Business Planning for Your Life’s Work
WE CAN ALL USE a wise man or woman in our lives. Someone who helps us make sense of the challenges we face. Who guides us as we navigate times of change. Who counsels us as we move along life’s path.
Who among us wouldn’t want to call on a person with wisdom and experience when we have to make important decisions about our careers and our personal lives? Especially when those decisions are fraught with risk and uncertainty, and complicated by fundamental changes in the world around us.
And let’s face it, wisdom is at a premium, as we’ve experienced an unbelievable amount of change over the last few years.
When I first had the idea of writing this book, the stock market was at an all-time high, prosperity was increasing all over the world, and megamillionaires were being created every other day. It looked like the economic good times would never end. Quite frankly, it was an environment in which many people who weren’t getting rich—and that’s most of us—were wondering why not, and whether we should be approaching our lives and careers in a very different way.
The assumption, of course, was that wealth equaled success and success equaled happiness. The initial concept for this book was to help people think through how to achieve happiness and meaning in their lives within that environment.
And then things changed, seemingly overnight.
In a breathtakingly short period of time, the economic world as we knew it imploded. A company that was once synonymous with American economic success, General Motors, went bankrupt. The disintegration of a single Wall Street icon, Lehman Brothers, threatened the entire global finance system. Average people—like you and me and the folks across the street—unwittingly helped overzealous lenders drive the nation’s mortgage industry and housing market over a cliff.
As a society, we ran headfirst into an inflection point.
What is an inflection point? It is what Andy Grove, the founder and former CEO of Intel, defined as an event that fundamentally changes the way we think and act. Usually, an inflection point isn’t a little change. It is a moment when—by choice or not—we pivot from the path down which we are traveling and head in an entirely different direction.
During the past dozen years, we’ve gone through several extraordinary inflection points. We have experienced a series of economic and political events that caused the future to look very different from what we’d expected it would.
Until not too long ago, a whole generation of college graduates believed they were destined to follow the path of the founders of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook and become multimillionaires before they were thirty. Investment banking was seen as the guaranteed path to becoming a “master of the universe.” People were celebrated as heroes for running companies based on business models that, in any other time, would have been considered laughable. Policy makers in Washington, DC, were so confident that the stock market would keep rising—seemingly forever—that they considered privatizing Social Security, the economic safety net of the American working man and woman.
Beginning in 2007 and continuing to this day, we’ve been reminded of two rules that we’d apparently forgotten: (1) what goes up does eventually come down, and (2) businesses built on a foundation of smoke and mirrors will surely fail.
At breakneck speed, discussions about the stock market turned to preserving capital, not growing it. People with jobs were satisfied just to keep them—forget about promotions and raises. Homeowners went from visions of windfall profits to hopes of avoiding foreclosure. Folks with newly minted college and graduate degrees suddenly faced a frozen job market.
Even those people whose financial lives did not collapse had a tremendous scare. And we’re all trying to guess if there’s a new problem just over the horizon.
In times of extraordinary challenges and dizzying change—whether it’s happening around us or to us—we can all use a wise guide. A person who helps us think through our basic assumptions about what we want and need in our lives, about what “success” means to us and how best to navigate our lives during unsettling times.
Wise men and women come in plenty of flavors and sizes, and with varying degrees of insight. Like beauty, wisdom is often in the eye of the beholder. And the wisdom you find depends a lot on the kind of wisdom you may benefit from at a particular moment. For some, the ideal wise person looks like Abraham Lincoln or Mother Teresa; for others it’s Warren Buffett or Oprah Winfrey.
The wise man I’ve found is a mixture: he has the business acumen of Warren Buffett, and the warmth and spirit of Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom’s professor in the book Tuesdays with Morrie. He also has a rather humorous resemblance to Yoda, the wise, skilled, and experienced Jedi knight of Star Wars fame.
Although my wise man looks a bit like Yoda, in place of a light saber he wields razor-sharp logic and scalpel-like insight. He is a real-life teacher, mentor, and guide through challenging, risky, and downright scary adventures. His name is Howard Stevenson.
