Had I been running this blog years ago, you would have seen Laura on a consistent basis. She was the Assistant Dean of Student Life and adviser to the Student Government Association back when we were in college. The lessons I learned from Laura were about people and human relationships. I am a better man for having worked with her for two wonderful, fantastic years. Besides Diana Crane, she is one of a handful of people in the world that fundamentally reshaped the way in which Aaron and I saw, navigated, and understood functioning systems (such as an organization, which is made up of people) both in our personal lives and in our career.
We were supposed to have coffee several days ago but that was when I was facing the brunt of my cold or flu, was locked in a hotel room with the shades drawn, and sleeping all day and night. Aaron rescheduled for us and Laura fit us in this morning at a little diner in New Jersey, where I had scrambled eggs, sausage, orange juice, and coffee.
During college, Laura was a very important and valuable restraint on my ambition. Sometimes, I can be a force of nature. I’m trying to put that lightly but if I get something in my mind that needs to get done, I become almost obsessive about achieving it and will move heaven and earth for it to happen. Normally, that is good, but, at the time, I was too young and inexperienced to factor in the importance of how human relationships must be a vital variable in that calculus.
Laura helped me temper this by teaching two lessons: 1.) Be kinder than necessary, and 2.) Weigh the personal relationship costs of your decisions and decide whether you are willing to live with them. She may say, “Yes, Joshua, you can get what you want and achieve your goal by doing this. But it will cost you a relationship with [insert person’s name here] and cause animosity down the road. Is that worth it to you? Is this a cost you are willing to pay? If so, that’s fine but you need to make your decision consciously.” She’d never make you feel bad and would let you come to your own conclusion but she made you openly acknowledge, think about, and commit to the real cost of your actions so you couldn’t lament them later. Go into your decisions with your eyes wide open and be willing to accept the price of those decisions.
Also, just by observing how she worked, Laura made me realize the importance of having people like her, who create environments for change, progress, and success to happen. I call these people “cultural facilitators”. The single most important asset or liability of any institution, including a business, is the culture. It was the culture at Apple, put in place by Steve Jobs, that led to its success and the release of huge blockbuster products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It was the culture of value investing and conservatism at Berkshire Hathaway that makes that company special and willing to take advantage of opportunities others didn’t. You cannot shape the culture without putting the right people and incentive systems in place and, just as importantly, removing those that are a problem (e.g., it was the culture of the North American Catholic church that facilitated so much horrific child abuse).
We talked with her about some of the choices facing us at the company, the pros and cons of starting different types of investment vehicles, and other things. Then, we heard about her new job running a leadership program, which seems like such a natural fit for her talents. It was just a great breakfast. Seeing all these people from our startup days, who helped make both Aaron and me better men, makes me grateful that we lived in this country, at this time, with the opportunities we had. I’m just so thankful that along the way, we’ve been able to have these wonderful people come into our lives and help shape the story.