Thoughts on Leadership: The Value of Friendship

This week my travels find me back in Hawaii for another close friend’s wedding. (Congratulations, Justin Moles and Natalie Ventimiglia! On a personal note, I’ve been friends with Justin’s dad since third grade.) In this tropical island setting, surrounded by love and aloha, I’m reminded about the value at the very center of the value pyramid: friendship.

My longest-lasting and most impactful business relationships started—and are sustained—through the value of friendship. I’ve long said I love what I do mostly because of who I get to do it with, and that couldn’t be truer now. Every day I wake up feeling fulfilled in the knowledge that I have yet another opportunity to work with colleagues who are really more like friends.

Babe Ruth once said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

When you work on building friendships, all the other traditional components of growing a business—profitability, retention, employee satisfaction—will naturally fall in line. Success is symptomatic of friendship. Creating real, meaningful connections bridges the gap between where you are professionally and where you want to go. More often than not, you can only get there, as the song goes, with a little help from your friends.

Some of the most successful and innovative companies on the planet began with friendship. Global enterprises like Apple and Google started when a few (very smart) friends got together with a simple mission to change the world. What would life be like today if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hadn’t congregated in that famed garage in Los Altos, CA to launch Apple? How would we discover new knowledge if two young Stanford students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t create a web-based search algorithm called “BackRub” that would eventually become Google? What if a mutual love for fishing and football didn’t bring together former Stanford classmates David Packard and William Hewlett and lead them to co-founding the Hewlett-Packard Co. in a one-car garage in Palo Alto, CA? What would Berkshire Hathaway Inc. be without the 60-year friendship of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger? (Fun fact: They both grew up in Omaha, NE and in their youth, worked at a grocery store owned by Buffett’s grandfather, though not at the same time. It wasn’t until several years later when Munger was 35 and Buffett was 29 that they reconnected at dinner through a mutual acquaintance and the iconic friendship was formed.)

In 2007, an engineer named Nathan Blecharczyk moved to San Francisco and found a roommate through Craigslist named Joe Gebbia, a designer at a local startup. When Blecharczyk moved out, Brian Chesky, Gebbia’s college friend, took his spot and the three became close friends. In the summer of 2008, San Francisco hosted a large design conference and hotels in the city were all booked up. Together, the three friends came up with the idea of renting out space in people’s apartments to accommodate the crowds. They built a website for the rental process but really, they unknowingly launched a company known today as Airbnb.

Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen met while running around a track in seventh grade gym class and from that fateful moment on, were the best of friends. After college, Cohen tried unsuccessfully to sell his pottery and Greenfield tried unsuccessfully to get into medical school. Mutually frustrated, they decided to open up some kind of store together. At first, Greenfield and Cohen wanted to launch a small bagel shop, but the cost of machinery to make the bagels was too high. Pivoting, they invested in a $5 ice-cream making course at Penn State and in 1978 converted a gas station in Burlington, VT to the very first Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store.

Another example of friendship in action is found by way of Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, two entrepreneurs who met at Harvard Business School. In their last semester, with just a few months to go until graduation, they decided to put their education to good use and write a business plan for some kind of company. They had several business ideas but struck ecommerce gold when they landed on the concept of a subscription-based service for beauty products, which would eventually become Birchbox. Today, the company has more than 2.5 million active subscribers and boasts a revenue, according to Recode, of about $200 million.

Finally, years ago, I joined Contempo Realty to work with five friends (left photo above, back row, left: Kevin Moles, Jeff Culbertson, Bill Moles; front row, left: Bob Moles, me, Greg Macres). This week in Hawaii, I’m reuniting with several of those business associates and friends (right photo above, from left: Bob Moles, me, Jeff Culbertson) to reminisce and celebrate at the wedding of Justin and Natalie.

So, what’s the message? Our modern world is shaped by friendships as much as it is by the technology and advances these friendships produce. But friendships are worth so much more than their intrinsic business value. Friendships bring joy to our lives and richness to our days. When we work to advance and grow our friendships, we inherently work to advance and grow ourselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

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