Everybody knows Warren Buffett, the investor. There have been umpteen books written on the subject. What about Warren Buffett the manager? Not as much. In a recent episode of the Capital Allocators Podcast, Ted Seides spoke with Tom Russo, Managing Member of Gardner Russo & Gardner. Russo is a keen observer of Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway and has been a shareholder for over three decades.
The episode is all about Berkshire, but an anecdote Russo mentioned jumped out. Buffett is famously hands-off with Berkshire’s wholly owned subsidiaries. However, every once in awhile, there are issues that arise that require a division head to confer directly with Buffett. Russo learned that through a number of conversations with these division heads that Buffett is expert in asking questions. He doesn’t proffer advice of edicts, but through a handful of well-thought out questions he is able to prompt his lunch guest to come up with her own solution.
There is a cliche in business that people quit managers, not jobs. That is likely too simplistic a formulation of the issue. In an ideal world, managers help craft jobs for people that utilize their skills and talents while simultaneously meeting the needs of the company. In short, creating an environment where employees can succeed. What that doesn’t entail is solving everyone’s problems.
Claire Lew writing at Signal vs. Noise talk about how great managers manage by asking pertinent questions, not by solving the problem at hand. She writes:
In other words, your role as a manager is not to solve problems. It’s to help others solve problems, themselves. Leadership is stewardship. It’s navigating your team through treacherous waters, around jagged rocks, to the desired destination, and making sure folks feel nourished and rested along the way. But you can’t be a good steward if you’re scampering around trying to paddle all the oars faster, yourself. To take the boat analogy one step further, a great manager is a coxswain, not a rower.
Much has been made over the past decade or so about the idea of introversion and extroversion. The idea being that, certainly in America, societal norms are set up to favor those traits that extroverts commonly have. Much of the credit for this growing awareness of this issue can be traced to Susan Cain and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. You can see at Cain’s site, Quiet Revolution, the various ways in which attending to the differences among us not only makes for better understanding, but better relationships, working and personal.
If you closed your eyes and tried to conjure an image of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company you would likely see (and hear) a self-confident person with traits we would associate with an extrovert. Interestingly a recent study called the CEO Genome Project shed some light on this issue. From a Jena McGregor piece in the Washington Post:
A little more than half of the CEOs who did better than expected in the minds of investors and directors were actually introverts, not the usual gregarious CEO known for glad-handing customers.
“The biggest aha, overall, is that some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board have no bearing on their performance,” said Elena Lytkina Botelho, a partner at ghSmart and a co-founder of the project. “Like most human beings, they get seduced by charismatic, polished presenters. They simply do better in interviews.”
You can imagine how someone who views themselves as ‘charismatic and polished’ may not feel the need or desire to engage in a process of asking questions of a colleague. If you view yourself as a ‘charismatic leader’ you may feel this is what people want from you. This will also feed your ego thinking you accomplished something valuable.
Clear, crisp, unconflicted answers are hard to come by in a complicated world. In finance and investing the only immutable law is that there are no laws. However, thoughtful questions are always within reach. So before you begin telling someone what to do. Think about what questions might elicit from them, answers that are effective and, most of importantly, of their own making.