A Billionaire’s Advice: Owners & Temps

In 1999, I sold my telecommunications firm, GeoPath.Net to a billionaire, Robert Friedland. 

More than the money, what I valued most from Robert was his sage advice during the time I worked with him.  After the sale, I led the charge on building out his wireless telecoms network in Asia.

One night over dinner, he leaned over and in a low voice  told me, “Rob, there’s only two kinds of people in this world…owners & temps.” 

That kinda blew me away at the time.  He went on to explain that you either own something or work for someone else.  And whatever you choose to do, you have to own it.  Be accountable.  Responsible.  Do what you have to do to be the best that you can be.

During the past 20 years since, I often think of that quote (Robert had many!) and how it can be applied to our work and daily lives.  I will break down some of the finer points:

  1.  Teams & Leaders:  I learned this one in Kenya while building my telecoms network.  That was tough work!  The local Africans taught me this:  there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.  I was forced to lead from the front.  I recall volunteering myself to climb a 250-foot radio tower in a jungle thunderstorm to attach a lightning arrestor device to the top of the tower. 

I remember looking down at the top thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing up here?’  But after that spectacular display of bad judgment, I never had any issues in asking the local Africans to do something dangerous.  I had already done it.  And if Rob can do it, anyone can do it!

  • Egos & Pride:  My general manger, Gilbert Arum, used to tell the local African staff, ‘Leave the egos at home before you show up for work in the morning.’  He was right.  Egos cloud and color everything you do.  It disrupts planning, accepting and giving criticism.  Everyone wants to be the “best of the best”, but being the “best that one can be” is a lot more productive and conducive to building a great team.
  • Prioritize & Execute:  I learned this the hard way while building Robert’s telecommunication network in Indonesia in 1999.  Upon arrival, we encountered one problem after another regarding licensing, supplies, bad weather, equipment, and the local work force.  Robert told me one night, “Rob, list all the issues and problems, prioritize, and then let’s attack.”

Robert was correct, we were taking on too many problems at once.  Once, I tackled the most important and difficult problems in order of priority, my life became a lot better.  One at a time we knocked it out. 

  • Work the Plan:  Once we had a well thought out game plan, the rest was relatively easy.  It was actually very liberating to just follow the plan each and every day.  We made minor revisions as the operational environment dictated, but, all in all, we finished on time and on budget. 

Lessons Learned from this:

  1. Lead by example.
  2. Check your ego at the door.
  3. Identify and prioritize your issues.
  4. Plan the work and then work the plan.
  5. Don’t take on too much.  This never works.
  6. If these principles worked in African and Indonesia, it will work in your place of work.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and feedback. 

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