His keen sense of ethics has paid off handsomely


The gig: Founder and chief executive of LRN, a Los Angeles firm with offices worldwide that helps companies manage their legal compliance, ethics education, environmental innovation and social responsibility. He also wrote the book “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything.”

Hard knocks: Seidman grew up dyslexic, shy and chubby.

He also grew up rootless. His mother shuttled him and his siblings between Israel and the United States, meaning that he never went to the same school two years in a row until the 11th grade. “I turned myself into a project. It took me so long just to read something and understand it that delayed gratification was the only thing I knew. I became comfortable with long-term goals.”

A personal appeal: With low grades and mediocre test scores, Seidman had little hope of being admitted to UCLA. So he wrote a hardship letter to the admissions office, explaining that he was focused on being a top student and that if the school gave him a chance, he was certain he could raise enough money washing cars to pay for school. The letter worked. He had to start in remedial English, but he soon found his niche in philosophy classes.


A new approach to legal research: Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Seidman landed at one of the country’s most prestigious firms, O’Melveny & Myers. Working in the firm’s Washington office, Seidman researched case law for the firm’s clients. “I thought what I was doing didn’t make sense for the clients. It was a waste of their time and money to have someone with very little experience taking days to research something when there were people who could answer those questions in a matter of minutes.” He made a pitch to the general counsel at MCI. If Seidman started his own network of legal experts that would work more efficiently, would MCI guarantee Seidman business? The answer came in a letter that promised half a million dollars. With a fax machine and a credit card, Seidman founded LRN in 1994 and used that letter to show investors and clients that he had serious support.

Turning his company into a movement: Seidman talks about ideas and inspirations the way a mechanic talks about pistons and carburetors. He makes them tangible and kinetic before your eyes. “I wanted to democratize knowledge, make it accessible and understandable,” he says. Every research project for a company became part of an information library available to all of LRN’s clients. He started signing companies up for long-term contracts and selling them other services such as leadership development. Of course, Seidman does not call it selling. He calls it “enlisting.” By 2002, the company was profitable. It has partnerships in more than 120 countries with more than 400 companies, including Pfizer Inc., CBS Corp., Walt Disney Co., 3M Co. and Neiman Marcus. “We have had 25 million course completions and reached more than 10 million people,” Seidman says. “We have taken it so far that we are connecting with employees and managers all over the world in how they handle ethical issues they face on the job.”

First impressions: When asked what she felt when she first met her future husband, Maria Seidman said, “It was like standing at the top of a ski run I’d never done before -- a hairy, double-black diamond ski run that was incredibly steep. But once you get the guts to ski down, all you want to do is go back to the top and do it again.”

But has he made it? By Seidman’s accounting, no. “If you pursue success directly, it will elude you. If you pursue significance, success should come your way. I’m still pursuing significance.”