Dr Ruth Simmons has been President of Browns University for the past 11 years. She is stepping down at the end of this academic year and will continue as a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies.

Adam Bryant of the New York Times conducted a fascinating interview with Dr Simmons, in which she shares many insights into human nature. Here are the quotables for me:

  • Ultimately, I came to understand that I could achieve far more if I worked amiably with people, if I supported others’ goals, if I didn’t try to embarrass people by pointing out their deficiencies in a very public way
  • I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.
  • It’s very important in a leadership role not to place your ego at the foreground and not to judge everything in relationship to how your ego is fed.
  • So my lesson to my students is you have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.
  • As you’re trying to help people, you can give very honest criticism, but if you do it in the context of genuinely wanting to help them, it makes all the difference in the world.
  • [In job interviews] I like open-ended questions that give people an opportunity to go in the direction they want to go, because you learn a good deal more when you do that. You learn what’s important to people. So if I say to you, “Tell me about your experience growing up,” you get to choose anything you want to talk about. If you reach down and talk about something that is deeply meaningful to you and not intended to impress me as a future employer, that’s what I care about. That helps me see what your character is, what you’re made of, how you were formed as a human being. You’re trying to get at whether they will be a good member of the team. You’re trying to get at whether they will care about people. You’re trying to get at whether they will have very high standards for their job, or whether they will just be trying to please people.
  • I look for people who are supremely self-confident, very secure, but also profoundly interested in other people. And I look for signs of that. How curious are they about other people, and about new things outside their own area of specialization? If I’m hiring for a central role in the administration and I’m interviewing a physicist, I want to know whether the physicist reads poetry. Or perhaps they are interested in opera. I think something outside of their immediate sphere of interest would be very important for me to know.
  • You would be surprised at the number of interviews I’ve done where the person never stops talking. If I’m interviewing someone and if they never stop talking, I will never hire them, no matter how qualified they are. If you cannot listen, you can’t be the site of welcoming, nurturing, facilitating new ideas, innovation, creativity, because it really is ultimately only about you. So I look for people who listen well and can respect the ideas of others.
  • I look for people who are strong enough to be critical of things that are not very good. And more than being critical of things that are not very good, they have to have the capacity to tell people that. Because many people are critical, but they can’t sit in a room and look someone in the eye and say, “This idea is not very good.” In senior positions, you have to be able to do that.