‘I didn’t just try to sell. I listened’

Don’t underestimate the power of listening in business, says private equity tycoon Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone co-founder and CEO

I didnt just try selling whatever it was I had to sell I listened 974x296

“The Tropicana deal secured my promotion to partner, and I celebrated by redecorating my office. If I was going to be there twelve hours a day, I wanted it to be a cocoon against all the psychological stresses of my work, cozy, like a beautiful sitting room or library in an English house. I had the walls painted partly in reddish-maroon, the rest covered in the kind of grass cloth I’d seen at Lee Eastman’s place.

I installed a chocolate carpet, chintz chairs, and a partners’ desk from the 1890s. It was exquisite. No one else at the firm had ever done this. It wasn’t how they thought about work. But I didn’t consider myself to be at work. This was my second home, and I wanted it to be beautiful, comfortable, and visually interesting.

Blackstone founder Stephen Schwarzman on “going big” and learning through failure  

When I arrived at DLJ (Donaldson, Lufkin, Jenrette) in 1969, I had my face pressed up against the glass of a life I could only imagine. Nearly a decade afterward, I was living it.

“Listening to people seemed obvious. But it evidently marked me out on Wall Street. I didn’t just try selling whatever it was I had to sell. I listened”

In 1980, the New York Times profiled me on the front page of the Sunday Business Section with a large picture as Lehman’s “Merger Maker.” The reporter credited me with a “drive to succeed, a strong persistence (he once finished running a cross-country course even after he tripped and broke his wrist) and an infectious vitality that make other people like to work with him.”

The cross-country race had been in ninth grade, and I had to be rushed to the hospital.

She went on: “Mr. Schwarzman says he approaches problems by asking himself, ‘What would I want if I were in their shoes?’ That, he says, is what gives him his rapport with people. Still a student of behavior, he listens hard to what people say, believing that things that are said for a reason. This art of listening gives him an unusually high gift of recall.”

It was a pretty accurate picture of me at the time. Listening to people seemed obvious. But it evidently marked me out on Wall Street. I didn’t just try selling whatever it was I had to sell. I listened.

I waited to hear what people wanted, what was on their mind, then set about making it happen. I rarely take notes in meetings. I just pay very close attention to what the other person is saying and the way he or she is saying it. If I can, I try to find some point of connection, an area of common ground, a shared interest or experience that turns a professional encounter into a more personal one. It sounds like common sense, but apparently in practice, it’s relatively rare.

One effect of my intense listening is that I can recall events and conversations in detail. It’s as if they are imprinted and stored away in my brain. A lot of people fail because they start from a position of self-interest. What’s in this for me? They will never get to do the most interesting and rewarding work. Listening closely and watching the way people talk puts me much closer to answering the question I’m always asking myself, which is: How can I help? If I can help someone and become a friend to their situation, everything else follows.

The following excerpt is from Stephen A. Schwarzman's book What It Takes: Lessons In the Pursuit of Excellence. Copyright © 2019 by Stephen A. Schwarzman. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 

Biography: Stephen A. Schwarzman is Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms with $545 billion under management (as of June 30, 2019). He is an active philanthropist with a history of supporting education, culture, the arts and transformative innovation. In 2013, he founded an international scholarship programme, Schwarzman Scholars at Tsinghua University in Beijing to educate future leaders about China. Among his many accomplishments and achievements, Mr. Schwarzman is a member of The Council on Foreign Relations, The Business Council, The Business Roundtable, and The International Business Council of the World Economic Forum. In 2018, he was ranked in the Top 50 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Powerful People.