What happens when you ask 21 luminaries from all walks - finance, law, tech, the military, and beyond - for the one piece of advice that got them to where they are today?
CEO of HSN
When I was at Nike, I was bemoaning the fact that somebody on my team wasn’t performing — and I was trying to get him to perform better. Finally, Phil Knight [Nike co-founder and chairman] said to me, “Mindy, what you really have to focus on is not trying to make ordinary people extraordinary. You need to hire extraordinary people.” In today’s world, talent is so critical to the success of what you’re doing — their core competencies and how well they fit into your office culture. The combination can be, well, extraordinary. But only if you bring in the right people.
Founder and retired CEO of the Vanguard group
I was a runner for a little brokerage firm here in Philadelphia, delivering securities from one little brokerage firm to another. One of the other runners looked at me and he said, “Bogle, I’m gonna tell you everything you need to know about the investment business.” And I said, “What’s that, Ray?” And he said, “Nobody knows nuthin’.” And it turns out, Ray was right. People say there are great performers out there, but it’s a lot of randomness. None of us are smarter than the markets.
CEO of US Airways
In my case it’s not necessarily words of advice, but more advice I received through example. The example is Herb Kelleher [former CEO of Southwest Airlines], who I’ve gotten to know over the last 10 years. Knowing how great he’s done, I’ve tried to hang out and watch and learn through osmosis. He is so good at listening, and has really taught me how important it is to listen to your employees. If you watch Herb in action, it really is phenomenal. He is completely engaged and never looks over your shoulders to see who else is in the room. It’s not out of principle; it’s just who he is.
I try really hard now to have forums that allow employees to talk to me, rather than me being in front of 1,000 people. Four times a month, I put myself in a room with 30 or 40 pilots and flight attendants, and I talk for 10 minutes; they talk for 50. It’s not just listening out of respect — you can’t imagine how much better you can do your job when you operate this way. When you’re leading a big organization like an airline, there’s a whole lot you can miss, so you have to start by listening to people. Then you can decide what the right course is.
I’m nowhere near where Herb is as a listener yet, but just yesterday, we had one of these meetings and someone told me about going to check in and all we had available was first class. She was traveling with her 10-year-old, and he wasn’t allowed in first, so they couldn’t fly. I don’t think that’s right. I didn’t even know we had that policy, so it’s going to change.
CEO of J.C. Penney
I graduated from Harvard Business School in 1984. Jobs were abundant, and I had many choices. I was torn between going to work at Goldman Sachs and a job at Mervyn’s, which was one-third the salary. So I talked to my dad. He worked at General Mills. He said, “Of all the great leaders I’ve met, almost all started in that industry when they were young and learned every aspect of the business. Almost everyone started at the bottom.”
The easy choice would have been to go to an investment bank. There was status and compensation and instant gratification. My dad said, “You can do that, but in a short period of time you’re going to be wanting something else to do. If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up. There’s no shortcut to success.”
Retailing was fast moving, like playing a sport. I could have taken a job in strategic planning at Dayton Hudson [parent company of Mervyn’s at the time], but I said, “No. I want to learn the business,” and that’s why I started in Glendale [as a store management trainee]. Today the same lessons apply to everything I’ve done, whether it’s good design at Target or building the Apple Store. There are no shortcuts.
I remember when Apple went through a tough period. I didn’t feel the pain as much as Steve [Jobs] did. When you are in the leadership position, the tough times can be much more difficult, because your job is really to shield your team through that, to keep them from taking shortcuts. We are building J.C. Penney for the next century. It’s not about the quarter or the year.
Chairman and CEO of Zipcar
I’m a cancer survivor. Fifteen years ago, I had just gotten off the phone with the doctor who did the biopsy. [Griffith was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.] I called my brother and told him the results were bad and that I would need nine months of radiation and chemotherapy. He said, “I know you’ll fight this and you’ll survive.” But, he said, “you have to think about the kind of person you want to be when you’re done with this experience. Think about coming out of this a different person than you go in.” When a family member says something like that, at least in my case, I take it a lot more seriously. Here’s someone who knows me like almost no one else. If you have thin skin, you might say, “What’s wrong with me now — why do I need to be a different person when I’m done with this?” But the way I internalized it was, This is a life-changing event, you’ve been forced at a very young age to go to the edge of the abyss, and what do you want to do with your life after this?