Howard is an entrepreneur, an author, and a philanthropist. And for forty years, he has been one of the most important and respected professors at Harvard Business School. He possesses an amazing combination of business brilliance, keen psychological perception, energetic spirit, and long-term vision. He has an endearing perspective on life, something I didn’t fully appreciate until it was almost gone.
Howard is exactly the kind of person that so many of us would like to be able to turn to when important decisions are to be made or challenges met. One whose wisdom and experience have guided thousands of men and women through the inflection points in their lives.
Over the course of four decades, Howard has taught, mentored, and counseled thousands of Harvard MBAs, graduate students, and global business leaders. His students have included world leaders, CEOs of major corporations, and entrepreneurs whose visions have changed our world.
Numbered among Howard’s many students, friends, and confidants are some of the most successful businesspeople and philanthropists in the world. They have included people like Jorge Paolo Lemann, the Brazilian billionaire co-owner of the international beverage conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, William Bowes, one of the creators of the U.S. bio tech industry; Hansjörg Wyss, the Swiss medical appliance industry pioneer and mega philanthropist; the late Frank Batten, who created the Weather Channel; and Arthur Rock, the legendary investor who helped launch Intel and Apple.
Why have business icons like Lemann, Bowes, Wyss, Batten, and Rock—people who have reached the pinnacle of professional success—continued to look to this remarkable man? For the same reason that I do: to benefit from the insight, wisdom, warmth, and pragmatic perspective that this rumpled Harvard Business School professor shares with everyone whose life he has touched.
This book is my way of introducing you to my friend and mentor Howard Stevenson.
* * *
Every book has a catalyst, something that makes an author believe, “It’s essential that I tell people about this.” For some authors that moment feels like an earthquake or a thunderclap; for others, it’s a slowly dawning realization or a voice whispering in the mind’s ear.
To me, that moment felt like a punch to the gut and the urge to vomit.
I was standing in the parking lot of Harvard Business School one mild winter day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, staring dumbly at a colleague who was telling me something I didn’t want to believe. I heard his words, but I couldn’t absorb their meaning. “Howard had a heart attack two hours ago. It’s bad.”
At age sixty-six, Howard Stevenson was a legend at Harvard Business School. An iconic teacher, he was an innovator who defined the academic field of entrepreneurial business. He was a successful businessman who’d made a fortune several times over, and a philanthropist and philanthropic adviser of the first rank. A towering figure among corporate leaders, he was a warm friend and a generous mentor.
Howard was considered the father of entrepreneurship at HBS, and he was like a second father to me.
We had first met when I was a thirty-something “mid-career” graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School and he agreed to advise me on an independent study project. From our initial conversation, I found myself oddly connected to this Ivy League scholar with a quirky smile. His ruffled hair, piercing gaze, and slightly hunched posture were an amusing contrast to the interior man: brilliant, witty, playful, and endlessly curious. I came to adore his unique spirit.
And now … “They had to give him CPR. He might not make it.”
Despite getting a clean bill of health from his doctor only weeks earlier, Howard had collapsed in cardiac arrest as he walked across campus after lunch. It had been an otherwise typical day until his ticker simply stopped ticking.
I was frantic at the news and spent the next several hours calling colleagues and rushing from one office to the next, vainly trying to get some update on Howard’s condition. It was only days later that his assistant, Bobbie, could give me good news. Howard would be all right—but only because of amazing good luck: he had collapsed next to a building that had a portable defibrillator, and someone immediately brought the device to his side; plus the HBS campus is just two miles from a good hospital. (That evening, when I saw my friend Josh Silverman—a brilliant surgeon and scientist—I learned that the survival rate for “unattended cardiac arrest” is about 1 percent. So in any other circumstances, Howard likely would have died there on the manicured lawns of Harvard Business School.)
Even when I knew that he’d fully recover, my stomach clenched at the thought of Howard lying flat on his back, staring up at the clouds, wondering if he was headed to what he’d once called “the great business school in the sky.” I realized that during the endless hours we’d spent joking, debating, and analyzing together, I hadn’t stopped to tell him what he meant to me. Hadn’t thanked him for making me think about things differently, for challenging my assumptions about business, about my career, about my life. I hadn’t expressed my gratitude for the wisdom he showered on me each time we spoke. And I hadn’t told him that I loved him.
