Best advice from CEOs: 40 execs’ secrets to success

Updated: Oct 31, 2014 2:22 PM UTC | Originally published: Oct 29, 2014
Photo: Stuart Isett\u2014Fortune Most Powerful Women

Warren Buffett

Chairman and CEO—Berkshire Hathaway
Advice for young women: “You do the same thing a male will do. You follow your passions. You find something you love. The truth is, so few people really jump on their jobs, you really will stand out more than you think. You will get noticed if you really go for it.”

Photo: Stuart Isett\u2014Fortune Most Powerful Women

Mary Barra

CEO—General Motors
Do something you are passionate about, do something you love. If you are doing something you are passionate about, you are just naturally going to succeed, and a lot of other things will happen that you don’t need to worry about. There are so many opportunities and choices that women can make or anyone can make about what they do. Do something you are passionate about. Life is too short.

Photo: Ryan Anson\u2014Bloomberg via Getty Images

Marc Andreessen

Co-Founder—Andreessen Horowitz
From Steve Martin, in his amazing book Born Standing Up: "Be so good they can’t ignore you."

Helena Foulkes

Executive Vice President—CVS Caremark Corporation
So I love to run. I like to run long distances. And part of it for me is sort of the joy of feeling the pain and the grit and knowing you have to dig deep. And I think a lot of times making business decision is like being a marathoner. In other words, you know what the finish line is that you really want to get to but, along the way, it’s not always pure joy. There are really hard moments. But if you keep your eye on the prize, it’s part of what drives you to get there.

Photo: Stuart Isett\u2014Forutne Most Powerful Women

Jeffrey Katzenberg

Co-founder—DreamWorks
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I saw the movie Spartacus when I was just 10 years old. And from that day on, Kirk Douglas was a hero to me. Thirty years later, I found myself sitting next to him at a charity event. He had just addressed the crowd in a more eloquent, elegant, and passionate way than I had ever heard anyone speak before. I asked him where that passion came from. That is when he said the most important words anyone has ever said to me: “You haven't learned how to live until you've learned how to give.”
What’s the best advice you like to give?
I don't think it matters how small or how big the task is, if you can do it just a little bit better than what is expected, you will be noticed and rewarded. At DreamWorks, with every movie we make, we start out with the ambition and the goal to exceed the expectations of our audience. We may not succeed every time, and you may not either, but we sure do try.

Photo: China Foto Press\/Getty Images

Meg Whitman

Chairman, President and CEO—Hewlett-Packard
It helps having run for governor of California—unsuccessfully—because it gives you a very thick skin. But in fact, you’ve got to get people who are up for the challenge. That leads to this notion of enthusiasm, of eagerness, of the willingness to throw yourself into a situation where you may not fully understand the outcome.
Tips for leading a happy and successful career: Be clear what matters most. And what matters most is your family. There are tradeoffs that you will make, but remember, at the end of the day that is probably the most important group of people in your lives, and that has been true for me from day one.
Do something that you love. We spend a lot of time at work. I’ve probably spent 150 hours over the last couple of weeks. And so you have to find something that you love and I think you need to do it with people who you really enjoy. I get tremendous satisfaction from the team—the joy of collaboration from figuring things out together. And so I think teams and the people that you work with are incredibly important.
My advice to young people is if you find yourself in a company where you’re being asked to do something that you don’t think is right or you’re feeling uncomfortable about the leadership and the direction of the company, run, do not walk, for the doors.

Photograph by Tom Campbell\u2014Courtesy of WPP

Martin Sorrell

CEO—WPP Group
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My father told me to find something you enjoy doing, work hard at it and develop a reputation in the field, and then, if you want to start something on your own, go ahead. If you enjoy your work, then it is not work. This goes against current conventional wisdom, which encourages flitting from job to job.
What is the best advice that you like to give?
"Get on with it!" Or my motto, "persistence and speed."

Ginni Rometty

Chairman, President and CEO—IBM
Never protect the past. If you never protect the past, I think ... you will be willing to never love [it] so much [that] you wont let it go, either.
Never define yourself as a product and, in fact, I would augment it; never define yourself by your competition, either. If you live and define yourself by your product or competition, you will loose sight of who your customer is.

