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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Edward Reilly

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-18

Edward Reilly plays by the Bronx rule.

"Curiosity, always driving curiosity," the president and CEO of the American Management Association said yesterday by way of amplifying that rule. "In companies, there's always talk of developing a learning environment. I like to take things a step further. What I tell executives is that you need to develop a culture of curiosity."

That means everyone from the chief executive on down must ask questions such as what makes product work. How do the company's finances work? Why do people want to come to work for the company? What are their work habits? How could the work environment be improved?

"When there's an institutional sense of curiosity, what follows is greater learning of that company's internal and external environments," Mr. Reilly said.

His own sense of curiosity was spawned in the Bedford Park Boulevard section of the Bronx, where Mr. Reilly grew up as one of five children of Edward Reilly, who headed a company that produced wire cloth, and his wife Dorothy, who worked for the erstwhile Dollar Savings Bank.

His curiosity about the physical environment and the manners and mores of people deepened as Mr. Reilly pursued a business degree from St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights. While studying, he also worked for a large Dutch trading company, Hagemeyer NV, putting into practice what he'd learned in the classroom.

And when on the Monday after the Saturday of his graduation Mr. Reilly joined the McGraw-Hill Company, the opportunity to continually raise questions widened significantly.

Mr. Reilly did well by the Bronx rule. At McGraw-Hill, he rose steadily to the highest echelons of the executive suite, ending his career in 1995 as president of McGraw-Hill Broadcasting. He then took his business acumen to Big Flower Holdings, where, as CEO, he expanded its services in advertising, newspaper inserts, direct mail, software, and digital-asset management.

When Big Flower Holdings was sold to Thomas H. Lee Inc., Mr. Reilly decided that he wanted to become an educator - and the American Management Association seemed a natural home for him.

According to the literature, the Association traces its origins back to 1913 with the founding of the National Association of Corporation Schools (later to become the National Association of Corporation Training). By 1922, this group had merged with the Industrial Relations Association of America (founded in 1918 as the National Association of Employment Managers), to form the National Personnel Association. In 1923, the group chose a new name, American Management Association, to better reflect its mission and goals.

In 1923, AMA consolidated five closely related national associations -- all dedicated to management education -- into one organization. With this consolidation, the Regents of the University of the State of New York granted recognition to AMA as an educational institution, Mr. Reilly said.

"We pride ourselves on the relevance of our content, and the effectiveness of our teaching," Mr. Reilly, who will mark his fifth anniversary in June as AMA's chief executive, said. "The world has become so complex that very little can be accomplished without the proper use of organizational skills. Even the brightest people need to learn such skills. They need to learn about motivating colleagues and subordinates - they need to learn to organize their corporate structure in a way that allows people to prosper and make own special contributions to the growth of a company."

Mr. Reilly, in effect, is principal of a huge global school - and publisher as well, since the Association brings out 90 titles each year.

The Association - the biggest and best known institution of its kind - conducts 3,000 public seminars each year in 170 subjects. The subjects range from communications skills to project management to, most particularly, leadership skills.

The seminars are held in New York and four other cities around America, and also in Beijing, Brussels, Toronto, Mexico City, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Guangzhou in southern China.

"Some 70,000 people participate in America each year, and another 30,000 overseas," Mr. Reilly said, adding that "students" at the seminars included rising executives from multinational companies as well as nonprofit organizations.

They typically attend classes for 21 hours over a three-day period. Their instructors are 600 "faculty" members - consultants and experienced corporate executives. While the core curriculum is consistent around America and in other countries, AMA customizes seminars for specific corporations.

These seminars - for which participants pay between $1,600 and $1,800 each - differ from courses taught at business schools in two ways.

One, the highly intensive courses are primarily intended for executives who already have traction in their field. And two, they emphasize leadership skills with a specificity that isn't generally to be found in the 3,000 or so graduate business programs at universities around America, or the 600 academic programs around the world - 150 in Europe alone.

"In fact, what our participants learn at these courses is applicable not only in the corporate world," Mr. Reilly said. "Good management skills are useful in parenting as well."

Implicit in what he said is an acknowledgement that his parents possessed those skills - and that the two children that Mr. Reilly and his wife Susan produced have similarly benefited because their parents' management abilities. (The Reillys' daughter Kristen, is the sales manager at WLVI in Boston, and has an 8-month child, Brooke, with her husband Thomas, who works for Thompson Financial. The second progeny, Greg Reilly, also works in Boston as a sales director for an Internet company; his wife Jenny, is a paralegal associated with intellectual-property litigation.

"The work environment can be seen as an extension of the family environment," Mr. Reilly said. "You need to manage processes and lead others, particularly if you are a parent - or a corporate chief. You need to communicate values and vision. You need to inspire people to work toward sound objectives."

Also implicit in what Mr. Reilly said is an acknowledgement that globalization - the freer flow of capital, ideas and people across porous borders - is creating a world where societies are increasingly becoming extensions of one's family unit.

"And management theory is evolving in a manner that places much more responsibility on people - whether in the societal context or the corporate context," Mr. Reilly said. "The old notion of command-and-control has given way to a culture of increasing expectations from individual and institutional behavior. And increasingly, I see a leader driven set of attitudes that encourage people to honestly take risks and thus advance both their organizations and themselves. The distinctiveness of the American business system lies in the caliber of leaders it has traditionally produced."

And while Mr. Reilly - out of a natural modesty - hesitates to toot America's pre-eminence in the business, he uses anecdotes to illustrate the fascination with which people overseas often regard America.

"I was in Vietnam not so long ago for a meeting with businessmen and students," Mr. Reilly said. "It was to have lasted just an hour. Instead, I found the Vietnamese so curious that they kept asking question after question about good management practices. That meeting went on for four hours."

To put it another way, the Vietnamese had adopted Mr. Reilly's Bronx rule.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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