May 19, 2022

Building the Team: A ‘Not-to-Do’ List for Recent College Graduates

Building the Team

Hiring, firing, and training in a new era.

College graduation: lofty commencement speeches are given, bright futures anticipated and, for some lucky college graduates, new jobs await. While commencement addresses may be inspiring, I wish someone would take the opportunity to deliver a more practical message to new college graduates who are about to enter the work force. It would go something like this:

“Congratulations. You’ve just earned your college degree. I’m glad to be here as the first person to speak to you as college graduates. I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: Despite your newly obtained degree, you don’t know anything. You have no skills. If you are really lucky, you will soon land your first job. You are not entitled to that job. Quite the contrary, there are many people just like you who would love to have that job. If you get it, you should be grateful for your good fortune and make the most of it. It will be hard work, sometimes backbreaking work, and you may feel that the work is beneath you. But the reality is that nothing is beneath you, because you don’t know anything — yet.

Now, the good news: You live in the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. If you work really, really hard, if you are happy to start at the bottom and work your way up, if you are ready to grind and scratch and claw, and if you catch a bit of luck, anything is possible. Anybody can be anything in America. You just have to be willing to learn fast from those around you and work really hard.”

Unfortunately, I was not invited to deliver any commencement speeches this year. So I’m doing the next best thing and reflecting in this post on my first job. I hope that it can provide a bit of help and guidance.

I’ll start with a summary: I totally whiffed on my first job experience. When I graduated from college, I knew nothing, had no skills and was not owed anything. But that’s not how I felt at the time.

I had just graduated from the Wharton School, the country’s oldest undergraduate business school and one that consistently lands the top slot in college rankings. I studied entrepreneurial management and tried to drop out of school to start a business during the winter break of my junior year. (Thankfully, my parents forced me to stay in school.) I finished my studies early in my senior year and spent the remaining weeks waking up early to read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and then using the rest of the day to consume voluminous amounts of coffee while devouring Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” I was biding my time until I left academia to do what I thought I was meant to do: run a business.

Like all Wharton undergraduates, I interviewed with companies that came calling on campus: investment banks, strategy consulting firms and technology companies. At the time (I graduated in 1997), there was a company called Trilogy, based in Austin, Tex., that was getting a lot of press. Trilogy had been started by Joe Liemandt, who dropped out of Stanford to start an enterprise software company that was selling multimillion dollar software applications to big companies like Boeing, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. While the software seemed esoteric — who understands what product configuration software does and why another company would spend millions of dollars for it? — Joe’s success was tangible. He was on the covers of business magazines and was ranked as one of Fortune’s 40 richest under 40 in 2001. He was the type of entrepreneur from whom I could have learned a tremendous amount.

But I didn’t think there was anything I needed to learn.

I was recruited to Trilogy by Ajay Agarwal. Before joining Trilogy, Ajay had graduated from Stanford, then Harvard Business School and worked in strategy consulting at McKinsey Company. Today, Ajay is a managing director at the venture capital firm Bain Capital Ventures. Ajay’s recruiting pitch was particularly compelling: come to Trilogy to work in an entrepreneurial environment with extremely smart people. The problem was that I believed I was ready to be the entrepreneur immediately.

Still, I accepted the job, and after a summer schedule meant to shed a wanderlust that I assume most college seniors have, I moved to Austin. I was paired with Jason Wesbecher, another Wharton undergraduate who had been working at Trilogy for about six months. (Today, Jason is the founder and chief executive of Handshakez in Austin.) Jason was the epitome of inherent intelligence, hard work and focus. He was driven to acquire customers for Trilogy, understanding that revenue was the lifeblood of a fast-growing start-up. At the time, I could not have been less impressed with that role.

I was ready to start a company. I felt it was my destiny to do so. It was what I had dreamed about since I was a child. In retrospect, I was terribly, utterly, naïve. Now, 16 years later, here are my reflections:

1. I knew nothing. Yes, it is true I studied business in college, and the college I went to is a good one (if you were to ask Donald Trump, it is without question the best). But there is a vast difference between studying business and doing business. Until I had actually done it, I knew nothing at all.

2. I didn’t know that I didn’t know anything. This is actually worse than not knowing anything. I thought that I had something to contribute. In fact, I thought that my presence at Trilogy was a real gift to the company. I was wrong.

