Priceless lessons from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Warren Buffett and Bill GatesLast week two of the world’s richest men spoke to a CNBC town hall event at Columbia University. One student, seeking career advice, asked which industry would “create the next Bill Gates”. Whilst Bill mentioned several, Warren simply said, “find what turns you on”, explaining that if he’d been drawn in by the opportunity in “Bill’s” industry, he “wouldn’t have done so well”.

Later in the interview, when asked what advice they might give to students who didn’t know what to do yet, they both returned to the same theme. Warren advised “do what you would do if … the money meant nothing to you… You’ll have more fun and be more successful”. Bill used a phrase straight out of Jim Collins’s hedgehog concept: “find a thing that you’re passionate about, and that you’re good at”. The statements sound so simplistic, it’s easy to overlook how powerful the application of these principles can be.

Not only is it great career advice, it is great business advice too, with examples like Steve Jobs, James Dyson, Richard Branson and Ferran Adria (World’s Best Restaurant 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009), to name but a few. Each began by working hard at, and becoming extremely good at, the thing they were passionate about, and then worked out how to make lots of money as they went along. Each surrounded themselves with others who shared their passions and values, and created powerful, focused and distinctive organisations as a result.

Having a clear, shared passion for something that others will value, gives three major advantages to an organisation.

1. People advantage: when an organisation is passionate about what it wants to do, it attracts similarly passionate people (outsiders that aren’t, rarely get hired by the insiders that are), creating a unique and empowered culture. 

2. Execution advantage: a strategy is worthless unless it can be delivered. Having a strategy that keys into the passion in the organisation is half the delivery battle. In the best organisations, the strategy is simply about realising that passion.

3. Competitive advantage: passion creates differentiation, which in turn creates attractive markets. When a company is explicitly passionate in a tightly focused way, it defines it’s own consumer-base and creates communities of advocates. 

Being clear about what you, as an organisation, are passionate about, is key to making good decisions in many areas, from recruitment and development, to strategy, marketing and even M&A. Finding your passion may be, as Warren and Bill point out, the key to a successful and fulfilling career, but it’s also the key to a great organisation.

Ask the people in your business what they are passionate about. Listen carefully to what they say. Is there a single, consistent tune? Is there an underlying theme? Or is there a cacophony of different sounds? Ask the question, and you might learn far more than you expect.