Real Leaders

Michael Bloomberg: Straight Talk From a “C” Student Turned Billionaire

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Former New York mayor and founder of global financial services company Bloomberg L.P., Michael Bloomberg shows that  no one sails through life without encountering some rough waters. The billionaire believes that if you love what you do, you’ll thrive on the inevitable challenges and have the stamina to achieve your full potential.

In college I had a straight C average. I think I was just lazy, or maybe I was just too busy chasing the girls. But then, first semester senior year, I figured that if I wanted to go to graduate school I’d better do something about my grades.

So for that one semester I took a double course load and got all A’s. I applied to business school and I got in, much to everybody’s amazement, particularly mine. Then I went right back to getting C’s for my last semester. 

After graduation, I thought I was going to serve in Vietnam. In those days everybody was going to Vietnam. But they wouldn’t take me at the last minute because I have flat feet. Why it bothered them, I don’t know. So I needed to find a job all of a sudden. I went to work on Wall Street only because a friend of mine said, “Call these two firms – Goldman Sachs & Co. and Salomon Brothers & Hutzler (as it was called back then) – and tell them you want to be a trader or a salesman.”

Fortunately for me, securities trading and sales were considered second-class occupations in those days, so I got interviews at both firms. At Goldman I was introduced to the managing partner like this: “Mr. Levy, this is Mike Bloomberg.” At Salomon Brothers I was introduced to some guy named Billy. We had a discussion, and afterward somebody came up to me and said, “What’d Billy Salomon have to say?” I had just been introduced to the managing partner on a first-name basis! I felt that Salomon Brothers was the place for me. To say I fit in there and loved what I was doing is an understatement. I reveled in it every minute of the day. But the thing is, fifteen years later, they fired me. 

I was fired around the time the company was sold. They assembled an executive committee of seven people that decided who stayed and who went. One of the committee members did not like me – my crime being that I had been the assistant to his nemesis – and he convinced everyone else to vote against me. He was later killed in a plane crash, and the other six members of the executive committee became paying customers of mine.

As somebody once said, “Living well is the best revenge.” 

I don’t remember being too pissed or feeling that bad about being fired. I think I have the same insecurities that everybody else has. The difference is that I don’t let them get in my way. There’s a great scene in the movie The Sting between Paul Newman’s and Robert Redford’s characters. They rob a bank and in the midst of doing this somebody points a gun at Newman. Afterward, Redford asks him if he was scared. Newman replies, “Right down to my boots.”

As long as you can admit things to yourself, you can deal with them and then move on. I don’t lie to myself, but I don’t harp on things and I never, ever look back. If your mind starts to wander to past events, the only advice I can give you is don’t go. Just stop it! Think about something else. If you divert your attention, your mind won’t immediately go back to the unpleasant occurrence, and when it eventually does, simply stop thinking about it again.

That’s how you quit smoking. You don’t have to stop for the rest of your life, just stop for five minutes. Five minutes from now you probably won’t want a cigarette. If you do, force yourself to stop for another five. Eventually, one of these fives will end in not wanting a cigarette. And then one day you’ll think, I’ve come so far  and I don’t want go back.

Had a place like Goldman Sachs called me after I was fired from Salomon and wanted to make me a partner, I would’ve done it. But nobody offered me a job. Thank God for that! I started my own company instead. I like that old Woody Allen quote: “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” You create your own lot in life, and to be successful in business you’ve got to work hard. The more you work, the better you do. It’s that simple. Some people say, “I can’t go into work today.” I’ve never missed a day of work in my life! After I was fired from Salomon, I still had about two months left before I was actually going to leave the firm, but I still never missed a day. In fact, I made sure that I worked six days a week from as early in the morning until as late as I could. I was searching for new office space for myself during that period, but I called the broker and said I could only look on weekends because I didn’t want to take time off during the week. I didn’t want anyone to ever say that I didn’t work 110 percent. I had an ego problem with that.

Be the first one in and the last one out. If you are there early and stay late, you get a chance to talk to people who would not otherwise take your call. I built many relationships by being early. You can call the chairman of the board of almost any company early in the morning. If he’s a good chairman, he’s there. The secretary’s not, so he’ll actually answer the phone. The best time to strike is when gatekeepers aren’t there! When I started developing Bloomberg, I wanted feedback. So every morning I’d arrive at the deli across the street from Merrill Lynch’s headquarters at six a.m. and buy coffee (with and without milk) and tea (with and without milk), plus a few sugars on the side. I’d go up and roam the halls looking to see if there happened to be somebody sitting in their office alone reading a newspaper. I’d walk in and say, “Hi, I’m Mike Bloomberg. I bought you a cup of coffee. I’d just like to bend your ear.” Nobody is going to say, “Get outta here” if you just bought him or her a cup of coffee. When someone would occasionally say, “I don’t drink coffee,” I would say, “Well, then have a tea.”

Over the years, people have come to me and said, “You can’t do everything.” That is total bullshit. You certainly can do everything. The people who do some things can do more. If you need to get something tough done, give it to the most overworked person in your organization. There’s a reason why they’re overworked; they get things done. I have an employee named Patti Harris; she should be written about instead of me. She runs my foundation, she runs the city, she has a husband, they have a great marriage, she’s got a great family (the kids turned out spectacularly), they go on vacations, they ski, they scuba dive. If you go up to her with doubts that something can be accomplished because of this obstacle or that obstacle, she’ll look at you, smile, and say, “That’s nice, just do it,” and walk away.

My parents were my role models. My father was a bookkeeper for a little dairy company. He worked seven days a week until he checked himself into the hospital to die. At that point my mother knew that she would have to start driving. She went to the library, checked out a book on driving, took the car onto our little street, and taught herself how to drive. She got a friend to take her to the DMV, took the test, and got her license. That was it. She just did it. After running Bloomberg for twenty years, I decided it was time to do something different. Time to fire myself. I wanted to turn over the company to others without anyone thinking I was walking away from it. Well, public service is a good excuse, and it’s of great interest to me. People say that government can’t be made to work efficiently and truly serve the people. My response? “Bullshit!” Telling me something’s impossible is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Might as well go for it. So that’s what I’m working toward now.

This is an excerpt from “Getting There: A Book of Mentors” by Gillian Zoe Segal. Find the book here.

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