Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a day with Warren Buffett and a few of his top executives. I learned many things that day, but I will never forget the answer he gave me to this question: “Mr. Buffett if you could only give me one piece of personal life advice what it would be? ”
This meeting took place during the same year that the Houston-based Enron Corporation was beginning to unravel, and the world was taking note. Enron at the time was one of the largest integrated natural gas and electricity companies in the world. Enron had $101 billion in sales and 21,000 employees. Every employee counted on the company and its Executives leadership team to always do the right thing, but unfortunately, they failed. In 2001 the once highly regarded organization surprisingly filed for bankruptcy due to a good case of cooking their financials. Greed, arrogance and a complete lack of ethics at the top put thousands of Enron employees and their pensions on the street.
Enron and their executive’s ethical wrongdoings made headlines all over the world which brings me back to my epic day with Warren Buffett.
So what was Mr. Buffett’s answer when I asked for personal life advice? It was essentially the same answer he continues to give to his Berkshire Hathaway Managers or what he calls (“The All-Stars”) in his biannual letter.
“As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation. We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.”
Now that’s just good advice. Simple, straightforward and meaningful.
My day with Mr. Buffett and his team stays with me on a daily basis especially now as I watch high-profile brands struggle with keeping their corporate cultures healthy, happy and ethically productive. In many respects, this day set the course for the very work that I am doing now.
So Mr. Buffett thank you for your advice. I reflect on it daily, and I bring this perspective to every one of my client’s.
P.S. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on any of Warren Buffett’s letters to his shareholders. He keeps things refreshingly real!