Being mindful of your ego could mean the all the difference.
My name is Cory, I am the President of Creative Return and the host of The Insider’s Guide To Finance. The following are my insights and learnings from the interviews and dealings I have with talented entrepreneurs, operators and financiers. I hope you find them valuable in your endeavours.
One of the best business tactics I have is to get people to talk about themselves.
What's the reason for that? If done tactfully, you can get people to open up and unveil the ‘gold’ that is the essence of that person. Listening leads them to trust you. One experience yielded advice that has continued to benefit me, almost two decades later.
I started using this tool early. When I was sixteen, I scored a fifteen-minute meeting with the co-founder of a prominent investment banking firm. For that quarter of an hour at the end of his day, it took me six months to politely pry my way into his office.
It was a big day for me at the time. I got all dressed up in a hand-me-down suit, borrowed a tie from my father and jumped on the Downtown Express bus. I found the building and took the elevator to the highest floor I had ever been on. The views, the expensive interior design of the reception area, it was awe-inspiring. I had no idea what it was like in those massive towers downtown. After all, I grew up in the restaurant business, on the ground floor, mostly in the kitchen.
The meeting started two hours after the markets closed. About ten minutes passed, the receptionist said, “Mr. Charles will see you now."
I was nervous.
The receptionist asked me to join her. She led the way, opening a door to an expansive room of desks. They spread from wall to wall on either side of the building. A few people were still hanging around, but it was mostly empty. There were small papers everywhere. On the desks, on the floor, pinned to the walls. There were computers on every desk and they were huge by today's standards. You know, those old beige monitors. They could only be put in the corners of the desks to accommodate their depth.
It took a couple years for me to realize, but that was their bullpen. A place where fortunes had been made for some and dreams crushed for others.
The receptionist led me past row after row of desks. She finally took me to a wall of glass-doored offices on the far side of the 41st floor.
When we arrived, she knocked on the door. “Here you go” she said. I entered.
Mr. Charles stood up slowly. His tie was loose. His shirt collars were crisp, but the midsection wrinkled from sitting all day. He was about sixty. You could see the experience in his eyes. I walked through the office to his desk and reached out to shake his hand. Give a firm handshake my mother said. So I did. "Nice to meet you. Thanks for taking the time to..." I was cut off.
"So what can I do for you?" I was still nervous. I’m sure he could see it.
To start off, I told him why I wanted to meet with him. I was coming out of high school and looking at my career options. The stock markets were exciting to me. “How did you get into this business?” was my first real question. With the context he now had, he tailored his answer to me. He told me of the old days. Mr. Charles started in his early 20’s chalking trades up on a blackboard. Yes, that’s how it was done. He would yell back and forth on a trading floor and write the bids and asks on a board with a stick of chalk.
He then told me how he progressed onto the trading floor. Eventually, he moved into investment banking where he worked for the majority of his career. For anyone to spend the better part of their life in investment banking is crazy. The hours are nuts and the battle of egos are relentless. It sounded exciting to me.
The great thing about getting people to speak about themselves is one, we all like to do it, and two, it makes time fly by. For our meeting, we were already 45 minutes in.
At this point, my nerves were settled. Aware of the time, I asked one more question. “What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?” Although a relatively generic question, it provided the most powerful advice I’ve ever received.
Mr. Charles paused. Then with a tone of slight but unmistakable remorse, he said “Never overlook an opportunity.”
With that, he moved on to his short but impactful story. His experience and success in the banking industry opened up a lot of doors to him. In the 1970’s, he was a rising star. I’m sure he made millions, but it was demanding. In this particular case, a client from a previous transaction came to him and offered him a deal. They said they valued his ability to execute - to get things done. They offered him the exclusive rights to a product they were introducing to the North American market. All he’d have to do was set up sales and distribution. He said it was a sweetheart deal.
Very curious at this point, still not knowing what the product was, I asked, “Why didn’t you take the deal?"
It was then I could see the regret. “I was too proud. I was an investment banker.” So he walked away from the deal.
Finally, I asked, “What was the product?”
Out of curiosity, I read that over 30 billion Bic lighters have been sold since they were first introduced.
So... the best business advice I’ve been given. “Never overlook an opportunity.” In other words, never let your ego get in the way.
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