Top execs share their advice

One of the questions I am often asked is “how to get ahead.”  I thought it might be helpful to share some lessons from top U.S. executives:

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway:  “You follow your passions.  You find something you love.  The truth is, so few people really jump on their jobs, you really will stand out more than you think.  You will get noticed if you really go for it.”

Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks:  “I don’t think it matters how small or how big the task is, if you can do it just a little bit better than what is expected, you will be noticed and rewarded.”

Keith Wandell, recently retired CEO, Harley-Davidson:  “Just stay true to your values and your principles.”

Helena Foulkes, president, CVS Pharmacy:  “So I love to run.  I like to run long distances.  And I think a lot of times making business decisions is like being a marathoner.  In other words, you know what the finish line is that you really want to get to but, along the way, it’s not always pure joy.  There are really hard moments.  But if you keep your eye on the prize, it’s part of what drives you to get there.”

John Gainor, CEO and president, International Dairy Queen:  “I think it’s very important that you don’t want work to be work.  It has to be something that you can enjoy.  And if you find that, you can build a great career and enjoy what you’re doing.  But I think the other thing is equally as important, and that is you need to treat every employee no different than how you want to be treated.  Every person in an organization or in a store, their job is critical.”


Meg Whitman, president and CEO, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise:  “Be clear what matters most.  And what matters most is your family.  There are tradeoffs that you will make, but remember, at the end of the day that is probably the most important group of people in your lives, and that has been true for me from day one.  Do something that you love.  We spend a lot of time at work … if you find yourself in a company where you’re being asked to do something that you don’t think is right or you’re feeling uncomfortable about the leadership and the direction of the company, run, do not walk, for the doors.”

Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO, IBM:  “Never protect the past.  If you never protect the past, I think … you will be willing to never love [it] so much [that] you won’t let it go, either.  Never define yourself as a product and, in fact, I would augment it; never define yourself by your competition, either.  If you live and define yourself by your product or competition, you will lose sight of who your customer is.”

Adam Goldstein, president and COO, Royal Caribbean Cruises:  “Try to stay in one place….  That’s not really very realistic in today’s day and age, but there are so many advantages if you can have a long and fulfilling career at one place.  The relationships that you have with the people are very, very special.  Your knowledge of the business, the industry, the different departments, what’s going on in the company, the lingo – I find it very fulfilling.”

Kirk Kinsell, president and CEO, Loews Hotels & Resorts:   “Don’t take yourself seriously because no one else will.  That points back to my leadership style.  I oftentimes tell people my favorite subject is me . . . and then I explain it to them and say, ‘The reason why it’s my favorite subject is because I invest in myself and understand who I am because I strongly believe I can’t lead.  I can’t work on others unless I know myself.’”

Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors:  “Do something you are passionate about; do something you love.  If you are doing something you are passionate about, you are just naturally going to succeed, and a lot of other things will happen that you don’t need to worry about.”

Eric Schmitt, executive chairman, Alphabet (formerly Google):  “Find a way to say yes to things . . . a new country, to meet new friends, to learn something new.  Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids.”


Mackay’s Moral:  Learn from the best to get ahead of the rest.

Preparation will win the day

I have written seven bestselling business books, and the title of each of them could have been “Prepare to Win.”

My publishers never thought that was a catchy enough title to help sell books, particularly business books, so I went with “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” “Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt” and so on.

But the real message of all of them, plus this nationally syndicated column, is the same:  “prepare to win.”  In my own way, I was preparing to win the bookselling challenge by finding a title that would make readers want to find out more.

Life is all about preparation.  Preparation is all about hard work, sacrifice, discipline, organization, consistency, practicing the right concepts and more.

I subscribe to the wisdom of legendary professional football coach Vince Lombardi who said, “The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.”

Many people have the will to win, but they aren’t willing to put in the hard work and time required to become great at something.  What makes this even more challenging is that preparation is not a one-time thing.  You can’t prepare to win once and then just let success flow.  Great performers possess the will to prepare to win over and over again.

