The best of our best advice

Updated: Jun 11, 2014 6:31 PM UTC | Originally published: Oct 25, 2012
Photo: Andrew Harrer\/Bloomberg\/Getty

Warren Buffett

Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
I had two mentors: my dad, Howard Buffett, and Ben Graham. Here were these two guys who I revered and who over the years gave me tons of good advice. But when I think about what they said to me, the truth is, the first thing that comes to mind is bad advice.
I was not quite 21 when this happened, in 1951, and just getting out of business school at Columbia. I had just taken Ben's class there -- and I was the most interested student you ever saw. I wanted to work for Ben at Graham-Newman Corp., and I had famously gone to him and offered to work for nothing. He said no.
But I still was determined to go into the securities business, and that's where Ben and my dad gave me the bad advice. They both thought it was a bad time to start. One thing on their minds was that the Dow Jones industrials had been above 200 all year, and yet there had never been a year when it didn't sell below 200. So they both said, "You'll do fine, but this is not a good time to start."
Now there's one thing that may have influenced my dad, and maybe Ben too. I was so immature. I was not only young-looking, I was young-acting. I was skinny. My hair looked awful. Maybe their advice was their polite way of saying that before I started selling stocks, I needed to mature a little, or I wasn't going to be successful. But they didn't say that to me; they said the other. Anyway, I didn't pay any attention. I went back to Omaha and started selling securities at my dad's firm, Buffett Falk.
My dad was a totally independent thinker. I suppose the fact that he was has influenced my own thinking some when it comes to buying stocks. Ben instructed me some there too. He said, "You're neither right nor wrong because others agree with you. You're right because your facts and reasoning are right."
Now, Ben -- I started learning from him when I read his books on investing at the University of Nebraska. I had tried all kinds of investing up to then, but what he said, particularly in The Intelligent Investor, just lifted the scales from my eyes -- things like "margin of safety" and how to use "Mr. Market" rather than letting him use you. I then went to Columbia just to take his class and later got that turndown when I asked him for a job. But I kept thinking about that idea when I went back to Omaha. I kept trying to sell Ben stocks and pestering him, sort of. And finally one day in 1954 I got a letter from him saying something to the effect of the next time you're in New York, I'd like to talk to you about something. I was elated! And I made a point of getting to New York immediately.
I went to work for Ben in August 1954, without ever having asked what my salary would be. It turned out to be $12,000, plus the next year I got a $2,000 bonus. I worked for both parts of the business: Graham-Newman was a regulated investment company, and Newman & Graham Ltd. was what we'd today call a hedge fund. But together they ran only $12 million!
Walter Schloss and I -- though he left before long to start a hedge fund -- worked together in a little room. We had a lot of fun with each other, plus we kept poring through the manuals, looking for cheap stocks. We never went out to visit any companies. Ben thought that would be cheating. And when we found something terrific, Ben would put 50,000 bucks into it.
By early 1956, Ben was planning to leave the firm to go to California. And I had already decided by then to go back to Omaha. I had a terrible time telling Ben about that: I'd go into his office and come back, and then go in and not do it, for a really long time. But his reaction was kind of the same as my dad would have had: whatever's best for you.
I had $9,800 at the end of 1950, and by 1956 I had $150,000. I figured with that I could live like a king. And I didn't know what I was going to do in Omaha. Maybe go to law school. I did not have a plan. I certainly didn't know I was going to start an investing partnership. But then a couple of months later, seven people wanted me to invest their money for them, and a partnership was the way to do it. And that began it all.

