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Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really Matters Hardcover – April 25, 2017

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About the Author

Anthony Tjan is an entrepreneur, strategic advisor, and venture investor. He is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck and CEO of the Cue Ball Group, a private investment and venture capital firm based in Boston. He is also the chairman and cofounder of the retail service brand MiniLuxe. Prior to joining Cue Ball, he served as senior advisor to the CEO of the Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters) and founded the pioneering Internet advisory group ZEFER. He began his career at McKinsey & Company and served as vice chairman of the Parthenon Group for nearly fifteen years. Tjan holds degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, where he contributes to the Harvard Business Review. He serves on several boards and is a member of the Advisory Council for the MIT Media Lab.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


A First Encounter with Goodness

On one of the hottest afternoons in July in the Toronto suburb of North York, I schlepped up the three porch steps that belonged to the last house on the block, my bulky backpack biting into my shoulders. At age fifteen, I was eager to make whatever extra summer money I could, so I was going door-to-door selling picture frames. Even as a teenager, I wanted to feel like a big-shot entrepreneur, but instead people slammed doors in my face all day. Eight straight hours in the sweltering summer heat had left me ragged, sweat soaked, and feeling low. I was close to giving up, but I decided to attempt one last sale. I impulsively rang the doorbell.

I heard a soft shuffling of feet, and then a terse "Who's there?" As the door opened, I had to conceal my surprise. The owner of the house was elderly and tiny, much gentler looking in person than her voice had let on, with unkempt gray-white hair. Two minutes later, I was seated in her small, worn living room, but when I launched into my practiced pitch, she interrupted, turning her focus from the picture frames to me. She unleashed a barrage of questions: Who was I? Where was I from? Newfoundland? Then what was I doing in Toronto so far from home? Where were my parents? The frames weren't stolen, were they? And another question, one she asked repeatedly: Was this something I really liked doing?

An hour later, holding my second glass of iced tea, I'd hardly moved; the two of us were still deep in conversation. By now, I knew she was eighty-two, a retired social worker and a widow, and a graceful, even riveting, storyteller. She kept coming back to one point: the most important thing in life, she told me, was to figure out what I really wanted to do and who to do it with. She blurted it out: "Listen," and then stressed it in her slightly craggy voice-"You must love both that thing you are doing and love even more the people you do it with." Then, after a pause and with a wide, assuring smile, she added that she just knew I would have wonderful success in my life. And at that moment, for some reason, I believed her, even though she didn't buy even one picture frame.

Over the past two decades of my peripatetic career, IÕve tried hard to stand by that wisdom from the retired woman in North York: to love what I do, but to love even more the people with whom IÕm doing it. I picked my first official job because of the good feeling I got from the people who interviewed me. Little did I know then that some of those same interviewers would serve as lifelong mentors, fund my first venture and subsequent ones, or become colleagues and collaborators in initiatives throughout my career.

One of those longtime mentors is a former partner of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Tsun-yan Hsieh. I first met Tsun-yan when I was a young associate at McKinsey and he was a senior partner and then chair of McKinsey's Professional Development Committee globally. At the time of our conversation for this book, Dominic Barton, the worldwide managing director of McKinsey, had just recognized Tsun-yan for his mentorship, learning, and development philosophies. Both Dominic and I were in the same Toronto McKinsey office in the early 1990s, and Tsun-yan at that time was already a mentor to Dom. It all came full circle when Dom recently paid tribute to Tsun-yan as one of the handful of people who have had of the most critical impact on leadership and people development at the firm.

It had been more than two decades since I had worked at McKinsey, but Dom's recognition of Tsun-yan's impact compelled me to ask him the question that I had always wondered. Why had Tsun-yan decided some two decades ago to take me under his wing and single me out for attention among the sheer number of people who sought his counsel? Tsun-yan paused, and after a moment said that he wasn't sure if he had chosen me or if I had chosen him. There was no arrogance in his voice or manner, but his response struck a chord. He was right. In pursuit of the same feeling I'd experienced as a teenager in North York, I had chosen him, and this choice occurred before he, in turn, chose to include me in a select group of mentees. He concluded, "Mentorship is mutual: the mentor must feel that they will get a deeply satisfying human experience out of building up somebody, just as the mentee must make a conscious choice with the hope that their mentor will impart life philosophy and professional wisdom, along with knowledge and skills."

