My five hours with Trump
A lifetime of learning has changed Shaun Conroy’s leadership criteria since a chance meeting with Donald Trump years ago
don’t get in the newspaper very often, so on the odd occasion the story i s about me and not my business it gives me pause for thought.
Late last year I changed jobs and it was reported in the Careers section of the newspaper. I garnered a small picture and a couple of column centimetres to the right of Nelson Mandela and a huge picture of Donald Trump.
I was pretty chuffed but, in reality, very few people probably saw past the picture of Donald Trump.
Above Donald Trump, the title of the article is “The measure of true leadership” and the story got me thinking about my own leadership journey and the day I spent five hours with Donald Trump.
Leadership style is an intensely personal choice, formed through years of experience, having successes, making mistakes and receiving feedback. I landed on five things I wanted to embody in my leadership style:
One, I wanted to be “Authentic” to myself, to my personal style and my ideals.
Two, I worked hard to be “Humble”. It i s easy to let the ego lead, but being humble i s a strong Kiwi value and I think it is a powerful leadership tool.
Three I wanted to be “Approachable”. Leadership, I believe, is about influence and not hierarchy. If you are not approachable you significantly undermine your ability to influence, execute and deliver results.
Four, I wanted to really learn how to “Listen”. I found number four really hard!
And five, I wanted to truly “Empower” my staff. Empowerment means both trusting and holding people to account.
While they look easy, employing all of these things in unison is difficult. At times they feel mutually exclusive.
Two things are obvious; I am not a management guru and this may not seem like a hugely ambitious list. But I am thankful that leadership i s a journey and I am still on mine. Once I master these, I might tackle something more ambitious.
So what did I learn from Donald Trump?
Many years ago I flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong to go to the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament. I had never flown first class before so I saved up all my mileage and booked a seat at the front of the plane. It is the sort of thing you do when you are young, and seemed like a good idea at the time.
The plane was delayed a few minutes pending the boarding of the last passenger, and it was Donald Trump, who sat down right beside me. I had just read his book The Art of the Deal and we struck up a conversation. For the next five hours I had an intense and exclusive chat with the future President of the United States.
At times it was more like 90 questions or an interrogation on his part, but we spoke for the better part of five hours. “Do you speak Japanese?”, “Do you write it?”, “How many characters?” and on it went.
I wanted to know what motivated the guy and understand how he achieved what he had. This was a long time before he was candidate Trump or President Trump and not a lot was known about him outside of his book.
Looking back, it is interesting to look at this exchange and measure it against my leadership criteria now. I think I failed my AHA test. Authentic, Humble, Approachable were not values I was “living” at the time.
I liked to think that flying first class on mileage was a case of “faking it until you make it”. Maybe so, but 25- year- old self wasn’t authentic and certainly wasn’t humble. Telling Donald Trump I had a bit of real estate experience because I had rented my first two apartments was also a bit of a stretch. But hey, he might have offered me a job. In fact he did. He wrote his telephone number down on a napkin* and said if I could do a deal on a building he was looking at he would give me a million dollars.
It was a very interesting five hours. But, the most thought- provoking part • “Have I ever bought an airline? Here, read this report, this one is for sale.” • The time he went to New Zealand to support a bid for the Auckland Casino licence. • His superyacht, which he had sold a couple of years before and I saw in Hong Kong. He said he only ever went on it a couple of times. • Buying the property in Tokyo, the burnt- out shell of the Hotel New Japan. • New York being the best place in the world to be in real estate. of this conversation for me is the person I aspired to be that day is totally at odds with where my leadership journey has taken me to today.
I was leading with my ego, trying to be someone I wasn’t and happy to be accepted on my appearances as opposed to who I really was.
Thank goodness for experience. If I had a sixth tenet, it would be “Learn”, learn from your experiences and be a lifelong learner. There is a lot to get your head around and it may take you a lifetime to get there. * No, I didn’t use the phone number he wrote down on a napkin for me!
Shaun Conroy is the NZ national chief operating officer for leading global accounting and advisory firm BDO.
Shaun Conroy spent “a very interesting five hours” with the man who would become President Donald Trump.