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The Corner Office
Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal gets personal with the powerful

They are the celebrities of the business world. They are high-profile figures, instantly recognizable to those who follow business. Yet they're also some of the least known people outside of their field. They are chief executive officers, and they're the subject of a Marketplace series called "Conversations From the Corner Office."

As the name suggests, the segment consists of conversations between Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal and CEOs from across the corporate world. In true Marketplace form, however, the talk isn't all about the bottom line. The segment aims to uncover the motivations driving these key figures and to lift the curtain on the powerful positions they hold (and the enormous responsibility they bear). Talking about business is the entry point for a broader discussion of what makes these achievers tick-what motives them, what matters to them, what keeps them in the game.

Because CEOs spend so much time in the public eye, asking questions that they haven't necessarily been asked before is key to getting beyond the talking points, says Ryssdal. "Sometimes they genuinely say 'Y'know what ... I'm not sure I've ever thought about that.' And that's when you know it's going to get good because you've managed to stray off into an area-intentionally or not-that's going to generate a genuine conversation."

Ryssdal has talked to Charles Schwab, Southwest's Gary Kelly and Sirius' Mel Karmazin, and others. Each CEO has a very different story to tell-both corporate and personal-but they all share a passion for what they do. "They've all been fascinating in their own ways. Bob Eckert runs the world's biggest toy company (Mattel) but still manages to get home for his son's high school basketball games. He's a firm believer that if you're not having fun in the job, you're not doing it the right way," says Ryssdal. "Sumner Redstone is a self-made billionaire and you wouldn't think he'd have a care in the world, but he's up and involved in his businesses (Viacom and CBS) seven days a week. Anne Mulchahy started at Xerox in the human resources department and got the CEO job with the company days away from bankruptcy. She's not afraid to talk about how it was touch-and-go for a while and how it can get very lonely at the top."

The takeaway? "The biggest lesson, without question," says Ryssdal, "is you have to be true to yourself." Good advice to all.

Explore an archive of "Conversations From the Corner Office" at Hear Marketplace weekdays at 6:30 p.m. on Minnesota Public Radio News.

(This article also appeared in the August 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)