I was living in Boston at the time, doing consulting at a Bain spinoff called the Parthenon Group. I was single, in my mid-thirties. Like most people really focused on a professional track, I had been through business school and by all measures was having a pretty good career path. I was skiing in Aspen instead of flying home. I don’t think there was really any mission to my life. What my brother said to me was this lightning-rod moment. I remember writing it down, and it just started to sink in more and more that life should be different after this.
It forced me to develop a set of my own personal core values. I just started looking around. I asked myself, Do the people around me share my passions? My values? I started asking myself the reason I joined clubs or the things I read — what article was I reading first and why? I started doing some soul searching and decided to leave consulting. I wanted to get back to real jobs. I always had a passion for transportation and technology and cities. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and when I was going to high school the city was a disaster. I became very interested in how cities get that way. I thought, What if I can find a job that would combine my passions for technology and game-changing business models and cities and put that all together? So when I stumbled into Zipcar, I was like, This is the job. This is the one I’m looking for. It sort of doubled back to that comment my brother made. There are a lot of things outside my work that have changed since I went through the cancer, but this idea that you connect your passions to your career — when you truly do that, it becomes your life. It’s why I still pop out of bed every morning.
We live in a throwaway society. So little is built to last. Now more than ever, we have to value great quality because it’s so scarce. At our main office we have a washing machine that broke down a few years ago because the gears melted. The gears couldn’t handle the action that it was built for. My dad told me, when I was just starting my clothing company, when I was 24, that if your business isn’t the best quality, it will not succeed.
Futurist, inventor, author
In 1978, Xerox became interested in Kurzweil Computer Products and made an investment in my company. In 1979 they expressed interest in acquiring it. They were interested in the scanning and character-recognition technology. Xerox was in the printer business, and they had a lot of machines: copiers, printers that took computerized information and put it out onto paper. We had a technology that could go in the other direction. At the time I did not have the philosophy that the real business I was in was creating technologies, creating a business from them, and selling them. My attitude was: This is my company, and my role is to create it and build it up and maybe make it into Xerox. But my CFO, Harry George, said, “What you’re really good at is creating a new technology and bringing it into the world. But there are other people who can bring it to a world market. You should sell to Xerox.”
I took the advice, and Xerox created a world-leading company out of it. That got me into this paradigm. It caused me to redefine the business I’m in, which is being an inventor and creating breakthrough technologies and then finding the right home in a larger company where they can really thrive. I’ve sold five companies, and all of them have not disappeared into the woodwork. Kurzweil Music, for example, is now part of Hyundai. They were able to bring it to a world market in a much better way than we could as a small synthesizer manufacturer.
When I came to the University of Chicago in 1960, I was exposed to professors who were involved in the nascent subject of finance, which didn’t exist as a discipline at the time. It was all being born, and it just happened that I had come to the place where that birth was happening. So I kind of got into it because everybody there was interested in it.
In my first year I took an intermediate statistics class with a professor named Harry Roberts. I was 21 at the time. He was very much like me — he was into all kinds of sports, and he was a runner. I had done a lot of statistics work as an undergraduate and had already worked with data, so I was pretty advanced when I started. But what I learned from Harry was a philosophy. He gave me an attitude toward statistics that has stuck with me ever since.
With formal statistics, you say something — a hypothesis — and then you test it. Harry always said that your criterion should be not whether or not you can reject or accept the hypothesis, but what you can learn from the data. The best thing you can do is use the data to enhance your description of the world. That has been the guiding light of my research. You should use market data to understand markets better, not to say this or that hypothesis is literally true or false. No model is ever strictly true. The real criterion should be: Do I know more about markets when I’m finished than I did when I started? Harry’s lesson is one that I’ve passed on to my students over the 49 years that I’ve been a teacher.
As we took Altos Computer public, co-founder David Jackson and I sat down to reflect on how we had managed to build what at the time was one of the fastest-growing companies in America. We did it because we formed personal relationships with our customers. He started using the phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Since then I’ve always believed that everything in business is about relationships, and you should never take them lightly. We got to know our customers. We got to know their families. The biggest deal we ever signed was with a company called Control Data Corp. We took the CEO to dinner, we took him to ball games, we truly became friends. I am still friends with these people.
