Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida
The purpose of this article is to provide some answers to the questions; Where, when, and how do successful executives get their life changing counsel, and what kind of advice influences senior business leaders? The answers discussed in this paper are based on interview responses from six chief executives. The questions were; What is the best piece of personal advice you've ever gotten that you've used at work, who gave it to you, and how have you used this advice on the job?
Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Advertising Agency
Advice from David Ogilvy. You can't spend enough time thinking about people, worrying about people, focusing on people, questioning the value of people, and evaluating people. People are the only thing that matters. If you get that part of the business right, everything else works. As a result of this advice Lazarus spends a lot of time thinking about who seems stale, who needs a new view on life, or who needs another challenge.
Some additional advice from Shelly Lazarus. When a business situation seems dire and desperate, don't let your people focus on the crisis rather than what needs to be done. To prevent them from freezing like a deer in the headlights, say something that helps everyone apply some perspective to the situation. What can they to do to us? Take our children away? Is anyone going to die as a result of our decision? Let's get focused on how to solve the problem. People need to keep their perspective and good judgment to come up with useful ideas in tough circumstances.
Daniel Vasella, MD, Chairman and CEO of Novartis Pharmaceutical Company
According to Vesella, learning occurs in an osmotic way. We learn from various experiences and situations. One of his experiences relates to the realization that sometimes the generally accepted rules are the worst possible ones to follow. Once he apologized to his boss for coming in late on a day when the roads were covered with snow and ice. His boss responded with "On a day like this, only stupid people are on time." The advice is simply that you have to be willing to change the rules in certain situations where the rules don't apply. You have to be tolerant of mistakes because what appears to be a mistake might have been the right thing to do given the circumstances.
Another one of Vesella's realizations relates to making decisions and came from a comment the Prime Minister of Singapore made using the phrase "it is crunch time now". The advice in this case is that even though you are keenly aware of the limits of your knowledge and expertise, once you have the facts and understand the problem, you must be confident enough to go ahead and make a decision, even if others doubt you or express divergent opinions. When it's "crunch time", you have to apply clear disciplined thinking and prompt action.
Liz Lang, Founder and President of Liz Lang Maternity
When Liz began talking about developing a line of Liz Lang branded cloths for a huge discount retailer, nearly everyone she talked to thought it was a bad idea. However, she ignored the outside advice based on a comment her husband made about how venture capitalists viewed the initial funding for Xerox. "But who would want to make a copy?" The advice from Liz is that when you start a company, or a new venture, you have to "block out the noise" carefully filter the outside advice, and follow your instincts.
Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Financial Services
Paulson's piece of advice came from his father who said that real happiness comes from striving to accomplish a difficult goal that you set for yourself, and then succeeding. Whether the task involves something simple like raking leaves, or a much more difficult task like building relationships with potential new clients, reaching your goal will give you a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction as well as a tremendous amount of confidence.
Earl G. Graves, Founder and CEO of Earl G. Graves Limited.
Advice from Valerio Cardinale, real estate developer. Treat everyone the same, whether they are a multimillionaire client, or a tenant. Also, trust people. If you can't put your trust in people, you will never get any thing done. Trust enables you to leverage yourself by delegating tasks to other people who can make you more effective. Trust also brings out the best in people. If they feel that you trust them they will work hard to live up to your expectations.
Barry S. Sternlicht, Former Chairman and CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide
Sternlicht mentions a number of fortune cookie type sayings before providing us with a more complex piece of advice. These include: "Pretty good is not good enough"; "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity"; and "Perseverance is genius in disguise". However, a more useful and complex piece of advice came from his boss at a real estate firm in Chicago. To build an organization, you have to delegate. To be able to delegate you have to employ people that gather all the facts, tell the truth about the facts they have gathered, and give you their opinion using good judgment. To do this they must be able to grasp the difference between fact and speculation. You do not want people who cannot form an opinion based on the facts, either because they can't figure out what the facts mean, or because they ignore some of the facts, or because they form opinions based on what they hope is true. Business decisions need to based on the facts and an unbiased assessment and analysis. "Hope is not a business strategy".
Wademan also wrote the following book that provides a collection of advice to business people from Harvard Business School professors. Wademan, D. 2004. Remember Who You Are: Life Stories That Inspire the Heart and Mind. Harvard Business Press.
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