Jonathan Lavine and I have been friends since high school. Today, he's the Co-Managing Partner of Bain Capital.
Jonathan is very active in the community. He serves on the boards of several hospitals in the Boston area. He's also an active alum of Columbia University and Harvard Business School.
We touch on several important topics in our conversation: the importance of community engagement and leadership development, mentorship, how our businesses have evolved as a result of the pandemic, and a CEO's responsibility on social justice issues. As a new CEO, I appreciate Jonathan's perspective.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Zubiago (SZ): Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us today. Tell us about how you and I met, a little bit about your background, and your path to leadership.
Jonathan Lavine (JL): It's a pleasure to be here talking to you. You and I knew each other tangentially you may recall, in high school. But you and I really became friends when my younger brother and I were actually getting bullied waiting to go to class and some students were throwing pennies at us and calling us Jewish epithets. We really didn't know each other that well. There were a lot of people standing around, and you stepped in. I'll never forget you literally just looked at those people and said "We don't do this" and you put your hand out. We grew up in different neighborhoods and never had really interacted. That gave us a reason to talk and we became very close friends for the rest of high school. I would visit you at Brown when I was at Columbia and we've been dear friends ever since. I am proud to call you a friend and incredibly thankful for how we met.
SZ: I appreciate that Jonathan. Tell us a little bit about your parents growing up and what they encouraged you to do.
JL: My parents, above all things, dreamed that we would go to college and graduate without debt. They made sacrifices, but to them, education was the most important thing. We took different paths in college and our parents were always very, very supportive of that. Even from a young age, I remember my parents engaging in the community...whether it was volunteering at Temple Emmanuel, getting involved in the Jewish Federation, or helping out at little league. They always taught us that you have to show up and engage in the community where you live and work.
SZ: You and your wife have focused a lot on volunteerism for nonprofit organizations.
JL: It makes you a better leader if you stay grounded in where you came from. Your job is just not to accomplish the most for you or even you and your family, but it is to make sure that you're bringing other people up. That you are helping make the whole system better and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. That has drawn my wife and me to things like City Year. We have been volunteering with them since 1990, and I was their national chair for many years. I am Chairman Emeritus now. They go into the public schools and try to help stem the drop-out crisis. This program is now in 30 cities throughout the country.
SZ: Jonathan, tell us more about your career journey and advice you would give to those who you mentor.
JL: There is no way you can know what is right for you without some level of experimentation. I thought I was going to law school. I attended an investment banking open house, honestly because they had free food, but I listened and I said this is interesting. My entire career path changed.
So the first thing is don't be afraid to look at different things. Secondly, don't pursue something just for the money. If you are doing it only for the money, you will hit a point in your life where you are asking yourself why on earth you are doing it. It will feel like a burden. Thirdly, and this is really important, be authentic. Be yourself. Know who you are.
SZ: Let's talk about the professional services industry. Yours is in financial services, mine is legal. What are the changes you've seen over time and the changes you've seen most recently?
JL: We have to all find different ways to collaborate. Our businesses and our cultures have been more resilient than we could have possibly imagined when we all closed our physical offices. The resourcefulness and the innovations that businesses like ours have seen over the last year staggers the imagination.
The big challenge ahead is...how do we keep the good from this when we go back to being all together? I think that this is an interesting social experiment.
I'm not sure that you ever imagined that your law offices would be impacted by a virus that started halfway around the world. And not only impacted your firm, but every single one of your clients. That interconnectedness is something we knew, but to the extent of it, and what we can get out of it, I think this is really a trend that is going to continue.
SZ: Let's talk a little bit about maintaining the culture.
JL: Our culture has always focused on being there, showing up, and flying from office to office.
I remember the first big transaction we did out of our London office. I flew to London so I could sit in the room with the team even though we could have easily done it by conference call. We have to remind people that showing up matters whether it be for onboarding new people or retirement parties.
SZ: Let's switch gears. There's been a lot of focus on social justice issues. As a CEO of a national/international company, talk to me about what you see your responsibility is on social justice issues.
JL: Our responsibility is to stand up and be counted where appropriate. To make sure that our employees and our colleagues all know that we stand with them.
We need to be part of the solution going forward and we have gotten very involved in something called the Foundation for Business Equities. We recognize that there is a national issue we need to address, and we need to make sure that within our own communities, we are standing up, being counted, and actually helping to effectuate change in leading by example. Business leaders, community leaders need to lean in a little bit.
SZ: I'm new in this CEO role and navigating these issues has been one of the newer things for me. It's very challenging to hit the right tone and, of course, we want to defend the things we believe in.
Tell me a little about the advice you give people entering the investment realm.
JL: I think it is really important that people understand that nobody knows how to do these jobs on day one. When we hire you out of college, there is no expectation that any business school, law school, engineering, or liberal arts school that we are going to hire you from is going to prepare you to do the job. What it will prepare you to do is learn, know how to listen, and how to practice self-development. That is the most important thing.
SZ: Jonathan, thank you so much for taking the time. Thanks for sharing the wisdom. Always good to catch up with you.