How to Be a C.E.O., From a Decade’s Worth of Them
Best Career and Life Advice
My vote for career advice goes to something I heard from Joseph Plumeri, the vice chairman of First Data, a payments-processing company, and former chief executive of Willis Group Holdings. His biggest career inflection points, he told me, came from chance meetings, giving rise to his advice: “Play in traffic.”
“It means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens,” he said. “Both of my great occasions in life happened by accident simply because I showed up.”
Mr. Plumeri learned this lesson firsthand when he was looking for a job while in law school. He was knocking on doors of various firms, including one called Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt. He managed to get an audience with one of the partners, Sandy Weill, who informed the young Mr. Plumeri that this was a brokerage firm, not a law firm.
Despite the awkward moment, something clicked, and Mr. Weill gave him a part-time job. And Mr. Plumeri moved up as the firm evolved into Citigroup, and he spent 32 years there, many of them in top jobs.
What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.
As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.
To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.
It’s what used to be called a liberal education.
For all the talk of the world becoming dominated by a “cognitive elite”, in reality it appears it is nothing more than a “confidence elite”.
epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, or the investigation of what distinguishes substantiated and supportable belief from mere opinion. Now that sounds like it could come in handy these days.
Confidence men can sell you only those lies that you’re already prepared to believe. They are emissaries of our own optimism, bearing the promise that the world is as decent as we’d hoped. In 1848, a dapper and genteel fellow named William Thompson took to the streets of New York with a simple ruse. After some pleasant conversation, Thompson would ask a stranger, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” His marks didn’t just believe in him, but also in the premise behind his question—that cities weren’t Hobbesian jungles, but the sort of places where you could entrust your timepiece to a stranger. When he was arrested, a reporter for the New York Herald christened him “The Confidence Man.”
Too many entrepreneurs think if their first business idea is a failure, they aren’t cut out for it. Too many artists assume that if their early work doesn’t get praised, they don’t have the skill required. Too many people believe if their first two or three relationships are bad, they will never find love.
Imagine if the forces of nature worked that way. What if Mother Nature only gave herself one shot at creating life? We’d all just be single-celled organisms. Thankfully, that’s not how evolution works. For millions of years, life has been adapting, evolving, revising, and iterating until it has reached the diverse and varied species that inhabit our planet today. It is not the natural course of things to figure it all out on the first try.
So if your original idea is a failure and you feel like you’re constantly revising and adjusting, cut yourself a break. Changing your strategy is normal. It is literally the way the world works. You have to stay on the bus.
Launch it quickly. Some ideas work much better than others, but nobody really knows which ideas work until you try them. Nobody knows ahead of time—not venture capitalists, not the intelligent folks at Amazon, not your friends or family members. All of the planning and research and design is just pretext. I love Paul Graham’s take on this: “You haven't really started working on [your idea] till you've launched.”
Because of this, it is critical to launch strategies quickly. The faster you test a strategy in the real world, the faster you get feedback on whether or not it works.
The allure of dogmatic tribes makes sense—they appeal to very core parts of human nature.
Humans crave connection and camaraderie, and a guiding dogma is a common glue to bond together a group of unique individuals as one.
Humans want internal security, and for someone who grows up feeling shaky about their own distinctive character, a tribe and its guiding dogma is a critical lifeline—a one-stop shop for a full suite of human opinions and values.
Humans also long for the comfort and safety of certainty, and nowhere is conviction more present than in the groupthink of blind tribalism. While a scientist’s data-based opinions are only as strong as the evidence she has and inherently subject to change, tribal dogmatism is an exercise in faith, and with no data to be beholden to, blind tribe members believe what they believe with certainty.
…what attracts human attention is change. …if the temperature around you changes, if the phone rings — that gets your attention. The way in which a story begins is a starting event that creates a moment of change.
But -- and this is a very important but -- a company in crisis often has a severe narrative or "story" problem that accompanies its business problems, and it can be hard to get people inside and outside the company motivated to reengage without you forcing a dramatic change to the story in some fundamental way.
Identify the 3-5 things that are working surprisingly well in your business, and double down on those.
JM: You’re saying banks are more moral than markets?
JD: Yes, because a bank is a relationship. I can’t desert you and expect to have a strong relationship afterward.
Great read for singles 😳
One of the things that we really look for in successful candidates [is the ability] to articulate their personal story about why they’re interested in a career here – what they feel that they can learn and what they feel they can contribute to our firm.