If you are unprepared to meet a challenge, you have little chance of succeeding.  Or as Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”


And if you aren’t convinced yet, here are some thoughts from others who understood the importance of preparation:

Thomas Edison said:  “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.  I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”

Oprah Winfrey:  “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”

Confucius:  “In all things, success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation, there is sure to be failure.”

Dumas Malone tells the story of how Thomas Jefferson handled the first meeting to decide the organization of the future University of Virginia. The University had been Jefferson’s idea, but many others came forward with their own interests and agendas.

Jefferson showed up with meticulously prepared architectural drawings, detailed budgets for construction and operation, a proposed curriculum, and the names of specific faculty he wanted.

No one else was even remotely prepared.  The group essentially had to capitulate to Jefferson’s vision.  The University was eventually founded more or less in accordance with Jefferson’s plan.

Preparation pays off again.

A farmer who owned land along the Atlantic seacoast constantly advertised for hired hands.  Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic because they dreaded the awful storms that raged across the ocean, wreaking havoc on buildings and crops.  As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals.  Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer.

“Are you a good farmhand?” the farmer asked him.

“Well, I can sleep when the wind blows,” answered the man.  Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired the man.  The man worked well around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man’s work.  Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore.  Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand’s sleeping quarters.  He shook the man and yelled, “Get up!  A storm is coming!  Tie things down before they blow away!”

The man rolled over in bed and said firmly, “No sir.  I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.”

The farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot.  He hurried outside to prepare for the storm.  To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarps.  The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops and the shutters were tightly secured.  Everything was tied down.  Nothing could blow away.

The farmer then understood what his hired hand meant, so he returned to his bed so he could also sleep while the wind blew.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t blow it … prepare to win.

Give your self-confidence the boost you need

Walt Disney used to talk about the four Cs to success in life – curiosity, confidence, courage and consistency.  He believed that if you applied these four Cs to your life, you could accomplish practically anything.

But there was one C that Walt said was the greatest of all – confidence.  He said, “When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”

When people think of Walt Disney – the man – they think of success and the empire he created.  But that wasn’t the case for Walt early on.  He was anything but successful.  He had several business failures and was told by an editor at the Kansas City Star newspaper that he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

ConfidenceMaybe that’s why confidence was so important to him.  He certainly was no quitter.

Self-confidence is extremely important in almost every aspect of our lives, yet many people don’t believe in themselves as they should, and they find it difficult to become successful.

Would you buy a product from someone who is nervous, fumbling or overly apologetic?  No.  You would be suspicious of their product, their trustworthiness, and their ability to provide follow-up service.  You would prefer someone who is confident and speaks clearly and knows their stuff.

Confidence enables you to perform to the best of your abilities, without the fear of failure holding you back.  It starts with believing in yourself.

As one of my favorite motivational authors, Norman Vincent Peale, said, “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities!  Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” 

One word in particular in that quote stands out:  humble.  Confidence does not mean arrogance, in fact, quite the opposite.  Humility is a quality that must accompany confidence in order to instill trust.

You don’t acquire confidence overnight.  You can’t wake up one day and think you are good.  You have to work at it.  You have to practice the right concepts, get the best coaching you can and develop mental toughness.  You have to think like a winner.

Coaches and managers can tell their players and employees to be more confident, but if they don’t prepare and work hard enough, confidence will always be lacking.  It’s easy to fire people up, but they also have to be willing to prepare and pay the price to achieve a high level of confidence.

My friend, the late Jack Kemp, told me the story of how his coach motivated him when he played quarterback at Occidental College.

Before the football season started, the coach called Kemp into his office for a private meeting.  He said, “Jack, you are my guy.  You are the leader on this team.  You are the one I can count on.  Every year I pick just one player, and you are that player.  If you live up to your potential, you have what it takes to achieve greatness.  But it’s important that you don’t tell anyone else.”

Jack told me that when he left that room he was ready to run through a brick wall for that guy.  What he didn’t know until after the season was that his coach said the same thing to 11 other players.

