I want to end today by talking through some lessons from a client who is leading a large-scale change program at a very reputable investment bank. Part of the work he’s doing is to get the bank to relook at the clients and sectors they want to serve. It’s an important piece of work because this determines where they would allocate capital, deploy partners, whether it opens offices and so on, and we have many discussions about this. The client is of an Indian background. I’ll call him Rajesh, but that’s not his real name. He came to the United States on an H1B visa, did his MBA, worked at a tech company, worked as an analyst and then worked his way up in the investment bank. He has a wife, two children, his mom lives with them, and he takes care of his extended family in India as well. He’s definitely trying to do well in the world. Good husband as well.
But the point is that he has never been as successful as he thinks he should be—for a number of reasons. One is that, given his age, he’s behind the curve. Most people who serve in this internal strategy role for investment banks tend to be a lot younger. It’s a staging ground for a career. In his case, he was sent here from another role to allow him to find his feet at the bank. This is not a promotion. He’s not going up through strategy into operating. No, he went up to an operating role, didn’t do so well, and came back to strategy. He’s doing a good job in strategy so people are saying, “Maybe everything is going well with this guy,” but he knows he can do better. And the challenge he faces is, how does he live up to the enormous sacrifice his family made to send him to America? I know a little bit about his background. His family is not wealthy. They had to put up a lot of money to send him here. Some of the children at home had to make sacrifices so one child could make it through. His whole family suffered. A lot of effort went into this.
He feels that he should do better. He doesn’t just compare himself to people born in America. He compares himself to the legacy of the sacrifices his family had to make. He couldn’t go home when his father had cancer. It just wasn’t possible for him. He has a sense of failure because he’s tried different things to reboot his career. He’s read all the books on strategy and leadership. He’s tried all these techniques from Amazon and Facebook in terms of how to manage single-threaded teams, how to focus, how to do the right kinds of analysis and so on. He’s at the point where he’s developed a new strategy for the bank, which has been endorsed by the CEO and the executive committee. He’s been given a very big opportunity to drive this initiative. It hasn’t been handed off to another executive. He’s been told to drive this, and he convened a strategy get-together with the leaders of different parts of the business. These are the high performers—the rainmakers, as they call them. He presented the strategy, which is very logical and well thought-out, and they rejected him. They basically said all the right things like, “Yes, you did a good job,” but nothing is happening. Nobody wants to follow him. He obviously feels bad about that. There’s a sense of despair.
When I started working with him, this was a few months after he had tried to present a strategy to operating leaders, and he had failed. He definitely feels as if he’s stuck. Everyone is saying that he’s doing everything right, but he’s not getting the rewards. He’s not being promoted. People don’t want to follow or listen to him.
First, I had to understand him. I always tell clients that every client is different. I have to understand why he feels like a failure. I have to understand the legacy of his life. He’s different because of his background and the unique challenges and expectations that exist in American-Indian families. I have a lot of clients who are Chinese or Indian, who were the first in their family to come to America, they studied hard, they’re under enormous pressure to perform because of expectations. We have to unpack those things.
The starting point is trying to get him to understand that he has not failed. It’s just that the first attempt didn’t work. Many of us are led to believe that if we try something and it doesn’t work, we have failed. No, your first iteration has failed. The idea is still sound. If this is a must for the bank, then you have to figure out how to do it. If this is what the bank must do to succeed in the long term and fend off big, entrenched competitors, then you have to figure out a way.
In football terms, a quarterback doesn’t walk off the field and say he’s failed if he gets sacked in the first play. No, that’s normal. He gets up and calls for a new play. He keeps calling for a new play until he finds a way through the team’s defense. Unfortunately, in business, we tend to think that if we failed at something, we’ve failed. No, if what you tried to do makes sense, you’re like a quarterback. You’re going to get sacked many times. That’s normal. That’s why you wear football pads. It’s not like they say, “You’re the world’s greatest quarterback. You’re Tom Brady. So, don’t wear football pads. Go out there in satin pajamas and play football.” No, even the world’s greatest quarterback is going to get sacked a million times. That doesn’t make them a failure. The first thing is to understand what failure is. He didn’t fail. He just tried one route. You have to try other routes.
Now, let’s talk about the plan I developed for him. The first step is to get him to understand who he is and why he is doing this. What is his purpose in life? That’s absolutely a function of his culture, heritage and family expectations. The way he thinks about the world, what he wants for his family, and what he wants for the world is a function of his experiences. Coming to America, taking care of his family, and being a minority is who he is. We have many discussions about trying to understand what he wants in life. Why is he doing this? Is he just doing it for the money? Is he just doing it because he went to Wharton Business School, and he needs to show people that he didn’t squander his Wharton MBA? If those are the reasons, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I need to know.
We can do all of this wonderful, feel-good stuff, which makes him feel like he’s a gladiator and going into combat wearing his gladiator suit, but we have to give him a plan where he can deliver. Here’s the big thing we did here. Previously, when he was talking to the operating leaders, he was talking to the highest performers. There’s a difference between someone who performs well and someone who’s influential within the organization. That’s a very big difference. Oftentimes, when you see someone is a high performer, you think they’re influential, but that’s not at all the case for the very simple reason that high performers are outward-facing. They face clients, often traveling to clients, they are on the road. But the question is, do they have influence within the organization? Will the organization listen to them? Does this high performer encapsulate the culture, the soul, the spirit and the DNA of the organization? Because if they don’t, why would the organization listen to them?