3. I missed the opportunity to learn. Because I believed that I already knew everything, I missed the chance to learn from the incredibly smart people who did know something. Trilogy was an exceptionally good company at recruiting. It produced a Trilogy Mafia well before anyone talked about the Paypal Mafia. Former Trilogians have gone on to accomplish absolutely amazing things. And the people I had the chance to work with directly — Joe, Ajay, Jason and many others — were all truly extraordinary businessmen.

4. I thought I was entitled to something. Somehow, I arrived at Trilogy thinking that it was to their great benefit to have me as an employee. As a result, I thought I was entitled to the opportunity of doing something “strategic.” What I came to understand afterward was that many college graduates would have loved to have that job, and that it was my opportunity, but not my right, and certainly not something to take for granted.

5. I was confused about the meaning of hard work. I thought I should spend my time thinking big thoughts. I assumed that if I were in the office a lot, I must have been working hard. I didn’t know that I should have been doing what Jason was doing — the hard work of calling potential customers, learning about their problems and presenting our solutions. That was hard work and meaningful work. I didn’t realize it until after I had left.

My time at Trilogy was a missed opportunity. I realized it at the annual Trilogy Prom, where the entire company gathered at a luxurious location to celebrate the year’s success and to recognize extraordinary individual performance. Jason (deservedly) won a Trilogy Star Award based on his exceptional contribution to the company. As I watched him walk to the front of the room to accept his prize, I was of mixed emotion: proud of him but disappointed with myself. The experience proved to be a turning point.

After just over a year at the company, I decided to leave. Thankfully, I started to figure out what it took to achieve success. It was Jason’s focus and do-whatever-it-takes attitude that caused me to re-evaluate my own disposition. Once I did, I realized that I needed to start afresh. I looked for a small start-up where I could join on the ground floor. If I proved my mettle and the company grew, I might be able to take on more and more responsibility, learning essential skills to start my own company someday.

Next week, I’ll talk about my second job experience — what I did when I joined Callidus Software.

Bryan Burkhart is a founder of H.Bloom. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Corner Office: Amy Gutmann: Welcoming the Wild Ideas of the Week


Q. What do you consider some of your most important leadership lessons?   

A. The biggest influences on me for leading preceded my ever even thinking of myself as a leader — particularly my father’s experience leaving Nazi Germany.  Because I would not even exist if it weren’t for his combination of courage and farsightedness.  He saw what was coming with Hitler and he took all of his family and left for India.  That took a lot of courage.  That is always something in the back of my mind.  And my mother was a child of the Depression and so she triumphed against all odds.

  To me, those two things are really important about leadership, to have courage and to be farsighted in your vision, not to be just reacting to the next small challenge.  It probably wouldn’t be as important as it now seems to me if that hadn’t been something that gets repeated over and over in my experience. 

Q. Were you in leadership roles as a teenager?

A. As a teenager, I loved math.  I loved solving puzzles and I was the captain of the math team and I did all the leadership things that you would do in a public high school. But my challenge in high school was also fitting in — it was a fairly homogenous community — because my father was an immigrant.  The challenge of leadership is precisely the opposite.  It’s not to fit in.  It’s to have combined passion with purpose, and the most inspiring and successful leaders, I think, don’t fit in. 

Q. So how did you square that over time? 

A. I was the first person in my high school to go to Radcliffe.  But, interestingly, when I got there I realized that fitting in was no longer conforming.  It was having bold ideas and taking risks, smart risks and branching out beyond one’s comfort zone. And when I got to college, all of a sudden I realized that I was much more social than I ever thought, and that I really liked bringing people together to do things.   

Q. Besides your parents, who were big influences for you?

A. Every excellent teacher I’ve ever had has had a really strong influence on me, beginning with my eighth-grade math teacher who made math exciting.  I loved math anyway, but I saw him motivating kids who didn’t love math. And so I learned what Emerson said: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”  Besides enthusiasm, I would add hard, smart work.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style today? 

A. I love challenges and I’m enthusiastic about taking them on with a team, and my team knows that I like good ideas even when I disagree with them, that I’m hard-driving but also reward everybody on the team who combines passion, smarts and hard work.

  I’ve also written a lot about the importance of deliberation, and we practice it. We bring everybody to the table and I like to say, in any given week, “this is my wild idea for the week.” We don’t execute more than half of them, but those ideas that we put into practice, everybody was at the table and I think gets the same kind of excitement and satisfaction that I get out of it. 

 What I’ve learned over time is that while you’re driving all of your priorities forward, it’s really important to get feedback and to be open to the wild and crazy ideas, even if you’re not going to pursue but a fraction of them.  And that probably makes a lot of sense for a university because we are all about ideas. If we’re not open to them, if I’m not open to them, who is going to be? 

