Ben's Advice: Breaking the Bigs' Golden Rule of Professionalism

It will come as no surprise to people who know me (especially my wife, Leigh!) that I make mistakes — plenty of them. Even for me, however, the following story displays breathtaking stupidity. That’s because my Golden Rule for how to conduct yourself at work is to never say anything negative about anybody in your office. 

A Not-So-Friendly Rivalry
The two largest front office departments of Greenwich Capital — the U.S. Treasury and Mortgage departments — always had a friendly rivalry. This was not surprising, given that they were similar businesses, staffed with similarly competitive people, sitting side by side. However, in business as in sports, it doesn’t take much to transform a friendly rivalry into a not-so-friendly feud.

When I became sales manager for Treasuries, the sales manager for Mortgages was someone I will call The Minister because after he left Greenwich Capital he graduated from divinity school. We should have been friends. We were the same age, shared friends outside of work, and we both loved Greenwich Capital. However, given the competition between the two departments, The Minister and I always had a somewhat chilly relationship. What turned that chill into a deep freeze was my stupidity.

In 1996, on a business trip with a senior Greenwich Capital mortgage salesman, I let my guard down and confessed to my travel companion that I didn’t like The Minister much. I may have even been a little more colorful than that. Worst of all, the truth was that I did not have any good reason to dislike The Minister.

By this point, I had broken at least two of my bedrock principles. First, I had previously allowed my relationship with a coworker to devolve into a poor one. And even worse, I had just broken my Golden Rule: Never speak ill of someone assuming it won’t get back to him.

Unbeknownst to me, my indiscretion did get back to The Minister, and over the next two years our previously tenuous relationship further deteriorated. At that time, The Powers That Be decided that they wanted The Minister and me to become co-chief operating officers of Greenwich Capital — a huge promotion for both of us. However, the promotion didn’t immediately become a reality because it was obvious that The Minister and I could not work together.

Burying the Hatchet
Finally, a mutual friend informed me The Minister had been told of my hostile comments two years prior. I asked The Minister to dinner and apologized. The Minister, understanding it was in the firm’s and our personal interests to bury the hatchet, reached across the table, and as he shook my hand said, “You’re not as dumb as you look.” (While no great compliment, I guess I had progressed from my first interview with J.P. Morgan when I was every bit as dumb as I looked.)

Almost immediately, The Minister and I were given our promotions, and we soon became trusted partners and good friends as co-COOs. Now, we are working together again at CRT Capital Group.

I guess one could say the moral of this story is “All’s well that ends well” — but the real lesson is to always follow my Golden Rule and never say anything negative about anybody in your company. To do otherwise is unprofessional and unnecessary. And more often than not, it will come back to haunt you.


Ben's Advice: Everyone in Your Network is Important

“I hardly ever work with her; it won’t matter if I’m a little late sending her those documents she asked for.”

“Why should I thank him for that? It’s his job!”

“She’s just a temp. What does it matter if I gave her the brush-off?”

Have you ever said (or thought) any of these phrases, or something similar? If so, you may be doing more damage to your career than you realize. In order to attain and maintain a position of leadership, it is important to understand that all employees are valuable to the company and your career.

Many people believe that if their boss is happy with them everything will be perfect. The reality is, your boss’s perception of you is largely going to be a reflection of how everybody else in the organization feels about you. If many, or even just a few, people in the company feel negatively toward you, then your prospects for advancement diminish.

You need to make it clear to each of your coworkers that you are a reasonable person who respects them and the job they do. This attitude should extend from the security guards right up to the CEO. You should care about each of these people — even if only for the selfish reason that they could be important to your career. This dynamic is crucially important, and it trips up junior and senior employees as often as any other issue.

My Friend Kelly
I saw an example of this form of leadership in action early in my career at Bankers Trust from a junior trader, Kelly Doherty. Kelly was my classmate and good friend at Hotchkiss. He had joined the Foreign Exchange group a year before I arrived on the trading floor. It was obvious Kelly had gotten off to a fast start, and he was a highly regarded trader. One evening, as people were starting to leave the floor to go home, I stopped by Kelly’s desk to see if he wanted to go out for a beer.

Before we left, Kelly went around the department and shook hands, or gave a pat on the back, or a goodbye wave with a quick word of appreciation to each of the 10 or so employees remaining at their desks. Most of these employees were clerical staff. This was not the beginning of a two-week vacation for Kelly, nor was it some special day for the department. This was simply Kelly, on his own initiative, thanking his coworkers for their help that day. This was an aha moment for me.

The quiet leadership Kelly displayed, even before he became a manager, impressed me immensely. I was not surprised when, at the tender age of 32, Kelly became the youngest member of the Management Committee, nor when, at the age of 37, he became the youngest board member and a vice chairman of Bankers Trust. Compared to Kelly, I was a slow learner, so my personal example of quiet leadership came 23 years later as I was stepping down from 20 years of active duty at Greenwich Capital.

The Power of “Thank You”
As I was preparing to step down as co-CEO of Greenwich Capital at the end of 2006, I decided it would be appropriate to write a few letters to the individuals who had been so instrumental to my fantastic experience there. The initial list was short — maybe 10 names or so.

After I finished those letters, I realized there were at least 20 more I wanted to write. When I was done with those, the light bulb switched on: Why not write to every person whom I had any significant and positive exposure to during my career at Greenwich Capital? I traded in my pen for a recording machine, and I started remembering and talking. Three weeks later, I had composed more than 200 letters.