Photograph by Peter Foley \u2014 Bloomberg\/Getty Images

Richard Branson

Founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and the Virgin Group
The person who had the biggest impact on me was Freddie Laker. He had been an aviator involved in the Berlin airlift and had made his money flying goods into Berlin at the end of World War II. He started a low-cost airline [Laker Airways, in 1966] that flew over the Atlantic. He was forced out of business by British Airways. I don't know whether I would have gone into the airline business without seeing what happened to him. He was a very charismatic figure. He was taking on the big guys. He would fly his own planes. He created a lot of excitement.
At the time, I was running a little record company; I was about 17 years old. The first time I met him was some years later. I was thinking about setting up my own airline. He gave me this advice: "You'll never have the advertising power to outspend British Airways. You are going to have to get out there and use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won't survive."
The other advice he gave me: "They [British Airways] will use every trick in the book [against you]. When that happens, three words matter. Only three words, and you've got to use them: Sue the bastards!"
I suspect if I hadn't sued British Airways [in 1992], Virgin Atlantic wouldn't have survived. And if I hadn't used myself to advertise the airline, then it also wouldn't have survived.
I named one of my airplanes after him: the Sir Freddie.

Photo: Victor Chavez\/WireImage

Howard Schultz

Chairman and CEO of Starbucks
Warren Bennis is one of the most respected scholars on leadership. And I was under a lucky star one day -- I heard Warren speak at an event, and I was so impressed by what he said that I sought him out for advice. This was in the late 1980s, long before we were a public company.
Over the years, Warren has been a valued advisor and mentor, and he has become a trusted friend. It's hard to pinpoint just one piece of advice that he gave me, because his guidance was valuable on so many levels. Early on, I remember his words -- he said this many times -- that I needed to invest ahead of the growth curve and think beyond the status quo in terms of the skill base, the experience, and the quality of the people around me. He also told me that the art of becoming a great leader is in developing your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don't possess and that you need to build a world-class organization.
This was harder than it sounds, because I wanted to build a different kind of company -- a company that had a conscience. So it wasn't only that I needed people with skills and discipline and business acumen that complemented my own qualities, but most important, I needed to attract and retain people with like-minded values. What tied us together was not our respective disciplines, and it was not chasing an exit strategy driven by money. What tied us together was the dream of building a company that would achieve the fragile balance of profitability, shareholder value, a sense of benevolence, and a social conscience.

Photo: Joe Scarnici\/Getty Images

Sumner Redstone

Executive Chairman of Viacom
In my business career, I frequently turn to Ace Greenberg of Bear Stearns. I've known him for well over 15 years. In connection with all the transactions in which I have been involved, starting with the Paramount acquisition, Ace was one of my advisors. He has consistently advised me that you must follow your own instincts, rather than the views of naysayers or others who see the world in a different way.
I put that advice into practice with Viacom. I had a terrific battle -- most people forget it -- a really vicious battle with Terry Elks for Viacom. People said at the time that I overpaid. They said MTV was a fad. They said Nickelodeon would never make it. I knew so little at that time about our businesses. But I saw MTV not as just a music channel but as a cultural channel, a generational channel, and a channel that could travel around the world. As for Nickelodeon, my instincts as a parent and as a grandparent told me, What's more important to people than a kids' channel? My instincts also told me that children are pretty much the same all over the world. They have the same issues with their parents, with their teachers. Everyone said I overpaid. My investment was $500 million. And even at the low price of our stock today, my stock is worth many, many billions. And that is a great illustration of why Ace's advice has been so valuable.

Photo: Tony Avelar\/Bloomberg\/Getty Images

Andy Grove

Senior advisor and former chairman and CEO of Intel
The best advice I ever got was from Alois Xavier Schmidt, my favorite professor at the City College of New York. A saying of his stayed with me and continued to influence me as the decades unfolded. He often said, "When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin'."
Our little research group at Fairchild [Semiconductor] some 40 years ago started to study the characteristics of surface layers that were the heart of modern integrated circuits. At that time, "everybody knew" that surface states, an artifice of quantum mechanics, would interfere with us building such chips. As it turns out, nobody knew nothin': We never found any surface states; what we found was trace contamination. When we identified and removed this, the road opened up to the chip industry as we know it today.
I remembered professor Schmidt's words again ten years ago, when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "Everybody knew" what treatment would be best for me. I thought that perhaps this was another case where common wisdom might be suspect and decided to do my own research, comparing all the known data about various treatment outcomes and coming up with less-than-conventional conclusions. Time and again, professor Schmidt's saying prompted me to think for myself, go back to first principles, and base knowledge on facts and analysis rather than on what "everybody knew."