Ironically, when I went to see Howard in the hospital, he was in remarkably good spirits. So good, in fact, that when I asked him what he’d been thinking when he first woke up after his heart attack, he gave me a deadpan answer that made me laugh out loud.
“Well, first I thought, ‘Damn, I bet they ruined the favorite sportcoat I was wearing when I collapsed.’ Then, seeing all the equipment they had me hooked up to, I thought, ‘Gee, I’m glad I gave the hospital a nice-sized gift last year.’”
His humor was encouraging, but something in me wanted a more serious answer, so I asked, “Howard, when you were lying on the ground, knowing you might die right there in the middle of the campus, did you have any regrets?”
“You mean like regretting that piece of cheesecake I ate at lunch just before I collapsed? Or kicking myself for not ordering that expensive bottle of wine at the restaurant the night before?”
“I was thinking of something more significant,” I said. “Like, ‘Boy, there are sixty things I’d do differently about my life, if I could,’ or ‘If I survive, I’m going to change things in a major way.’”
He thought about it for a minute, then answered, “They tell me I was unconscious when I hit the ground, so—technically speaking—I had no time for regretting anything. But I understand what you’re asking. And the answer is nope.”
“And in the days since—any regrets?”
“Not a one.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Look, Eric, a person has regrets when his life doesn’t match up with his expectations, or when he has dreams he hasn’t vigorously pursued,” Howard said in his smooth growl. “I’ve lived the life I wanted, and accomplished more than I could have wished. I have an amazing wife and a loving family. I’ve been surrounded by wonderful friends. And I think I’ve left a little piece of the planet a bit better for animal and man.”
“So you would have died happy and satisfied?”
“Well, not happy about dying. But satisfied with the life I’ve lived,” he replied. “No one can say that he or she hasn’t made mistakes or had faults—we’re human, and you’ve got to accept that. But I would have gone with no major regrets over things I’d done or not done.”
For a reason I didn’t immediately understand, I left Howard’s hospital room feeling worse than I think he did. He was upbeat, encouraged, joking. I was reflective, brooding, confused. I couldn’t figure out why. Instead of heading home after that first hospital visit, I drove back to the Harvard campus and spent a few hours that evening wandering around, alone with my thoughts.
I remembered my first meeting with Howard several years earlier, and how he had challenged me—right off the bat—to think differently than I had been doing to that point. He’d done it in a way that was hard-nosed and stimulating, insightful, and warm and caring, all at the same time. As I continued to walk aimlessly around campus late into the evening, I realized that while I was incredibly grateful that Howard had survived and had lived his life with what he described as “no regrets,” there was something eating at me. A thought sitting, annoyingly, just beyond my mind’s reach. Then it came to me: Howard’s experience had made me realize that I had a giant regret of my own.
For the last three years, Howard and I had been spending a few hours a week together—in his office, at his home, or simply walking around the Harvard campus. In that short time, he had evolved from my professor to a mentor to a dear friend. We had talked about many things, some frivolous, but most serious. Our conversations had touched on music and books and travels, on politics and economics, on family and philosophy, on business strategy and professional development, on the value of education versus experience, and on the many ways one could make a difference in the world. We talked about pursuing success and recovering from failure. About setting goals and setting out to achieve them.
If I had to sum up the topic of all those conversations in one sentence, it would be this: we talked about how to chart a satisfying path through career and life—about pursuing what Howard called your “life’s work.”
“Life’s work” was a term I had heard in several different contexts. Most often for me it conjured images of deep and long devotion to great causes and difficult, admirable labors. The phrase brought to mind Mother Teresa and her work with India’s poor and sick, or Paul Farmer and his efforts to heal and rebuild Haiti. Or it made me think of the anonymous struggling artist, or the inventor determined to bring her mind’s vision to reality. When Howard talked about people pursuing their life’s work, he was certainly referring to all the saints and visionaries, but not only to them. He was talking about everyone and anyone who got up each morning hoping to achieve something of substance with their lives. He was talking about accountants and engineers, teachers and Web designers, lawyers and social workers, business owners and nonprofit executives. He was talking about you and me and the folks living two doors down.