This was classic Tsun-yan-thinking of each moment as a potential learning opportunity, implicitly making the point and recognizing that we all could work with the people that we wish to, if only we put a little more of ourselves into those we really want to be a part of our life story. Tsun-yan reminded me that twenty-two years ago I had come to him to propose a particular piece of intellectual capital on overseas Chinese family conglomerates that both he and I found fascinating. It was that common ground that laid the foundation for a relationship before a more formal mentorship occurred. Unconsciously or not, I'd put him in the category of "good people" alongside a cadre of others who would later go on to shape my life and career in profound ways.

I had always recognized that Tsun-yan saw putting people first and developing younger associates as an explicit part of his mission. But it was only in conversations of late that I learned that, for decades, Tsun-yan kept a diary to learn what he could do to further shape his own goodness and character, as well as the goodness and character of other people. A chance encounter with a former McKinsey associate whom he had once mentored had sparked the idea to keep the journal. Not surprisingly, the former associate had been excited to cross paths with his old mentor again, and he invited Tsun-yan to his home. Over dinner, he told Tsun-yan about his post-McKinsey career successes and the joy he felt in his new work in the music industry. He effusively thanked Tsun-yan for the critical role he'd played in this positive career change. When Tsun-yan asked him to elaborate, the man's reply surprised him. When he was consulting his colleagues on how best to explore his passion for music, the former associate said, "You were the only one who encouraged me to quit my job at McKinsey, and just follow my passion."

Tsun-yan dimly remembered the moment, but he hadn't realized its significance. The knowledge that he'd done good "in spite of what may have been an inconvenience at the time to lose a great associate" stayed with him. During his next airport layover, he went into a boutique and bought the biggest, thickest Montblanc journal he could find-nearly three hundred pages long. Once aboard the plane, Tsun-yan wrote a journal entry describing the context of the encounter he'd just had, why the man had thanked him, and what the conversation had made him feel: moved, and grateful to have had the opportunity to make a real difference to someone's life trajectory.

From that point on, Tsun-yan resolved to make a journal entry if and when another person expressed gratitude for his mentoring. Tsun-yan's motivation for recording these conversations had nothing to do with collecting accolades. Instead, he felt a calling to mentor as many people as possible and believed that the journal would encourage him to mentor as many people as possible. He decided that his career path-including his time as a senior partner at McKinsey-would have at its core a commitment to extensive mentorship. For Tsun-yan, people-first became both a personal mission and a lifelong practice. Ironically, while many of Tsun-yan's partners at McKinsey saw him as a thought leader and rainmaker, few initially regarded him as a potential people leader because he was an introvert. When Tsun-yan tried to enshrine this mission into his "professional program" (his "personal business plan") with McKinsey, he was told to "put it in the appendix" and emphasize other elements that were closer to his calling-like client conquests and knowledge development gifts to the firm.

For his journal, Tsun-yan set up a few ground rules. First, he couldn't and wouldn't go out and solicit an entry; someone had to thank him because he or she wanted to thank him. Second, the diary entry had to be specific. What exactly had Tsun-yan done to make a difference, large or small, in another person's life? How did it make him feel when he received that feedback? "I make each entry," he wrote on the inside cover of his journal, "so as to motivate myself to do even more good and do it better." Tsun-yan became convinced that people's character and goodness could be shaped and nurtured, and that his own character and goodness would flourish because of these relationships and experiences. Tsun-yan's diary created a virtuous circle-he would help others, and others would help him learn how to become a better mentor. Ultimately, the diary also served as a seminal exercise for one of Tsun-yan's evergreen themes for leadership: counseling others on leading and living with a sense of purpose toward wholeness. He encouraged people to pursue a larger and more holistic definition of success, in which success is defined in part by our capacity to make other people become more successful in life and leave the world a better place, too. "Most corporate executives are like racehorses whose entire existence has been devoted to 'running and winning races in an arena,'" Tsun-yan once wrote. "An alternative possibility is to proactively shape a life around activities that allow full expression of self in work and other arenas." Hard results and soft outcomes like leaving behind better people are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