Photo: Jonathan Alcorn\/Bloomberg\/Getty

Anne Mulcahy

Former chairman and CEO of Xerox
One piece of advice I got has become a mantra at Xerox. It came from a very funny source. It was four years ago, and I was doing a customer breakfast in Dallas. We had invited a set of business leaders there. One was a plainspoken, self-made, streetwise guy [Albert C. Black Jr., president and CEO of On-Target Supplies & Logistics, a logistics management firm]. He came up to me and gave me this advice, and I have wound up using it constantly. "When everything gets really complicated and you feel overwhelmed," he told me, "think about it this way: You gotta do three things. First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn't go into the ditch again."
Now, every time I talk about the turnaround at Xerox, I start with the cow in the ditch. The first thing is survival. The second thing is, figure out what happened. Learn from those lessons and make sure you've put a plan in place to recognize the signs, and never get there again. This has become sort of a catchphrase for the leadership team. It's just one of those incredibly simple commonsense stories to keep people grounded. I bet that businessman had no idea what kind of legs his story would have.

Photo: Steve Granitz\/WireImage

Brian Grazer

Academy Award-winning movie and TV producer, Imagine Entertainment
I've spent the last 18 years soliciting advice from people outside the movie business. Before that, I sought advice from people in the entertainment industry. So I've collected advice from close to 1,000 people over 30 years. Every month I create a new list of people to call. I call it my "interesting people list." I call, on average, five people a week -- I'll personally call Eliot Spitzer or Isaac Asimov -- and may end up meeting with one every two weeks. Ideally I like to meet these people in my office. And I ask them to tell me about their world. I meet these people to learn ultimately how to be a more efficient filmmaker.
My whole career has been built on one piece of advice that came from two people: [MCA founder] Jules Stein and [former MCA chairman] Lew Wasserman. In 1975 I was a law clerk at Warner Bros. I'd spent about a year trying to get a meeting with these two men. Finally they let me in to see them. They both said, separately, "In order for you to be in the entertainment business, you have to have leverage. Since you have none -- no money, no pedigree, no valuable relationships -- you must have creative leverage. That exists only in your mind. So you need to write -- put what's in your mind on paper. Then you'll own a piece of paper. That's leverage.'
With that advice, I wrote the story that became Splash, which was a fantasy that I had about meeting a mermaid. For years, I sent registered letters to myself -- movie concepts and other ideas -- so that I had my ideas officially on paper. I have about 1,000 letters in a vault. To this day, I feel that my real power is only that -- ideas and the confidence to write them down.

Photo: Kim Kulish\/CORBIS

Peter Drucker

Business consultant
The most important instruction I received was when I was just 20 and three weeks into my first real job as a foreign affairs and business editor of the large-circulation afternoon paper in Frankfurt. I brought my first two editorials to the editor-in-chief, a German. He took one look at them and threw them back at me saying, "They are no good at all.' After I'd been on the job for three weeks, he called me in and said, "Drucker, if you don't improve radically in the next three weeks, you'd better look for another job."
For me, that was the right treatment. He did not try to mentor me. The idea would have been considered absurd. The idea of mentoring was post-World War II. In those days [before World War II] you were hired to do your job, and if you didn't do it, you were out. It was very simple.