Kemp went on to play pro football for 13 years, served nine terms in Congress representing western New York, and was Republican nominee Bob Dole’s vice presidential running mate in the 1996 presidential election.

A wonderful accompaniment to confidence is a sense of humor, as the following story illustrates.  Being able to laugh at yourself is the ultimate demonstration of confidence.

A New Yorker fresh from a business trip to Texas was telling his associates about his experiences.  One of them asked, “What impressed you most about the people there?”

“Their confidence.”  The man thought for a moment.  “Here’s an example.  We went duck hunting on Saturday.  We sat in a blind all day long and never saw a thing.  Then, right about sundown, this one duck flew over our heads.  One of the guys stood up with his shotgun and fired.  And the duck kept right on flying.

“Nobody said a word for a moment.  Then the shooter shook his head and said to me, ‘You’re seeing a miracle!  There flies a dead duck.’”


Mackay’s Moral:  Confidence is keeping your chin up.  Overconfidence is sticking your neck out.

Break your own rules

My friend Sam is an avid golfer.  He plays every chance he gets.  He also makes a practice of working out at the gym on weekends, and prefers to get an early start there.

One Saturday, the forecast called for a warm and sunny morning with heavy rain developing by noon.  Still, Sam kept to his usual schedule and worked out in the morning, knowing his afternoon golf game would get rained out.  When I asked him why he didn’t play golf first, he shrugged and said, “I never work out in the afternoon.”

“Seriously?” I asked.  “You are allowed to break your own rules, you know.”

I suspect many of us have rules, or habits, that we follow without giving any thought to why we adhere to them.  Rules bring order to life.  They give us permission to do the things we want to do, and excuses not to do the things we don’t.  They are handy.

And sometimes very limiting.

Simple rules, like “I need my morning coffee in order to be productive” or “I always pay my bills on time,” are fine.  Others, like “I never make plans that I can’t break if I get a better offer” or “I need a couple drinks to unwind after work,” can be destructive.


Many of us also adhere to rules that jeopardize success at work.  Do any of these apply to you?

Bad Rule #1:  I always eat lunch at my desk to save money and get more work done.  Break this one right now!  Find another way to economize and jump at the chance to network and hear the latest scoop on what is happening around the company.  It needn’t be an everyday event – but shoot for once or twice a week.

Bad Rule #2:  I don’t need to talk up my accomplishments.  I’m sure my boss and everyone else knows what I’m capable of doing.  You can take credit without bragging.  Own your work, and be proud of it.  Keep your boss, or whomever you are working with, up to date with emails or meeting updates.  And on the occasion that someone else takes credit for your efforts, be gracious but firm in reminding that person that you shared responsibility for the success.

Bad Rule #3:  I never disagree with my boss.  I go along with whatever he or she says.  If you have information or a different idea that would make a project work better, share it.  Your boss may or may not act on your suggestion, but you have demonstrated your willingness to step up when needed.

Bad Rule #4:  I wait to be asked to join committees or take on extra work.  Break this rule ASAP!  Jump on opportunities to stretch your limits or showcase your talents.  Volunteer for a new challenge and increase your visibility within your organization.

Bad rule #5:  I never mix business with pleasure.  That’s like denying that you work with other people.  Your work time is a big part of your life, and it should bring you pleasure.  Getting together with co-workers away from the office is a great way to forge stronger relationships.  It’s important to have friends outside your work life, but it is also important to see other dimensions of those you spend so many hours with.  That’s why many companies schedule regular company outings or volunteer opportunities.

Bad rule #6:  I take myself very seriously.  Please, please, please break this rule immediately.  You can take your work seriously.  You can take problems seriously.  You can take your boss seriously.  But you have to be able to laugh at yourself.  You need to step back and see yourself as others see you.  You will do yourself a great favor by maintaining a sense of humor and letting go of the need to be in control.

