Leave Money on the Table

by Christos Tsolkas

Earlier this year, at a conference on innovation and startups, I met Sonny Vu, the impressive and thoughtful CEO of Misfit Wearables.

Vu gave a speech about some of the business and life lessons he’d gained through his experience working in Silicon Valley and launching one of Vietnam’s most successful startup ventures. Towards the end of his speech he had a simple slide that said, “Leave Money on the Table.”

This really resonated with me and, I think it’s one of the keys to long-term success.


Tough Feedback


Here’s a personal story that explains why Vu’s idea hit me hard.

I started in the CPG space. At the beginning of my career, I was very ambitious and driven. Sort of relentless and even ruthless at times. But my efforts were noticed by the higher-ups in my company for the consistently good results they were generating.

Because I was climbing the corporate ladder rather fast, I was selected as an emerging global talent and sent to a famous assessment center in England for a week. We did mental and psychological tests mixed with group work and lots of feedback and coaching. Every moment of the day was monitored and videotaped. I felt like I was under surveillance even in my room.

It was a lot of fun. I had great coaches. I enjoyed the exercises we did with my fellow participants, and I got great feedback. People thought I was quite smart, very driven and ambitious and that I had a pleasant personality and was a good team mate who was fun to be around.

Then the 360-degree feedback from my corporation arrived. As part of the coaching process, they’d asked my superiors, colleagues and subordinates at my company to assess me. The results were shockingly horrendous. I was overly aggressive, too driven, not enough of a team player, and not a very pleasant colleague. Basically, they said I was an a***ole.

Comparing that feedback with the feedback of my peers in the program, my coaches saw a big disconnect. What was the problem? My reaction was defensive. I felt I was being judged by people who weren’t very ambitious, productive or efficient. I had zero tolerance of the weakness of others. I knew I could be well-liked if I spent more time hanging out at the office water cooler and joking around, but why should I be graded on that? I was out-producing everyone in terms of results. Shouldn’t that be the only thing that really counted?

The last discussion I had with my assigned coach turned out to be a wake-up call. He told me if I didn’t change my style I wouldn’t keep up my current pace of progress (almost one promotion per year) and I wouldn’t reach my full potential in my career. Essentially, he told me I would be a failure if I didn’t change.

This was quite a slap in the face for someone who thought he was doing so well, but I decided to take the advice to heart. So I went back to my job and made a lot of effort to change. I started “wasting” time hanging out with colleagues over coffee. I tried to help others out even if that wasn’t related to my job or performance. I even became more collegial and generous when negotiating with supply partners and vendors. Before, I would squeeze them for every last penny. Now, I was careful to negotiate with them more “fairly” by trying to create win-win agreements.


The results? Amazing. Overnight, everything was easier, like I had a tail wind. My colleagues were more supportive and thought of me as a team player. Superiors began to think of me as more of a leader. Even suppliers began to offer me better prices than they had before, without forcing me to negotiate hard. One told me, “It’s always better, even when you have the power in the negotiation, to leave some money on the table. That’s the secret to being successful next time.”

It was as though the world recognized the work I was doing to treat others better and opened up a whole new level of possibility and satisfaction.


Winner (Should Not) Take All

I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I even try to instill it in the way I work today, and I’ve seen that dynamic play out many many times in my life since. In every relationship, from professional to personal, there’s a balance of power at play. If you choose to take advantage of your position and eke out all the rewards for yourself, bad things happen.

  • You create resentment in others – they’re less invested in your success
  • You fail to treat people empathetically – you don’t forge the connections that can help you down the line
  • You set yourself up for failure later – essentially by digging your own grave

I’ve seen enough in my business career over the years to realize the last point is true.


John, a friend of mine in another company in a strongly regulated industry, for example, was also ruthless and driven and kept the peddle to the metal even more than me. His company, was incredibly competitive and dominated its market. All his competitors were scared of him, and he built strong brands with terrific year-after-year growth. Then came the Great Recession of 2008. To shore up its finances, the government decided to hike the tax of my friend’s industry excessively. Overnight, most of his profitability evaporated. In a position of terrible disadvantage, he had to turn to customers, suppliers and vendors to renegotiate rates and contracts. Most refused, seeing an opportunity for payback. As his business faltered, talented employees started to leave because they felt no loyalty to him. Eventually, he was let go by his company because he wasn’t able to right a sinking ship.

On one level, it wasn’t all John’s fault. He’d done nothing to usher in one of the greatest financial crisis of the past hundred years. On the other hand, he might have weathered that storm better if he’d had been nicer to the people around him.

To me that was another really clear lesson. If John had left some money on the table with customers, partners and colleagues when he was on the way up, he might have had some good will in the bank when things went south.


So that’s my advice to young leaders today. Don’t be greedy. Winners should not take all. One day, you’ll pay for how you leverage your advantages. One day you will need to go drink water from another’s tap. Try to make that payoff a positive one.


Credit: Sarina Filkenstein


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