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Rick Levin on Moving From the Ivy League to Silicon Valley

Tell me about your parents.

My dad worked in the family business that his uncle owned, importing wines and liquors from Europe. He had responsibility for the western states. He died way too young. He had a heart attack at 42, never really completely recovered, and passed away five years later.

My mother had an amazingly accepting personality. She had tremendous empathy for people of all kinds, and great interpersonal skills. She brought out the best in people.

When you went to college, did you have an idea what you wanted to do for a career?

Everybody assumed I would be a lawyer because I had verbal skills. By my junior year, I was pretty confident I wanted to be a professor.

What was your first role managing people?

Less than three years after I started as a first-year assistant professor, the chairman of the economics department said, “Why don’t you run the introductory course?” There were 17 sections of the course.

It was a fairly large organizational task that I got saddled with right from the start. But I was always in the middle of stuff. I became the chairman of my department pretty quickly after I got tenured.

What are some key leadership lessons you’ve learned?

One skill that I improved on gradually was listening. If you want to understand people, you need to hear them. If you have to say “no” to people, it’s helpful to be able to explain authentically that I understood you, but here’s my decision. You have to see the nonverbal cues, too, and think a little deeper about what the person is saying. Often that’s situational or contextual, and sometimes it’s deeply psychological.

Humility is also important, and it has to be really genuine. You see a lot of C.E.O.s who are very egocentric, domineering people who succeed just because they have a great idea. But people who put the organization and mission first are more likely to succeed than people who put themselves first. People admire that kind of person and they resonate with them because they share a belief.

A good leader has to have some vision, too — ambitious goals to lift the organization up and everybody with it. Setting goals that are ambitious but also achievable is an important skill.

You were the president of Yale for 20 years and now you’re a C.E.O. What’s the biggest difference about the experience?

How much uncertainty you face and how much risk-taking you have to do. I had to get used to the notion that trying stuff and failing was going to be O.K. We do a lot of testing of new ideas and sometimes you have to course correct. It’s just the way it goes.

And in what way would your experience as a C.E.O. make you better equipped to be a university president?

One is that exposure to a higher-risk environment. It might make you think a little more ambitiously about things. The second thing is that it also gives you a glimpse of what your graduates are like five years down the road. Having that perspective about where they’re headed next would be helpful in relating to students.

How do you hire? What do you look for?

Certainly humility and the ability to listen well are the big things I look for, because I want that on my team.

And how do you get at those qualities?

Well, everybody’s a pretty good listener in an interview, so you do that largely through reference checking. And humility is transparent in the way people talk about themselves. You can sniff that a mile away. I like people who are going to be really mission-oriented and team oriented.

You need people who can speak honestly to one another without offending. That was easier at Yale somehow. The deans each had their schools, and there was less need to be tightly aligned for every action across that level of leadership.

At a start-up, there isn’t anything we do that doesn’t involve a team of six or seven people. So the ability to work on a team is critical. And you can elicit that in an interview by asking people to tell you about a big accomplishment and how they got it done.

What career and life advice do you give new college grads?

When you graduate, you have a lot of equipment for life. But it’s just a start. You’re still exploring, and you’re going to be a learner for your whole life. You should activate that impulse, and you should still be trying new things.

Find a life calling that you can commit to in a wholehearted way because if you can love your work and make it meaningful, you’re going to have a happier life.

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