I loved sitting down and thinking about each person and the memories I shared with them. More rewarding, however, are the many times since then when one of those 200 friends has told me how grateful he was to have gotten the letter — how he had shown it to his spouse and still had it tucked away somewhere.

I always enjoyed the expression “No good deed goes unpunished” because it is often a setup for a funny story. In the real world, however, good deeds are always rewarded by making you feel good. Sometimes, they are also rewarded with tangible benefits. In this case, my only motivation to write these thank-you letters was just that: to say thanks and have fun retelling old stories. However, three years later when I got back in the game, the time it took to write those letters paid huge dividends when I was recruiting many of my old colleagues from Greenwich Capital to come join me at CRT.

The same principle will hold true for you, too. When you spread goodwill among the people you work with — whether it’s in the form of a letter, a kind word, or considerate everyday actions — you’ll find that your career is positively impacted, often in ways you could never have foreseen.

Ben in The Street | Former Greenwich Capital CEO Offers Tips to Make it to "The Bigs"

Ben's interview in The Street shows us some of the inspiration behind The Bigs book and insight into its lessons.

Wall Street may not be as fun or lucrative as it was a few decades ago, but it remains an exciting and challenging place for a young person to start a career, says Ben Carpenter, author of "The Bigs" and former CEO of Greenwich Capital. Carpenter says the unpredictability of the markets is what makes Wall Street such a great environment for college graduates. He also says there are lots of different job options on Wall Street to match skill sets. Finally, Carpenter says those entering Wall Street banks should remember that their careers will be decided by the entire firm, not just their immediate boss.

Watch the full interview here.


Ben in the New York Times | Is Your Student Prepared for Life?

AS 16 million young adults set off for college this fall, they are looking at some frightening statistics. Despite the ever-rising cost of getting a degree, one number stands out like a person shouting in a campus library: According to a recent poll conducted by AfterCollege, an online entry-level job site, 83 percent of college seniors graduated without a job this spring. Even when these young people finally do get jobs, the positions are often part time, low wage or not related to their career interests. The problem isn’t the quality of higher education in the United States, so what’s missing?

Two years ago, in a full-blown panic, I asked myself this exact question when I realized that my eldest daughter, a recent college graduate, had no idea what the world was about to demand of her. She had gone to a good school and done well as a student, but had never thought about her future in a structured way, and I realized what she was missing — an education in career training.

While “career training” may sound vague, if done properly it is straightforward and teaches how to get, and succeed at, a job. At most colleges this training falls under the purview of Career Services; however, there is a major disconnect between many students and this department. Earlier this year, a consulting firm, Millennial Branding, surveyed over 4,000 students and found that 61 percent said Career Services was “never” or “rarely” effective in helping them land a job.

So what can be done to make certain these young adults are being prepared for life post-graduation? The answer is simple: Colleges need to create, and require for graduation, a course in career training that would begin freshman year and end senior year.

Career training must start early because getting students to decide what job they want — and teaching them how to thoroughly research that job, get internships and conduct a job search for a full-time position — is not a quick or easy task. This course would ask students to consider their skills and interests. What are they good at? What do they like to do? Then students would be taught how to thoroughly research the industries and jobs that utilize their talents. The best way to do this is by arranging dozens of one-on-one informational interviews with contacts generated from family, friends and their school’s alumni database.

In these interviews they would learn if the jobs they are pursuing are right for them, and they would make contacts to help them eventually land a good job.

One liberal arts school, Connecticut College, offers substantial financial incentives to students who participate in its career-training program, and most students participate. One year after graduation, 96 percent of all Connecticut College alumni report that they are employed or in graduate school. Not surprisingly, this program has become a major selling point for the school.

Career training is also an issue of equal opportunity. Some students receive advice and professional contacts at home, but some receive nothing. Comprehensive career-training would help level the playing field.

Back in the day, I received little career training in college and that was consistent with everyone I knew — regardless of where they went to school. However, the world today has become so competitive and global that we must provide our children with high-quality career training as a bridge from college to the work world.

Ben Carpenter is the vice chairman of CRT Capital Group and the author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 1, 2014, on Page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Is Your Student Prepared for Life?. Today's Paper|Subscribe

Ben in Yahoo Finance | Don't do what you love, do what someone will pay you to do: Advice for job-seekers

Yahoo Finance interviewed founder Ben Carpenter about some of the main takeaways from The Bigs. Ben encourages all to think about not only what you like to do, but what you do well.  Some of Ben's advice includes:

Carpenter's advice seems to run counter to those trends and includes the following:

  • Show up whether you're sick, you get a flat tire, you're hung over or if there a snowstorm
  • Be available at all hours: always respond to emails and phone calls as soon as you can, whether late at night, early in the morning, on vacation, weekends.
  • Don't take any days off from work for the first 6 months in a new job.
  • Schedule all personal appointments after business hours -- if your doctor doesn't offer late hours, get a new doctor.

"To me, the way particularly young people but really everybody should be approaching their job is to think like an entrepreneur," he says. "If you had a company and you were the sole employee, you'd get up everyday and go to to work. When you were at work you'd be thinking about 'what is it I need to do to make this company successful?' You wouldn't be thinking about 'how can I protect my time off?'"

Check out the full interview here.