I meandered down to the lounge of our hotel while I waited for Janice to come down for dinner. We were at the tail end of our anniversary celebration and were flying out the next day. The lounge is always a great place to meet traveling business people and this evening was no different. As I entered a young man at the bar suggested several types of drinks I should try. We started talking. Turns out he is a Vice President of Acquisitions on a five state tour finalizing deals he had put together. Assessing profitability, building company portfolios, and finalizing complex financial deals it is not my forte. So, my curiosity was piqued. He gave me a rundown on what he and his team looked for in potential purchases. His background at Lehman brothers was the perfect foundation for his current role.
I asked him to what extent the corporate cultures of potential acquisitions played into his team's assessments of potential acquisitions.
"We don't bother with that," he replied. "It is strictly a numbers game. We look at profitability, structures, and what duplication we need to remove or what systems will strengthen ours and we absorb what we can and eliminate what we don't need."
His background in statistics and finance give him a specific lens from which to view business yet several of his comments indicated that he had a greater than average people-sense behind all the analysis. I wanted to get at that. "You obviously enjoy what you do. What the four most important lessons you have learned in your career so far?" I asked.
"I have thought about that," he replied. "They include: (1) patience - things don't always move as fast as I want and being more deliberate helps me read whether I am working with a group that is on the same page or divided in how they approach challenges and whether they are critical thinkers or 'yes-men;' (2) numbers - I do the analysis work. People tell good stories but I want the facts. It is the facts that tell whether a company is profitable and sustainable; (3) research - when I speak I have all the data I need. I watch some guys simply throw stuff at the wall. It may work temporarily but when the CEO comes back with questions it doesn't take long for bull*hit to unravel. If I don't know the facts I will tell the CEO that I don't have the facts now but I will within the day; (4) competency - a person has to be able to do the work with excellence.
I was impressed with the clarity and the speed with which he listed these off - clearly he has been thinking about this. I still wanted to know more. "So what have you learned about people?" I asked.
Again he didn't even pause, "My career started as a cop. I worked in undercover narcotics and one thing was true about every person I arrested - they were great story tellers. They could have made millions as authors of fiction. Most people tell great stories - I don't pay attention to the story, I look for the facts (the behaviors). It is just as true in business. That is why I am patient. I hear the stories but I look for the track record. This is why I will get to CEO role - I can separate the stories from the facts." He paused for a moment and continued, "I recognized early on that technology was changing the way we did everything. I asked for an assignment in our IT department then I learned everything I could about technology and systems. I completed a degree in statistics and finance and I leveraged these at Lehman Brothers. I understand how to package business and to create systems to maximize it."
I was enjoying the pace of the conversation, but I still saw that there was more to pull out of him - more about leadership. "You are clearly driven, so when you finally arrive at the top position how will you define success?" I asked.
He paused on this question. "You are really perceptive," he said. He thought for a moment. Then he continued, "I will be different than the c-suite leaders I have seen so far. In my view the three most important things a C-suite leader has to pay attention to are: (1) numbers - always know what makes the business successful; (2) technology - most leaders lose touch with technology and when they do in this day in age they loose touch with their business; (3) people - they are the ones who make success happen. A leader can't ignore the people who make it happen. Too many C-suite leaders I have seen treat people as though they are mere automatons. Without people things don't happen - a leader has to appreciate and recognize the efforts of those around them."
As he finished his thought his associate entered the bar. We made introductions and they congratulated me on our fortieth wedding anniversary and they left for dinner - I went to find Janice.
I did observe that his last statement gave him an "aha" moment and gave me the information I was looking for. His initial description of his work in acquisitions seemed devoid of the human side. This struck me as odd because his demeanor and the way he greeted me when I entered the lounge was much more engaging. What I saw in his response was a growing integration between the demeanor he demonstrated and his approach to analysis. His demeanor inferred an intuitive grasp on people dynamics. He elaborated on this a little more when he talked about patience. The more he moves his intuition toward an explicit understanding and integration the stronger the leader he will become. In fact his aversion to the impersonal CEO model indicated that he had started down this very road.
So, what did I learn? I will spend more time in the numbers. I don't have a finance background but I have collected some business acumen along the way and I am committed to adding to it. I also learned that leaders who exercise awareness of their own emotion learn more about the people they manage. My friend at the bar inferred his own frustration at being depersonalized when he described the short-comings of the CEOs he has worked with. Because he is willing to learn from his experience by openly contemplating his own emotion and experience he has arrived at a clear differentiation between highly effective and moderately functional CEOs.
What have you learned along the way in your career? Are you as articulate as this young man in outlining what you have learned? This young man took our conversation as a learning time just as much as I did. He gained insight into himself by the questions I asked. My questions led him to consider his experience from new perspectives. I noticed that he was ready to engage conversations as learning tools but he also was ready to engage the conversation as an interview. I have noticed over the years that true leaders have this dual approach to conversation. Because they are learning every conversation potentially expands their knowledge. Because they are interviewing they find opportunities others never see.
How do you approach conversations with total strangers? The next time you meet a stranger - ask some key questions. Pay attention to the insights you pick up along the way and watch for opportunities. Most of all, have some fun - we did.