August 09, 2019

Three Invaluable Lessons from Carl Icahn

Matt Bramson

Matt Bramson
President/Cloud Strategy Solutions

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Several years ago when I was a sales manager for XO Communications (acquired by Verizon in 2016 for nearly $2 Billion) I was assigned, out of the blue, to report directly to the owner and Chairman, legendary investor Carl Icahn (currently #31 on the Forbes 400). The way I learned of my new assignment and our first meeting is a great story, for another time. Meeting with a multi-billionaire everyday, talking with him on the phone multiple times most days, and attending meetings with him regularly — some reached by private jet — is an experience few people will get to have. I’ve been asked many times, “What did you learn?”

The answer is that I learned tremendous amounts about lots of things. But three invaluable lessons stand out for thriving in the company of billionaires.

  1. Be more than prepared: anticipate everything.  I’ve only gotten to know one billionaire fairly well although I’ve interacted regularly with perhaps half a dozen. Their time is precious — like in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour — and when they invest their time in a meeting to make a decision they want to make one. Ideally the best decision based on having all the necessary information. They don’t like to hear, “I’ll look into that and get back to you” or “that’s a great question, let me research it”, or “we didn’t consider that option, we’ll run the numbers”. Billionaires are typically very impatient plus they are creative problem-solvers. So not only do you need to have all the necessary information at your fingertips but you have to anticipate all the possibilities. Your level of preparation must be extreme.
  2. Be available. A corollary to be prepared is to be available. The billionaires I’ve worked with are perpetually in the moment. When a billionaire wants information or to make a decision they want it right now. Not tomorrow or later today or even in a few minutes. When they call you need to answer. Because whatever they are thinking about or working on and are trying to involve you in is going to happen — very quickly, with or without you.
  3. Be outspoken. This lesson may seem a bit counterintuitive. You’re in conversation with someone who has achieved almost unimaginable business success so you should be humble and volunteer your opinion only when directly asked for it, right? Wrong. You are in the conversation for a reason and that reason is to offer your perspective and to do so with conviction. I watched plenty of people “play it cool” in meetings with Carl and the result was that they weren’t in the next meeting. Because they weren’t seen as necessary. You must deliver value in every encounter — that’s why you were invited.

Working regularly with billionaires may seem like an exceptional environment and some aspects are. The settings are often notable — private jets, huge yachts, jaw-dropping office views — and talking with people you’ve seen on TV and in magazines can be intimidating. But the lessons I learned are broadly applicable. Everyone’s time is valuable, to them — and therefore extreme preparation and anticipation is appreciated. Everyone has a high degree of urgency regarding things that matter, to them — and therefore being reachable and responsive is admired. And everyone expects the people they invite into a meeting or conversation to participate enthusiastically — and therefore being outspoken is important. So treat everyone like they’re a billionaire and you’ll make yourself invaluable. Godspeed.

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