Sometimes the best lessons stick with us because of the quirkiest detail. This will be one of those lessons, and details.
Suzy Welch, bestselling management author and wife of General Electric legend Jack Welch, told CNBC Make it that she was fortunate enough to sit next to Warren Buffett at a dinner party. The Oracle of Just About Everything quietly pulled an egg timer out of his pocket just as the two were sitting down. Buffett set the timer with some dramatic flair, placed it between them and said, “That’s how long I get to talk with you before I lose you to your partner on your left. And not a minute shorter!”
When the timer went off, each turned to their other side, until the timer went off again 15 minutes later. When Welch and Buffett turned toward each other again, Welch was greeted with a “Goodie, you’re back!” from the icon.
Welch said, “He [Buffett] was the most important person in that room — and yet, he made me feel like I mattered as much as he did.”
Welch went on to say the experience changed the way she viewed leadership. It taught her how powerful it is to show others that you care, that you value them, and that you’re listening.
Why Buffett’s Egg-Timer Lesson Is So Important
For me, this is it — the platinum rule of leadership, and of being a good human being. I certainly never did, nor will ever do, everything right as a leader, but the principle of showing up humble and visibly demonstrating that I value others is a non-negotiable value to me.
To this day, I focus intensely on being interested rather than interesting. I try to show people they’re heard and then act on what they say. I believe that everyone on a team (and in life) deserves to feel valued and valuable, worthy and worthwhile.
Who the hell am I to do otherwise as a leader? In many leadership positions I’ve held throughout my life, circumstance was at least a part of what placed me there — I knew it could just as easily be someone else in that leadership position under different conditions. What makes me the most important person in the room just because I happen to be the leader at that time? Nothing.
The privilege of leadership makes me a conduit — an instrument that can amplify the point of view, thoughts, ideas, feelings, opinions, hopes, and dreams of those that work “for me” (or rather, those I’m lucky enough to work with).
Buffett’s egg timer is a physical manifestation of this spirit. It’s a quirky approach that says “You’re important enough to me that we’re going to put a guardrail in place to keep us on course with our connection.” I’m going to start at least carrying around a mental timer to turn on before engaging with others in the future, as one of my tips and tricks for staying focused on and tuned in to others. Here are a few more of those tricks I use:
1. Practice the WAIT principle.
When you’re engaged in conversation, and find yourself doing far more talking than listening, the WAIT alarm should go off in your head. It says “Why Am I Talking?” (instead of listening?). It brings you back to listening mode and helps prevent you from shifting focus to what you’re going to say next (instead of listening).
2. Send signals of absorption.
Visibly show you’re listening by nodding your head, repeating back in summary form what you’ve heard, or by simply making a visible fuss about putting your damn smartphone away.
3. Catch the drift.
If you’re in a meeting and, instead of carefully listening, you find yourself drifting off, catch yourself in the act. As a helping aid, write on the top of your meeting agenda, “Zone in, not out” or “What has my attention right now?” to keep yourself on track.
4. Remember the INVerse.
INV stands for “I’m Not Valued.” Remember the inverse of being with someone who wants to hear what you have to say, i.e., when you were with someone who didn’t really care about you or your thoughts. It really stings. Why would you want anyone to feel that pain?
Egg timer or no, dinner party or no, get cooking on dialing up your visible cues of caring, listening, and valuing.