13 Jan 2015
Words of Business Wisdom

What is the best advice you're ever received? That's the question we asked this week's guests. Listen for some wise words to start 2015.

The Business is a podcast from Harvard Business School that ran through 2015 and took a unique look at the business world through conversations with HBS faculty and entrepreneurs. It has since been replaced by Cold Call, a new podcast that distills the legendary HBS case method into digital form. Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.



Brian Kenny: Happy New Year!! For our first podcast for 2015, I asked some of our guests from last year to pass along some of the best advice they ever got.


I’m Brian Kenny Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Harvard Business School and this is “The Business.”

One of the best things about my job is that I get the chance to talk to some of the most proficient people in the world of business. And I get to ask them questions they don’t usually get asked. So on this edition of the podcast, you’ll hear their answers to this question: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given? As we launch a new year and a fresh batch of podcasts, I hope you’re as inspired by their answers as I was.

We’ll start with Frank Cespedes. He’s a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, who specializes in sales and marketing. When we posed the question to him, we never could have anticipated his answer:

Frank Cespedes: Well, one of the more memorable pieces of advice that I recall in my career is not something I heard at Harvard Business School. It was something I witnessed when I was running a business. We were doing work with Walmart, and I’m dating myself, this was when Sam Walton was still alive and very much the presence at the firm. But many people may not realize Walmart’s famous for what they call their “Saturday morning meetings.” And they’re really quite something. The way I would describe them, they’re a combination of hard-nosed business review and Cirque du Soleil. They are, on the one hand, going through region-by-region, district-by-district. But then, the one I was at, at one point, Walton says, “Let’s take a break,” and the performer Cher came out and performed.

BK: Oh, my goodness.

FC: And without missing a beat, Walton was back saying, “All right, now let’s look at the Northeast region.”

BK: Interesting contrast there.

FC: Yup. But the way Walton ended the meetings, at least the one I attended, he sort of set the bogie for the organization for the next week. And at the time, Walmart in the U.S. was growing phenomenally. So these are real numbers. Remember, these meetings are every Saturday, so he would say, “Look, by next week, we’re talking about increasing sales by three, four, five billion dollars.” But he would end each meeting by saying, “Remember, if you’re going to meet that number,” quote, ‘There ain’t many customers at headquarters. It’s very unlikely you’re going to meet that number simply by talking to your colleagues and hanging around.”’ I consider that a very, very good piece of advice.

BK: Sure sounds like good advice to us! Next up, Nancy Koehn, the historian and Harvard Business School professor, who we’ve featured on our podcast talking about explorer Ernest Shackleton and leadership. Here’s the advice she wanted to pass along:

Nancy Koehn: I want to answer that question with reference to two different people. One is something that a former dean at the business school, Kim Clark, said many years ago during our first capital campaign. He said that leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There are leaders with a big L, there are leaders with a small L, and there are all the leaders in between. And that has been enormously important in my work on leadership—the idea that leaders are chemo nurses in infusion labs and leaders are public librarians helping unlock people's curiosity and sense of the world of information, particularly books, but the world of information. Leaders are cops on their beats. Leaders are entrepreneurs trying to keep it together with scarce resources and chasing their dream. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and we forget that in our celebrity-obsessed moment, in our moment that is so interested in money and fame and the caching, caching of metrics, of tangible metrics of success. That has been enormously important as I think about leadership, and I study leaders, and I find leaders to unpack their story.

Second comment, from A.G. Lafley, one of our graduates here at Harvard Business School and CEO, then not CEO, and now CEO again of Procter and Gamble. Many years ago I made a film on what CEOs had learned from Abraham Lincoln about leadership, and I went out to Cincinnati and I interviewed A.G. He was a fantastic, quiet, thoughtful, well read, soft spoken CEO, and he said, “Look, leaders are not born. Leaders are made, and they are made from three ingredients. First, you have an individual's experiences and their gifts, their endowments. Second, you have a moment that demands leadership. But the third, and equally important ingredient, is that the individual has to decide to get in the game and embrace the cause.” And you marry those two things together—leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and leaders are made, not born, and those two aspects or those two perspectives have really shaped my work and my message for leaders from all walks of life, which is keep on trucking, keep on working on yourself, keep on flexing and honingand building your core strength and your muscles of moral courage, because the world has never needed effective leaders from every which way and every place more than it does right now.