Photo: Ben Rose\/WireImage

Ted Turner

Founder of CNN and former vice chairman of Time Warner
The best advice I ever got came from my father. He told me to go to work at his billboard company when I was 12 years old. I worked 42 hours a week, just like an adult. I worked the first summer as a water boy, a runner, and an assistant to the construction crew. Over the next 12 summers, I worked in a different area every year. I learned sales and leasing. I could paint billboards. I can post bills. My father would explain how the business world works -- how a good business depends on good labor relations, enthusiastic leadership, making a profit and reinvesting it. When I was 21 and went to work in the company full-time, I was ready. He passed away three years later, when I was 24, and I was able to take it over without a hitch. People couldn't believe how successful I was. This turned out to be the best business course I could have gotten.

Photo: Jerome Favre\/Bloomberg\/Getty

Mickey Drexler

Chairman and CEO of J. Crew
It was 1980. I had been working at a department store [Bloomingdale's] for 12 years, and I knew I had to get out. There wasn't really a future there for me. I was offered the job of president at Ann Taylor [the women's-wear chain, a division of a now defunct corporation called Garfinckel Brooks Brothers Miller & Rhoads]. I thought about it -- and when you are changing jobs, you think of all the reasons you should not do it. Then you get a little nervous. I said no.
That night I was having dinner with someone who was older and wiser, Arthur Levitt [then chairman of the American Stock Exchange], and I told him about the offer. He said, "I would grab that position at Ann Taylor. Department stores are a nongrowth business."
He was right. The next morning I told the corporation I was interested after all. I resigned the next week. That was by far the best advice I've gotten in my life. If I didn't have dinner with him that night, I don't think I would have called back and said I wanted the job. And I am not sure I'd be where I am today.

Photo: David Paul Morris\/Bloomberg\/Getty

Marc Benioff

Founder, chairman and CEO of
I was on a panel about business and philanthropy at a conference in 2001. Alan Hassenfeld, who at that time was CEO [now chairman] of Hasbro, took me aside afterward and told me I had a lot of good ideas, but I had to give them more structure. He said I should also incorporate the ideas of volunteerism [into]. To meet somebody who had already fully integrated something like this into his company was critical. Hasbro has one of the richest philanthropic programs of any U.S. commercial organization. One of the many things they do is make toy donations to children's hospitals. It wasn't something Hasbro did by writing a check; it was part of their culture.
We ended up putting 1% of our equity into the nonprofit Foundation, as well as 1% of our profits, which of course at the time were zero. But following Alan's advice, we also put in 1% of our employees' time. That's six days a year of company-paid time for volunteerism. Employees want to work for us because of these programs -- they want to reach out and do volunteerism anyway, and we give them a structure. Also, we let nonprofits use our service for free. Alan's advice ended up being really important, because this is what sets apart from being just another company.

Photo: Jim Mahoney\/Corbis

Herb Kelleher

Founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines
I'd say my mother made more of a difference to me than anyone else did. I know that's a conventional and perhaps mundane answer, but my family was blown apart at the start of World War II. We went from six to two people, my mother and myself.
There were so many things I learned from her. One piece of advice that always stuck in my mind is that people should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title did not reflect the true merits of a person. I got a lesson confirming that almost immediately, because there was a gentleman [in our town] who was the head of a financial institution. He was always dressed immaculately, and he gave the impression of being a very upstanding guy. Well, he was indicted, convicted, and sent to jail for embezzling.
Thanks to her advice, in the business world I try not to judge anyone by superficial standards. I try to approach them with an open mind. I'm very interested in their ideas. You don't have to have a doctorate to have an idea. You ought to be open to listening to people. Show that you care about them as individuals, not just as workers. You know how some people are always looking over your shoulder to see if there's somebody more important behind you? Well, one of the things that I've tried to do -- if I'm talking to a person, that person is the only person in the world while we're talking. They're owed that. Besides, they're usually fascinating. Getting together with the people of Southwest is one of the most rewarding and exciting things in my business life.

