Greatness courts simplicity

In 1999, AIG acquired the company at which I worked. This was long before AIG received one of the biggest bailouts in history.

In 1999, AIG acquired the company at which I worked. This was long before AIG received one of the biggest bailouts in history.

Back then it was solid gold. One of only a handful of AAA-rated financial services companies, it was legendary for its size, reach, wealth, and, perhaps most notably, for its chairman and CEO Maurice (Hank) Greenberg.

Once the acquisition was announced, I couldn't stop hearing and reading about Hank Greenberg. He was clearly one of the world's most powerful, respected, and shrewdest men.

He dined with Gorbachev, Bush, and Clinton. He stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and liberated Dachau. His personal worth surpassed $12 billion. He was 75 years old, exercised regularly, only ate baked scrod, and was going to live to 100. He was tough as nails, exceedingly hard on his people, and didn't suffer fools. He built AIG from a small insurance company into the world's 18th biggest company.

Greenberg was, in my mind, bigger than life. And he was coming to town.

At the time of the acquisition, I was VP of communications for SunAmerica, the company AIG acquired for $18 billion. Hank was coming to talk about the acquisition. I was in charge of the all-employee meeting.

We gathered everyone in the grand ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel. On the morning of the event, I was at the hotel early running through AV checks, scribbling last-minute notes, and generally making sure we didn't screw anything up. Hank arrived early to see the setup, review his remarks, and get comfortable with the flow. At one point in the prep work, all of the various senior executives disappeared. I found myself alone and face to face with the great Hank Greenberg.

This was my moment, my time with one of the most powerful men in the world. What would we discuss? What should I say? How could I impress him in the precious few minutes I had with him?

I walked over to Hank and introduced myself. He nodded graciously and shook my hand. And then he spoke:

"You know," he said, "I'm staying at the Peninsula this time because it's right around the corner. I normally stay at the Beverly Hilton, but I thought I'd try the Peninsula this time."

I nodded attentively.

"I don't really like the pillows at the Peninsula," he continued, "and I find the sheets kind of uncomfortable. Next time, I'll go back to the Hilton."

At that point, another senior executive entered the room and Hank turned to talk to him.

My three minutes with the legend were spent discussing bedding at a luxury hotel. I was dumbfounded and hugely disappointed. I recalled the famous 1969 Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is?

But the years have changed my perspective on that meeting. I have come to realize that those three minutes were actually revelatory and enormously helpful to me.

The most important takeaway was this simple lesson: Powerful people, such as Hank Greenberg, are mortal. They are human beings, just like us. They are awkward with small talk, have mundane moments in their life, and most importantly - we shouldn't worry about impressing them every chance we get. In fact, sometimes it's best to not spend our three minutes to impress them. Sometimes it's better to just take it easy, let the other person exhale, and share a moment, man to man, talking about the importance of soft pillows.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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