Grant Oliphant

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Grant Oliphant (President of Heinz Endowment) spoke with Aaron Watson. The podcast was good.

If you’ve never heard of Oliphant that’s good. This is the beauty of podcasts. There are all kinds of wonderful, intelligent, ground-breaking people experimenting, running companies, and leading others out there in the world. Podcasting helps tell their stories. Patrick O’Shaugnessy’s podcast is excellent at this too.

Okay, the notes.

1/ Organizational leaders go deep (talk to customers) and go wide (steal what works). Oliphant  says, “We work really hard to go deep and to go wide.” To rephrase with more descriptive verbs, Oliphant hires people with expertise and borrows best practices.

There’s an adage in non-profit work, Oliphant says, “nothing about me without me.” It’s “probably the most important rule.” In Pittsburgh, Oliphant’s endowment teams have had 150+ “listening meetings” in the community. Organizations only succeed by solving problems.

Organizations only succeed by solving problems.

Oliphant doesn’t have customers but he does serve people in the same way. Failed start-ups consistently failed to talk to their customers. Those founders should imitate Oliphant or have read more Paul Graham, who wrote:

“If you can’t understand users, however, you should either learn how or find a co-founder who can. That is the single most important issue for technology startups, and the rock that sinks more of them than anything else.”

To serve people you have to solve a problem. To solve a problem you have to listen to what people want. To listen you have to go out and talk.  Andy Grove wrote:

“They (middle management) usually know more about upcoming change than the senior management because they spend so much time ‘outdoors’ where the winds of the real world blow in their faces…I feel much safer back here in California than he does in ‘enemy territory.’ But is my perspective the right one? Or is his?”

Collecting information about what people want is going deep. Borrowing best practices is going wide. Oliphant says, “we look all over the world for the best ideas.”

Ben Thompson’s post The Audacity of Copying Well summarizes this. It’s also the subject of episode #102 of James Allworth, Thompson’s podcasting co-host, said he admires Instagram for swallowing their pride and copying Snapchat. Samsung too, who copied Apple.

Gary Vaynerchuk suggests this strategy for individuals, “better your strengths and punt your weaknesses” Vaynerchuk says. This means adopting, borrowing, or stealing best practices. Oliphant copies in this sense too, learning from others so he can focus on his strength, helping the people of Pittsburgh.

2/ Failure. (?) Failure can be difficult to determine because, “if you’re running a company – you can, despite the bottom line – continue to convince yourself you’ve got a future for a very long time.” Oliphant explained that one early education initiative in Pittsburgh was a “smashing success” for the kids involved. But they shut it down because it couldn’t scale.

As I listened I was again brought back to what I learned about start-ups that failed. Some simply ran out of money, but not all. Other founders shuttered operations because they meandered along.

When does an initiative fail? A company? A relationship? When do you know? Do you ever?

3/ Predictions. “Human decision making turns out to be maddening imprecise and beautiful at the same time.” This is why you need to talk to people. It’s why you need to be there on stoops, porches, and sidewalks. It’s why foundations have listening meetings. It’s hard to model what people will do.

Peter Lynch made the case against macroeconomic and political predictions. Lynch said that if you spend 14 minutes figuring out how those currents fit in your plans you’ve spent 12 minutes too long. That’s not to say we can’t do better at predicting things. Phillip Tetlock wrote a book to help us to that and we applied that framework to ask Is Bill Simmons A Superforecaster?.

The most helpful advice for someone in Oliphant’s shoes comes from Howard Marks’s  Expert Opinion. In that letter, Marks wrote that we should pursue information that is helpful and knowable. It sounds like that’s what Oliphant has done. Find out the important things you can (at listening meetings) and let everything else go.

4/ Talent stacking.  “One of the things we’re learning is that intersectionality is really important in this world….we need people who can think about the dynamics of outcomes and why the world is the way it is and what we can do about it to change it.”

Scott Adams wrote that he’s not the best at drawing, making people laugh, or someone with a deep knowledge of business. However, he’s probably in the top 1% of people who are good at each of those three things. Daymond John said this too, only about music and clothing. Dave McClure started his VC fund because he had engineering and marketing experience and “there weren’t that may people doing investing that had both disciplines.”

Talent stacking fits in a world that’s complicated. Our world!

Adams, John, and McClure succeed because their skills match what the real world wants. It’s like a puzzle piece.

Thanks for reading. If you want book recommendations, I send those out via email here



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