Steve Collis

President and CEO—AmerisourceBergen
The best advice I have ever received came from my father: “It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish it.”
The best advice I can give is well-represented in this quote from Victor Frankl: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

Indra Nooyi

Chairman and CEO—PepsiCo
Embrace tough assignments. Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s easier to take the path of least resistance by signing up for an easy job, doing it well, and moving on to something bigger. The problem with that theory is that nobody notices when you do an easy job well. It’s far better to challenge yourself by raising your hand for the toughest assignments and work to solve problems that no one else has been able to solve. That’s how you truly become a trusted leader inside an organization.
Never stop learning. Whether you’re an entry level employee fresh out of college or a CEO, you don't know it all. Admitting this is not a sign of weakness. The strongest leaders are those who are lifelong students.

Photo: Chris Ratcliffe\u2014bloomberg via getty images

Andrew Liveris

Chairman, President and CEO—Dow Chemical
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Very early on in my career, I received the following advice from an older Chinese businessman in Hong Kong: There are three pillars to society: the rule of law, the rule of logic, and the rule of relationships. In the West, these are prioritized as follows: first law, second logic, third relationships. In the East, it's exactly the opposite: first relationships, then logic, then law. All are indispensable. But what's most important is to understand that the starting points are different.
What advice do you like to give?
People can be bought with their pockets and they can be stimulated with their brains. But only if you win their hearts will they give you their fullest efforts driven by their passions.

Lloyd Blankfein

Chairman and CEO—Goldman Sachs
My advice is to focus on becoming a complete person. Everyone should focus on the content of his or her job, of course. But work is not the end; it's a means to an end. You owe it to yourself to open up to broader interests. And in the end, it will be better for your career because you will be more interesting and attractive to others.

Melinda Gates

Co-chair—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
It is hard for women who have families to juggle work and career and busy lives.
On the day I die, I want people to think that I was a great mom and a great family member and a great friend. I care about that more than I care about anything else.
One of the things I was most impressed about when Bill and I met Warren Buffett very early on was he introduced us to his friends. And Warren has the most high quality set of friends you could meet, and these are friends that he has had over his lifetime. And it really got me thinking, "wow, I better cultivate my friends."
Warren does little things with his friends, like he will send you an article of something he is thinking about, reading about. That was a way to help me think about my friends.
One more thought: There is a person who helped me in the business community, that’s helped me with some leadership consulting and even management of the foundation. He has two older sons, and when I was really struggling with three young kids—and with the foundation growing and changing CEOs—he just said to me, ‘Melinda, you don’t get a do-over with your kids.’
So, the foundation is a marathon for me, not a sprint. And I always have to remember that, at the end of the day, my kids come first.

Photograph by Nicholas Kamm\u2014AFP\/Getty Images

Larry Summers

Former U.S. Secretary of Treasury
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It's never as good as you think it is when you think it's good. It's never as bad as you think when you think it’s bad. (Told to me by my tennis coach when I was a kid.)
“Not everything can be the Alamo.” —Bob Rubin
What advice do you like to give?
Don’t be fungible. Have a distinctive expertise or perspective.
And make reversible errors. If you act and regret it, you can't take it back. If you don't act and regret it, you can often act.

Andrés Gluski

President and CEO—The AES Corporation
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Great managers turn hard times into opportunities for change. Likewise, generals are proven only in the heat of battle, not on the parade grounds. So, be mentally prepared for challenging times.
What advice do you like to give?
Never make an important decision while you are feeling emotional; either too happy, surprised, or angry. Similarly, never make a big decision until you have talked it over with people you trust who are knowledgeable about the matter. Then, be decisive once you have heard them out.

Robert B. Pollock

CEO—Assurant
When I was growing up, I noticed that my mom spent a lot of time on the phone in silence. She’d be on the phone for an hour but would only talk for a few minutes. I asked her why she didn’t talk more, and she said, “You learn the most when your mouth is closed and your ears are open.” She was right.

Francisco D'Souza

CEO—Cognizant
The best advice I received was from my ethics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. After spending a semester teaching us about laws and regulations, he told us that in our careers, we should apply a simple test when making important decisions. “If this were on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, would your mom and dad be proud of you?” His advice has guided me for over 20 years, whenever I had to make decisions that were not always black and white.
What advice do you like to give?
In a world of scarcity, the critical skill is to maximize opportunities. In the new world, where everything is abundant, the critical skill is to make good choices. We will have more opportunities in our lives than we could possibly have time to pursue. So the choices we make have even more significance.

Camco Clean Energy CEO Scott McGregor.

Scott McGregor

President and CEO—Broadcom
It’s called “The front page of the newspaper test,” and it goes something like, “Don't do, say, or write anything you wouldn't want published on...” I suppose it applies equally to the cover of Fortune magazine. Anyway, it's useful advice that has helped guide some of my key decisions over the years—not because it kept me from doing potentially dumb or embarrassing things, but rather because it's a simple reminder that the more complex our business decisions get, the greater the need to be accountable and transparent to our employees, our customers, our partners, and to the communities around the world where we work and live. Have we thought things through from everyone's perspective? Can we explain and defend our decisions in public?
I'm even more fond of the flip-side corollary: A year from now, what's the story I want to see published on the cover of Fortune or the front page of the newspaper? It’s a good motivation for managers to set their goals and to work hard to achieve them. After all, managing to achieve success is a heck of a lot better than managing to avoid embarrassment. Even so, sometimes I wonder if tomorrow’s business leaders will remember someone advising them, “Don’t post anything on your Facebook page that you wouldn't want your parents to see.”

Photo: Chris Keane\u2014Reuters

Susan Cameron

President and CEO—Reynolds American
If you don't like the people or the products or services you work with, don't stay! You will only be successful if you are passionate about what you are doing and enjoy the people you are doing it with.

Jerome Peribere

CEO—Sealed Air
My supervisor, the CEO of the company at the time, had noticed that I was struggling for several months over the findings of a recent acquisition. He told me, “The acquisition has been made, the legacy issues simply need to be identified so we can address them. The bad news is not about you. Detach yourself from what you are finding. Clear your mind so you can see things positively.”

Jim Lillie

CEO—Jarden
After graduating from college, I would go to my father’s office late at night, after everyone had left, to use the IBM Selectric typewriter to send out resumes. I wanted to get a job in human resources. After what seemed like an eternity of letter writing, which in fact was only about four weeks, I received offers from two companies in Chicago. One was with Wendy’s as a recruiter for $24,000. The other, lower paying offer was as an HR generalist at an automotive company. When I discussed the offers with my dad, he told me to take the job that would give me the experience I wanted and the best foundation for growth, sage advice. My father also told me that, since I was an unemployed lifeguard living at home, $18,000 was still $18,000 more than what I was making. I took the lower paying job.
I tell people starting out in business to care about their reputation. Their reputation will outlive the last quarter, how the year ended, or whether or not the deal got done. People remember character—how you act and behave. No one remembers what multiple you paid or how great an investment it was. But they remember if you were a good person, whether you were fair, and how compassionate you were. I tell people that they are paid to make difficult decisions but how they communicate and execute those decisions will last a lifetime. Life is a long time and deals will come and go, but your reputation will always stay with you.

Photo: Jon Vachon\u2014Getty Images

Megyn Kelly

Anchor, The Kelly File—Fox News
My boss told me, "People will imitate you. They will try to do what you do. Never worry about them, because there’s only one you. So whatever you’re doing that makes you special, they can imitate it. But they can never be the same person, with the same delivery, with the same gifts and so on." Once you accept that and it’s not a zero sum game, you can be more embracing, I think.
Back in the day when I was unhappily married and unhappily working, I heard a brilliant man by the name of Dr. Phil say the only difference between you and someone you envy is you settle for less. And it just spoke to me. It just spoke to me like, "Yes. That’s exactly right." So, settle for more. That was me. I just started to change my life, little by little. And success breeds success.

Michael F. Mahoney

President and CEO—Boston Scientific
The best advice I ever got was from my father. He is a big believer in being true to yourself and others, but also in dreaming big. As a leader, I try to encourage my team to be bold and to embrace calculated risks. At the same time, we should be authentic and grounded in the realities of business today.
Good leaders put their teams first and create an environment where employees feel empowered to share ideas and feedback. Invest in your people and they will be invested in your business.

Mike Petters

President and CEO—Huntington Ingalls Industries
My dad told me numerous times that “we are darn lucky to be born in this country and we should repay that through service.” For him, that meant military service. And while I did serve in the military, as did my four brothers and sister, my definition of service has broadened. I believe that service can include any number of occupations where the end goal is to help someone or something become better than before. Building Navy ships fits that description but so does teaching or research or community service. It’s about doing something that is bigger than yourself.
I am a firm believer that leadership is a craft. I run an engineering and manufacturing company that builds complex military ships and provides engineer services for sophisticated products. But it’s the nearly 40,000 people who make us who we are, and they deserve the best leaders possible. Leadership should never be taken for granted. Just like welding, or engineering, or accounting, leadership is a skill that requires investment and practice.

Darren Huston

CEO—The Priceline Group
In business and life in general, it is far more important (and difficult) to decide what you are not going to do than what you are going to do. Try to replay every direction in the negative: this means we won’t do X, Y, and Z. Focus and simplicity are workforce multipliers.
To people starting their careers, remember to invest in your strengths versus just shoring up your weaknesses. This will increase your chance of finding success, meaning, and purpose in life and, frankly, it is also a lot more fun.

Ken Hicks

Chairman and CEO—Foot Locker
The best advice I received was from my First Sergeant Oliver Hall when I was in the service. “Take care of your people and they will take care of you. More people get fired from below them than above them.”
My advice to all I work with: “Be Honest. Think. Try your hardest. If you do that, that is all I can ask.” And “don’t eat yellow snow.”

Hikmet Ersek

President and CEO—Western Union
Top leaders should put themselves in other people’s shoes and listen. If you listen to people, whether they are from the U.S. or Spain, Bangladesh or Brazil, Mexico or Russia, whether they are rich or poor, white or black, male or female, old or young, they make you grow, they keep you innovative, they keep you active.
Do not look at the bottom of the pyramid or emerging markets as a problem to be solved; see it as an opportunity to make a difference, to change the quality of the lives of the underserved by giving them dignity. Nothing is wrong with maximizing shareholder value by serving the underprivileged.

Walt Bettinger

President and CEO—Charles Schwab
The best advice I’ve ever received came in a simple reminder from my late father: “Most things in the world can be bought or sold, but not a reputation. ” With these few words of great wisdom, my father instilled in me a framework for behavior, interactions with others, and decision making that shapes my actions every day.
On my desk sits a stone plaque facing every visitor that reads, “Riches are what money cannot purchase and death cannot take away.” It is a constant reminder to genuinely know and live our priorities. Technology advances and a 24-hour business cycle can place demands on us that overwhelm our lives. Remember, work-life balance is a myth. All we have is our priorities. Watch where someone spends their time and sets their priorities and you will know what is truly important to them. My best advice is not simply for others, it also applies to me.

Joe Rigby

Chairman, President and CEO—Pepco Holdings
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My dad lived through the Great Depression and he’d say, “Take the job at the utility. You won’t make a lot of money, but you’ll always keep a roof over your family. And taking care of your family is the most important thing you’ll do in your life.”
What advice do you like to give?
Don’t worry too much about the material things. Be sure to experience life because this isn’t a dress rehearsal—it’s happening right now.

Harold (Max) Messmer

Chairman and CEO—Robert Half
The best advice I ever received and best advice I have given others is to read and learn from the children’s book The Little Engine That Could. It’s a simple tale with a powerful message that applies as much today as ever. When I was a young child my parents read me this book, and they reminded me as I grew to always persevere in achieving my goals, never make excuses, and never listen to naysayers. I love that it gives children the message to not back down from a challenge. What seems insurmountable is achievable with optimism and hard work.

Jen-Hsun Huang

CEO—Nvidia
See the world without bias, like a child. Be curious. Keep learning.
Think. But don't over think. The only way to really know is to try. Make mistakes. Learn. Then try again.
You can learn from everyone and anyone, but be yourself.
‎Passionately dedicate yourself to your craft. It will give your life meaning.
Expect excellence from yourself and those around you. When you believe, amazing things will happen.
Pour everything you have into everything you do. Then, success or failure, there will be no regrets because you did your best.
I apply these principles every day and they’ve served me well.

F. Michael Ball

CEO—Hospira
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: it’s all about focus on the thing that will make the biggest impact on the business. Don’t be distracted by the little things. In every company I’ve been in, I share this and live by it—it provides insight into what we should work on and what I value. People remember that I say it and, in turn, ensure their people focus on the priorities.
Decades ago, a colleague introduced me to a simple concept that has shaped much of my philosophy around people management: Don’t tell it “like it is,” tell it “as it could be.” In most cases, people understand the reality of the situation; the job of the manager is to provide an inspiring view of the future. I have found that people are far more willing to align and “give it all” when they understand the destination, and this drives both the employee and the organization to the best results.

Brad Barron

President and CEO—NuStar Energy
From Judge Oliver Seth, Federal Circuit Judge for the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals: “You have the rest of your life to become a lawyer. You should take some time to learn to be a human being first.”
Advice I give to job seekers: “Don’t choose your first job based on money. Rather, choose a place to work that fits your values. Ultimately, you will be more successful in a job you love than in one you hate." There’s a well-known quote that sums it up best, "Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Bill Cobb

CEO—H&R Block
The best advice I ever received is that “risk is your friend.” Most people think of risk as something to avoid, but we should be thinking of it as an opportunity. If you look at history and think about the people who have influenced the world we live in today, they are those who were willing to think boldly, be disruptive, and venture into the unknown. You will fail some of the time, but the outcome will always be the same if you never take the risk.
The best advice I’ve given is to be flexible in your leadership style. Leaders should bring out the best in their people and that means learning to adapt to the situation and how people like to communicate in a team setting. Everyone has their own background and their own way of going about the day-to-day. A good leader knows to exhibit the right style for each person they meet in their daily dealings. Being more in touch with those you manage and understanding how they want to be managed makes all the difference.

Rick Goings

Chairman and CEO—Tupperware Brands
What's the best advice you've ever received?
“The only money that you are ever really worth is the money you earn when you don’t work. So keep your lifestyle below your income and build your passive income pile.” —Jim Dunstan, Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia
What advice do you like to give?
It is both interesting and understandable that our resumes, bios, and even public introductions mostly focus on achievements, awards, and honors. And that’s nice! Yet it is often our failures, flops, and even face plants that are the most vital part of shaping us. These are the things that “make us.”

Mike Pratt

CEO—Guitar Center
I’m a longtime fan of MMA and the UFC. These are more than just fighters, they’re elite athletes with incredible mental discipline and intelligence. For me, there’s no better ambassador for the sport than UFC Champion George St. Pierre. I remember something he said before a big fight a few years ago: “I always train with better wrestlers than me, better boxers than me, better jujitsu guys than me. When you train with people who are better than you, it keeps challenging you. By challenging me it makes me better. It makes you better develop your skills than someone who is always training with the same people over and over again. I have a very good team.”
This quote is more than just a strategic approach to training effectively before a fight, it’s an idea that made a lot of sense to me as a leader as well. I think it’s just as important for me to surround myself with leaders who are smarter than me and with more diverse skill sets than mine. I also try to keep a good balance of leaders on my team; people who have been with the company a long time and smart hires from outside the organization who bring a different approach and experience to the table as well. Building a team with the intellectual horsepower to challenge my own ideas and conventional business thinking is important to me, and it’s had a tremendous impact on my own leadership development over the years.

Tom Gimbel

Founder and CEO—LaSalle Network
You will have meetings where prospects have a perception of your company—most of it based on other people’s performance. Own it. Look people in the eye, say you know it wasn't great, and you were hired to fix it. If it was good, say it wasn’t your work, but you won't take their business for granted. Then service it like crazy.
Sell. Don't apologize for it and don’t be afraid to beg with a positive, up-beat attitude. Tell prospects you want their business and you will kick ass once you’ve earned it. Have no shame, pride doesn't pay the rent.

Hayley Barna

Co-founder and Co-CEO—Birchbox
"Never compare your weaknesses to someone else’s strengths.” This was advice given to my husband during business school and a mantra we always repeat to each other when we are frustrated about how others are able to make things that are hard for us look easy. It reminds me that while comparisons are tempting, especially for competitive, ambitious people, it’s always important to focus on your own special talents. That's how you can make a real impact. And it's the coordination of everyone's unique skills that can make magic happen.

Stacey Boyd

Founder and CEO—Schoola
Don Fisher, the founder and CEO of The Gap who passed away a couple of years ago, told me when he was in his seventies that even after several decades of hiring, he made the right hiring decisions only half of the time. As importantly, he knew whether it was a good (or bad) decision to hire within two weeks of someone starting the job. He urged acting swiftly when the fit wasn't right. He believed, as I now do, that waiting to make a change will only make a bad decision worse.

Christopher Koelsch

President and CEO—Los Angeles Opera
Stay as close to the end product as possible. As a leader, the buck stops with you on every subject, and every knotty problem lands on your desk—and it’s tempting to direct your full attention to the crisis of the moment. But it’s crucial to keep a substantial part of your focus on the core mission and values of the institution—in my case, to remain in perpetual close contact with the artists and artisans that are responsible for the product we put on our stage.
Don’t be afraid of tension and conflict. While it’s crucial that a leader not foment strife, it is equally important to have ballast against conventional wisdom, groupthink, and the path of least resistance. This is especially true in the opera house, where creative tension is absolutely essential in creating a product for the audience with maximum musical and theatrical rigor.