The toughest and most potentially rewarding thing that a leader can do in a large meeting

by Didier Marlier on Friday June 7th, 2013

Do I need to present Warren Buffet, the “sage of Omaha” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Buffett)? Considered the investor with the most impressive track record of the 20th century (and still active today), he is the C.E.O. of Berkshire Hathaway. This conglomerate “averaged an annual growth in book value of 19.7% to its shareholders for the last 48 years (compared to 9.4% from S&P 500 with dividends included for the same period), while employing large amounts of capital, and minimal debt. Berkshire Hathaway stock produced a total return of 76% from 2000–2010 versus a negative 11.3% return for the S&P 500.”[1]

This is what Warren Buffet does, aside from being as well a radical philanthropist, intending to transfer the bulk of his fortune to foundations. His quote about why he wouldn’t transfer most of it to his children is worth reflecting “I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing”.

In the recent Shareholders Meeting of the company he presides, it is a very different lesson that “The Oracle” (as he is also sometimes called) gave to his fellow Business Leaders and C.E.O.s in particular. Because he feared that the meeting might turn into a convention of satisfied people colluding (see bonding vs bridging) rather than behaving as true “Strategic sparring partners” of the Board, Buffet invited a long time critic, Doug Kass, partner in a hedge fund named Seabreeze Partners Management. And Doug Kass, as per expected, challenged Mr. Buffet, in front of the audience and during the meeting. He may not have asked the toughest question but he did challenge him on some crucial and painful points (such as his succession).

In a fascinating article, dedicated to Warren Buffet’s courage and wisdom, Jason Zweig (http://topics.wsj.com/person/Z/jason-zweig/1586) from the Wall-Street Journal comes with interesting figures:

Zweig quotes a poll of more than 500 US corporations, made by the National Investor Relations Institute in 2011. It found out that

  • 80% of the entreprises were limiting and controlling who could interfere and ask questions during the quarterly results presentation.
  • 25% accepted “pre-cooked” questions and only 12% were leaving the floor truly open to questions from anyone…
  • Still, following the study mentioned by Jason Zweig, 76% of the companies were training their executives to answer the questions they thought would be asked (talk about spontaneity and authenticity)…

So, where do you think that the debate is richer during the shareholders’ meeting? In a company such as Berkshire Hathaway or in the places where, the “usual suspects” ask the politically correct questions, planted in their hands by outdated and collusive zealots? Of course, the risk is bigger but solid leaders like Warren Buffet or… yourselves can cope with it. And imagine the goodwill that you will create…

I was thinking about this, when awaiting the Board member of a client of ours, coming to address the audience we were working with. The man was a highly respected professional but hard hit by feedback saying that his capacity to create rapport and engage on stage could improve. I had been told that, rather than blaming the audience (What we call the “How can I fly like an Eagle when I am surrounded by turkeys?” syndrome) he chose to bite the bullet and worked hard on his style. The man was very good on stage. He was smiling, listening, exploring, showed vulnerability and transparency… After an almost two hours interactive session, I thought he was done but, as I was seeking to close, he looked at me and said: “Didier, one more thing: I’d like now to get the feedback from the audience on how well I met their needs and connected with them”… Such a display of integrity and courage caught them (and me as well) wrong-footed but, rapidly, they engaged with him and provided constructive as well as reinforcement feedback. You may imagine the respect and connection this senior executive has managed to establish with the audience.

Esa Saarinen, the famous Finnish Business Philosopher, once told me: “There are few things as frightening as asking feedback to your children…” I tried and I agree with Dr. Saarinen. But what Warren Buffet and this gentleman did was far more courageous… How many of us will dare to do so at their next important meeting and harvest the trust, respect and connection this will bring them in return?

May we continue to enjoy our never-ending learning Leader Journey…

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