In my career, I have the great fortune to work with many smart business leaders. At times, someone said something that stuck with me and I’ve found many situations to recall these gems. Here are five useful lessons I’ve learned in my business career:
- “A good idea is something that will result in lower costs or increased revenue. Anything else is just an idea.” Gordon Bethune, as CEO of Continental Airlines, would use this line when someone would say “I have a good idea.” The brilliance of it shows how focused and prioritized Gordon is, and how he expected the company to think. Every time I hear someone say “I have a good idea,” I hear Gordon’s voice with this careful qualification.
- “The fastest way to stop losing money is to stop doing things that lose money.” This made people chuckle when John Dasburg, then CEO of Northwest Airlines, reminded people of one of the most fundamental tenants of business that is often overlooked. Airlines often continue to operate routes that haven’t been profitable for years, just as other businesses stick with products or services that don’t generate revenues needed to cover their costs. When looking at a business that is underperforming, this simple idea is the first and best way to attack that problem.
- “You have to have fun and make money. Making money with no fun leads to a lonely life. Having fun without making money doesn’t last long.” Federico Bloch, the charismatic and full of energy visionary for Latin American aviation, told me this and I saw how much he lived this idea. Federico was one of the smartest and hardest working people I ever knew, yet could laugh at situations and himself, and knew how to blend good fun into his busy life. His was a flame that was extinguished prematurely, but his joyful and engaging personality touched all that ever knew him.
- “Worry a lot about numbers that you multiply by hundreds and thousands. Worry less about numbers you multiply by one.” During the 1990’s turnaround at Continental Airlines, Greg Brenneman was a driving force for change and someone who would dig deeply into details but stay focused on the broader picture. I learned this from him in the context of recruiting someone whose market position suggested we would need to pay more than we budgeted, but the application for this rule extends far beyond that example. Greg and Gordon made a powerful two-person punch that created enormous value for all Continental stakeholders.
- “If it feels good, don’t say it.” This short but powerful statement was told to me by Jerry Glass, a master labor negotiator, when we worked together at US Airways. Said in the context of a tough negotiation, this phrase has stuck with me in many situations at work and at home. In a business context, this quip should be learned by everyone.