What CEOs Say You Need to Get Ahead

Betty Liu is an award-winning journalist and host of Bloomberg Television's "In the Loop." Here is an excerpt from her book "Work Smarts ," published by John Wiley & Sons.

I interview people who are at the top of their careers: CEOs, economists, policy makers, entrepreneurs. Inevitably, I began to wonder: How did they get there and what made them successful while others failed? Why can’t we get beyond the "follow your passion" advice and really find out what it takes to forge a career that maximizes all your interests and skills? What holds people back? What gets them ahead?

If you're looking for real-world advice about how to get started in your career, how to succeed and how to pick yourself up when you've fallen, my book is for you. But you know what? It's also for me. Before I head into the boss's office to pitch an idea, I fret about it. How do I say it right? Surely, I think, others go through this too.

I went to some of the most successful people in the business world because I really wanted to know the answers to these questions. I asked and they shared. They shared their war stories and the lessons learned in their climb to the top. Those stories turned into "Work Smarts," in which you'll learn how to get to where you want to go from the people who've already been there.

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Fear can be energizing or depleting.There are bad fears and good ones. Good fear can motivate -- it’s the fear that we won’t be able to live with ourselves if we don’t move ahead.

Bob Benmosche, CEO of American International Group Inc., on debt:

My dad died when I was ten. My mother was left with $250,000 of debt and she had four children. My sister was 12, I was 10, I had a sister 5 and a brother 3. To be finding yourself without a will, without insurance and $250,000 of debt ... if that were to happen today it would be tough, but it happened in 1954. ...

Originally we were from Brooklyn. [My father] bought some cabins and a restaurant and a bar. He wanted to run that business. Then he got this idea that he should build motels, not out of town but in town, so people could walk around and do things in the village.

So he put that idea to work in 1952-53 and he built a motel right in the middle of Monticello, New York, in the Catskills. The only problem was he didn’t have any money. So everybody was so intrigued with his idea that lumber companies sent lumber and the plumbers sent plumbing supplies and everything was fine, except when he finished the project in December of 1954, he realized that there was no business because the season was over. He had no money and no visible financing, and at 50 years old he died of a heart attack. So it literally killed him. ...

And so I learned at 10 years old ... what risks you run in terms of foreclosures. My mother used to start her day at six in the morning. She used to get us off to school, the two older ones, took care of the two younger ones; managed to keep an eye on the new motel, which was in Monticello Village ... and she took care of the restaurant. She made sure the cabins were clean and she made sure that the bar was well covered ... and she closed the bar sometime around one in the morning. And she did that day in and day out, except Sunday.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's, on losing a fortune:

I fell in love with personal robots in 1983. I couldn't get investors to believe in it, and so I spent a huge amount of my own money. But the investors were right. I lost a lot of money. My robot company represented the single biggest financial loss in my business career. I lost over 20 million bucks at a time when $20 million was worth a lot more than today. If you really look failure in the eye and really think it through, step by step, very seldom do you lose the house, the car, almost never the car. You can go flat-out bankrupt, but most of the time you can work out payment schedules with your creditors. You’ll have a couple of bad years, years where you don't go to Hawaii, your kids go to public school, but that’s it.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan & Co., on getting fired:

I went home and I sat my three little girls down. They were probably at the time 10, 8 and 6. I said girls, I've got to tell you something. I resigned, but that really means I no longer have my job. I was fired but I want you to know I'm completely okay. And my little one said ,"Daddy, do we have to go sleep on the streets?" I said, "No, sweetie, we're here, we're fine, we’re fortunate everything's going to be exactly the same except Daddy's going to be home a bit more." And the middle daughter, who was always obsessed with college, said, "Can I still go to college?" I said, "Of course you can still go to college." And the oldest one said, "So if everything's okay, can I have your cell phone? You won't be needing it." Then one of the guys that works at the company came over -- he was about six foot six. He knocked on the door and my little daughter answered, looking up, and said, "Who do you want to see?" He said, "I want to see your dad. I work for your dad." She said, "Not anymore you don't!"