BK: Next, we hear from two men who held the same job in public service. Mitchell Weiss and Dan Koh. Mitch was the former chief of staff for the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Dan holds the position currently for Mayor Marty Walsh. Here’s what Mitch said when we asked him about advice worth sharing:

Mitch Weiss: David Moss is a professor here at Harvard Business School and also the founder of the Tobin Project [a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank for research in the social sciences], which I ran when he started it up. He impressed upon me the importance of ideas. And I try to impress upon my students and folks that come into my office who are wondering about how to get ahead in their career, where to go, the importance of having an idea. That, in fact, the world is in desperate need of important, big, new ideas, and we don't spend enough time cultivating that sense or sensibility in people. I will forever be indebted to David for many reasons, but including that notion.

BK: Dan is there a piece of advice that you find yourself referring back to again and again?

Dan Koh: It's funny, when I, I'm half Korean and half Lebanese, and when I was, in 2008, when I was working in consulting, my uncle, who was a general in the Korean Army, came to the U.S., and came to meet me for the first time. So he took me into his hotel room, and in Korea, if you become a general in the Army, it's customary to have a watch made for you with your family motto on it. I did not know my family had a motto. And on it, and I wear his watch to this day, in Korean Hanja script, was the family motto of my family, which is: “Talent must not come before character.” To me, it was an incredibly simple way of reminding me that when you look at leaders--and you can learn this in HBS cases, you can learn it in the section mates that you lead, or meet, and from the people you interact with every day at work--the people who really make a difference are not the smartest people in the room. People who make a difference are the ones that have the character to inspire people and lead them to the next step. And so when I see, you know, when people say, oh, in the public sector, you know, there's a dearth of X, Y, Z, there are some incredible leaders there. They're not motivated by salary. They're not motivated by getting in the newspaper every day. What they're motivated by is their own character and their talents combined that make a real difference. So when I think to myself, you know, when there are certain things that we need to roll out, and when I'm trying to figure out who on a team I should go to, I really think of the people with the most character, because at the end of the day, people respect character far more than they respect talent.

BK: Our final guest is Max Bazerman, who teaches business administration at HBS. He took a more philosophical approach, when we asked him about advice he got and is now giving.

Max Bazerman: I think it's a piece of emergent advice. So it's advice that I got, that I received from a variety of different sources. But at age 59, I'm continually astonished by the degree to which my younger colleagues are in a position to notice information about various aspects of the economy that are beyond me. I remember back in the '60s, a hippie by the name of Abbey Hoffman said, “Don't trust anybody over 30.” And 30 may be a little young, but I often think, Don't trust anybody over 40, and I don't mean that too literally. But the basic idea is that because people in different demographics access information in fundamentally different ways, there are certain things that my excellent colleagues that are in their 30s, can access that I can't. I often find that doctoral students will be asking me for advice, and one of the things I take pride of noticing is when they ask me for advice, when I'm not even close to the best person to provide that advice. And I want to redirect that to someone who can provide much better insight.

BK: That, again, is Max Bazerman. Before we go, here’s my own contribution to the advice column. Don’t be afraid to think big. It’s not advice I was ever told by anybody, but it’s something I’ve learned through observation. I think it’s easy to say, but hard to do, when everybody else around you might be playing it safe.

Many thanks to all our guests on this edition of “The Business.” I’m Brian Kenny of Harvard Business School.

Our completely unbiased advice for you? Subscribe to “The Business.” We come your way twice a month. You can sign up on iTunesU or you can follow us on SoundCloud.

And take a minute to write to tell us who you’d like to hear from this year. Our Twitter handle is @HarvardHBS.

By the way, you can binge-listen to all the interviews in our archives. How’s that for a new year’s resolution? Just go to: www.hbs.edu/thebusiness.

We’re back in two weeks with the British-Egyptian businessman Sir Ronald Cohen, the so called “father of social investment.”

Join us then. And Happy New Year!

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