Many companies hire high performers to help them enter a market to win in a certain geography to get into a new client, but they will never allow that person to dictate the culture of the organization because they know that person’s role is purely an outward-facing sales role. But what happens is we define high performers purely by the revenue they bring in. But in many companies, the people that are responsible for bringing in revenue are not guardians of the soul of a company.
The first thing I got him to do was rethink who he would call into a meeting. Don’t call in the highest performers. You have to identify the influencers. Who are the most influential people. He had to work with them.
Secondly, you can’t tell people what to do, even if they’re influential. You have to show them how you’re going to do it. At the end of the day, it’s not about the analysis. It’s about trusting you. Think about this very carefully. If you went to the head of the Japanese office and said, “I want you to do this,” the head of the Japanese office is basically trusting his or her career to Rajesh. They’re trusting the careers of their analysts, associates and so on at the bank to Rajesh. So, when he’s asking these influencers to do things, he’s not asking them to do something that’s going to bring about money and profits and so on. No, he’s asking them to put their careers in his hands. He’s saying, “Look, if you follow me, I believe this can bolster your career, and you won’t be laughed at for following some ridiculous strategy.” Every time he interacts with someone and gets them to want to do something, he’s asking them to trust him. But he’s also asking them to take their career out of their pocket—or heart for many people—put it in a box, and give it to Rajesh, so he can put it in a safe deposit box and hopefully protect it and preserve it. If you understand that when you’re working with people, and you have a way of convincing them to do that, they will work with you.
Many years ago when I was brought in to head up one of the largest boutique firms in the world, the partners wouldn’t listen to me. That’s normal. Why would they listen to such a young person with all these radical ideas coming from outside the organization? To get them to listen to me, I had about 8-12 meetings with what I identified as the most influential person in their entire organization. The interesting thing was he wasn’t the highest performer, or even close to it. He wasn’t the rainmaker. He didn’t bring in the most amount of money. He went home at 4 o’clock on most days. Probably had a nap, and then eat dinner, had a nap again and then fell asleep. But people listened to him, so I targeted him. I spent a lot of time not explaining to him what I wanted to do, but why I wanted to do it.
Once, we were driving to a meeting with one of the largest infrastructure companies in the world, and we were talking about our favorite movies and actors. I told him my favorite actor was some modern guy like Tom Cruise or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And then he told me his favorite actor was Gregory Peck. Everyone knows Gregory Peck. I think he mentioned the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. We arrived early for the infrastructure meeting and went to lunch. I remember making a comment like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everything worked out well, and you had enough time to watch these movies and do these things you like?”
At that time, there was a shift in the conversation, and I could see it in his face. He stopped eating, put his fork down, and said, “Do you really mean that?” I said, “Yes. I know that you have made an enormous sacrifice already just by engaging me. All of the other executives have seen you have lunch with me, because they all have lunch in the same place, in this little restaurant outside of the head office. Every Friday, we have lunch, and sometimes we meet during the week. They know you’re working with me. They know that my ideas are different. You’re like the person in the cafeteria at school who sits down with the radical new kid who has unpopular but useful ideas.
“Whether or not you join me on this quest, you’ve already given so much. You’ve already put your career on the line. You’ve already done enough just taking my meetings and sitting with me and being seen with me. I want for you to benefit from this. I want you to be successful. I want you to have a great career. And my job is to give you a better career, and working with more clients at higher margins is the route to do that.”
That is when the mood changed because after the meeting with the infrastructure company, immediately he came back, spoke to the head of energy and said, “You have to spend time with Michael. He’s doing some very interesting things. I want you to meet him. I want you to see some clients with him because I think his ideas will make an impact.”
This is an important thing you must remember about life. It’s not about the strategy. It’s not about what’s good for the company. It’s about whether you understand that every time you interact with someone, every time you want to take them on a journey, they’re giving you their career in a nice blue box, and they’re asking you to take care of it. Your job as a leader is to acknowledge that from the beginning, to understand that they’ve spent years getting to where they are, and they want to know that you’re not going to squander it. If you do that, you will always be able to get people to follow you into battle. They will risk a lot to make you successful because they know that your success is to see them successful.
That’s what you have to do. That’s what you have to think about as a leader. If you want to understand and have the same impact as Rajesh, to avoid the mistakes he made, to avoid the feeling of failure—and he’s not a failure—but to avoid that feeling of being trapped, not seeing a way out, not understanding how to motivate and lead people, then I would say that it’s my moral duty to remind you that if you become an Insider, these are the kinds of skills we impart to people.
You can avoid the traps that Rajesh has set for himself because the best thing you can do is not learn from your mistakes, but to learn from other people’s mistakes and learn from the guides and tools we provide.
This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #24. Many of you have found Monday Morning 8 a.m. so useful that you’ve asked us to release a book version of these newsletters. We’ve obliged and released a Kindle version, which you can find on Amazon under “Strategy Insights.” It contains the insights from previous Monday Morning 8 a.m. issues, edited into a bite-sized format that’s very easy to use. And you can learn about other FIRMSconsulting books here.
We use affiliate links whenever possible (if you purchase items listed above using our affiliate links, we will get a bonus).