Alternate title: How My Boss’s Motivational Talk Convinced Me to Quit
I often get asked how I ended going from New York management consulting to working for Prince Alwaleed in the Middle East. It was a pretty big career move. But it was actually a more of a gut decision. And I think there is a good (or at least interesting) career lesson in it.
Here’s the story:
I joined Booz-Allen’s New York office after medical school. It was my first business job and management consulting was a good way to get some training. And for 2-3 years, doing financial services in Manhattan was a good, if not exactly thrilling, experience.
But by year three, I was having misgivings. I liked the people I worked with but there was a blandness to life at big client service firms. Lots of client project churn. Not much thrill. It didn’t suit me. I generally prefer being in small groups (20-50) of aggressive people. And I don’t like wearing a suit very much.
Then one day the global CEO of Booz-Allen came to meet the New York office. And he gave a motivational speech that convinced me to quit.
It was a corporate event at 101 Park Avenue (the same building George Costanza worked at in Seinfeld and which Captain America crashes into in the Avengers). We all filed down to the big conference room. And after some food, the CEO arrived and took the podium. He thanked us for coming and said he wanted to talk about the company and its future.
Then he did something which I have never forgotten. He said he thought he had expressed himself better at a previous event. So instead of talking to us, we should just watch a video of his past talk. He then left the stage, sat down in the audience with us and the staff put on a video of him speaking.
For the next +20 minutes, we (the client staff, the admin staff and the CEO) all sat and watched a video of him giving a motivational talk at some other event. That was the moment I decided to quit. Actually, the thought running through my head was “this is the dumbest thing I have ever seen”.
The video ended with a shot of an eagle flying and some cheesy music (something to do with flying high in life). The CEO got back up on stage and took some questions. He then left for the DC office. I went back up to my office and began planning my exit.
A quick aside.
There is often-repeated Warren Buffett advice that you should do what you love in life. If you do, you will be more effective and you will never really work a day in your life.
I think this is completely true. But I also think most people don’t really have work they love that much. I certainly didn’t at that point in my life. So what do you do if you haven’t yet found something you really love to do?
My best answer to this (and my frequent advice to my students) is, absent loving your work, you should go work for the best and brightest people you can find. It will make you smarter. And it will put you in situations with lots of opportunities, as the best people all tend to know each other. Absent knowing what you love, working for the best and brightest is a good default strategy.
Listening to the CEO that day, I realized I was neither doing a job I loved nor working for the best and brightest. Hence my spur of the moment decision to quit.
That thought was 80% of how I ended up moving to the Middle East and working for Prince Alwaleed. He was a client so there was a relationship. And I just jumped from a consulting engagement to some short-term work for him directly. The first project was looking at a struggling hospital. It was a leap of faith really. I exited my likely partner track in New York for a 3-4 month contract in Riyadh.
I decided I wanted to work for the best of the best. That was it. And I didn’t care where in the world I had to go to do that or under what circumstances. So I ended up in Saudi Arabia almost randomly. At that time, Alwaleed was the world’s fourth richest person and he had turned $30k into $31B mostly by using just his brain and a phone. That was proof enough for me to take the leap. I took a 3 month contract and moved from New York to the Middle East. That initial project grew into 8-9 years of work.
And, thankfully, after several years at the center of the Alwaleed whirlwind, I had my Warren Buffett “do what you love” epiphany. I found that doing healthcare and consumer investments – and writing and teaching about it was my thing (Note: I wrote this article in Nairobi, Bangkok and Beijing). Now I study the great global investors (Alwaleed, Jorge Lemann, Warren Buffett etc.) and then do a smaller, healthcare versions of their strategies. It completely fascinates me. And I virtually never stop thinking about my topics. And per Warren Buffett, I have not really worked a day since.
Thanks for reading. – jeff
I write and speak about digital China and Asia’s latest tech trends.
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