Photo: Art Streiber\/NBC

Ted Koppel

Former anchor of ABC's Nightline
There was a very famous radio reporter in New York City in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. His name was Danny Meenan, and he was the quintessential old Irish reporter. I was about 22, just out of graduate school, and had gone to work at WMCA, where Danny worked, with the exalted title of copy boy. Being a copy boy meant you did what anybody else on the staff wanted you to do. Danny was a very generous mentor. He knew I wanted to be a reporter. He took me on a couple of assignments with him.
Shortly thereafter, he and I repaired to a bar and had a couple of beers together, and Danny said, "What do you want to do with your life?" I said, "I think I want to go into politics. I might want to be a Congressman someday." He looked at me as if I had just said or done something obscene. He said, "You would be a lousy Congressman. And it looks as though you are going to be a pretty good reporter. You will have much more fun being a reporter than being a Congressman. And you should do what you're good at, and do what you love. And you look to me that you are loving journalism."
It's what I've been doing for the last 40 years.

Photo: Craig Barritt\/Getty Images for The Robin Hood Foundation

Lloyd Blankfein

Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs
When I was put in charge of sales and trading at Goldman's commodities unit [in 1984], it was a big deal for me. My first month on the job, things started going badly in the P&L. When I went in to my boss for help, he asked, "What do you think we should do here?" I wanted to sound totally in control, so I went right into this Chuck Yeager voice -- you know, The Right Stuff. I used my most fake-confident voice, and I gave it my best shot. He said, "Okay, that's a good idea." It was smart of him to ask my opinion instead of telling me what to do. He knew that if my plan worked, I'd feel more confident. If it didn't work, the pressure on me would ease because he had endorsed my idea. Just as I was walking out of his office, he said, "Oh, just one more thing. Why don't you walk to the men's room and throw cold water on your face? You're looking green." So I learned two things: First, it's good to solicit your people's opinions before you give them yours. And second, your people will be very influenced by how you carry yourself under stress.

Photog Jeffrey Ufberg\/WireImage

Mika Brzezinski

Co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough
I lost my job at CBS News in 2006 after a new management team was brought in and cleaned house. At the time, I was being considered for the Sunday Evening News anchor job as well as a 60 Minutes correspondent. I felt as if I'd hit my stride. Then -- boom -- it was all gone. It was the biggest downturn of my career -- emotionally and financially. Someone wise told me, "You don't know this, but there will be a day when you realize this was the best thing that could happen to you." Even though it was a leap of faith, I took that advice to heart. I went through a year of job interviews for some high-profile news jobs that didn't go well. I was considering leaving the business, even though it's my life's passion. Yet I kept remembering the advice that something ultimately good would come from this. I also realized that for that advice to really come to fore, I couldn't give up. I finally said to myself, "Get over yourself. Just get back in, even if it means a massive step backwards." So at 40 years old I got a freelance job that included doing 30-second news cut-ins on MSNBC -- a great job for someone just starting out. Then Joe [Scarborough] and I met in the hallway at MSNBC and really hit it off. Soon I was asked to be on Morning Joe with him. I found out the network had been urging Joe to hire a young female "news reader." But he pushed for me to get the job. Now I realize that perhaps my personality is too real to be boxed into an ultra-objective news job. On Morning Joe I can say what I think, be my sometimes unorthodox self, have fun, yet be serious as well.

Photo: Paul Drinkwater\/NBC\/Getty

Colin Powell

Former secretary of state; retired four-star general
When I was a young infantry officer at Fort Benning, we had a lot of old captains who had served in World War II and Korea. They were not going to go higher in rank, but, boy, did they know about soldiering. So I didn't learn this piece of barracks wisdom from an Eisenhower or Pershing. I heard it from these wonderful reserve captains. This is the story: There was a brand-new second lieutenant who was very ambitious and wanted to be a general. So one night at the officer's club the young officer spotted this old general sitting at the bar. So he went up and said, "How do I become a general?" And the old general answered, "Son, you've got to work like a dog. You've got to have moral and physical courage. There may be days you're tired, but you must never show fatigue. You'll be afraid, but you can never show fear. You must always be the leader." The young officer was so excited by this advice. "Thank you, sir," he said, "so is this how I become a general?" "No," said the general, "that's how you become a first lieutenant, and then you keep doing it over and over and over." Throughout my career, I've always tried to do my best today, think about tomorrow, and maybe dream a bit about the future. But doing your best in the present has to be the rule. You won't become a general unless you become a good first lieutenant.

