The president of Goldman Sachs was afraid to make big decisions until he had a one-minute conversation with CEO Lloyd Blankfein

Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein. Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/ Corbis via Getty Images.
  • Harvey Schwartz is the president and co-COO of Goldman Sachs.
  • When he first started managing hundreds of people, he was too nervous to make any decisions.
  • Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein told him it was OK to make a mistake — and Schwartz learned to trust his own judgment.

In the early 2000s, Harvey Schwartz, now the president and co-COO of Goldman Sachs, was tapped to lead fixed-income sales.

By his own admission, he knew very little about the area. What’s more, he was managing hundreds of salespeople for the first time.

Schwartz remembered how he responded on an episode of Exchanges at Goldman Sachs:

“After a fairly long period of time, several months, I think it’s almost fair to say, I hadn’t made one single meaningful decision. My reluctance was just a state of discomfort. I didn’t feel the confidence. It might have been I didn’t have all the data, I hadn’t spent enough time. But part of it was a little bit of self-imposed inertia, and nervousness and anxiety.”

A conversation with Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, was something of a wakeup call. Schwartz recounted:

“Lloyd said, ‘You know, it’s ok to make a mistake.’ Very empowering. Because what he’s really saying in that very short one-minute exchange is, ‘I trust you’re not going to make a big mistake.’ He didn’t need to say this, he wasn’t going to let me make a big mistake, but he was really encouraging me to take risk and have the confidence and trust my own judgment.”

Schwartz’s story recalls a similar anecdote from leadership expert Simon Sinek, who said the best boss he ever had never answered any questions. Sinek previously told Business Insider:

“I’d be like, ‘Hey, Peter, what do you think we should do?’ He’d be like, ‘What do you think we should do?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I think we should do this.’ He’s like, ‘Well then, do that.’

“The guy never answered a damn question, but what he taught me was self-reliance. What he taught me to do was trust myself, and if I made the wrong decision, he always had my back.”

Even if you don’t have a boss pushing you to make decisions on your own, you might want to push yourself. According to the researchers behind the CEO Genome Project — which assessed 2,000 CEOs — high-performing CEOs are described as “decisive,” even if they don’t necessarily make the right decision every time.

As the researchers write in The Harvard Business Review, “decisive CEOs recognise that they can’t wait for perfect information.”

The same thing goes for leaders in any position: Don’t let your fear of failure become paralyzing. You were picked for this position for a reason.

Get the latest Goldman Sachs stock price here.

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