This interview with Kim Bowers, chief executive of CST Brands, a gas-station and convenience-store retailer, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Did you know what career you wanted to pursue when you were in college?
A. I have a C.I.A. story. I was a Spanish major and an international studies major, and thought I wanted to be in government service. My maiden name is Smith, and I had interviewed with the C.I.A. my senior year in college — went to D.C. and went through two days of interviews. They said, “We’ll call you.” I never heard from them, and then Baylor University offered me a full scholarship for grad school. I thought, “Well, I need to do something,” and ended up moving to Waco, Tex.
Just before classes started, I got a call. It was the C.I.A. They had offered the job to the wrong Kim Smith and were calling me after they realized the mistake. I had already made a commitment to Baylor, and the professor there who gave me the scholarship had really gone out on a limb for me. Then Texas got under my skin.
Early management lessons?
After about four years as in-house corporate counsel, I led the commercial law group at Valero Energy [from which CST Brands would be spun off]. I had folks reporting to me who thought they should have the job. So that was the first time I’d actually ever made somebody mad, and it was a new experience for me.
I had been the middle kid, and grew up in this consensus-building world, and now I’m in this role of, “O.K., I can’t make everybody happy.” In life, there are going to be people who win and people who lose, and you can’t always make them all winners. And some people just may never be happy. Today, I am less tolerant of bad attitudes. If, after a short period of time, you sense that things aren’t going to get better, we’ll part ways and move on. There’s no point in wasting management time on it.
Other leadership lessons you’ve learned?
I put people into two different categories: people who manage up really well and people who manage down really well, and I love the latter. If I find someone whose team would walk across hot coals for them, that’s the person I want to work with because I know there is authenticity there, and they are supporting their teams and vice versa. It’s the folks who manage up really well but have this underlying storm all the time who concern me because you don’t know if they’re just trying to charm to cover up. You want to make sure they’ve got the base behind them to go forward.
How do you know which camp a person is in?
Age has helped me with that. When I started out, I probably expected everyone to have great management skills, and so if they managed up well, I assumed they managed down well. Over time, I have become more circumspect because I’ve encountered enough folks who aren’t good at both. I work hard to try to get as much input as I can, through 360 assessments and interviews with their folks. I’m faster to move now when I see causes for concern.
This is your first C.E.O. role. Has the reality of it been different from what you expected, even in subtle ways?
There’s no privacy. Everything you say or do is overinterpreted in ways you don’t expect. My car is parked in my spot right now because I got a ride to the airport. I know people all week long are going to be wondering: “Kim’s not really in the office. Her car is here. What’s going on?” And everyone knows your name, but you know very few. That’s difficult as well. But the people side of the equation has been a pleasurable surprise for me. We have 12,000 employees. I spend a lot of time out in the field with them.
Anything surprise you that you learned from being on the front lines?
I found out we had stopped letting store managers email each other. Apparently, someone once hit “reply all” and sent an email that was inappropriate. Rather than just managing it, they cut off everyone’s email. So store managers, whose jobs are already hard, were having to text each other or talk over Facebook. After I heard this, I came back to the office and said, “Unless anybody can give me a really good reason not to, I want this fixed by next week, because the message is we don’t trust them.” We fixed that very quickly.
How do you hire?
I spend time just trying to get to know the person and understand what makes them tick: what they like to do, what they liked about their last job, what they are looking for in terms of challenges. If someone’s jumped around a lot, I worry about that. And if someone seems like a ladder-climber, that sets off a bell for me that they’re not going to be a good fit, because they’re going to step on somebody in the process. People have to work well on a team. If they don’t play well with others, they’re not going to stay long.
What career advice do you give to college students?
Make sure not to set your expectations too low for what you can do, and recognize that at every twist and turn you’re going to have opportunities to expand your horizons, and you should take those. You shouldn’t be looking just to climb the ladder, but be open to opportunities that let you climb that ladder.
That’s an interesting distinction.
I look at my own experience. I didn’t ask for my next job. I worked really hard and took on opportunities when they were available to do more. I was a lot less focused on titles than doing a good job and getting opportunities to do more. A lot of folks talk about managing their career. But I say: “Throw it out the window. It’s not going to happen that way.” If you work really hard, opportunities will come along, and success will follow.
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