For Howard, describing one’s life’s work means the totality of who we are: the interwoven strands of our labors, our loves, our hopes, and our tangible needs and wants; the interdependent elements of our lives that we sometimes try to wall off into independent silos that we name “the job,” “the family,” and “the rest of my life.”
In my many conversations with Howard, I had soaked up the seemingly endless ideas and sage advice that he offered on approaching my life’s work. But I’d made no effort to capture exactly what he was giving me. At first, I hadn’t even realized how much I was learning. I’d met many smart, even brilliant, people at Harvard. But Howard was different—he wasn’t just smart, he was wise. And, eventually, I understood the cause of the energetic buzz in my brain after our conversations: it was from the tiny infusions of wisdom I’d been receiving. He was like no one else I had ever met.
Driving home on the night of my hospital visit with Howard, I recognized that I had more than regret on my mind. At the moment that I learned Howard had cheated death, I had made a subconscious decision that was only just becoming clear to me. The decision that was coming into focus was to capture some of the wisdom that Howard had been effortlessly dispensing—and to share that wisdom with people who’d never have the chance to learn from him directly.
That’s why, visiting Howard again a few days later, I told him that I had his next project picked out. “Once you’re done with all those tubes, wires, and probes you’re wearing, I want us to write a book together. Actually, you’ll talk, I’ll write it down, and it’ll be your next book.”
“Really?” he asked with a wry smile.
I explained my idea for a book based on his experience and insight—on the things he’d learned directly and the lessons he’d gleaned from watching his students’ careers and lives over the decades. “I want to capture some of the amazing things we’ve talked about. Give everyone a chance to learn from you like I’ve been doing these past few years.”
Howard thought about it for a few minutes, then said, “Well, writing a book sounds fine. But I think we should do it a little differently. I don’t want you to simply transcribe my words. I’m happy to do some talking, but you’ve got to talk, too.”
“Talk about what?” I asked.
“I want you to add yourself to the mix, put your experiences in there. I’ll be part of it—most if it, even—but it will be your book.”
“For quite a few reasons, actually.” And he went on to list them in the well-reasoned way he approached all his strategic decisions. “First, I’ve already got my name on more publications than anyone wants to read,” he said, referring to the two hundred case studies, articles, and books he had written.
“Second, printing out what I say is all well and good. But I’ll know that you really understand what I’m saying when you’ve put it in your own words.
“Third, when we sit down together, I don’t do all the talking. I’ve been listening—and I’ve learned from you, too. You’ve got interesting things to say yourself. Having seen ten thousand masters of the universe pass through my door at Harvard, I know that your perspective on life isn’t typical of a person your age. Your career decisions haven’t been traditional. And Lord knows you’ve had some creative life experiences. I think you have some novel and instructive ideas to offer.”
I had to laugh, because “creative, novel, and instructive” was a mild way to describe the not very traditional path I’ve taken in my career. Decisions that made perfect sense to me at the time have led to what an outside observer might consider a somewhat schizophrenic résumé: positions in the hospitality industry after graduating from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell; a few years in corporate America; creating and promoting a national community education program; owning a couple of franchise businesses; grad school and fund-raising for Harvard; and, now, running a partnership development company that works with some of the world’s leading brands and most innovative companies.
“And fourth, you’re an entrepreneur at heart, just like I am,” he said. “We both know how to pursue opportunities beyond the resources we currently control. Neither of us likes repeating what’s already been done and proven. We want to take the essence of what’s useful from the old and use it to create something new, better, more effective, more interesting.”
“Howard Stevenson 2.0?” I joked.
“Sounds great—especially if a sleek new body comes with it,” he said, laughing at the thought. “Eric, I’m really good at what I do, and I’ve helped a lot of people become very successful. In business terms, you might consider me a franchise product—but I’m not perfect.”
“But you’re a wise man and I’m a wise ass.”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, but a truly wise man knows he has no monopoly on wisdom. So for all those reasons, let’s keep talking and listening to each other—and then you write the book, Mr. Wise Ass.”
I still wasn’t completely convinced about his approach, but, I told him, I was not going to argue with a guy recovering from cardiac arrest.
“A wise decision,” he said. “And if you do a half-decent job, I may even buy a few copies for my seven kids, my dozen grandkids, and a few of my students.”
