Buffett and Picasso

May 4, 2022

On the heels of CG Councils in Chicago, and last weekend in Omaha, I’m now preparing two talks this week on creativity and art: one at CarMax today, and another a keynote in Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, on Friday.

So, I’m living Picasso and Buffett this week.

Quick update on Omaha: it went really well. 

As you may recall, we brought senior leaders and young people out to Omaha last weekend for a special “Insider Experience” of the Woodstock for Capitalism, Warren Buffett’s annual meeting.

This year, I was needlessly worried ahead of time about whether the adults would be OK with the young people attending.

I am happy to report — I was wrong. 

The adults *loved* interacting with these engaged young people who have been reading Warren Buffett’s letters with us over the last few years. 

And they loved mentoring. 

Here’s an example of the feedback we are hearing:

Hey Phyl, just want to say thanks for putting together that Berkshire meeting. The content was fantastic, and you had such a great group of people attend. Also, I loved the mentoring part of the program. 

CG moderator and WBRG (Warren Buffett Reading Group) co-founder, Melissa Norcross, ran the speed mentoring session that this attendee is referencing and which everyone loved (see photo in collage below).

And it was a big hit to have the young people also participate in my Friday afternoon talk on the history, philosophy, and design principles of Buffett and Berkshire (see more photos in collage below).

Attendees especially loved the moments when the young people got up and presented in front of all of us *and* in front of senior executives from Berkshire Hathaway including:

  • The CIO and CTO of GEICO
  • The CEO of Burlington Northern (largest Class 1 railroad in the U.S. and owned by Berkshire) 
  • And Tim Cook, who promised to watch remotely as one of the young people presented on Apple (Apple is a major investee of Berkshire)

One of the most memorable moments came when Syona G, a junior in high school, finished presenting on Burlington Northern. 

Katie Farmer, the BNSF CEO, shot her hand up first and asked Syona, “What are you doing in six years?” (see Syona and Katie in photo collage below).

My biggest highlight was meeting IRL all of these wonderful students we have taught via Zoom over the last 2 years.

And my most delightful post-Berkshire moment came today when Katie Farmer emailed  and said spending time with us was the “highlight” of her weekend (big praise obviously).

Now post-Omaha, I switch gears to talk about creativity and art.

The theme of my talks this week involves how to create an environment for creativity. 

Interestingly, Buffett does this well.

He shows us how through the radical design of Berkshire. 

They have 372,000 employees and only *26* people in headquarters.

At HQ, they do not review budgets. 

At HQ, they do not have a legal counsel or central HR operation (some of the individual divisions have these functions – it’s up to them).

At HQ, they do not tell each of the divisions what to do or even how to work together.

They do not try to create ‘synergies.’

Instead, they find managers they trust and then get completely out of the way.

In other words, they ‘manage by abdication’ (their phrase).

And that allows for creativity across Berkshire to bloom.

Humans want and need autonomy and control over their lives and their work (and, of course, this concept is in line with Marty Cagan’s ‘empowered’ approach). 

Radical decentralization like this, or what I call “Design by Letting Go” (that’s the title of my talks this week) creates an environment for humans to be happy and more creative.

In fact, this is how CG is designed.

At CG, my team and I are not the ‘experts’ in the room (though we have expertise).

Instead, we work to create an environment where leaders ask for help and learn from each other.

This is also how I run my global art movement, Slow Art Day.

Slow Art Day’s mission is to help both museum educators and museum visitors slow down and radically include themselves in the art experience. 

At Slow Art Day, we don’t tell the educators what to do (except to slow down).

We don’t design their events, pick the art, or gather the audience.

They do all that.

We don’t tell visitors what to do (except to slow down).

We don’t tell them how to look, what to like, or how to respond.

They do all that.

And at Slow Art Day, we don’t have a formal corporate structure – just a band of volunteers and an idea.

I believe this decentralized approach is one of the reasons Slow Art Day has grown to thousands of museums all over the world.

It does mean a lot of hard work, however.

At our Slow Art Day HQ (like at CG HQ or in Omaha) my merry band of volunteers and I do all the unglamorous, but critical work of building the environment. 

So, whether I’m with CG in Chicago, Buffett in Omaha, or Picasso in Spain, (or supporting people in their job searches, the topic of my forthcoming book) my goal is the same: do the vital work of creating environments where people get to create the lives – and the companies/products/services/experiences – they want.


P.S. See the photo collage below of our “Insider Experience” at Berkshire Hathaway.

P.P.S. The Washington Post published a great article on Slow Art Day and our spirit of radical inclusion.

Berkshire Hathaway 2022

Photo collage of Berkshire Hathaway “Insider Experience” – from top left corner…me smiling; Syona with Katie Farmer (Burlington CEO); McKenzie, Tanisa, et al; 5:30am in the billionaires line outside the annual meeting (everyone crouching down); speed mentoring session with Isabelle in the foreground; me and Don Graham (Chairman of Graham Holdings, former longtime Chairman and CEO of Washington Post Company, close friend of Buffett); all of us in our seats ready to hear Buffett and Munger; McKenzie presenting to Tim Cook (remotely).

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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