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Bill & Warren: It’s about your people

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in Hiring,Human Resources

It was a classic conversation a decade ago, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett chatted on camera at the University of Washington in Seattle. Back then, Gates was worth only about $48 billion and Buffett about $36 billion.

A look at that conversation reveals the extent to which they focus on people, not profits. Examples:
  • Buffett has turned down “otherwise decent” business deals because he didn’t like the people he’d have to work with. “I didn’t see any sense in pretending,” he said. “To get involved with people who cause your stomach to churn—I say it’s a lot like marrying for money. It’s probably a bad idea under any circumstances.”

  • At first, Gates thought nothing about risk. “The thing that was scary to me was when I started hiring my friends, and they expected to be paid. And then we had customers that went bankrupt, customers that I counted on to come through. And so I soon came up with this incredibly conservative approach that I wanted to have enough money in the bank to pay a year’s worth of payroll, even if we didn’t get any payments coming in. I’ve been almost true to that the whole time.”

  • One of Buffett’s two job functions is allocating capital. The other is helping his managers keep employees juiced. Most of his workers are rich, and “my job is to help my senior people keep them interested enough to want to jump out of bed at six o’clock in the morning and work.”

  • Known for his strategic and technical genius, Gates says, “I’d have to say my best business decisions have had to do with picking people. Deciding to go into business with Paul Allen is probably at the top of the list, and subsequently, hiring a friend, Steve Ballmer, who has been my primary business partner ever since. It’s important to have someone who you totally trust, who is totally committed, who shares your vision, and yet who has a little bit different set of skills and who also acts as something of a check on you. Some of the ideas you run by him, you know he’s going to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, have you thought about this and that?’ ”

  • "I’ve had a partner like that, Charlie Munger,” Buffett added. “You have to calibrate with Charlie, though, because Charlie says everything I do is dumb. If he says it’s really dumb, I know it is, but if he just says it’s dumb, I take that as an affirmative vote.”
—Adapted from “The Bill & Warren Show,” Brent Schlender, Fortune,

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