There’s an old joke that goes like this: One day on the campaign trail, the President and the First Lady were driving down a highway when they came across a group of inmates in orange jumpsuits laboring in a field beside the road. “See honey,” the President said to the First Lady, “you’re lucky to be married to me. You could have been his wife. The First Lady turned, looked back at the President and, smiling, said: “Honey, if I was married to him, he would have been President.”
Behind every great man, some say, is a better woman.
Last Thursday, I had the rare and exclusive privilege to attend “Keeping America Great”, a CNBC-moderated town hall event at Columbia Business School with two incredible men: Warren Buffett, MS ’51, and Bill Gates. Buffett and Gates, the introduction announced, were returning to school, not to learn, but to teach.
Students asked questions about the influence of greed on the financial crisis, Buffett’s purchase of Burlington Northern, career advice, Steve Jobs and what keeps them up at night.
One student asked what advice they had for those who were unclear about what to do in life?
“First of all,” Buffett replied, “I’d say marry the right person. And I’m serious about that. It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspiration, all kinds of things. It’s enormously important who you marry.”
“Oddly,” writes Roger Lowenstein in his Buffett biography, “when Buffett graduated in 1951, both (Benjamin) Graham and his father advised him not to go into stocks.” Buffett offered to work for Graham for free but Graham turned him down, saying he was still overpriced. Rather than take another job on Wall Street, Buffett returned to Omaha where he began to court Susan Thompson. The two married in 1952. Two years later, he was hired by Graham and the Dow had its best bull run since 1942. In 1954, the Dow (including dividends) rose 50 percent. Three years later Buffett opened his Partnership and the rest, as they say, is history.
Similarly, Bill Gates met his wife at a Microsoft press conference in 1987, “coincidentally” just before the company’s meteoric rise (see stock chart below).
Now, if I learned anything in statistics, there is clearly a positive correlation here. This poses an interesting question. Would Buffett and Gates had such tremendous runs as single men?
Which leads me to a question posed by Dean Glenn Hubbard. He asked the two men how they would develop business leaders who understand context and connect the dots.
“Some never learn, you know,” Buffett replied. “Having sound principles takes you through everything. And the bedrock principles that really I learned from Graham and Dodd, I haven’t had to do anything with them. They take me through good periods. They take me through bad periods. In the end, I don’t worry about them because I know they work.”
Teaching principles has become the new hot topic among business schools. “A year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers,…” a recent article in The Economist questioned, “will (MBAs) be taught to do things differently?”
Along these lines a student asked Buffett whether ethics could be taught in business school.
“Well, I think the best place to learn ethics,” Buffett replied, “is in the home.” (see video clip)
As the event progressed, I began to realize that the event was less about teaching future business leaders about business and more about teaching future business leaders folksy home-grown values.
So allow me to attempt to provide context and connect the dots: a strong partner leads to a successful marriage, which leads to good family values and ethics, good business, and keeping America great. Or in mathematical terms:
Then again, I should have gathered this from the event’s own introduction. Buffett and Gates were returning to school, the introduction announced, “not to learn, but to teach, showing the next generation of business leaders that wealth is not about the money you amass, but the number of lives you enrich.”
So was Buffett’s marriage his most important investment?
If so, please take note: We don’t need a revised MBA curriculum, just more social mixers! Two Columbia Business School students, Mandy Tang ’10 and Lori Clement ’10, are already leading this charge with a new company called Pom Pom Love, a “NYC-based, fun-loving singles events company.”
Cover photo credit: Eileen Barroso