The best advice Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman ever got was from his high school track coach. They ran year-round, always outdoors, lapping the school parking lot. In particular, the winter sessions were painfully memorable. The way the lot would freeze over in spots, the icy wind that whipped around the building and into their faces – these are just a few of the joys of greater-Philadelphia area winters. Coach Armstrong, well bundled up and shielded from the gusts, would clap a thudded-gloved clap as they passed and shout, “Remember – You’ve got to make your deposits before you can make a withdrawal!”
On those mid-winter sessions, the extra training was a tough deposit to make. But, building this level of discipline meant when they got tired or behind or knocked down in a competition, they had been there before. Coach Armstrong’s runners had trained for that moment. By running in all conditions, all year, they had made deposits well in excess of the withdrawals needed to get back into any game. In Schwarzman’s four years his team never lost a meet.
During his early career and later with Blackstone, Schwarzman often found himself taking extra laps to make additional deposits. Sometimes it slowed down decisions and sometimes it got in the way, but it made for measured success at each stage of his progress. The working world is different from the world of sports in that “winning” and “not losing” are two very different yet very valuable outcomes.
Training to pick when, where, how, why, and against who to compete is a craft learned over time. The extra laps, in a business sense, help us know when it’s a withdrawal we should make versus a withdrawal to pass on making. Schwarzman often found himself listening for these translations of Armstrong’s advice. Over time he developed a deep appreciation for limiting his downsides and letting the upsides take care of themselves. Diligent practice helped him to always stay in the game, even when he got behind.
Professionally, when we prepare ourselves to work with our clients, and when we prepare clients to engage in the world with our help, we’re making deposits. We craft plans to guide us, to let us know when we’re off track, and to remind us – whatever happens – that we’ve been here before. Maybe not literally “here,” but we’ve prepared for the inherently unexpected. All of the extra effort doesn’t necessarily make it easy to get through the hard times, but having the confidence built through practice makes it easier than if we hadn’t prepared at all.
Armstrong’s advice and Schwarzman’s success should be well heeded. We prepare for the difficult. We stay mindful of the unknown and unknowable. Our awareness of the downside is what allows us to stay in the game to realize the upside. We make the deposits and watch what we withdraw to keep a cushion. From a public high school track team in PA, to one of the most successful companies in the world, to our own practices – we have to make the deposits before we can make the withdrawals.
*Schwarzman’s book, “What it Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence,” is out now.