am the C.E.O., to find an idea and to bring it back and champion it. I accelerate whether we do it or not.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. I think as the years have gone on, I've really honed my ability to listen and understand everybody's story, and to help them build a story around their capabilities - a story that's open-ended, that plays to their strengths. Because one of the biggest things I find in organizations is that people tend to limit their perceptions of themselves and their capabilities. And one of my challenges is to open them up to the possibilities. I mean, who would've guessed at 40 that I'd be selected as a C.E.O. after having just left a law firm as a partner four years before? So, I have this belief that anybody can almost do anything in the right context.

Q. So how do you communicate that?

A. Oftentimes, I do it by moving people around in the organization and putting them in areas where they're uncomfortable. And I'm a great believer of blending talent from outside the company. I'm very careful not to have this talent report directly to me, for a couple different reasons. One is, I want them to learn the culture of the organization by reporting to someone else who's going to take more time than I will to help them find their way, because every company has a culture, and they need to avoid the landmines.

Q. But some people are best suited for certain roles. You don't ask a center to play point guard.

A. There are clearly role players. But you have to push some people out of their comfort zone. You've got to have a sense of the person, that they're willing to take on that risk, because if you try to push them and you sense they don't want to go there, then it's probably a mistake. And so it's more art than science, it's more feel. That's what I'm better at, the longer I've been C.E.O. I understand when no is no and no is maybe.

Q. Do you use a line to close the deal?

A. I think that, at the end of the day, they have to trust you. They have to trust that you wouldn't be asking them to do this unless you had confidence in them. They have to trust that you see something in them that they may not see completely in themselves. So, I think it really gets down to them trusting me. I tell them, "I'm confident you can do it, but I want you to know I'm here for you, I've got your back, and at the end of the day, I'm going to help you succeed because I know you can."

Q. How do you hire? What key questions do you ask job candidates?

A. I try to get them to talk generally about some of their toughest challenges. I ask them to talk about their failures, how they dealt with it, how it made them feel, the point when they knew they were failing. I ask them to talk about things they've taken on that they weren't so sure of, but went at it step by step. The way they describe how they embrace a new idea, or how they've redirected their career in some way, gives me a sense of who they are.

Q. Talk about time management.

A. I've worked 60 to 70 hours a week all my life. But I've also learned a couple different things. You first have to develop face-to-face trusting relationships with your people. No. 2, you've got to be pretty clear about the direction you're going. And No. 3, you have to have a level of confidence in them, particularly at the level that I operate, that they will do their job. And I'm very involved externally, more now than ever because climate changes are front and center for our industry, and I've been in a lot of leadership positions in many different areas. I don't have the freedom to do that unless those first three things are done. They know that if they e-mail me day or night, I will be back to them.

Now, the only danger of a BlackBerry is people tend to delegate up. That's a risk.

Q. What do you mean?

A. Somebody might write, "We're thinking about doing this, this, this, this," and sometimes I simply say, "Your call." Other times I might say: "You need to think about these three things. Your call." I want people to make their decisions and to live with them. If they need some advice from me, I'm prepared to give it, but I want it to be their call.

Q. How do you run meetings?

A. I want to know at the very beginning of a meeting, "What are you asking me to do?" or "What are you recommending that we do? Tell me right at the beginning so that I can listen to the presentation in the context of that."

I believe there is such a thing as death by PowerPoint. Because I believe, and this is the storyteller in me and maybe the former newspaper reporter, that I'd much rather have someone write a two-page summary of what they're thinking. When you're forced to sit and write it, not only are you getting the subject, verb, predicates right, but you're tying the sentences together and ideas together. PowerPoints are just bullets, bullets, bullets, and when you actually have to write something, you start to develop a more cohesive logic.

I think words really make a difference - what you say, how you say it. A lot of energy needs to go into how you present the idea. And I'm not talking about spin, I'm really talking about making the idea come alive through a story.

Q. What would you like business schools to teach more of, or less of?

A. They really need to teach more the ability to pull all the different disciplines together, all the functional pieces together. There's some aspect of that, but people really need to think in a broader way about the relationships and connections between the different functional areas of business.

The second thing I would really teach is how to write, and how to speak and make presentations. I've overused this term in this conversation, but it's the ability to pull the salient facts together and tell a story, so that people feel it, sense it, they're convinced by it, and want to do something because of it.

Q. How did you learn to do that?

A. My first full-time job, I worked at night as a newspaper reporter, going to school during the day. So, I really started out covering police news, and then federal courts and political news. And I really kind of developed a sense of the importance of trying to find the essence of the story and trying to arrange the facts in some chronology to make sense out of it.

In a sense, as a C.E.O., part of my job is not only to help develop direction but to teach the storytelling. Those early years as a reporter gave me a sense of that in terms of how to tell the story, how to communicate.

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