Prioritize great people over great companies

Some people know what they want to be early on in their career. They are lucky. To them I say — if you know what you want to be be in the future, start doing it now. The best training for doing any job is doing that job.

I didn’t have that clarity early in my career. I started as a business analyst at McKinsey and enjoyed it. I was good at my job, but so were all of my peers. But I was lucky in that I got to work with three incredible people over the course of the next ten years. They showed me what “great” looked like, they mentored me, they gave me opportunities, and they had careers that were rocketships. I was able to slipstream behind them and rise in rank and responsibility far faster than I could have otherwise.

The first of these three people was Charles Conn. Charles was one of the partners that I worked for at McKinsey. Charles was widely regarded as incredibly smart among a group of incredibly smart people. He had a reputation for being tough on teams, but man was he good.

Charles left McKinsey to start CitySearch in 1995, at the dawn of the internet. I called him and asked him if I could come too. He said sure. And a few months later I found myself moving to the US and working for one of the first internet companies, which. Charles took public in 1999.

Charles taught me that great leaders walk the walk. He understood that as the founder and CEO, he set an example for all of us to follow. He demonstrated the startup work ethic by being the first guy in the office every morning and the last to leave. He demonstrating startup frugality by building his own desk out of a door and a couple of filing cabinets. He demonstrated the importance of being close to the customer by going on sales calls every month.

Charles is now Warden of Rhodes House — he was a Rhodes Scholar himself — and he runs the Rhodes Scholarship program worldwide.

The second of these people was Dara Khosrowshahi. When I was looking for a summer internship during Business School, Charles recommended me to Dara. At the time, Dara was SVP of Strategic Planning at USA Networks, and a close advisor to the CEO, Barry Diller. He was still in his 20s. When I graduated I came back to work for Dara again, as VP of Strategic Planning. I worked for Dara on the purchase of Expedia and Hotels.com, among other big transactions while at USA Networks (which eventually was renamed IAC). What I admired most about Dara was that he paired a towering intellect with an authentic human kindness. The entertainment industry is known for being full of sharks and tough characters. In this environment Dara was an anomaly. He had a reputation for being a highly ethical, trustworthy and fair negotiator, and this served him incredibly well. Even in the most contentious situations, because Dara was so highly regarded by the other side, and liked by them as a person, he was able to find ways to bridge gaps and get deals done. He understood that business is a repeat game, when many in the entertainment business look to optimize each transaction. EQ paired with IQ. This serves as a great example for me that I aspire to every day.

Dara eventually became the CFO of IAC in 2002. Today Dara is CEO of Expedia.

The third of these career mentors was Jon Miller. I met Jon at IAC where he ran a number of different divisions, and was eventually promoted to President. In 2002 he was appointed CEO of AOL in his mid 40s. I followed him there as his Chief of Staff and SVP of Corporate Development. I worked closely with him as he managed the transition of AOL from a subscription dial-up service into a content company. Jon’s superpower is his ability to see around corners as industries evolve . He must make a formidable chess player because he was always thinking three steps ahead and working through the wider implications of any strategy or development. Jon’s deeper ability enabled him to always skate to where the puck was going to be. And with his trust and support, I took my first P&L role, as GM of Netscape.

After leaving AOL, Jon led Newscorp’s Digital efforts.

These three mentors substantially helped me build my career. If you don’t know exactly what you want to do, I would urge you to also follow great people, and to prioritize that over choosing a company or an industry.

But to make this strategy work you need to do three things right:

I was very lucky to have these three mentors. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them.

Thank you Charles. Thank you Dara. Thank you Jon. Without a doubt, the three of you massively helped me develop personally and professionally.

We don’t say thank you enough. If you have a mentor who has helped you, thank them today, publicly or on Twitter.

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