Tsun-yan made one last vow to himself: once he had filled all three hundred pages of the notebook, he would have accomplished his life's work and would then retire from McKinsey. More than a quarter century later, he completed the final journal entry and-true to his word-retired "in his own terms" from McKinsey. Since then, he has devoted his professional pursuits entirely to being a counselor, adviser, and mentor to leaders under LinHart, his own banner. Thanks to Tsun-yan, by now more than three hundred people are engaging more passionately and purposefully in their work, starting meaningful businesses, and serving their own mentees. Along with the woman in North York, Tsun-yan has shown me how change really begins: with a single person's determination to help others.

When I attended Tsun-yan's sixtieth birthday celebration a few years back, I noticed a remarkable common theme in the good-natured roasts delivered by generations of Tsun-yan's menters. Every step of the way, the mentees all said, Tsun-yan saw more potential in them than they saw in themselves. And it was not until much later in life that they realized the goodness and potential in themselves that Tsun-yan believed was there all along.

The Power of Good-Redefining Success

In the business world, success traditionally means maximizing profit. This view clearly fails to take into account the wide-reaching and long-term value generated by people like Garry Ridge and Tsun-yan Hsieh, who improve every aspect of their organizations simply by committing to their coworkers for the long term. Their work extends beyond them. It lives on through the strength of values, lasting relationships, and enduring cultures-goodness is indeed bigger than any one of us.

I imagine a new, expanded concept and definition for success that accounts for the power of good-a kind of success that's more purposeful, intentional, and profound than success based solely on profit or shareholder returns. There's nothing wrong with profit and shareholder returns, and I'm not arguing that goodness is a flat-out substitute for them. Of course performance in those areas matters, but we can do better.

In the end, performance and returns are the by-products of a set of principles, practices, and people. What is certain for me is that the sustainability and longevity of financial results is absolutely more of a function of people, values, and cultures than anything else. The good news is that the pursuit of goodness is not a trade-off. Even the conventional measures of value eventually catch up, as legendary investor Benjamin Graham has said: in the short run, the market is a voting machine, but in the long run, it is weighing machine. While many stock prices are driven in the short term by a popularity vote, over the long run, value reflects the true underlying quality and performance of a business. It is not an accident that businesses like WD-40 that have managed consistent growth over such extended periods are rewarded accordingly by the market.

In and of itself, making money is not enough to serve as a guiding purpose to achieve long-term success. The pursuit of goodness makes us think deeper: What is the purpose of my work, and does it contribute to a larger organization? Do I cultivate my values and positively impact relationships that matter to create a lasting culture of kindness, compassion, and mentorship? Success must include much more than winning the popularity vote, so we must expand the meaning of success to incorporate goodness.

The late John Wooden, a Midwesterner who grew up on a small farm, understood the need to create a bigger, broader definition for success. Wooden is widely viewed as the most successful coach in college basketball history. With UCLA, Wooden won ten NCAA championships in twelve years, coached four teams that went 30-0 for the season, and led the bruins to the most astonishing winning streak in NCAA history with eighty-eight straight game victories between 1971 and 1974. Over his twenty-nine-year career as a head coach, he held a winning percentage that was over 80 percent. But surprisingly, Wooden eschewed the term "winning" and spent considerable time contemplating what success really meant. He did not like the term "winning" because, as he said, "you can lose when you outscore someone in a game, and you can win when you are outscored." To Wooden, success was something else.

Before coaching, Wooden taught English in South Bend, Indiana. In 1934, he coined his own definition of success to use with parents who complained about their child not getting the highest marks without regard to how other students in the class were doing. Wooden's father taught him to never try to be better than someone else, to learn from others, and yet to still make every effort to be his best. This may seem contradictory-to not be better than anyone else and yet do everything to be your best-but that is the exact point and lesson. Success must stem from doing your best not only for yourself, but also for others. Wooden's definition of success guided his entire coaching career; for him, success meant "attaining the peace of mind and self-satisfaction of knowing that you made your effort to do the best of what you know you are capable." It does not include a single word about winning.

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