Emanuel, Goldman Sachs CEO offer leadership advice

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein met with small business owners on Wednesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein on Wednesday shared leadership advice with small business owners and, in the process, revealed a lot about themselves and their management styles.

Blankfein was in Chicago to announce a $10 million commitment that will extend until 2020 the 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative he brought to the city in 2011.

But it also was an opportunity for small business owners to pick the brains of two powerful leaders in two very different fields — finance and politics — and come away with some sage advice.

Blankfein went first. He was asked how to keep a handle on rising costs and still grow a small business.

“A lot of these people are shops like yourself that have more to do than staff and you go from one thing to another and you don’t pause and plan and take account of what you’re spending and how long it takes to recover from what your spending and what your revenue projections are,” Blankfein said.

“Plan. Know where you stand. Get a good sense of what it costs to run your business, what the revenue is worth to you, what your margins are. Of course, how to improve them,” he said. “But you have to have a sense of where you are in order to get to where you want to go.”

Then it was Emanuel’s turn to talk about how to recruit people and build an effective team.

The mayor said “talent makes up everything” and it must be identified and nurtured. But to find people who are good team players and leaders of their own teams, you need to look beyond the resume.

“I’m like intrigued [about] what makes you tick. I don’t want to talk about the job. I don’t want to talk about that at first. What are your interests? What drives you? Why do you even want to do this job?” the mayor said.

“It’s the outside stuff — Do you like to read? Do you like to travel? That explains the individual and the character. Because what you’re really trying to get is to that motivation and that character. . . . Get to the intangibles about the person, rather than what the resume itself says.”

For most of her job interview with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Judy Frydland, now commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings, talked about her parents, who had survived the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

For most of her job interview with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Judy Frydland, now commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings, talked about her parents, who had survived the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Emanuel then offered a classic example of that philosophy: His interview with Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland, whose parents survived the Holocaust.

When Frydland shared that with the mayor, they spent all but 30 seconds of the interview talking about that poignant history and not about the job.

“She said at the end of the interview, `Do you want to know other things?’ And I said, ‘Not really. You’re gonna succeed. I have full confidence,’ “ Emanuel recalled.

“She said, `How do you know that?’ And I said, ‘There’s no way the daughter of two Holocaust survivors is gonna let her parents down. No way. Because you know what your parents have been through. You have that indoctrinated into who you are.’”

At that point, Emanuel turned to Blankfein and said, “Top that, Lloyd.”

Blankfein did just that in the advice he gave about how to motivate and retain employees.

“It’s your business. You’re in charge. But you also want to evolve a sense of partnership that they’re gonna be improved by the relationship with you and with your business. You’re gonna train them. You’re gonna make them a better person, a better professional,” Blankfein said.

“These things are a lot about money. But not mostly about money. They’re about loyalty. If you show loyalty, you get loyalty. If you train them and you’re good for them, they’ll want to be good for you. . . . There’ll be times when they’re worth more than you and times when you’re worth more than them. You have to survive those periods. You do that because you invest in the relationship.”

The final question was a toughie. Both men were asked to identify characteristics that “often derail” good leaders.

Blankfein said “blind spots” in leaders often come from “your success and the affirmation you get from success.” It makes a person feel “kind of complete and self-contained.” But that’s a dangerous thing.

“I never talk to someone where I don’t recognize that that person knows more about something that should be important to me than I do,” Blankfein said.

“Remember that success usually carries with it the seeds of failure if you take your success for granted and, instead of humble, you start to get a little bit swelled-headed and a little bit arrogant and you close yourself off. . . . You may be up the letterhead. You may have a higher rank. But other people have a lot to contribute. . . . Listen more than you speak.”

Emanuel concluded with a rare bit of self-reflection.

“All your strengths are also your weaknesses. If you’re driven and you’re impatient, that’s a good thing. But it could be — not could be, it is — also a weakness,” he said.

“Second is, don’t be scared about having people in a room who also have strong opinions. If people are not willing to talk up or give their opinions, you’re not getting all the perspectives on a challenge. . . . If it was solvable, it would have been solved before it got to you. So there are only a series of bad choices. You’re trying to weigh the equities of those bad choices. And in that process, people with strong opinions are valued.”

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