Street Smart vs. Boardroom Smart

I started my career on the streets. Literally. I worked in East Harlem in my early 20s as a youth program director, running an afterschool program for about 250 kids. It was indeed the best of times and the worst of times. Our kids were dirt poor, and attending lousy schools where they had to pass through metal detectors every morning at the front door. To get to our program at 106th Street and 2nd Avenue, I had to avoid certain streets where a stray bullet from an ongoing gang war could easily kill you. My kids were often recruited into gangs by the age of 13 to be drug runners, and it was our job to make sure we gave them an alternative.

These days, I spend more time in boardrooms than I do on inner city streets. But I find that the street smarts I learned from my kids (my brilliant, fierce, loveable kids) serve me well in the corporate world. You have to size up situations quickly. Know who’s really boss in a situation (and it’s often not the most senior person). Sense danger ahead of time. Know who to make friends with. Walk like you mean it, and show no weakness in public.

One of my long-standing clients has been Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promotions company. They hold the contracts for Madonna, the Jonas Brothers, Nickelback, Shakira, and many others. But their most beloved “client” is the gentleman named Jay Z. They told me many stories of how Jay Z will show up to Live Nation strategy meetings, which can sometimes stretch 6 hours long, and he’s a willing student, taking notes, listening intently, learning rapidly. And he’s a consummate gentleman—always on time, gracious, and respectful. As a result, no one commands more respect and affection in the halls of Live Nation than Mr. Carter does. And his business instincts are off the charts.

What’s interesting to note is that while street smarts can easily transfer into the boardroom, it doesn’t necessarily work in reverse. Those who were raised continuously in boardrooms often can’t translate those skills into true street smarts for some reason. Perhaps it’s because the cues and the environments are so different. Or perhaps it’s because too much time spent having vs. not having, can make you a little complacent, a little fuzzy.

But starting in the margins of society can have its advantages. What Jay Z learned when he had nothing but his wits and verbal skills is serving him in legendary fashion now.