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How to build a lasting business empire

I was learning a lot over dinner with my newfound CEO friends. I learned that for the total ski experience, Courcheval eclipses Gstaad. I learned that as a playing partner at a charity event, Phil Mickelson is reserved and even slightly shy. And I learned my next jet should be a Gulfstream G550, in spite of the fact there are only 12 standard cabin configurations available.

Information I can use? Hardly. But since my new CEO friends were meeting with my client to discuss a potential joint venture, I did my best to seem interested.

Turns out I didn't need to play along after all.

My client is the CEO of a $350 million company. Over time we have also become friends, and I find him to be self-aware to a degree unusual in highly successful people. He is the first to admit he loves his own opinions. Assured and outspoken in certain settings, he is also far from patient and thus can be irritating to some, especially since people who don't suffer fools gladly tend to be insufferable to fools.

In this case, he was in no mood to suffer.

So as I was learning the particulars of re-negotiating a luxury suite lease at Gillette Stadium, he stood up, said, "Guys, I have other things to do," and started walking away. I hate making a scene but I know where my bread is buttered so I eased out of my seat too.

"Hold on!" cried the lover of all things Courcheval. "We haven't talked business!"

"No, and we won't," my client replied. "If I went into business with you it would kill me to imagine you might be wasting time patting yourselves on the back instead of working your butts off to return our company's investment. Our shareholders don't pay me to talk. They pay me to bust my (rear). So that's what I do."

As we walked away, he said, "The problem is those guys are used to captive audiences. They are the kings of their kingdoms. Their employees have no choice but to listen and smile. So they think everything they say is fascinating."

How does that apply to you? As a leader -- and it's especially true the farther up the ladder you climb -- you often don't have to know things. You only have to say things. Style can be greater than substance when you are the one in charge.

It's easy to be an emperor. Don't be tempted to feel silence is sometimes best. Don't assume you learn when you listen, not when you speak. Don't dwell on how advice is like a refugee everyone wants to pass on but no one wants to receive. Above all, don't ever think your team could get tired of your stories.

It's also easy to build a lasting empire; the key is to make sure you don't become an emperor in the process. If you truly love your own opinions (and really, who doesn't), be selfish. Keep your opinions to yourself. Let employees take the lead whenever possible. And if a conversation is not business related, make sure you do most of the listening and your employees do most of the talking. As a leader you never build relationships with your employees by talking -- especially about yourself.

All lasting relationships -- professional and otherwise -- are built by listening.

Jeff Haden

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Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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