Don’t forget to bring a banana

May 12, 2021

A longtime member and I were catching up yesterday. He’s gotten a lot of help over the years from his council, but he admitted that during the course of the day-to-day he doesn’t often think to ask for help.

And the few times he does pause, he is not sure what his question is. So, he just puts his head down and keeps on going.

But he now recognizes that this approach has hurt his effectiveness as a CEO. Looking back, he made some decisions too quickly and without enough sense of the big picture.

In fact, in his case he under-invested in the customer experience – in particular, not bringing in strong UX and product talent.

Not taking time to think about the customer (or any other big picture matter) is a common problem for everyone – and not just CEOs.

We get caught up in the day-to-day and miss important opportunities. 

Yet, if we stop for a moment, we are often not sure what our question or challenge is. 

This problem, while widespread, has a simple solution with a funny name:

Orangutan Room

Let me explain. 

It turns out that just being able to think out loud about a question or challenge – including thinking about what the question itself might be – can help significantly.

This doesn’t work, however, if you are alone. 

You need a living presence there with you – a friend, a council member, me, or for that matter an orangutan. 

In fact, I call this dynamic the Orangutan Room in homage to my distant mentor (meaning he’s not actually my personal mentor) Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, and longtime partner of Warren Buffett. 

Here’s what Munger once said: 

[I]f a smart person goes into a room with an orangutan and explains whatever his or her idea [or challenge] is, the orangutan just sits there eating his banana, and at the end of the conversation, the person explaining comes out smarter.

Munger proposed this to Katharine Graham (another distant mentor of mine) – then CEO of The Washington Post Company – after she had told him how helpful Buffett had been to her. Munger replied that at least part of the benefit was hearing herself think out loud and she would have likely realized her question (and even possibly her answer) even if an orangutan was sitting there rather than Buffett himself. 

Graham thought about what Munger said and agreed. 

So did Buffett. 

In fact, Warren Buffett told Graham that he was happy to be her orangutan. 

Warren claimed to be my orangutan. And in a way he was. I heard myself talk when I was with him and I always got a better idea of what I was saying.

So, next time you get that feeling that you might have a question or *might* need help, even if you aren’t sure what exactly what you need – call me.

I’ll happily be your orangutan.  

Just don’t forget to bring a banana.



P.S. The quotes above are taken from Katharine Graham’s wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir, Personal History. Every leader needs to read – and re-read this book (I reread it every year). Graham became CEO of The Washington Post Company at a time when no women were CEOs of major companies, and, as her son Don Graham pointed out to me, at a time when no men in corporate America had ever worked for a woman at any level. Her courage, including her relentless willingness to ask for help even as others mercilessly criticized her for it, makes her one of my key distant mentors. And she should be yours too. 

In fact, because of her skill at learning and asking for help, she became one of the most successful CEOs as measured by shareholder return: among the top 8 in the entire 20th century according to another terrific book, The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.

Recent Talks and Activity Recordings

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     This spring keynote was a GREAT session. Members loved it. I collected live case studies from members, which I anonymously shared with Cy to get her reaction on what was to be done. You gotta watch to see her great answers.

    Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher, global thought-leader, and New York Times best-selling author who is recognized for cultivating a counter-intuitive, reality-based approach to leadership. Backed by over 20 years of unparalleled experience, Wakeman’s philosophy offers a new lens through which employees and executives alike, can shift their attention inward, sharpen their focus on personal accountability, and uncover their natural state of innovation simply by ditching the drama.Deemed “the secret weapon to restoring sanity to the workplace,” Wakeman has helped companies such as Google, Facebook, Viacom, Uber, NBC Universal, NASA, Pfizer, Johns Hopkins, Stanford Health Care, Keurig Dr. Pepper, AMC Theatres, White Castle, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and countless others learn to navigate our rapidly changing world using good mental processes to harness energy wasted in workplace drama and reinvest that effort into achieving profound business results.
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    From Marty: “I have long been interested in the difference between how the best companies work, and the rest. Working with both types of organizations for so many years, there are many differences ranging from culture to process to staffing to roles to techniques. But at its core, strong product companies empower their people, and most of the rest do not. My focus over the past few years has been tackling this issue head-on, which means the product leadership. In this talk, we’ll discuss why this model consistently yields better results, and what’s necessary to transform to work like the best.”

    Marty’s Bio: Marty Cagan is the founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, which he created to pursue his interests in helping others create successful products through his writing, speaking, advising and coaching. Before starting SVPG, Marty served as an executive responsible for defining and building products for some of the most successful companies in the world, including Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay.As part of his work with SVPG, Marty advises tech companies of all sizes and stages, stretching far beyond Silicon Valley. Marty is the author of the industry-leading book for product teams, INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love, and the upcoming book EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products. Marty is an invited speaker at major conferences and top companies across the globe.
  • See talks from the last month and beyond here.​

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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