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

For many great CEOs, passion and consistency are the top requirements for the people they hire. Not coincidentally, those are also the qualities their employees look for in a boss.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., on the entrepreneurs he invests in:

They’ve got to be in love with the business. When I hand somebody $100 million, or a billion, or $5 billion, and they hand me the stock certificate, I’m counting on them to run it. We never rely on contracts. It wouldn't mean anything.

You know, six months later the guy’s getting up at six in the morning and his wife says, "You know, what the hell are you doing?" He says, "Oh, I’m getting up to work for some company in Omaha," and she says, "I thought the last 30 years we’ve been building this thing, and now we’ve got billions of dollars, why aren’t we out on a boat or taking trips to Europe or whatever?"

And unless his answer is "I’m doing this because I love it,’ [and not] "I’m doing this because I signed an agreement," you know, it isn’t going to work over time. But if he says, "I’m doing this because I’d rather do it than anything else in the world," then we’re going to have a wonderful leader ...

I try to buy companies where the managers of them feel that way about their company, and then it’s up to me not to destroy that feeling.

Teresa Taylor, former COO of Qwest, on hiring:

My trick to interviewing is to have a meal with somebody. When you go to dinner or lunch or breakfast with somebody, you see the true person. And here’s my example. Just getting there, you know, can they? I mean, this sounds silly, but can we walk, and talk, and sit down? Are they polite to the wait staff? Can they even order off the menu? If I was with one of those people who sits down [and says], "Oh, you know, can I have this but not that? And this but not that?" Have you ever had a friend like that? For goodness sakes, just order! To me, that was a deal breaker. Because they can’t even look at a menu and make a decision. You know, let’s just get on with it. So I’ve had people I thought I was going to hire, after having a meal, I’ve reversed it.

Jamie Dimon on what employees expect from the boss:

A friend of mine just became the CEO of a big company. I said there are two things you're going to really notice. Number one is you can't complain to anyone anymore about how things work because it’s you at the top … and the second is that even if you don ’t think you’re making decisions when someone is presenting to you, just by listening and nodding you are giving tacit approval. Someone may come into your office and ask about A,B,C and D and I’ll be nodding. That person goes out believing that it’s been approved. The CEO has a veto.

It means you may walk into my office and say, "I’m going to buy this and sell that, investigate this, negotiate that and pay this amount." I don’t have to say a word, but the fact that I didn’t veto it says you have approval. You are now the person giving that approval or making the decision, and there's no one else there with that role.

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Successful entrepreneurs look at the world a little differently from the rest of us. Where others see roadblocks, they see opportunities. When someone says you can’t, they say why not. When they have $10 to their name, they double down.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, on building a rocket ship:

Reasoning by analogy, like in the rocket business, you would say: So how much have rockets cost? Well, on average they've cost, let's say, $100 million. So, therefore, your rocket will cost $100 million. Now, reasoning from first principles, you would say: What is a rocket made of? What are the engines made of? How are they constructed? The materials, manufacturing processes, all that, and you build that up to say, Okay, well, what could a rocket cost if it was done right? And then you find, Oh, wow, a rocket could cost, like, one-tenth of that. ... The problem is that people are putting rockets together in really dumb ways.

Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of 85 Broads, on looking past the downside:

When Sandy Weill brought me over to Citigroup, in a very public move, I went from managing 386 people on a Tuesday to 20,000 on a Wednesday, and I thought, okay, what's my downside? Well, my downside is I'm probably fired. Okay. I can deal with that, right? To have the ability to have this life experience, some people would say, Oh my God, I could get fired. Could be. Could be. That's how it worked for me. For me, getting publicly fired and being in the newspapers, while not a lot of fun, you know, is livable. I can live through that. And you've seen all the research that says people on their deathbed regret what they haven't done, not what they have done.

You can find out more about "Work Smarts," by Betty Liu, here .

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