Morton Mandel

Essential advice from a self-made leader

Q & A With Morton L. Mandel

Posted on January 16, 2013 in Personal Reflections

Q: What made you realize that involving the best people was more important than anything else? 

A: It all comes down to one extraordinary hire and what he taught me over the years. In 1955, I was lucky to find a guy named Bob Warren who became president of our company in 1962. What I didn’t know at the time was that Bob was the ultimate professional in how you operate a business. He taught us by example, moving me away from a more intuitive management style to a more thoughtful, systematic approach.

I quickly came to see the impact an A player could have on an organization. Bob’s impact was absolutely magical. From then on, my standards for the people we hired were much higher. I could see that having an A player instead of a B could make a world of difference to your team and your business.

Over the course of my career, I’ve personally interviewed and helped hire many people, from personal assistants to university presidents. By and large, the few hiring mistakes I made were people who turned out to be B players or even Cs. Those hires hurt an organization because they fill seats that could be occupied by more effective players. Retaining underperforming senior executives keeps the A's out. Never settle for fair when you can have better by raising your standards.

What I have discovered is that Bs can prevent an organization from achieving much greater accomplishments. The C players generally get fired or quit because they can’t meet the standards. But the B players hang on. They bat .270, don’t make many errors in the field, but they can’t help you win the pennant. They cheat you from achieving all that you could become. Even worse, you probably won’t know what you’ve failed to achieve--all because you had a B player with whom you were comfortable, in a job where you could have had an A.

Q: What would your friend Peter Drucker say about the leadership crisis today?

A: He would say today what he has always said: that there is just too small a supply of great leaders. The leadership crisis is always both a major challenge and a major opportunity. It is a light bulb that never goes out. It is a constant. There is a world leadership crisis. Everyone is competing for a small supply of As. So there is a leadership shortage. You can solve it in your own organization by only hiring the best people. But Peter would say there will always be a leadership crisis because it is incredibly difficult to find those A players who are great leaders and to get them into the key positions.

Q: What made you decide to tell your story now?

A: For years, friends and colleagues had been urging me to put down my story. But I have spent most of my life doing and not a whole lot of time reflecting—at least in written form. I guess my friends and colleagues finally convinced me that I had a story worth telling. Even then, I didn’t want to write a biography, but rather a book of ideas and values that helped to make me successful.

If I’ve done a good job with this, readers will learn what took me many years to know and to perfect. I wish I had the benefit of sitting down with a self-made billionaire years ago for a candid conversation on what were the most important things that have not only made him rich but more importantly led to a meaningful life.

I’ve come to believe that all of my life’s work has been a search for fulfillment. For most of my life, I thought that reaching the top of the mountain was success. In business, it was building companies, creating meaningful jobs for people, satisfying customers, being true to who you are. In philanthropy, success was investing in people with the vision, passion and abilities to change the world. The journey I had been on was a journey to feel I had done something significant with my life.

Only recently I realized that true fulfillment is being able to look in the mirror and see someone you respect. It’s not the size of your bank account or your stock portfolio. It’s not whether you have a big house, or a yacht, or a private plane. And it’s certainly not about getting your name in the paper.

It’s about respecting yourself. Happiness for me is meeting my own expectations, and those of my family and other people I care about and love. Everything of virtue springs from the dedication, passion, even love, you bring to what you do. If there is a secret to a life well lived, it’s simply that. To live a praiseworthy and contributive life, strive to meet your expectations and the expectations of those you love. So when you look in the mirror, you will look with pride at the person who looks back at you. It’s why my regrets are few and far between.

Q: Was philanthropy part of your business vision from the very beginning?

A: It was never part of our business vision, but it was built into my character since childhood. My deep interest in the social sector can be traced directly to my mother. As the matriarch of our home, she had very few dollars and had to manage those dollars efficiently. Yet, eight or nine times a year, someone would knock on the door and ask her for help. Sometimes, a daughter was getting married and needed a dress. Other times, the fridge broke down and needed repair or replacing. Every time, my mother would help someone in need, she would have the same simple answer to those she assisted: “Take it. You don’t have to pay me back. You’ll do something for me some day and we’ll come out even.” The money she gave up was perhaps for a new dress or pair of shoes she didn’t buy for herself. Over the years, my brothers and I internalized that generosity. We inhaled it.

And the necessity of being generous with people led to my interest in philanthropy. It’s a large word. But it was part of our upbringing and the way we defined ourselves from the very beginning. My brothers and I started giving generously in 1947 and 1948. We were making large gifts given our income at the time, and those gifts led to still larger gifts and deeper involvement in the issues and programs we cared about.

Every gift, whether $10,000 or $10 million, pays tribute to a profound belief: that a single individual can change the world. Powerful ideas, driven by outstanding people, represent the best way to light candles in dark places and help illuminate the world.

Q: In your opinion, what are the three most important messages that leaders, young and old, need to remember and try to live by?

  1. Hire the best people you can find and afford.
  2. Create a great place to work, an environment that turns work into a community and makes people feel good to be there.
  3. Relentlessly pursue excellence in everything you do. Don’t settle for less, either for yourself or others. 

That’s simple to say and hard to do and, it’s at the core of what I’m writing about in this book.

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