‘Work Smarts’: Betty Liu on How to Succeed in Your Career

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Bloomberg news anchor Betty Liu has often been asked by young people how she gained such success in her career. In trying to provide answers, she realized she had her own questions about how to continue to advance her career. Those questions ultimately led her to reach out to CEOs from some of the most successful companies for their thoughts on what it takes to succeed. Wharton management professor Adam Grant recently talked with Liu about her new book, which grew out of this process, Work Smarts: What CEOs Say You Need to Know to Get Ahead. In this interview, Liu shares insights from some of those she spoke with, including JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, AOL’s Susan Lyne and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Grant: Betty, welcome. What motivated you to write this book?

Betty Liu: When I’ve been at conferences and events, young people [say], “Betty, you’re so successful. Please give me some advice about what I can do with my career.” I got enough of those questions that I started to think to myself, there is this great need. I’m sure you see it all the time, Adam: young people who want to get career advice. They want some direction. But what was funny was that while they were asking me these questions, I kept saying to myself, I have these same questions. I want to know what to do with my career. I don’t feel all that successful. I still want to know these very basic questions: how to make your boss happy, how to ask for a raise, how to stand out and how to shine.

I thought, if I still have these questions in the middle of my career, then other people must have those same questions. So, who do I ask then? I began to think, the best people to ask are the people who are at the very top of their careers. Those would be the CEOs that I talk to every day on our program on Bloomberg. All of that jelled, and then … my agent and I put together the proposal and sent it to the publisher. That’s the genesis….

Grant: You got to talk to many interesting people in the business world. What were the most surprising insights that you received?

Liu: First of all, I was very surprised at the number of people who said yes to the interview. I thought some people might not want to reveal all the dirty secrets of how they got ahead. The second thing was how frank people were about their struggles. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan, was really open about his fight with Sandy Weill, his mentor at Citigroup. It got to the point where Sandy eventually fired him. That was a huge controversy during the time when it happened. Enough years have passed that Jamie felt he could talk about it. He was really very open about that moment in his life. He said he went home and told his daughters, “I got fired.” He said it was really strange to go from 90 miles per hour to zero for the first time.

“Many of them did feel that the mistakes that they have made were just as important as the successes, and, in fact, probably even more important.”

That was the same with other CEOs [who spoke] about the mistakes they made. Susan Lyne at AOL said [she] made the huge mistake [of thinking] just because it was a great idea, it’s a great business….I was just surprised at how people were very honest and genuine about their failures.

Grant: Is that easy to do because they are now back on the top, or have they been this way all along?

Liu: I think it’s easier because they are back on the top. It’s obviously a lot harder if you’re still in that position, but I also felt that they would have mentioned it anyway; it’s a part of the fabric of who they are. Many of them did feel that the mistakes that they have made were just as important as the successes, and, in fact, probably even more important….

Grant: Based on the folks you spoke with, how do you make the mistakes productive or into learning opportunities?

Liu: People fail all the time. I can even point to this book project. The number of book proposals I’ve had out there outweighs the number of books that I’ve actually written by ten-fold. For every success, there are about a dozen failures behind that. How do you take that then into your everyday life? What I’ve found is much of it is about attitude. How do you bounce back? How you bounce back is more important than the failure itself.

If you have that positive attitude — Adam, you are a perennial optimist as well — it can mean such a difference to the path of your career versus being taken down by it and wallowing in that mistake….

Grant: Is there a counterintuitive piece of advice that you picked up through this process?

Liu: I don’t know about counterintuitive, but there was a great piece of insight that Sam Zell, the real estate mogul from Chicago, said to me that really made me rethink what a big organization is really about. He said, as an entrepreneur, [he needs] as much information as possible. In a big corporation, people use information as currency. So they trade it. The more information a person has, the more power that person has in a big organization. But, he said, in a small company or an entrepreneurial environment, if you’re keeping a piece of information away from [him], then you’re damaging [his] company because [he needs] to make decisions quickly and [he needs] to make them with as much information as possible.

He told me a story about a woman who he hired from a major corporation. He said she was an overachiever. He said she was a star all the way through her career. Nine months after she joined his organization, he fired her. He said it was because she used the same practice of using information as currency. When he told me that, I thought, “Geez, how many big companies have I worked for where I have seen that happen?” I have done the same thing. I have committed the same crime of using information to get information from other people and using information and hoarding it so that I have power over colleagues. I thought, “That is such a great observation, and I need to check myself….” Organizations talk about transparency, but it’s the execution of it that really matters.

Grant: It’s something we have all faced. You come across a piece of knowledge that seems to be unique to you. Do you use it for your own benefit, or do you try to share it for some kind of collective gain?