* * *
I remember a time when I was fifteen years old, playing Ping-Pong in the basement with my best childhood friend. As we knocked the ball back and forth, we had a conversation that now seems quite deep for two kids from rural New Jersey.
Vikram, whom I’d met on the first day of preschool, lived around the corner. Our weekend games of Ping-Pong had become a bit of a ritual. On this particular Saturday afternoon—as he was about to serve for match point—he asked me if I was worried about being successful when I grew up.
It was an odd question for a fifteen-year-old kid. But Vikram was mature for his age. The guy was born with the demeanor and outlook of a thirty-five-year-old. The son of immigrants from India, he was incredibly smart and—I now realize, looking back—a total entrepreneur. He was always inventing things, winning science contests, and otherwise impressing the adults around him. On this particular afternoon, he was obviously thinking about his future career.
“I actually don’t really worry about being successful,” I said in response to his question. “Somehow I figure that success will work itself out. What I worry about is whether or not I’ll be happy.”
Vikram thought about that for a minute, nodded, then proceeded to whip his serve just past my outstretched paddle. Then he smiled and said, “If you’re happy about succeeding as a lousy Ping-Pong player, you’re set for life.”
I recount that conversation because the basic idea my fifteen-year-old self had stumbled on—“success doesn’t always equal happiness”—is one that Howard repeatedly impresses on his students, colleagues, and friends. It is an idea that’s been borne out in countless situations that I’ve seen and experienced.
My career has given me direct exposure to some amazingly accomplished men and women—university professors, deans, and presidents; corporate CEOs and self-made entrepreneurs of every type; and famous music industry and Broadway theatrical producers and the talent they work with. Traveling the globe on behalf of Harvard University for almost four years as a fund-raiser, I got to know some of the world’s most significant philanthropists. In my business career, I have worked with the corporate officers of a Fortune 500 company, with an amazingly successful hotel entrepreneur, and with an iconoclastic technology billionaire and professional sports-team owner. Today I am the president of a company whose clients provide me with the opportunity to work with some of the world’s most successful people.
While many of the highly accomplished people I’ve interacted with are both successful and happy, I continue to be amazed by the enormous number who are at the top of their professions but feel unfulfilled. People who when faced with a moment of almost certain death, as Howard was, could not honestly claim they’d lived the life they had hoped to.
What I’ve seen over and over—in industry to industry, from country to country—is that all of us, regardless of our status in life, our career ambitions, our backgrounds, the size of our bank accounts, or our particular personal situations, are striving for a similar goal: professional accomplishment and satisfaction. This is what Howard has achieved better than anyone else I have ever known—and I hope to share some of his “secrets of satisfaction” in the pages that follow.
The goal of this book is to help you to maximize your career satisfaction as a cornerstone for a fulfilling life. Because if you’re not happy with your work, then you’re almost certainly not going to be fulfilled in your life.
Given that Howard is a greatly respected business-school professor, you might think this is a “business book.” But it’s much more than that. It’s about life. Your life. So think of this book as focused on the business of your life. I have distilled from Howard’s experience and wisdom a series of practical strategies for pursuing the goal of professional satisfaction. Drawn together and put into action, these strategies form an ongoing process that you could call “business planning for your life’s work.”
In describing my goal here, I’ve deliberately used the word satisfaction instead of the word success. Too often, success is automatically measured in terms of economic wealth, educational level, or one’s place in an organizational structure. And too many benchmarks of success are set in relation to other people. But satisfaction encompasses more than just money and prestige and juxtaposition. The benchmarks for satisfaction—which certainly might include salary, title, and academic pedigree—are unique to each person. Each of us gets to define satisfaction for ourselves.
With that said, you should know up front that this book doesn’t contain some A-to-Z prescription for a satisfying professional life. There can’t be a single prescription when everyone’s definition of satisfaction is different. Many of us are not even sure of what it is for ourselves.
“The first hurdle most of us face in pursuing a satisfying career is our intuitive assumption that what works for other folks—co-workers, friends, family, even role models—must be right for us,” Howard told me in one of our earliest conversations. “It’s the disconnect between assumption and reality that causes false starts, professional disappointments, mid-career crises—and the directly related problems that spill over into our personal lives.”
