Thoughts on Leadership: The Long-term Investment of a Team

By Gino Blefari:

This week my travels find me at home, starting Tuesday (after the July 4th holiday on Monday) with early Berkshire Hathaway Energy calls, WIG calls and then a flight to Orange County. Yesterday, I participated in a strategy meeting with Chris Kelly, president and chief executive officer of Ebby Halliday Companies about our upcoming Stronger Together event happening this August in San Diego and attended various meetings with our Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices team. Today, as I travel back to Northern California, I look out my airplane window and reflect on the ideas Chris and I shared.

As it turns out, the meeting coincided with me stumbling on a video posted to YouTube documenting Steve Jobs’ 1992 appearance at MIT. It was during that time when he left Apple (he’d later return) and used $12 million of his own money to start a computer company called NeXT. A participant at the MIT session posed this question to Jobs: “What was the most important thing you personally learned at Apple that you’re doing at NeXT?”

Jobs, dressed in his classic black turtleneck, with long hair and a full beard, quickly responded: “Good question.” Then he paused, tilted his head a bit, seemingly formulating his reply and calculating years’ worth of leadership at one of the world’s most successful tech companies. He raised one eyebrow. Leaned his arm against the podium and stood in silence for sixteen long seconds, blinking and staring at the floor. No one in the crowd dared to say a thing as this maestro of marketing and prodigy of progress – the epitome of a Stronger Together leader – was poised deep in thought.

Finally, his answer, delivered in his signature slow and intentional style: “I’m not sure I learned this at Apple, but I learned it based on the data when I was at Apple, and that is: I now take a longer-term view on people. In other words, when I see something not being done right, my first reaction isn’t to go fix it; It’s to say, ‘We’re building a team here and we’re going to do great stuff for the next decade… not just the next year. And so, what do I need to do to help so that the person who’s screwing up learns vs. how do I fix the problem?’ And that’s painful sometimes because I still have that first instinct to go fix the problem. But that’s taking a longer-term view on people.”

Jobs’ longer-term view on people is the best ideology for a leader and for the business they lead, a strategy to empower and retain your top team members – and recruit ones just like them. In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, author Liane Davey is quoted as saying, “Talent is attracted to possibility, opportunity and agency. You will lose great people if your team is always talking about why it can’t rather than how it can.”

As a leader, it is your role to coach, and often that means avoiding what Jobs identified as that micromanaging of small corrections, which do not contribute to a longer-term vision for team chemistry and overall business success. It’s how you’ll move away from being a boss or manager in their eyes and be seen by your team as a leader, as a mentor and as a respected coach. My good friend Dwight Clark, (“The Catch”) told me Bill Walsh, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, would tell us (49er teammates), “Champions behave like champions before they are champions.”

Trust your team to deliver a championship rather than forcing the team to get that one single win. As the saying goes, sometimes you must lose the battle to win the war.

As the market shifts and achievement is reserved for those willing to put in the necessary work to accomplish it, trust that your strongest team members will not merely survive this environment; they’ll thrive in it.

Dwight also told me that Walsh said: “I’ve observed that if individuals who prevail in a highly competitive environment have one thing in common besides success, it is failure – and the ability to overcome it.”

Allowing your team to fail is one of the very best things you can do. And not allowing them to fail can be catastrophic. Consider the example of Volkswagen. Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn had called on his team to launch a new diesel engine to lower fuel emissions and increase efficiency. It was a bold goal and one he would not allow his team to fail in accomplishing. During production, the team identified several critical problems but because they believed there was no room for failure, they didn’t address them with Winterkorn. A Fortune magazine article would later state: “Under former CEO Martin Winterkorn and former chairman Ferdinand Piece, VW developed a culture of declaring titanic ambitions and ruthlessly punishing anyone who failed to perform [their] assigned tasks in achieving them … managers felt they could not tell the truth to their superiors. So, they cheated.”

Because there was not a Jobs-esque culture at Volkswagen of accepting failure and empowering employees to move beyond it, the company lost billions of dollars – and their previously solid reputation.

So, what’s the message? Mistakes will happen. Challenges will arise, especially in this shifting market. However, it’s not a question of whether problems will appear but how you deal with them when they do. Above all else that defines a legacy of leadership and a company’s long-term vision for success.

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