Warren Buffett's Best Career Advice for a Woman Starting Out

Warren Buffett's Best Career Advice for a Woman Starting Out
Last month, I boarded a flight to Omaha, Nebraska, so excited I didn’t have an appetite for the in-flight pretzels.
As a member of Smart Woman Securities, a national organization that educates undergraduate women on investing and pursuing business careers, I’d landed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Warren Buffett. 

Yep, you heard me: Warren Buffett. The legendary investor and second richest man in the world was offering his time to meet with a select number of students in his hometown—and by who knows what luck, I was a part of it. That plane flight was the only thing standing between me and the chance to pick the brain of one of the world’s most powerful leaders.

“Anything and everything” was the theme of our interactions with Buffett from the moment we arrived. As our group asked him the questions we’d spent weeks researching and preparing, he responded spontaneously with youthful energy, a witty sense of humor, and down-to-earth candor. 

Here are a few pieces of wisdom from the legend himself:

COMMUNICATION FOR THE WIN

“If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark.”

Fair point, Mr. Buffett. In other words, drawing on his own experience taking a Dale Carnegie public speaking course in his early twenties and the impact it had on his career, Buffett declared that communication is the most important skill for success in the workplace. Of all the skills we develop and practice from time management to teamwork, communication is what holds everything else together.
“The record is the record, and nobody can ever take that away from you in the workplace.”

EVEN WHEN YOU’RE CRITICIZED, HOLD ON TO YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS

As career-focused, ambitious women, we’ve all faced adversity and subtle (or sometimes, not so subtle) sexism in the workplace. It can be disheartening and frustrating, but Buffett advises that even in those moments, you should never lose sight of your achievements:

“The record is the record, and nobody can ever take that away from you in the workplace.” 

So next time someone undermines your hard work, remember that your track record speaks for itself and use it to your advantage. 
“Know the perimeter of your ‘Circle of Competence.’ Do what you know, and excel at it.” 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING

In today’s world, we’re often told to take on more projects, find ways to do more with our time, and add more skills to our toolboxes. It’s always “more, more, more,” but for Buffett, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Instead, he’s championed the concept of a “Circle of Competence,” a way to focus our efforts on things we really get and are passionate about. Buffett applies the model when he chooses to invest in companies that he can fully understand and avoids those with more ambiguous business models and unpredictable forecasts. Buffett encouraged us to apply the “Circle of Competence” beyond investing:

“Know the perimeter of your ‘Circle of Competence.’ Do what you know, and excel at it.”

Find that one thing you really love doing and are great at, and well, go to town. The best decisions are made when you’re operating in a space you really understand. This isn’t to say that you should never step out of your comfort zone, but if you’ve found your niche, why focus elsewhere?

HUNT DOWN INTEGRITY, INTELLIGENCE, AND ENERGY 

Buffett has a sixth sense for a person’s character (he’s closed deals in just five minutes with a handshake), and he advised all of us that it’s these three qualities that are most important.

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” 

The emphasis on integrity really resonated with me since I’d largely taken it for granted. It isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the ideal colleague or the kind of leader I want to become. While we all value integrity, it’s often being “a great team player,” “smart and efficient,” or “curious and proactive” that we prioritize. But if you think more about it, Mr. Buffett is absolutely right—integrity is one of those qualities that can’t be learned on the job or improved by attending a workshop. So the next time you’re interviewing a candidate or looking for a business partner, try to get a feel for trust. It’s something you’ll never want to compromise on. 

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Buffett’s personality was truly the icing on the cake. I can’t think of many other multi-billionaires who live in an ordinary house, proudly cite a “Cherry Coke and hamburger” as their favorite meal (is this actually the secret to success?), and only own one car, let alone offer to have dinner with a group of college women. Just for kicks, I’ll close with another bit of his sage advice: “If you want a marriage that will last, marry someone with low expectations.” I’ll let you interpret this one on your own.


What would you ask Warren Buffett if you had a chance to meet him? 

Photo: Kent Sievers