For that reason, what this book offers is not a specific path, but a clear framework. It introduces a way of thinking about your career, rather than providing a detailed action plan.
This framework is built on Howard’s forty years of studying and teaching and advising the leaders of organizations of every imaginable type—from start-ups to conglomerates, schools to NGOs.
Howard told me once, “One reason I love being a professor of entrepreneurship is that I get to see endless ideas and plans for companies, products, and new approaches. While each idea is different, over time you recognize patterns. The good plans have certain consistent elements in the framework of thought behind the founders’ motivating idea.”
Like the frameworks he has observed for decades while evaluating businesses, the construct presented in this book can be applied by readers from all walks of life to their individual careers, desires, and goals. Howard’s perspective will help you identify and define what success looks like for you; and it will provide “thought tools” that you can utilize in building the career and life you envision.
The process of business planning for life should occur throughout our careers. So this book is intended for people of many ages and for many stages of their lives. It is for the college sophomore who lines up a series of internships to test the career options she’s considering, and the twenty-something professional taking a few extra days to consider if the big promotion he’s been offered is actually right for him. It is for the thirty-five-year-old accounting manager deciding whether to take MBA courses or piano lessons, and the fifty-five-year-old who’s been offered an early-retirement package and the option to begin a new career path.
Who will benefit most from this book? People who consider themselves smart and hardworking, who want to be proactive in setting the course of their careers—as opposed to simply reacting to what happens to them; people who want to be the entrepreneurial managers of their own lives, and build the life and career that they envision. This book is for people who, when they anticipate looking back on their lives, want to be able to say—as Howard did—they have no regrets.
None of the questions touched on in this book are simple ones. None of the answers are easy. This book is not intended for someone looking for a quick, one-night read on career success. In fact, you’ll get the most out of Howard’s Gift by reading a chapter, then pausing to consider the potent ideas and questions it offers, before continuing on to the next chapter.
Life is complex and sometimes hard. It’s often confusing and uncertain. To make the most of yours, isn’t it worth investing the same energy, enthusiasm, and reflection in it that you would if you were writing a plan for a grand new business venture? Because you are indeed exploring such a plan—a plan for the business of your life’s work.
* * *
Before you read on, a few quick notes on conversations, chronology, and names in this book.
Howard’s Gift is based on hundreds of hours of conversations with Howard over the course of more than six years. Many of those conversations occurred well before Howard’s brush with death, and took place during leisurely walks around campus, in his office or at his house, or over a meal together. Another set of discussions took place during recorded interviews I conducted once we’d agreed that I should write this book; and still others took place as the book was evolving. Collectively, the ideas—the wisdom—that Howard shared with me in those conversations would fill several volumes. The conversations captured in this book are deliberately chosen, integrated, streamlined, and polished versions of the original discussions. The goal has been to convey the essence of Howard’s wisdom in a manner that would be most effective for you, the reader.
The chapters in Howard’s Gift have been organized in a manner that allows ideas to flow naturally and build on one another. Ultimately, I hope that you will use those ideas in a continuous cycle of thought and action that drives your life’s work over the long term. Don’t be confused by the fact that the events recounted in the book are not laid out chronologically from chapter to chapter.
In addition to sharing Howard’s wisdom and that which I’ve picked up throughout my career, Howard’s Gift features contributions from a wide variety of other remarkable men and women I interviewed while writing this book. In some instances, you’ll meet these people in the pages that follow. In other cases, I felt it important to change a person’s name, modify some details, or combine several individuals’ similar experiences—especially where a factual retelling of their stories might have negative implications for the individuals or the people around them.
That said, you should know that every word of the book has been read, considered, and blessed by Howard. And every word of the individual profiles at the end of each chapter has been read and approved by those folks.
Kirk Posmantur is my longtime friend, mentor, and business partner. We’ve known each other since the early 1990s, when, as a hospitality-industry executive, he agreed to take on an energetic, overconfident, and utterly inexperienced intern from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. Neither of us could have known then that we’d be linked professionally for almost twenty years and counting. We also couldn’t have guessed how personally attuned we’d become—able to anticipate each other’s ideas, instincts, and reactions with amazing accuracy. After all this time, we can almost literally read each other’s minds. I tell people lovingly that he’s like my older, taller, and balder brother; he says that he knows me better than my wife does—although I encourage him not to say it in her presence!
