The Corner Office

Lessons from Buffet and Gates: The value of taking time to think


Warren Buffet is one of America’s most renowned entrepreneurs. However, his reputation did not make him above reproach from Bill Gates when, apocryphally, Buffet showed him his calendar, which had nothing on it. Gates was flabbergasted and asked how one of the busiest men on the planet could have a blank calendar, to which Buffet said, “I need time to think.”

Whether this conversation happened or exists as an executive’s fable, it resonated with me when I was a young manager building a career and trying to read everything I could about business philosophy.

I think back to that story now because, although it greatly impacted me, I’m the king of not taking my own advice. I recently realized that I’ve let the message of this story get away from me as I’ve been gearing up to launch a startup enterprise.

The experience has been like one giant Russian nesting doll. Every time we touch on a topic, that spawns needing to talk about 20 different sub-topics. So, the other key players in this enterprise and I have been going through this endless cycle of touching one macro-topic and then dealing with the fallout of 20 different micro-topics that then need to be addressed.

To illustrate this point, I distinctly remember a marketing conversation that led us to revamp our plans for a rewards-and-affinity program entirely. This led to more research, meetings and, in general, more time being consumed.

As I kept running on this endless treadmill of tasks and subtasks, my wife wisely asked, “Are you getting too close to this stuff?” I, ever the Proud Mary, responded: No, I was not getting too close to things and that she should leave me to keep churning over everything.

Like I said, the king of not taking my own advice.

Thankfully, despite my protests to the contrary, I did take my wife’s implication to heart and start considering that maybe I needed to step back for a minute. Usually, that could mean anything from taking a walk to my favorite pizza place or just going somewhere without my phone. In this instance, it meant taking a long weekend. (Yes, it was my wife’s idea; yes, I brought her along; and yes, of course, she was right to suggest it.)

So, in a panic, I resolved as much as I could, made sure that everyone was pointed in the right direction, cleared my whiteboards with one big, tortuous swing of my arm, and then left for my long weekend so that I couldn't stare longingly at said whiteboard and think of what to do next.

Upon my return, I found that clarity had come into my office while I’d been away. Instead of recreating the nitpicky list of every little thing I’d wiped away, I filled my whiteboard with macro concerns and dropped the micros.

In putting the macros in the right boxes, I avoided that feeling of pressure that comes with trying to implement processes today that might pay off four years in the future. Instead, I could take the more logical approach of looking at how far we could get today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

With this new outlook, I could go back to the team and discuss the next steps, and we all felt better with plans that focused more on immediacy. Instead of getting churned up in the details, taking the time to think and reset paid off, and all of us were vastly more productive because I could provide better leadership with a clearer head.

So my question to you, and I always love receiving feedback from this column, is how do you find your way to step back?

Stepping back doesn’t have to only coincide with a startup environment or a big launch. In fact, it’s just as valuable (if not more so) when you can gain perspective on day-to-day operations. I shared this story about a launch as proof of a concept, but how do you find time to breathe in the daily run of things?

Are you over-subscribed and over-scheduled as Bill Gates would want for an executive, or do you take a more Buffetonian approach and keep a manageable calendar that gives you time to go kayaking on the weekends?

I want to hear from you because all of us, at every leadership level, need to understand that, at the end of the day, our job is perspective. And if we aren’t making sure that we have clear perspectives, then we can’t pass that down to the people we’re meant to lead.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at


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