Q. So you encourage others to share wild ideas? 

A. I encourage other people to do it and we’re not shy about shooting them down. If it’s intended to be wild and crazy, most of them are going to be shot down.  But the ones that survive, we all rally behind.  And, yes, I definitely expect other people to outdo me. I think people on my team recognize that I am very straightforward.

When I believe that something is absolutely right and we have to do it, I don’t spend a lot of time deliberating about it.  I just say, “We’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to solve it and tell me how to do it.” When I have a wild and crazy idea, I want them to know that I have no idea whether we can run with it, so tell me what you think and be as straightforward as I am about it. 

Q. And do you schedule time for brainstorming? 

A. I have a weekly meeting with the inglorious title, discussion group, which has no agenda other than to bring ideas to the table.

Q. How would you say your leadership style has evolved?

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Money Through the Ages: Finances That C.E.O.’s May Not Be Watching: Their Own

REGINALD K. BRACK JR. graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1959 and headed west to St. Louis to take a job selling advertising for The Saturday Evening Post. Three years later, he was sitting on an airplane and struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be the publisher of Time Magazine.

“A lot of life is serendipity,” Mr. Brack said of that seat assignment.

But then came the hard work. Mr. Brack was recruited to join Time a few months after that flight, and he stayed there for the next 37 years. In 1986, he was named chief executive of Time’s magazine division and chief executive of Time Inc. in 1990. He retired as chairman in 1997 and stayed on for two more years as nonexecutive chairman.

Mr. Brack’s rise through the corporate ranks was a classic self-made-man story — his father worked in the airline industry in Dallas — and it was also accompanied by great wealth, in salary and stock. Yet even though his earnings increased over the years, he said he paid little attention to it. Now in retirement, he is faced with some choices.

As a member of Tiger 21, an elite investment club, he has at least its minimum of $10 million — the net worth that currently makes a married couple subject to the federal estate tax — but he does not want to say how much he has beyond that amount.

“I don’t have near the wealth people think I do,” he said. “I’m certainly not poor, but I don’t count myself as a great, wealthy American.”

Mr. Brack would rather talk about his working years than money any day. He was the first person to run the company who had not gone to an Ivy League college and also the first chief executive who started his career in sales, not journalism or finance. He also appointed the first female publisher at any Time magazine.

But now that Mr. Brack, 73, is working less, he has time to think about his wealth. He sits on several boards, including that of Fieldpoint Private Bank and Trust, which he helped found, in Greenwich, Conn., where he lives. But he is less busy than he was in his days at Time. Financially, he thinks about his cash-flow needs, his charity and his family; he is married with three grown children.

Self-made executives often delay wealth planning, said Sharon H. Jacquet, managing director in J. P. Morgan Private Bank, who runs a team that works with senior executives of public and private companies.

“Not thinking about finances until retirement is not uncommon,” she said. “Really successful C.E.O.’s put the priority on doing their job as a C.E.O. They have a comfortable lifestyle and adequate financial resources, and they don’t focus on it.”

In his professional life, Mr. Brack said he concentrated on work during the week and his family the rest of the time. This helped him be successful, but it also left him in his 70s with a seemingly diffuse financial plan.

Early on, he started with an adviser in Allentown, Pa., who persuaded him to sell some of his high concentration of Time Warner stock ahead of his retirement. This diversification helped Mr. Brack, and he remains loyal to his adviser.

Mr. Brack chose the Royal Bank of Canada to create his municipal bond portfolio after a search many years ago to determine which firm had the top muni management team. He credits that part of his portfolio with helping him sleep during the financial crisis. “I was frightened, but I was comforted by that muni bond portfolio,” he said.

His third adviser, after the team at the Royal Bank, works for Fieldpoint Private Bank and Trust and counsels him on estate issues, equities and new managers.

While three advisers may seem like too many cooks in the kitchen, Ms. Jacquet said it could work if one of them had the entire financial and legal picture, even if someone else was managing the assets. Mr. Brack said Fieldpoint has the full picture of his finances.

Estate planning is crucial for Mr. Brack and his wife. When they die, there will almost certainly be money left over. But they do not have so much that he feels comfortable taking advantage of the generous gift tax exemption of $5 million per person that is in effect for the next two years. (This is separate from the annual gift exclusion of $13,000.) “That would be a serious diminution to our lifestyle,” he said.

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