Building Your Executive Team: 3 Valuable Lessons from Andrew Carnegie

Photo of Andrew Carnegie sitting in chair in front of a black background

“Here lies a man who knew to enlist in his service better men than himself.”

This is how Andrew Carnegie, the (Scotland-born) U.S. steel magnate who gave away the vast majority of his fortune, wanted people to remember him. (Among other things, Carnegie’s money built 2509 libraries worldwide, founded or established large trusts at several universities, constructed Carnegie Hall in New York, and built The Peace Palace in The Hague). Carnegie wrote his epitaph himself, right before he passed away in 1919 (take a peek at this interesting piece The New York Times published at the time).

The words engraved on Carnegie’s tombstone intrigued me, so I decided to delve into his autobiography. What did this business leader, once the richest men on earth, consider to be the secret to his phenomenal success?

“The development of my material success in life”, he wrote, can “not be attributed to what I have known or done myself, but to the faculty of knowing and choosing others who did know better than myself.” (source: Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie).

Think about it.

Just like Carnegie you live in a time of relentless change, and are working hard to future-proof the company you lead. You know that your success not only depends on your own capacities and vision, but to a large extent on the effectiveness of your executive team as well. You need an executive team that thrives on openness and trust; a team that gets collaboration right, and creates a shared sense of focus and commitment throughout the organization.

You want to put together a top-notch team to help you lead the way. Who do you select? Let me share 3 lessons from Andrew Carnegie that might be of use to you:

1.  Look for people better than yourself

Do you surround yourself with capable people whom you know and like? People you have worked with before, who look up to you maybe, who are eager to learn from you, will run the extra mile for you? It is maybe appealing to do this. But Carnegie’s strategy was different. He built a team comprised of people who knew steel and business way better than he did, and then set out to learn from them. By doing this he showed a great strength that still is a valuable example to leaders: he always put the interest of the company above his own interest, and he never let his ego get in the way of the success of his team.

It made me think of that other great leader who arrived in Washington unknown, and filled his cabinet with people far more educated and versed in politics than he was. People who initially looked down on him: Abraham Lincoln.

2.  Create and stimulate diverse opinions

Do you have a preference for people who think like you do, have similar backgrounds, people you feel comfortable with?  Or do you actively embrace diversity and make sure your team, and teams throughout your organization, reflect diversity in age, gender, personalities, skills, business experience and – especially important in today’s business environments – cultural backgrounds?

A lack of diversity limits the ability of a species to adapt and change, Darwin taught us. If that is true for nature, could it be true for business too?

Consider these 10 reasons why diversity is good for business teams, as recently listed by Mike Myatt and Patricia Lenkov in Forbes:

  1. It reflects the real world – something every company should be sensitive to.
  2. Healthy debate can lead to better decisions.
  3. Divergent backgrounds mean tackling the same idea in differing ways.
  4. Great ideas come from disruption of the status quo.
  5. Your clients and customers are diverse.
  6. This can make your company knowledgeable and sensitive to a wider variety of groups.
  7. Counsel from a variety of authorities is sensible.
  8. Setting an example at the top will hopefully have a trickle-down effect within the organization.
  9. Improved reputation and brand.
  10. A variety of backgrounds can make the company more adaptable to its ever-changing environment.

3.  A genuine will to learn from the people you lead

A third thought to conclude. Hiring people who know better than you, investing in diversity: none of this makes sense if it doesn’t come with the genuine WILL to listen and learn from people you lead. Especially in times of change, when stress and anxiety increases, it is tempting to tell others to listen to you and to do as you say. But by doing that you run the risk of neglecting the potential power and energy in your team that you could have unlocked if you would have listened to them better.

In Carnegie’s own words:

“I did not understand steam machinery, but I tried to understand that much more complicated piece of mechanism — man.”

Are you leading a successful executive team? Why not share your experiences below, including any tips or checks, which executive leaders should make when selecting the right people to their teams.

Co-Author: Hanneke Siebelink

Did you value this article? Feel free to share it with others!
If you want to receive upcoming LeadershipWatch articles and news in your mailbox simply register at the top of this page. Your personal information will be kept strictly confidential.
Photo: Monrovia Public Library/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is a global business advisor, change leader, senior executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact him here.

9 Comments on “Building Your Executive Team: 3 Valuable Lessons from Andrew Carnegie

  1. Pingback: The Friday Five, Blogs That Matter – December 13, 2013 | The Transformational Leadership Strategist

  2. Pingback: Building Your Executive Team: 3 Valuable Lessons from Andrew Carnegie | LeadershipWatch | News links

  3. Great article again! So easy to follow and mostly to understand how ancient and smart a multi-cultural heritage on leadership can be to amazingly influence upon our today’s complex leadership.
    Thank you to both of you!


  4. Nice article Aad. I got very fascinated by the man Andrew Carnegie from the day I read the book Think & Grow Rich. I’d love to know more about his insight. Can you recommend me some resources?


    • Thanks for your comment, Sourav.
      Resources you might like: ‘Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie’ and ‘Round the World’. Enjoy!


  5. Thanks for the useful material sent. Please I like to maintain my subscription.

    Yours gratefully

    Margaret Mary Ntrakwah


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: