The best advice I ever got

Updated: Jun 20, 2014 7:43 PM UTC | Originally published: Oct 31, 2013

Mellody Hobson & Jeffrey Katzenberg

A decade ago, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz introduced Mellody Hobson to DreamWorks Animation SKG (dwa) chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, it took Katzenberg five seconds to decide that he wanted Hobson on his board of directors. Hobson, the 44-year-old president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, is now DreamWorks' nonexecutive chairman and also on the boards of Starbucks (sbux), Estée Laude (el)r, and Groupo (grpn)n. She's a valuable adviser, the 62-year-old Katzenberg explains, because she simplifies complex problems, always thinks long term, and asks questions in an unthreatening way. "If Mellody were a boxer, she would have a knockout punch that would make you feel like you got hit by a feather," the DreamWorks CEO said over breakfast in Los Angeles, as the two recalled one time when he wanted to make a "multibillion-dollar acquisition" and her wise counsel stopped him. --Patricia Sellers
Katzenberg: My favorite expression of yours is "Don't major in the minor."
Hobson: The biggest mistake I see CEOs make is that they get caught up in the short term. That's majoring in the minor.
Katzenberg: I'm an emotional person. [This acquisition opportunity] needed to be a business decision, not an emotional decision. She helped peel away the things that were not the facts and look at it in a way that I wasn't able to do on my own.
Hobson: It was many, many hours on the phone. Jeffrey really wanted to do it, and he didn't have the support. [I approached the situation by] laying out all the potential outcomes and having a real conversation about: Is this a bet-the-ranch move? Did you think of this, that, and the other? As opposed to telling him what I thought, I tried to get at it with questions.
Katzenberg: Therein lies Mellody's art.
Hobson: I'd say, "Do you believe this number?" He'd say, "I discounted the number by 40%." And I said, "Well, if you're discounting the number, what does this say about your belief in the people?"
Katzenberg: She is the Picasso of questions. She can ask a question like nobody else. You have to find in yourself the answer to it. There's a real art to that.
Hobson: Ultimately everyone did the right thing.
Katzenberg: We didn't do [the deal]. I was okay that we didn't do it. I learned a lot from the process. The board and the company are better for the experience.

Photograph by Robyn Twomey

Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger

They met at a dinner party in Omaha in 1959 and took an instant liking to each other. "He was rolling on the floor laughing at his own jokes, and I thought, That is my kind of guy -- I do the same thing," Buffett says. They started sharing investment ideas immediately, and Munger joined Berkshire Hathaway (brka) 19 years later. The two are still together, though they operate remotely -- CEO Buffett, 83, in Omaha, and vice chairman Munger, 89, in Los Angeles. Each spring they sit side by side onstage at the Berkshire annual meeting, dispensing snippets about investing, business, and life to some 30,000 shareholders and worshipers. But it's rare to get this most successful investment duo talking, as they did here in Chicago, about what they've learned from each other. --P.S.
Munger: The best advice I ever got from Warren was to stop practicing law. Warren was very derisory about my chosen profession, which had been in my family for a couple of generations. He thought it was all right as a hobby, but as a business it was pretty stupid.
Buffett: It didn't use his full talents. If he really wanted to get in an interesting game, he should leave law and get into my game. In law, to a great extent, you're an agent for your principal. Your job is there to serve somebody else. I got to serve myself, to implement my own ideas. And I knew Charlie was cut the same way.
Munger: I kept one foot in the law practice until I knew it was going to work, and then I removed that foot. It took only a few months.
Buffett: I had been oriented toward cheap securities. Charlie said that was the wrong way to look at it. I had learned it from Ben Graham, a hero of mine. [Charlie] said that the way to make really big money over time is to invest in a good business and stick to it and then maybe add more good businesses to it. That was a big, big, big change for me. I didn't make it immediately and would lapse back. But it had a huge effect on my results. He was dead right.
Munger: I have a habit in life. I observe what works and what doesn't and why.
Buffett: The first real business we bought that way was See's Candies. It was an outstanding business. From my past, I didn't want to pay the last few million dollars.
Munger: The last few million? You didn't want to pay the last $25,000!
Buffett: Charlie kept reminding me that I was slipping into the Stone Age again. He's given me a lot more advice than I've given him. He lives a very rational life. I've never heard him say a word that expressed envy of anyone.
Munger: There's an old saying, "What good is envy? It's the one sin you can't have any fun at."
Buffett: Temperament is more important than IQ.
Munger: The other big secret is that we're good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his seventies and eighties, in many ways, than he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.

Peter Salovey & Judith Rodin

In 1981, Peter Salovey entered Yale as a grad student in psychology. He immediately gravitated toward Judith Rodin's work. "She was one of the people -- maybe the only person at the time -- who took basic lab work and used it to answer real-world questions," he says. Rodin and Salovey began working together, teacher and student, and have since become good friends. Today Salovey, 55, is Yale's president and a professor of psychology. Rodin, 69, is president of the Rockefeller Foundation and was previously president of the University of Pennsylvania. The pair recently spoke about some of their earliest collaborations and their ongoing learning from each other. --Ryan Bradley
Salovey: I remember an early meeting, where I was pitching ideas. Judy was helping me figure out which were good or bad. I spilled coffee all over her desk.
Rodin: On me! Not just my desk ...
Salovey: There's an old study that shows if you blunder, your likability goes up. But the thing is, you only get that effect if the person already thinks you're a competent person.
Rodin: Well, Peter was amazing right from the beginning. I try to train my students to consider what matters -- it's so easy to get lost in the ivory tower. In the end, particularly as psychologists, we really are trained to think about what people know and how they act and why that's important in terms of human action and progress.
Salovey: Judy never was interested in just doing the next experiment -- simply reading a few studies and doing the next logical one. Rather, it was to pick problems that are going to have some significant impact on the real world and be a little bit of a scholarly contrarian.
Rodin: This is something I continue to do, whether it's academic or business -- there are a lot of really good, interesting ideas, but only a few really spectacularly important ones. Don't be satisfied with the merely good.
Salovey: I remember once, we had a guest speaker, and afterward we all went out to dinner. He was explaining an experiment and noticing some phenomenon, and I remember Judy saying, "What's the big idea here?" It was clear this person was very smart but had never been asked that question.
Rodin: You need to be willing to take risks. The same holds true to be a great leader. "Don't screw it up" is terrible advice. Well, what does it mean? Don't be brave?

Photo: Robyn Twomey

Sylvia Mathews Burwell & Robert Rubin

The U.S. was two days from a debt default when Fortune sat down with White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, 48, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, 75. It was a scary moment. A deal to avert catastrophe would come together the next day, but that morning, as we gathered in an airy conference room in the Old Executive Office Building, the path forward was not clear. Burwell had been through this before -- she was Rubin's chief of staff at the Treasury Department in 1995. Then, facing similarly intransigent House Republicans threatening a debt default, the pair wrote the modern playbook for keeping the federal government solvent through such a crisis. --Tory Newmyer
Rubin: We actually met on the 1992 campaign. Somebody introduced me telephonically to Sylvia, who I'd never heard of. And I found here was this young person who had a tremendously good sense of how to deal with the press and see around corners. So I figured that I had a lot to learn from Sylvia.
Burwell: I would describe Bob's approach as Socratic, which is one that suits me as a Greek American.
Rubin: A professor I had in college said the best answer to almost any question is another question. And I believe that's right. During the budget crisis, it wasn't a matter of trying to teach anybody anything. It was really just the way we worked together. Sylvia and myself and a few other people, including our general counsel, figured out a way to borrow from the civil service pension funds, and that gave us the resources to continue to meet our bills for a long, long time.
Burwell: We were doing something new that hadn't been done before.
Rubin: It was sort of four-dimensional chess, and Sylvia could play the four dimensions plus another couple more if she had to.
Burwell: A lot of our conversations were about framing.
Rubin: If you weren't used to dealing with the press a lot, your tendency was, somebody would ask you a question and you'd just respond. But as Sylvia said, "If it's going to be digestible, you have to have some way of framing it that makes it digestible," and Sylvia was terrific at that. [The interview over, RUBIN stands and says to BURWELL] All right, good luck. Go save the country.

Photo: Robyn Twomey

Robbie Kaplan & Christie Smith

Christie Smith, managing principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, met Paul Weiss partner Roberta (Robbie) Kaplan at a professional networking event earlier this year. Kaplan, 47, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Edith Windsor, who sought to ensure that same-sex couples be entitled to the benefits of marriage under federal law. Though Kaplan (right) and Smith, 49, work in different fields, the two women became confidantes, and each has inspired the other professionally. --Stephanie N. Mehta
Smith: I was walking to my first dinner with Robbie, and I called Kelli, my wife, and I said, "I'm nervous! This woman has changed history. What am I going to talk to her about?" And Kelli said, without missing a beat, "Why don't you just let her be the big shot tonight?" I laughed. It was the perfect response.
Kaplan: I remember meeting you and immediately thinking, "(a) She's super-cool, and (b) Here's another married lesbian with kids, which is not something I encounter all that often."
Smith: The thing I've learned from Robbie is owning your place. There are responsibilities I've been asked to take on at work that had been done one way in the past. Upon reflection, I decided not to accept the status quo and follow someone else's path, but to create a new path.
Kaplan: When I became partner at Paul Weiss, it had to do with the ability to be what's known as a first-chair lawyer. It had much less to do with one's ability to get business. It's a different world today, and I want to be able to develop business and bring clients into the firm. Almost all the time I'm trying to develop business, I'm thinking of Christie, because she's so good at it. It's much harder for me to do this for myself. I might not have a problem saying those things in a courtroom, but saying those things in a meeting is different. So I try to channel Christie as much as I possibly can.