I still use David’s advice. My investing is based on having one of the biggest networks in Silicon Valley. When we solve a big problem for one of our portfolio companies, I say to the CEO, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”
SVP and CMO of General Electric
Very early in my career, I had a tough boss. She had my best interests at heart, but she was a pretty critical person. She once pulled me aside and said, “Sometimes I feel like you just can’t finish things. You start well, but you don’t finish.” Boy, I hated that that was her impression of me. My first instinct was, She’s wrong — I finish things. But the best advice is often the most painful advice, and you have to trust the person who’s giving it to you. When you get criticism, ask yourself if it’s relevant. In this instance the reason it hurt so much was that my boss was right. After our conversation, I took special classes to give me skills that I didn’t quite have, so I couldn’t use anything as an excuse to not finish a project. Now, in the back of my mind, I’m always asking, “Did I cross the finish line?”
Founder of Spanx
I used to sit at the dining room table as a kid and my dad would ask me what I failed at that week. If I tried out for a school play and didn’t get it, he would high-five me. He always encouraged me to fail. I didn’t realize at the time how much this advice would define not only my future, but my definition of failure. I have realized as an entrepreneur that so many people don’t pursue their idea because they were scared or afraid of what could happen. My dad taught me that failing simply just leads you to the next great thing. It was pretty unconventional parenting, but I realize now that if I hadn’t failed, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I tried to be a lawyer and failed the LSATs twice. It was one of many tests that showed me how some of the biggest failures in our lives just nudge us into another path.
Superlawyer, founder of Boies Schiller & Flexner
“Try to listen before you speak,” my father told me when I was 13. “Anyone who’s worth talking to is worth listening to.” It was for some time hard advice to take onboard. I could understand listening to a teacher, or anyone with special knowledge, about a subject I was trying to learn. But I often thought I knew more than the person I was speaking with (and occasionally I did).
Over time I came to understand that almost everyone knows something or has some insight or experience I do not — or can say something that, even if wrong, triggers a thought or idea I might not otherwise have.
Even if my only interest in someone was to teach, persuade, or seduce them, listening was still important. People I listen to are more willing to listen to me.
Governor of Colorado
My mom was twice widowed and raised four kids by herself. She was relentlessly frugal and sewed everything herself. She would wash tinfoil and Saran Wrap and tape it to the refrigerator door so she could reuse it. She was very competitive, and frequently told us, “You can’t always control what happens to you in a game or in life, but you can control how you respond — you should never quit.”
After I got laid off as a geologist in 1986 — the last really big recession — I was out of work for almost 30 months. That combination of persistence and frugality really had a lot to do with picking myself back up and trying to start a brewpub. There were a couple of times when we just about quit because we couldn’t raise the money, and, ironically, my own mother wouldn’t invest. She’d say, “Who wants to have dinner in a brewpub?” I felt like I’d talked to every potential investor, and we’d been turned down by 32 banks, but her advice forced me to go to that one more bank. It forced me to go to that one friend of a friend, that next potential investor. We finally got open, signed a lease in 1987. Back then the rent was $1 per square foot per year. We did everything but the plumbing and electricity ourselves and got open in the end of 1988. By keeping our costs down — we bought all used restaurant equipment and furniture — we created a culture within our business. And that restaurant really took off, and we opened brewpubs in about 15 other places, in historic downtowns all over the country. That kind of combined culture of persistence and frugality really helped create a miniature empire.
VP of human resources, Facebook
I would say the best career advice I’ve gotten is from Sheryl Sandberg. When I was first thinking about coming to Facebook, I called Sheryl and asked her what her biggest business problem was. She said it was recruiting. I told her that I didn’t have a lot of experience leading recruiting organizations, and she responded by saying that most men would not let that get in the way of taking a new opportunity. In fact, research tells us that women think they need to have all of the qualifications, or very close to all of them, for a new role before they jump into it. Men don’t feel the same way. I listened to Sheryl’s advice and jumped right into the position at Facebook. Like she encouraged me, I definitely encourage other women to jump right in.
No. 1 ranked chess player in the world
My former coach, Simen Agdestein, used to be the best player in Norway. I was 10 years old at the time, and he said something that was simple but very helpful: He said I should break new barriers all the time. I was doing relatively well, but I had fallen into a pattern of playing a lot of the same openings and positions. He encouraged me to look further. At first I was not successful, but after a while I started to play other openings. I suffered a bad loss at a tournament and was extremely upset. The next day I decided to try a completely new opening for me — the French Defense — and won my best game in quite a while. Simen’s advice made me versatile. I don’t just stick to one set, but many.