Liu: Jay Samit, who is founder of a company called ooVoo, and I were having coffee and talking about this book. Because he’s a perennial entrepreneur, I asked, “How do you come up with ideas? When you come up with ideas, what do you do with them?” He said every person’s job is to make sure not to hoard an idea they have but to give that idea to everybody else. I said, “But people say, `I have an idea and I want to keep it and I don’t want anybody to know about it.’” He said, “Your job is to kill your idea…. Beat it up, find every single [reason] why that idea is a bad idea. What you come out with at the end is the actual idea.”

When he told me that, I thought, “Wow.” Everyone has a different reaction. They all think they have to keep their idea secret and only release it at a time that they feel is the proper time. But he was saying, absolutely not. Just broadcast it; many people have great ideas, but very few actually follow up on them. So if you’re the rare person who follows up, you’re way ahead of the game.

“For every success, there are about a dozen failures behind that…. How you bounce back is more important than the failure itself.”

Grant: There’s a fascinating cast of characters in this book. If you think through the different interviews that you did, are there one or two people who stand out as the most interesting?

Liu: Sam Zell is a fascinating character, and Warren Buffett, of course. I’ve interviewed Buffett about a dozen times so far in my career, and he’s always very, very interesting….[I interviewed Jamie Dimon] at the height of the London Whale fiasco. I had a little bit of a curiosity [about if he was] more down from everything. He was true to form. He knew he had to be on, but he was still Jamie Dimon: “I’m going to get through this, and I’m going to get this company through this.”

[AIG’s] Bob Benmosche was a really interesting interview…. He had a lot of insights about what it was like not to be poor, but almost on the brink of bankruptcy when he was younger, when his father passed away.

Grant: You said you were surprised that so many people actually said yes to these interviews. One thing that I wonder about is if you didn’t have the history and the relationship with them, if you weren’t at Bloomberg. What can we learn from a successful journalist about how to actually get access to somebody whose ideas are so important?

Liu: It’s funny you mention that, Adam, because, yes, the Bloomberg platform helps. The fact that I’ve been in this career for so long also helps. Part of my motivation for a book like this is to let people know that access to people like Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett and Bob Benmosche and Sallie Krawcheck [is not unattainable]…. It’s being able to go to them with the right question and the right proposal. And any one of them would be accessible to anybody. That was a motivation for the book: Here’s the access. You can gain that access if you try and you just apply your energy to it.

Grant: Tell us how.

Liu: Good ideas. Good questions. Hard work to find their correct contact info. I do believe in six degrees of separation. You can always find somebody who knows someone who knows someone who knows that person. That kind of skill is so important in whatever profession you are in — whether it is journalism or you’re an entrepreneur or you’re a banker and or you’re a professor. But once you get in the door, it’s important to really think carefully. How do you approach that person? What’s your compelling opening to them? People, for instance, email me. There’s a big difference between e-mailing me because they have read something that I’ve written … versus, “Hi, my name is such and such, and could you help me with something?” I’m sure, Adam, you get tons of emails like that, too. There are different approaches, and some are more effective than others.

“You can always find somebody who knows someone who knows someone who knows that person. That kind of skill is so important in whatever profession you are in.”

Grant: There’s no doubt about that. I think it’s interesting that you were encouraged to write a book on career advice that you would offer and you turned to other people and curated their advice. But if you do look back on your own career and think about how your view of what it takes to succeed has changed over the past few years, what do you know now that you hadn’t thought about before?

Liu: My parents taught me, “You have to work hard. You have to know your stuff, do your research.” When I left college and I started out, that was my focus: work hard, do all my research…. As I’ve gotten older and older … I’ve learned that relationships really matter. That being likeable really matters…. Those things are also almost as important, and maybe even more so, than just being a really excellent writer or a really great show host.

Now it’s more about [the question] what about the people around me? How do I lift them up so that then I will also be lifted up? How do I make sure I’m adding to them every day? How do I give to them, so they will give back to me?

Grant: Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of that particular message.

Liu: I know. Yes.

Grant: In closing, if you think about the different ways that you try to help or give back to others, is there a favorite that stands out?

Liu: When I’m on the program and I’m doing my interviews or I’m reporting information, I always hope that I’m teaching somebody something, that I’m giving them information that they couldn’t have gotten before anywhere else or that it’s analysis that they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else…. I try to mentor as many people as I can — young people who come up to me and say, “I would like to be in television” or “I would like to do journalism.” Many of them come up to me and say, “What should I do?”

I would love to do more of that. As I continue with this book, I’m hoping that I get to parse out some of that information and be able to distribute that to other people so that something clicks for them and it changes the way they view their careers.

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