(Interview conducted by Raul Candeloro)
We continue our exploration of new resources for entrepreneurs focused on building great businesses with this interview we recently conducted with Eric Sinoway, Author of Howard’s Gift. Eric was kind to enough to spend some time talking with us about his experience as an entrepreneur, the inspiration behind Howard’s Gift and what it all means for entrepreneurs in the future.
Eric Sinoway: I’m an entrepreneur. I grew up in a small town in Western New Jersey where I began washing dishes as a kid to earn a bit of spending money. That led me to the Hotel School at Cornell, where I earned my undergraduate degree. Following a variety of entrepreneurial activities, a stint in corporate America, and a time working with a non-profit organization, I earned a “mid-career” masters degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. It was when I was a student at the Kennedy School that I met Howard Stevenson, who eventually became the subject of my book. I worked at Harvard as a fundraiser prior to joining Axcess Worldwide, a company I co-founded with my long-time business partner Kirk Posmantur.
SGC: Now about the book. With already so many books out there about success and fulfillment, what new information does Howard’s Gift offer?
Eric Sinoway: It’s a great question, and I think that any book – including this one – that pretends to “have an answer” to those subjects is probably a bit disingenuous. Howard’s Gift provides perspective and experience from a real person – Howard – who has had the experience of teaching, studying, and learning from thousands of men and women in all fields for over 40 years. The value is in these real world lessons that are shared. Some may resonate more than others with each individual reader. Collectively, I thought that Howard’s wisdom could make a contribution to so many of us that are, as you state, striving for both success and satisfaction.
SGC: Could you give us an example out of Howard’s Gift that reflects your main ideas or concepts?
Eric Sinoway: There are many examples. One is the value of living life forward, which is what Howard would say. He would tell readers that the past is valuable only insofar as it informs how we behave in the future – and not to let past experiences – good or bad – hinder movement forward. A few of the main ideas that especially resonate with me are recognizing the value of inflection points; understanding how to earn what we call a “decent average grade” in all aspects of your life; and the importance of differentiating between cultural stars and cultural vampires in the organizations you run or work in. The last topic was the subject of a Harvard Business Review blog I wrote that apparently caused quite a conversation in cyberspace.
SGC: In a short sentence, what kind of person should read your book? What kind of advice should they be looking for ? Or what kind of problem should they be looking to solve?
Eric Sinoway: The book will resonate with men and women of all ages who are looking to achieve meaning and achievement in their life’s work. That – of course – sounds like all of us. But the truth is that some people are content to simply “have a job.” This book probably isn’t for that reader. It is for the person who – whether just graduating college or at the height of her career looking for the next chapter – is trying to thoughtfully balance the many personal and professional demands and desires in today’s complicated world in order to reach both professional goals and achieve personal fulfillment.
SGC: What’s the first thing you would like a reader to do after finishing Howard’s Gift?
I’d like the reader to think about what it is that he or she would want their children – or, if they don’t have children, their closest friend – to say at their funeral. A morbid thought? We don’t think so. Howard’s Gift argues that the best way to construct a life plan that inspires and empowers is to “start at the end” – to think about what it is that you’d like those who you care about most in the world to say about you when your life is over. Crystalize that picture. Think about it deeply. And then, once a person has it in his or her mind, use that image to guide decisions big and small to chart a career and life in pursuit of it.
SGC: About your work as a consultant?
Eric Sinoway: Axcess Worldwide is a partnership development company. We create inspired ideas and connect extraordinary brands and people. It is a privately held company based in New York with two principals, me and my longtime business partner Kirk Posmantur. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with dozens of leading brands in the travel and hospitality, luxury and lifestyle, and mass consumer brands space to conceive and execute partnerships that drive their businesses. You can visit the site at www.axcessworldwide.com
SGC: What is the biggest mistake you see small business owners making in the areas covered by your book?
Eric Sinoway: Two mistakes. The first is to try to achieve too much in too many areas at once. We say in the book that a person can’t “achieve an A+ in all the areas that most of us value” – as, for example, a parent, a spouse, a boss, an employee or business partner, a community member – at the same time. If you’re going to be starting or growing your own business, the book argues that you need to accept that you’ll have to get a “lower grade” – meaning less focus and time – in many areas of your life into order to succeed – to get an “A” – in this one. The second mistake is trying to do it alone. Whether it is having a business partner like I do or actively engaging what we call an IBOD – an Individual Board of Directors – to help, a small business owner is well served by assembling a team of some sort. Sole proprietorship is hard.
SGC: What suggestions would you give them to improve? Where should they start?
Eric Sinoway: Look at those who have been there. I often wonder why people don’t take advantage of those who have been down the road they are traveling. It sounds so simple, but why not find a mentor? Get someone who will actively engage with you. Howard says that “you don’t have to run every experiment yourself” – find someone who has seen the play in which you are acting and ask him or her to help you. I’ve benefited immeasurably from Howard’s wisdom and also that of role models and mentors like Mike Leven, Henry Rosovsky, Chip Conley, and others.
SGC: What about managers? In general, what do you think they should STOP doing if they wanted to improve their results?
Eric Sinoway: First, I think they shouldn’t focus on results. Don’t reward results. Results = performance + luck. Think about it. We all know someone who “succeeded” not necessarily because they were the smartest or the most talented, but because of a large degree of luck. Similarly, we probably know people who seemingly “did everything right” and still failed because of something out of their control – because of bad luck. Howard and I argue that leaders should focus on performance, which we define as skill + effort. Those two elements – skill and effort – are largely within a person’s control, whereas rewarding simply results, regardless of how it was generated, invariably takes luck into the consideration.
SGC: Anything they should start doing more?
Eric Sinoway: Start focusing on partnerships. In today’s hyper competitive environment, it is very hard to survive and thrive alone. Try to find another organization with assets or capabilities that are complimentary. Can you share leads? Might there be benefit to joint customer retention efforts? Is there a product that can be developed together? Mike Leven, the iconic President & COO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, told me that he begins every negotiation by asking the other party “how is this good for you?” Find someone who answers that question in a manner that enables you to effectively collaborate.
SGC: After all the research you did for Howard’s Gift and based on all your experience in this area, what kind advice you see out there that you disagree with – think is wrong and makes you mad when you hear someone giving it?
Eric Sinoway: I tend to react poorly to those who represent that they have the absolute answer on something, especially when it relates to management or human interaction. In some areas like hard science, there may be a binary “right or wrong” answer. In general I’ve found that rarely is “a right answer” so clear or singular for most of us. Much of life is grey. Over 40 years at Harvard Business School, Howard has come to appreciate that nobody has the monopoly on the truth. Given the totality of the circumstances, the best most of us can do is make the most informed, well-intentioned decision we can. Sometimes it turns out to be effective; sometimes, in retrospect, we wish we had decided something differently.
SGC: Any additional comments or thoughts for our readers?
The final comment is about the context of the book. Six years ago, Howard Stevenson experienced what is called unattended cardiac arrest – a type of massive heart attack – after three doctors told him that they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. The heart attack should have killed him in the middle of the Harvard campus. A series of inexplicable, remarkable events transpired that saved his life. Every day since he survived has been what Howard calls a “bonus day.” It has been one of the great honors of my life to capture and share Howard and his wisdom with readers. This is a special project about a special man, and I hope people enjoying reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. Proceeds from the book are directed to Harvard and to the cardiac unit at Mt. Auburn Hospital – where Howard’s life was saved – in Howard’s honor.
SGC: Want to get in contact with Eric? His information is included below. Thanks!
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Website: www.howardsgift.com
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/eric.c.sinoway
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/EricSinoway