Cheskey: Courtesy Airbnb; Donahoe: David Paul Morris\/Getty

Brian Chesky & John Donahoe

eBay CEO John Donahoe met Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in 2012 through Marc Andreessen, the influential venture capitalist who sits on eBay's (ebay) board and whose firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Airbnb. Donahoe says he was seeking to meet "the best founder in Silicon Valley" because he had some questions on innovation and design, and Andreessen put the two CEOs together. They make an unlikely duo -- Donahoe, 53, was an econ major at Dartmouth, got an MBA at Stanford, and worked at Bain & Co. for nearly 20 years; Chesky, 32, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and started Airbnb to help pay his rent. Their intergenerational, intercorporate, interdependent relationship was what inspired Fortune to look for other pairs of non-colleagues who provide each other with good counsel, honest feedback, and the occasional encouraging word. --S.N.M.
Donahoe: Brian talks about having a "seven-star experience" [on Airbnb]. And I went back [to eBay] and said, "If we had a seven-star experience, what would that look like?" I wouldn't have asked that before I met Brian.
Chesky: I didn't really know how to scale a company. I had talked to a number of different people, but when I met John -- the amazing thing is, you can meet a lot of people, but you want to make sure the advice you get is relevant to you, and it's contemporary. How lucky could I be to find somebody in my market, a contemporary, with real lessons for right now? John helped me recently with the new organization we have for operations: How do I centralize operations and lean out the team? What do I need in different functions? How do I run a team? How do I manage a board? All these things I never even thought about because when you start a company, you don't think about the business, you don't think about the company, you think about the product.
Donahoe: Founders have incredible clarity of direction; often they're great at product and design. They're nimble, and they know how to drive execution faster. They have a faster cycle time. So I think part of what's happening both in our conversations and what's happening in the Valley is a bridging between the best of the small companies and the best of the large companies. The reality is big companies can learn a lot from startups and can benefit from founders. And I think the reciprocal is probably true.

Photo: David M. Benett\/Getty

Billie Jean King

On the worst advice she ever got:
"I don't like the advice that an athlete needs to go out on top. It's like telling the eighth-best journalist in the world, 'You used to be No. 1, so you should get out of the game.' I don't think you tell someone to quit. You deserve a full career, whether as an athlete, a performer, dancer, anyone. It's your choice. For some reason, for athletes, everyone wants us to quit when we're at our peak. It was what I was told, and I wish I hadn't been. Bill Bradley, when he played for the Knicks, talked about having a sense of completion, a circle of life to his career, and I like that. The important thing is, you decide. Don't let the world decide for you. Don't let others define you. You define yourself." --As told to R.B.

Illustration: Oliver Munday

The power of groupthink

Alexa von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, met Lucy Grayson Deland, COO of Paperless Post, at Harvard when they were freshmen. Daniella Yakobovsky, the cofounder of Bauble Bar, met von Tobel at Harvard Business School. While still in their twenties and living in New York City, the trio launched companies and found in their friendships a shared experience and an informal but vital advisory group. --Iris Mansour
Deland: The scariest thing is the fear of the unknown, and Alexa and I came from finance -- these stable regular jobs where you just keep showing up and getting a really nice paycheck.
Yakobovsky: Alexa was very good at talking us into taking risks. I remember she was like, "What's your biggest fear? That if it fails, you won't be able to find another job? That's ridiculous. If anything, this will make you more qualified to do even more than your private equity gig. What can you do now? Build a nice spreadsheet?"
Von Tobel: I do think that the support of other people who are in your same shoes is crucial. Having someone who can help share what they've learned frankly saves you time -- it's better than a book. Books go out of date.
Deland: I think hiring is one of those things that, no matter what your business, can really make or break things. And there are so many different mistakes you can make, from the timing of the hiring, what type of hire, the seniority of the hire ... People really don't want to share that information, and it is one of the most valuable resources you can have as a startup, that knowledge. I know that when we were starting ...
Von Tobel: ... we shared a lot of that together ...
Deland: We shared just about everything.

What's your #BestAdvice?

Tina Fey's best advice came from Oprah; Ray Kurzweil got his best advice soon after selling his company; Mike Bloomberg's best advice is from his first boss (after the client says yes, stop talking). We wondered where Fortune readers got their best advice, and what that advice might be. Here's what some had to say, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, and even a few who wrote us directly:
Jon Schwartz
From Shakespeare: "Neither a lender nor a borrower be."
Muna AbuSulayman
Best advice from my dad: Never work to sustain a lifestyle; that way you are always in charge, not your bills :)
Jenna Garza
Work until your idols become your rivals.
Sathish Kumar
Failure shapes nearly every facet of success!!!
As a longtime biz owner, the best advice I can give is regarding hiring: HIRE SLOW, FIRE FAST
Katie Couric
"No" isn't really so bad and "Yes" might take you places you'd never expect.
--Susan Stroman #BestAdvice
Travis Peres
Run your business like a marathon, but at night, with a flashlight, one hurdle at a time.
Bruce Straley
"Don't be an idiot." Best advice I ever got.
Peter Karpinski
In college, before I was CEO of Sage Restaurant Group, my lacrosse coach and mentor at West Point, Major David Nadeau, told me, "You don't have to worry about the next day if you truly believe in yourself, and can instill those feelings into others."