Warren Buffett's Brilliant Advice to a 7th-Grader

By Markets Fool.com

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It takes courage to stand in front of 40,000 people and say anything -- never mind being a preteen and posing a question the Oracle of Omaha at this year's Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

And yet, at the world's largest gathering of investors, one seventh-grader stood up and asked: "Mr. Buffett ... how do you get people to like you?"

The brilliance of the question lies in its wording: This tenacious kid asked how Buffett is liked, rather thanwhy. It implies that being likable is a skill that can be honed -- a sentiment Buffett agreed with.

So, if you're curious how Warren Buffett has managed to win over the hearts of his employees, as well as millions of investors around the world, here's how he answered the question.

Be generous
Buffett's second-in-command, Charlie Munger, provided the first answer: "Get very rich and generous."

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Buffett added, "People see all sorts of virtue when you're writing a check."

The duo went back and forth with one-liners like these all day, and while being funny is a likable trait, it's not an easy trait to acquire. There is, however, some truth behind their humor. Generosity is universally appreciated, and it's something we all have control over -- even those of us who are not billionaires.

Mimicking others
Buffett's second piece of advice was to find people you admire and ask yourself, "Why do I admire these people?" Buffett recommends that you find "three or four [reasons] why you like them" -- and then, conversely, list some reasons why certain other people put you off.

There's no reason to reinvent the wheel: There are plenty of likable and unlikable people out there, and considering that there aren't copyright laws on habits and personality traits, feel free to steal what you like and avoid the rest.

That ended Buffett's direct answer to the question, so I started scanning his words for more clues as to why he is almost universally admired, and I picked out a few more of my favorites.

Praise others
If you had blinked during the meeting, you would have missed this gem: "Praise by name, criticize by category," said Buffett.

Here's an example from Buffett's 2014 letter to shareholders: "BNSF disappointed many of its customers. These shippers depend on us, and service failures can badly hurt their businesses."

A few pages later, he says: "Ajit [Jain] insures risks that no one else has the desire or the capital to take on. His operation combines capacity, speed, decisiveness and, most important, brains in a manner unique in the insurance business."

Praising good work is as important as (productively) criticizing mistakes. However, as Buffett shows, there are ways to simultaneously ensure accountability for mistakes, shine a positive light on individual people, and avoid throwing anyone under the bus. Master this skill, and people won't just like you; they'll love you.

Stay humble
This goes hand in hand with the previous point: Buffett is quick to give others credit for Berkshire Hathaway's success. During the meeting, he was asked whether he could recreate the company's remarkable performance if he were to go back in time and start over. Buffett replied, "The odds are against it."

Buffett said Berkshire's success owed to the fact that he was lucky enough to have met and worked with the people he has, and he may not be so lucky the second time around.

Be curious
Munger added that he and Buffett have "made some of that luck by being curious." One of the best examples of this happened in 1951 -- Buffett was 20 at the time. To learn more about GEICO, Buffett hopped on a train to visit the company, and he had a chance meeting with Lorimer Davidson, who would later become CEO of GEICO. Davidson spent four hours educating Buffett on the company and the insurance industry.

Serendipity? Perhaps. However, the encounter happened because Buffett took the initiative to visit GEICO, and he also took advantage of his unexpected encounter with Davidson. He recognized that if you show a genuine interest in others and listen attentively to what they say, they will take an instant liking to you and happily share their knowledge.

Bonus: Smile
Buffett has said in the past that every time a server at See's Candies (one of Berkshire's subsidiaries) smiles at a customer, the company's brand strengthens and its moat widens. This sends a powerful message that the quality of human interactions is just as important as the quality of a product.

We can't all be rock stars like Warren Buffett, but if you can understand how you are perceived and take small steps to enhance that image, it will only improve your ability to work and interact with others.

The article Warren Buffett's Brilliant Advice to a 7th-Grader originally appeared on Fool.com.

Dave Koppenheffer owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.