CEO of Exclusive Resorts
In the mid-’70s, I was working at Accor Hotels, which at the time was a relatively small company. I was young and eager to compete against the larger American hotels, so I ran so fast that after a few months, everything I did started to fall apart. As I saw everything collapsing before my eyes, the CEO, Gérard Pélisson, called me into his office. I knew I wasn’t doing well, so I was very anxious. He sat me down, and instead of firing me or reminding me how poorly I was doing, he said, “To live old you first need to live young.” And, “It is better to be alive [and a] little weak than be dead in good health.” This piece of advice has stuck with me ever since. I was expecting to be criticized and challenged, but instead he educated me around this idea of having a vision for the long term, but never losing sight of the short term. Every Sunday I sit down and think about what my goals are for the long term as well as what my goals are for the next day. He taught me in that meeting that it’s better to be 98% perfect on a certain goal than 100% too late.
CEO and co-founder of Wildfire
My co-founder and fiancé, Alain [Chuard], says to worry about the things you can change and don’t worry about the things you can’t. Our company operates on top of platforms. As those platforms change, that can have a huge impact on us — either positive or negative. That can make things stressful. Plus, as we were growing, the economy created more stress. Alain would remind me that if it was something we could fix, let’s get to work and fix it. If not, we’re wasting our time with worry.
Master plan architect for reconstruction of World Trade Center site
My first year at the Cooper Union school in New York was a foundational year. After that, you can either be an artist or an architect. I remember sitting with my mother in the Bronx in our housing complex and saying, “I don’t think I’m going to do architecture. I’m going to do art because it’s more enjoyable.” She worked in the sweatshops. She said to me, “If you’re going to be an artist, you’re going to be poor. You should be an architect because you can always be an artist in architecture, but you cannot be an architect in art.”
Chairman and CEO of the Libra Group
I took over our family shipping business at 19. We went from a fleet of two to 70. Then we sold the ships, took all the great people from our shipping business, and sent them around the world to start companies. We ended up with a ship’s captain running a $200 million real estate company and a Russian fruit seller who runs six biogas plants in Latvia. It was asking inappropriate people to do appropriate tasks. I came to it through my grandfather, who used to say, “You can do the impossible. It is miracles that take a little longer.”
Chef, author, provocateur, host of Travel Channel’s No Reservations and The Layover
Back in the late 1980s, I was emerging from a rough patch in my life. I was a recovering drug addict. I pretty much torched the first half of my career and anything resembling a professional reputation as a chef. I got a job as a lunch cook for an employer I had worked with at the very beginning of my career. I call him Bigfoot in my book Kitchen Confidential. His advice to me was an order. He said, “If you’re going to work for me, the most important thing is that you show up on time. Meaning 15 minutes before you are due to begin your shift. If you arrive 14 minutes before your shift, you will be sent home without pay.” To this day, I am never late for anything. That requirement to show your co-workers and employer the respect to at least show up on time made a huge difference in my life. When I later got my shit together and became a chef once again and an employer myself, the most important thing that I would pound into people was arrival time. The skills necessary to do the actual job can be taught. Everybody on my show understands that if it’s an 8 a.m. call to shoot a market scene in Hanoi, I will be in the lobby waiting for them at five minutes of eight. I believe in leading from the front. It is unthinkable to me for anyone lucky enough to do what I do for a living — shove food and liquor in my face — to be late. My behavior as far as arrival time sets a tone. If I’m there on time every day, people show up on time too.
Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, first African American to hold the office
I served in the U.S. Navy for 27 years. When I was the assistant chaplain for the chief of naval education and training, my boss, Vice Admiral Kihune, was a superb leader. One day I asked him what his philosophy of leadership was. He said, “I basically practice the golden rule.” Which is, Treat other people like you want to be treated. As I went up through the ranks, I became a one-star admiral. I was at a meeting with the Secretary of the Air Force and other three- and four-star admirals. We were discussing how to ensure that recruits who go through boot camp are more ethically fit when they leave. The discussion centered on how we weed out the bad apples. It dawned on me that if I were a recruit, I would not want a punitive approach to ethical fitness. I would prefer the Ken Blanchard, one-minute-manager model of catching people doing something right and positively reinforcing that. I said, “How would you feel if you were a recruit and you saw people being weeded out in this punitive way?” I challenged their premise. I apply this on a regular basis when I’m talking to lawmakers about the very issues that they debate in the chamber. The lawmakers on both sides, for the most part, are good patriotic Americans. They just have different philosophies on what is best for the country. How I would want to be treated gives me a litmus test and provides me with a guide to action.