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A Lesson from a Great Corporate Leader

From 1986 to 1989, I had the distinct pleasure of working with the former CEO of the ITT Corporation, Harold Geneen. Geneen was the CEO of ITT for 18 years, and during his tenure, he invented the international corporate conglomerate by acquiring over 250 companies, including Avis, Sheraton, and Hartford Life, to name a few. He had hired my former partner and me to help build some investment and insurance products for a life insurance company that he purchased after retiring from the ITT board of directors at age 76.

When I visited Hal's office in New York's Waldorf Astoria, I was always humbled by the photographs hanging on the walls of his conference room. In front of me were pictures of Hal with every president dating back to Harry S. Truman. But it wasn't the pictures on the wall or the incredibly rich corporate legacy Hal left behind that impressed me the most. It was how Hal broke information down into small digestible pieces that wowed me. He had an uncanny thirst for understanding, not just a thirst for knowledge.

For a two-year period, I met with Hal twice monthly at the insurance company in Chicago and at the holding company in New York. The meetings at the insurance company were with all the heads of the various departments and the senior management of the company. I was always impressed by the way Hal ran these meetings. Since Hal did not grow up in the insurance business, he only had a cursory understanding of how products were designed, priced, and managed. To compensate for his lack of industry knowledge, he would ask a lot of questions. If a manager gave a report on a subject that Hal was not informed on, he would not let the manager proceed with the presentation until Hal clearly understood enough of the subject matter so he could make an intelligent decision.

Interesting Fact

Harold Geneen was a feared corporate leader. His toughness was legendary, and in the famous 1976 movie Network, Ned Beatty played a character patterned after Geneen. A famous scene from the movie is actually filmed in the ITT boardroom, the only boardroom at the time that could seat over 100 people.

I learned a fundamental lesson from Hal that I will never forget: There is no such thing as a stupid question. I also learned you can't let your ego get in the way of understanding what you need to know to make an informed decision. Let's take this a step further because we often think to ask the immediate question on our mind, but we may not grasp the entire concept. If you don't have an understanding of the concept, the answer to a specific question may be of little value to you in the long run. It's not that people ask the wrong questions; typically, they don't ask enough of the right questions. There is a fine line we have to manage between collecting information pertinent to the subject and collecting information that is superfluous. Don't be afraid to ask what all good reporters ask: who, what, why, when, and where! We'll cover specific questions as they relate to your retirement plan throughout the book.

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