Top CEOs offer valuable words to live by
When I was in college, my father would tear pages out of Fortune—his favorite magazine—and send them to me. He hoped to persuade me to major in something more practical than English. I usually left the pages, folded and unread, on my dorm room desk.
So it is with irony I now find myself editing The Advice Issue of Fortune. The opportunity to learn from others is the great virtue of being human. The refusal to do so, our proud vice.
Still, there are moments when well-framed advice can change a person’s life for the better. This issue is dedicated to those moments. We reached out to hundreds of successful people and asked them for the single most valuable piece of advice they received during their careers, as well as advice they give others. The response has been overwhelming. We have included many of these offerings in the November 17th issue, and are publishing many more on fortune.com.
The best submissions capture complex lessons in succinct prose. Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, recalled something he was told by an elder Chinese businessman early in his career:
There are three pillars to society: the rule of law, the rule of logic, and the rule of relationships. In the West these are prioritized as follows: first law, second logic, third relationships. In the East it’s exactly the opposite: first relationships, then logic, then law. All are indispensable. But what’s most important to understand is that the starting points are different.
In other cases, the power of the message emanates from the messenger. Tony Robbins, one of the world’s most successful advisers, has a charisma his listeners find difficult to ignore. Jack Welch turned a successful career as CEO of General Electric into a second career as a purveyor of business advice, and his lessons have lived on through the many executives he touched—including Home Depot CEO Frank Blake.
DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg says the best advice he ever received came from actor Kirk Douglas, whom he had watched in the movie Spartacus when he was only 10 years old. Thirty years later Katzenberg was seated next to Douglas at a charity dinner and watched him give an impassioned speech to the audience.
“I asked him where that passion came from,” Katzenberg recalls. “This is when he said the most important words anyone has ever said to me:
You haven’t learned how to live until you learn how to give.’”
To be sure, not all advice is good advice. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers offers a note of skepticism to our endeavor—as is his wont—which he attributes to a tennis coach when he was young:
Advice is never as good as you think it is when you think it is good. And it is never as bad as you think it is when you think it is bad.
But here’s one piece of advice that we are convinced is rock solid. It comes to us from Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi:
Never stop learning. Whether you are an entry-level employee fresh from college or a CEO, you don’t know it all. Admitting this is not a sign of weakness. The strongest leaders are those who are lifelong students.
At Fortune we are committed to lifelong learning. We hope you’ll learn something useful from the pages that follow.
This story appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of Fortune.