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HR Lessons from Wolf of Wall Street

The award-winning film, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the fascinating true story of stock broker Jordan Belfort, his rise to unbelievable wealth, and his eventual fall through crime and corruption.

Belfort’s moral compass was completely out of whack, as demonstrated not only through his criminal activities in the workplace but in his personal life, with his addiction to hookers and blow wreaking havoc on his family.

Despite Belfort’s criminal background and questionable judgement, there’s no doubt he was smart. Fraudulent activities alone would not have led him to reach his goals, make a huge pile of dough, and allow him to bring other colleagues and employees along on the wildly successful ride with him.
As HR Professionals, we are smart enough to set aside Belfort’s notoriously bad behaviour while extracting some key HR lessons from his career. Here are 5 lessons for success we can learn from “Wolfie” (Belfort):

1. Your team is the most important thing

Belfort put together a loyal team with diverse competencies at Stratton Oakmont. His senior management team was primarily comprised of his closest friends, who admired and respected him. As well, they all had different backgrounds, skills, and strengths which allowed them to fill one another’s gaps and lead the organization as a strong, united team.

Employees were hired less for their skills and experience and more for their drive for success and willingness to learn fast and work hard. Belfort preferred hiring individuals desperate to earn big money and encouraged them to paint themselves into a corner financially to ensure their focus was on working hard to earn big. The diversity of the team as well as the opportunities and rewards they were provided created an extremely loyal and committed employee base at the firm.

2. Reward your team and keep them happy

At Stratton Oakmont, employees were expected to work hard but were rewarded extremely well for their efforts. “A rookie stock broker was expected to make $250,000 his first year. Anything less and he was suspect. By year two, you were making $500,000 or you were considered weak and worthless. And by year three, you’d better be making a million or more or you were a complete f***ing laughingstock” – Jordan Belfort

Employees were paid far above the going rate for stock brokers and Belfort occasionally selected top performers to be mentored by them in starting their own brokerage firms.

Belfort encouraged employees to solve all their problems by becoming rich and overcomers were held up as positive examples of this. At Stratton Oakmont, money solved all problems, although it eventually created many problems for Belfort and others.

Employees at the firm were regularly rewarded with parties where celebrations included drugs, alcohol, and plenty of debauchery. Fun, be it harmless or not, was the name of the game and partying hard was expected. Through all these incentives, Belfort drove commitment and focus on hard work.

3. Create an enticing company culture

Belfort created a company culture where seizing opportunities and achieving wealth was everyone’s goal. He encouraged employees to make as much money as possible and to compete with colleagues to spend more money and live crazy, luxurious lifestyles. Belfort did this by leading by example, and living an over-the-top lifestyle of luxury items and partying, and encouraging employees to join him on his wild adventures.

Reinforcing the company’s goals was something Belfort did regularly. There are several scenes in the film where Belfort gives loud, outrageous, motivational speeches to his employees. He reminds them of their mission, where they’re going, what’s in it for them, what works and what doesn’t. A few individuals are humiliated along the way but make good examples for the others to learn from.

“Let me tell you something…I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every f***ing time…This is the greatest company in the world!” – Jordan Belfort

Through the culture and in reinforcing it regularly, Belfort created a focused, loyal, and adoring workforce at Stratton Oakmont.

4. Training is a necessity

Belfort ensured everyone in his organization could sell and continuously provided training to ensure they were successful. It was critical for him to come up with a way to teach and transform young, uneducated people into stock broking professionals.

Training was through watching, learning, role-playing and doing, using the simple formula of basic instructions and scripts. He reinforced that the pitch was always more important than the product itself, and never to take “no” for an answer. Employees who practiced the sales techniques from the training would find success and job applicants began appearing in droves.

“And as word of this little secret began to spread…that there was this wild office…where all you had to do was show up, follow orders, swear your undying loyalty to the owner, and he would make you rich – young kids started showing up at the boardroom unannounced.” – Jordan Belfort

5. Act the part

Hungry for success, Belfort and his team led with confidence, even when they started out from nothing. They dressed well and had a calm, successful, and somewhat cocky demeanor that enabled them to land sale after sale.

Every Stratton Oakmont employee was reminded incessantly to act “as if”, and to dress well and look the part. As well, Belfort even hired a tailor to make suits for the up-and-coming employees of his firm. This reinforced their confidence and selling abilities.

While Jordan Belfort doesn’t model the kind of values we should practice as HR Professionals, we can find inspiration and motivation from his seize-the-day attitude.

“The only thing standing between you and your dream is the bullsh!t story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.” – Jordan Belfort

Elaine Cruise Smith takes an irreverent and (sometime brutally) honest approach to authenticity in the workplace. She blogs about it at “Get Real: People, Passion, Profit$, where she explores how getting real with people (colleagues, employees, the boss, and customers) frees us to be extraordinary and to achieve extraordinary results. Elaine also blogs about living large without breaking the bank at “Champagne Taste …on a beer budget”. Follow her journey and musings at and and connect with Elaine on LinkedIn.

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