It was only after a series of unexpected career twists that the self-styled “accidental CEO” ended up heading Goldman Sachs. And he insists his suitability for the job was all about the journey.
“As a matter of fact, when I was recruiting [staff] at Goldman Sachs, I was always very suspicious of students who said they came out of their mother’s womb knowing they wanted to be an investment banker,” he said during a recent address to Stanford students.
Paulson’s story certainly isn’t cut and dried.
He majored in English at Dartmouth and planned to study the same subject at Oxford. But a low draft number meant he ended up studying business at Harvard, even though he knew little of a subject and disappointed his idealistic young peers. “I told some of my friends I was going to business school and they almost threw up,” he said.
Later, Paulson was offered to join a policy analysis group—allowing him to avoid joining the navy and stay with his wife-to-be—that saw him take public office in the Nixon administration. After intentionally pursuing job functions he knew little about to expand his experience, Paulson realized he enjoyed working on financial problems and eventually joined Goldman Sachs.
Even at the investment bank, Paulson said a move to the company’s Asian operations was inspired because, being based in Chicago, he was closer to Asia than a colleague, who ended up going to Europe. His preference for working with clients meant he turned down a variety promotions before being picked to run a private equity practice at the bank.
Paulson said it was only as time went on that he learned he also enjoyed managing.
“I think if I had said I want to run Goldman Sachs, I would have come in—and I don’t think I ever would have run Goldman Sachs,” he said. “I just focused on doing what I was doing when it was in front of me, enjoying it, learning and growing.”
Among his other tips to business leaders: concentrate on developing your people skills. “It’s not just coming up with the right idea. Everybody can learn the computational skills and analytical skills and so on. But it’s the people skills that matter.”
And Paulson also recommends having a life outside of work. “I don’t know anyone [who] says, ‘Boy, I had a great career, and I’m happy because I screwed up my life outside of my career, my family life.’ There’s no one that feels that way.”
The full interview can be seen here.