Photograph by Sean Gallup \u2014 Getty Images

Eric Schmidt

Executive chairman and former CEO of Google
The advice that sticks out I got from John Doerr, who in 2001 said, "My advice to you is to have a coach." The coach he said I should have is Bill Campbell. I initially resented the advice, because after all, I was a CEO. I was pretty experienced. Why would I need a coach? Am I doing something wrong? My argument was, How could a coach advise me if I'm the best person in the world at this? But that's not what a coach does. The coach doesn't have to play the sport as well as you do. They have to watch you and get you to be your best. In the business context a coach is not a repetitious coach. A coach is somebody who looks at something with another set of eyes, describes it to you in [his] words, and discusses how to approach the problem.
Once I realized I could trust him and that he could help me with perspective, I decided this was a great idea. When there is [a] business conflict you tend to get rat-holed into it. [Bill's] general advice has been to rise one step higher, above the person on the other side of the table, and to take the long view. He'll say, "You're letting it bother you. Don't."

Photo: Robin Platzer\/FilmMagic

Julian Robertson

Founder, Tiger Management
The best advice I ever got came from my sister Wyndham [who later became an assistant managing editor at Fortune]. She called me one night after we'd been to a cocktail party in the early 1960s and said, "You're becoming a business bore. No one is interested in talking all night long about stocks. Quit being a business bore." After trying to refute her, I realized she was right. So I stopped being a business bore. I found other topics to discuss. And I found that when I ceased being a business bore -- and quit pushing my views about the market on everyone -- that people came to be more interested in any advice that I might have to give. At the time I was a broker starting out, and it helped me acquire clients. I think the same thing is true as a parent with your kids. If you give advice, it's not nearly as well received as when it's asked for.

Photo: Stuart Isett\/ Fortune Most Powerful Women

Ellen Kullman

Chair and CEO of DuPont
My dad started and ran a landscaping business. He put me to work watering plants for my grandmother and for our house. His mantra was, "If you don't water it, it's going to die." That was the job I hated most: pouring water on those darn flowers. But my mother and my grandmother had the most beautiful gardens in town.
When I got out in the world, my father's advice translated into investing yourself in what you're building in order for it to grow. In 1998, I was asked to start a safety business at DuPont. I wasn't given a lot of direction. I picked four other people in the company with different backgrounds to join me. On Friday afternoons, when we were dead tired and out of ideas, I used to bring the team together and "water plants." We'd talk about what was wrong, what was right, what was working, and what wasn't. We created a safety-consulting business that grew to a couple hundred million dollars in revenue in a few years and became the genesis of our safety and protection platform, which grew to about $5 billion. If you think about the things DuPont does today, that small group was the genesis of what is now a large focus of what we do.

Photo: Sony Pictures Television

Dr. Mehmet Oz

Host, The Dr. Oz Show
Keith Reemtsma was chairman of the department of surgery at Columbia University when I came to New York. He had served in Korea, and the lore is that he's the person behind the character Hawkeye in M*A*S*H. He made me chief resident and mentored me on how to be a leader. He said the hard part of leadership was keeping smart people from killing each other -- you had to make everyone feel special. People at my level were ambitious, vying for positions. He'd take your strength and find a place you could emphasize it, so it wouldn't seem as if you were competing directly with one another.
I use that today. For example, I try to get my producers to excel at different things. I don't want them all trying to make the same thing because it breeds discontent. Instead, I say, "You're good at weight loss, so be the best producer on getting people to lose weight." There were also times I had huge ideas, and Keith told me there is a fine difference between vision and hallucination. Other people have to see your vision and get behind it, or you're wasting everyone's time.