First off, I hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving and spending time with loved ones, away from spreadsheets and email.
This week I had a conversation with Mark Lurie, the CEO and founder of Lofty. But more importantly than his current title or company, Mark is a good friend and has been for many years. Getting on the phone felt great. Unlike many conversations I have with people in the technology world, a conversation with Mark is never transactional. He’s genuinely interested in hearing what others are up to, can appreciate concepts and conversation outside his areas of expertise, and always has thoughtful advice to offer. Basically, he’s a pleasure.
So naturally, when I hung up the phone, I thought to myself that he remains a friend that I’d do almost anything to help. He hasn’t really ever asked for anything. But if it did come down to it, I’d be there.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about that interaction and the feeling it left me with a lot. As I do, it keeps bringing me back to a lesson a professor of mine once, Willy, imparted on me. He would regularly remind us that “a career has a very long tail.” 20 or 30 years down the line, someone you’d never expect might make all the difference to you. Whether professionally or personally, he drove home the fact that you never know how people will help you in the long run.
At the time, I thought that Willy’s motive for reminding us about this fact was to keep us from being conniving, manipulative, and greedy. He wanted to keep us from being the stereotypical MBAs that are represented in movies about Wall Street Bankers. And surely, there were some people in the classroom who were at risk of becoming just that.
Now, I realize that Willy was actually offering advice in the positive, not the negative. He was articulating from experience the value of acting like Mark. When you’re a “good guy,” when you’re the type of person who listens to other people, supports them for no reason other than the act of helping, and are genuinely a pleasure to be around, you’ve got people in your corner.
This seems pretty straightforward. Be a good person and get treated well. But the reality of business is that we often see people act poorly and get rewarded immediately. Some folks steal meetings or leads from their colleagues. Some folks regularly “forget” to include folks on important email chains. Some people gossip behind the backs of their coworkers to make themselves look better. All of these things might help on a short time horizon. As long as no one notices, you might benefit from the act of being a horrible human being.
Over the long term, however, people always notice.
In technology, I actually see this phenomenon play out pretty regularly. Some investors are constantly out there to help entrepreneurs. They want to change the world for the better regardless of whether they make out like bandits. And over and over those are the folks I see entrepreneurs seek out. Why? Because people sing their praises and push others in their direction.
The same goes for operators. Some people invest immeasurable time in training, mentorship, and helping employees find great places to go when they’ve outgrown their roles. With no clear expectation of return, it’s easy to see the real benefits that accrue. Those are the operators that young prodigies want to work with. Those are the managers that people will work relentlessly and pull all nighters to support.
Every day each of us has countless opportunities to act like Mark. Countless opportunities to be genuinely wonderful human beings. Acting like an asshole might help you in a short term sprint to a closed contract or your next promotion. But in the marathon that is your career, it always weighs you down. Your career has a long tail. More importantly, your life has a long tail. You’d be wise to remember that.