When I told Kirk that I was writing this book, he nodded and smiled, giving me a kind of “that’s nice, have fun” response. He considered it my hobby and didn’t take the project all that seriously—and, frankly, there was no reason he should have. I’d never written a book before or even suggested that it was a goal. But, as I continued to talk about the project over the following weeks, he came to understand that Howard’s cardiac arrest was, indeed, an inflection point in my life; and as he saw how committed I was to the book, he paid more serious attention to my progress.
However, even though he never said anything specific, I also sensed some ambivalence on his part. So, when I was ready to show him a big chunk of the manuscript, I wasn’t completely sure what his reaction would be.
At first, as is Kirk’s style, he began skimming the pages as soon as I handed them to him, and started to comment on one facet or another. But as he got deeper into the manuscript, the pace of both his reading and his comments slowed. After just a dozen pages or so, he stopped reading, thought for a moment, and said, “Hey, no … I’m going to take this stuff home tonight and go through it carefully. There’s some stuff here I want think about. Can we talk about it tomorrow?”
Because of our hectic calendars and travel schedules, Kirk and I are in the habit of having an early phone call to check in each day. So, sitting in my kitchen at six-thirty the next morning, I picked up the phone to hear him say, without pleasantries or prelude, “I have to tell you, for a while I’ve been worried about how much energy you’ve been putting into this writing project. You’re working your butt off at the office; traveling days on end to see clients; then spending dozens of hours a month writing this book.”
“Well, it’s important to me,” I explained.
“That’s been clear from the beginning. And from the start I’ve worried that you could end up really frustrated at the results, given how much energy you’re investing,” he replied. “But I’m not concerned anymore. Somehow, you’ve captured your relationship with this extraordinary guy, Howard, and then found a way to extend that relationship to include the rest of us. And that’s got to feel really satisfying.”
When Kirk said that, I realized that I’d been so focused on writing the book that I hadn’t really been able to see the end product. (A classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” perspective.) But his comments gave me a reason to stand back for a moment and appreciate that, at least for one person, I had achieved my goal of sharing Howard’s wisdom and insight—of enabling a reader to establish a vicarious relationship with him. That this one person was my longtime friend and business partner was satisfying; but the fact that Kirk “got it” was meaningful for a wholly different reason, too.
Why? Because Kirk himself is the consummate relationship builder. Relationship building is part of his DNA, something he inherited and learned from his father. His wife refers to him as Forrest Gump because of his uncanny ability to develop friendships with people from all walks of life, from the waiter at his local Italian restaurant to some of the biggest names in business and entertainment. Kirk remembers virtually every person he’s ever had a substantive interaction with and maintains connections to lots of them—a unique ability that enables him to “connect the dots” with breathtaking reach. Relationship building is also central to Kirk’s philosophy of life: if he could, he’d put the classic Coca-Cola ad into action—he’d buy the world a Coke, introduce every person to the next person, have them hold hands, and get them to sing in perfect harmony. (No surprise, then, that the company he and I run, Axcess Worldwide, is based on a concept that he created, called “partnership development.” Axcess connects leaders of extraordinary and iconic brands—helping them pursue opportunities together that neither could achieve individually.)
Beyond that, as someone who found the formula for pursuing career satisfaction relatively early in his working life (a formula I call “Kirk’s Triple Threat”—weaving together extraordinary creativity, unparalleled capacity for relationship-building, and uncanny instincts for bringing businesses together for their mutual benefit), he is passionate about helping people develop their own formulas for pursuing success and satisfaction. So, it was doubly pleasing to hear him say, “Beyond the beauty of your relationship with Howard, the timing of Howard’s Gift is almost prescient. This is a moment when many people are looking for a spark of inspiration—an infusion of energy and optimism about their careers. This is a point when the economy might just be tilting in the right direction, and when women and men with dreams and ambitions are again asking themselves, ‘Is now the time to go for it?’”
Copyright © 2012 by Eric Sinoway