As the old saying goes, rules were made to be broken.  Better yet, review the rules you have imposed upon yourself and evaluate whether they are useful or destructive.  You could actually be sabotaging your own success by adhering to bad rules.

Let me suggest a couple rules for your consideration.  First, I will take risks and stretch beyond my comfort zone to grow in my profession.  Second, I will accept new challenges and responsibilities that benefit me and my company.  And third, I will never blame anyone but myself if I break these rules.


Mackay’s Moral:  Play by the right rules if you want to be a winner.

How to thrive and not choke in pressure situations

Last spring I was playing a great game of golf.  I stood on the 18th tee, and with a birdie on the par 5 final hole, I would shoot an even par 72.  I pulled out my driver one last time.  Having hit 13 good drives in a row, I was super excited about telling all my friends . . . until I hooked my tee shot into the woods and wound up with a double bogey and a 75.

Now I would take a three-over par final score any day of the week, but I was extremely disappointed with the way it happened because I knew I choked.  So I called my good friend Lou Holtz and asked him for his definition of choking.

Lou said:  “Choking is when you are concentrating on the result and not focusing on the execution”

He went on to tell me about his kicker when he coached at Notre Dame.  His teams had not lost to the University of Southern California for 10 straight years, but in the next game the kicker shanked an extra point with 90 seconds to go, costing the Fighting Irish the game.

Choking is described as anxiety or nervousness, a lack of self-confidence, extreme tentativeness under competitive pressure and tightening of muscles.  In short, people have a mental breakdown and forget what got them there.

AFP 544104090 S TEN USA NYThis horrible mental monster wreaks havoc with everyone from little leaguers to the best of the best.  A prime example is this year’s U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.  Serena Williams was ready to make tennis history by winning the four major tournaments in a calendar year.  She was heavily favored in her semifinal match against Roberta Vinci who had never made it to the semifinals of a major tournament.  Serena cruised through the first set.  Suddenly the wheels came off during a mountain of pressure, and she lost to her unranked Italian opponent.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe said: “I don’t care who you are, you’re going to choke in certain matches.  You get to a point where your legs don’t move and you can’t take a deep breath.  You start to hit the ball about a yard wide, instead of inches.”

History is full of famous sports chokes, but choking doesn’t only happen in sports.  It also happens many times in business and all facets of life.  It can happen to the top sales rep who botches a million-dollar sale or the seasoned customer service rep who messes up an important account.

Dr. Alan Goldberg is an expert on mental toughness and choking.  He has seven guidelines to help loosen the grip that choking may have on you, which he refers to as the First Aid for Choking.  Think of it as a businessperson’s Heimlich maneuver.

  1. Stay in the now.  Don’t allow your focus to drift.  As you get more anxious, your muscles will tense up.  Don’t think about the past or the future, concentrate on the present.
  2. Keep your focus on you.  You can’t be concerned about what others may think of you.  Fear and embarrassment will physically tighten you up and undermine your self-confidence, thus distracting you from doing your job.  Quickly return to what you are doing in that moment.
  3. Dwell on what you want to happen, not on what you’re afraid will.  If you are worried about what could go wrong, you are unknowingly visualizing what you don’t want to happen.  This gets you uptight.  Try visualizing what you want to happen.
  4. Understand that choking is normal.  Everyone chokes sometimes, even the best in their field.  Remember that you are in good company.
  5. Be a good coach to yourself.  When you choke, the last thing you should do is get angry with yourself or let people put you down.  Dr. Goldberg says this has no constructive value, nor will it build your confidence or motivate you.  Be kind to yourself and forgive your failures.
  6. Leave your expectations at home.  Dr. Goldberg believes that maintaining a future outcome will make you more vulnerable to choking.  It’s okay to write your goals down and store them away out of sight until after the performance is over.
  7. Handle the negative thinking with lightness.  We all hear that little voice of self-doubt.  Just don’t take it seriously.  You can still perform to your potential with this negativity.  Return to your focus, stay calm and loose.


Mackay’s Moral:  A little hiccup won’t end your career, but be careful not to let it choke you.