Assuming a leadership role can be an exciting, rewarding experience; however, it also comes with a host of challenges and, for some, an inherent feeling of isolation. Enter Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., who has looked inside the minds of some of the world’s most renowned leaders for more than two decades. Trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Sulkowicz is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group, which advises boards of directors, CEOs and other executives on the psychology of leadership and helps them address their anxieties, interpersonal relationships and company culture. We recently sat down with Dr. Sulkowicz, who also advises the Partners of Brown Brothers Harriman on effective leadership, to discuss the challenges leaders face, the complexities of leadership in private and family businesses and the common qualities he has seen in the best leaders.
Brown Brothers Harriman: Tell us about your background and how you came to work with business leaders.
Kerry Sulkowicz: A few determinants came together and informed my career choice, both from my family history and the present.
Growing up, I was always reading biographies of political leaders. My parents were both Holocaust survivors from Poland who survived the concentration camps and immigrated to the U.S. as refugees. While they didn’t talk much about their experience, I was aware of what they had gone through. Because of that, I had this purely emotional interest in understanding how leaders got large groups of people to do good and bad things. That planted the seed of my interest in leadership.
Fast-forward, and after medical school I became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I went into full-time private practice, which I enjoyed, and thought that was how I was going to spend my career. However, I was unhappy feeling stuck in an office all day, and it became clear to me after a few years that it wasn’t a great fit for my temperament. I was too restless for that and needed to be more engaged with the world.
I also had an interest in entrepreneurship. I started a small business back in the early 1990s that ultimately failed but was a great learning experience, and some of my patients were businesspeople, so I was interested in the world of work and business.
All of this was on my mind when I had an experience at a cocktail party in 1995 that changed the course of my career. I met the CEO of a startup, and he started talking to me about how he was struggling to figure out what it meant to be CEO, as well as a couple other issues related to dynamics among key stakeholders and cultural tensions with international investors. When he finished talking, he asked me when I would be able to start advising him on his business. I told him I thought he was out of his mind and that he really needed help from someone who did that for a living! He said that my bluntness and honesty made him want to hire me even more because no one talked straight to him now that he was a CEO.
That interaction made me realize there was an opportunity to bring a clinical perspective to serving as an advisor to leaders who, because of the inherent isolation of their role, often don’t have anybody to talk to inside their company. He became my first consulting client, as opposed to patient, and it was really a turning point.
BBH: Within your consulting practice, what areas do you focus on?
KS: We cover a range of topics, including challenges CEOs are facing personally, navigating their interpersonal relationships from their management team and board of directors to external individuals who they may be negotiating with.
We also discuss succession and the process of developing successors internally or recruiting them from the outside. Succession planning always has to be going on because nobody stays in a leadership job forever.
The other area we look at is culture. We talk about the influence of a leader’s behavior and values on an organization’s culture. We also look at it from the perspective of how a leader can shape culture and address aspects that may be interfering with the optimal functioning of the business.