Bruce McAlpineHiring ProcessLeadership

Trading Reputation for Money

By March 19, 2019 No Comments

Warren Buffett is CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns a large number of companies which in turn employ over 300,000 people.  With that many companies and that many employees, it is almost impossible to manage by rules.  Instead, Warren Buffett manages by principles, and leads by example.

Jim Cunningham picked up on this leadership trait in an interview with Warren Buffett in 2015.  https://fs.blog/2015/04/buffett-on-behavior/

He quotes Warren Buffett as saying “Every two years, I write (my direct reports) a very simple letter. It’s a page-and-a-half. I don’t believe in 200-page manuals because if you put out a 200-page manual, everybody’s looking for loopholes basically.

Warren Buffett believes that reputation is a hard currency to acquire, and an easy one to lose.  So he clearly states this principle with the phrase “We never will trade reputation away for money.”

He recognizes that his direct reports are the guardians of his reputation.  “I want them to not only do what’s legal obviously, but I want them to judge every action by how it would appear on the front page of their local paper written by a smart but semi-unfriendly reporter who really understood it to be read by their family, their neighbours, their friends.”

Using the analogy of a tennis match, he tells them “I don’t want anything around the (foul) lines.  There’s plenty of money to be made in the centre of the court.”

An example of how Warren Buffett lives this out in practice can be found in the classic “The Leadership Moment”, where author Michael Useem invests a full chapter to examine Buffett’s handling of Salomon Brothers, a century-old investment bank which went from revenues of over $4B USD in 1997 to ceasing operation in 2003.

At the end of the day, most leaders do practice “principles-based leadership”.  What really matters is what your principles are, as Stephen Covey expanded on in his book “Principle Centered Leadership”.  In a world full of politicians and business leaders who make decisions based on the principles of expediency and personal agendas, it is refreshing to find great and successful leaders who make decisions on the principles of morality and personal integrity.

Three questions flow logically from this brief overview:

  1. On what principles do you consciously or unconsciously base your decisions as a leader?
  2. What are you doing to formalize, document, and describe these principles in acceptable behaviours for your subordinates to observe and internalize?
  3. As you hire new team members, how are you consciously assessing and evaluating candidates in line with these principles during your interview process?

Whether you realize it or not, your principles define the values of your organization, which in turn define the culture and behaviours of your employees.

About the Author: Bruce McAlpine is President of Fulcrum Search Science Inc., a Toronto-based Executive Search firm, as well as President of the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada and Immediate Past President of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment & Staffing Services (ACSESS).  He can be reached at 416.779.8505 or by email at bruce.mcalpine@fulcrumsearchscience.com.

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