If you think of billionaires as people who are like you or me but better at the game of business, something like Jason Day or Sergio Garcia at golf, talking to them is just a way to get the best advice from the world’s best players.
Now, imagine you are on an elevator heading to the 40th floor when Warren Buffett steps in. This could be the day your life changes, right?
You’re a savvy judge of people and his expression is unmistakable, “look, I’m a regular guy who wants to like you, but I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, so tell me your dream in 15 seconds or less.” That’s when most of us fumble the ball and say, “I’m such a fan of yours.” Or how’s this for a show stopper, “What’s it like to be so rich”?
You can practically see him lean over to hit the stop button not because he’s heard this a trillion times before, which he has, but because it isn’t going to help him make a trillion dollars, and that’s what he really wants to talk about. In fact, that’s what you want to talk about, too.
You see, I spend my time interviewing people like Buffett (for my YouTube program, IconicVoices), and I had to learn what makes people like him tick, how to gain their trust, and how to draw them out in conversation. From these discussions, I can tell you the key rule, as people grow wealthy, they focus on the future.
The wealthy want to talk about two things: tomorrow and money. In that order.
So tell them about where you are going and where your company is going and what you need to get there. The journey ahead gets their tail wagging.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips for wooing Warren or the next billionaire you run into. Talk to them about any of the following, just don’t start with how great they are.
- Their passion
Every billionaire has a passion. In Buffett’s case, it’s undiscovered value or in layman’s terms, a bargain. You can tell from his annual reports that any question that digs deep into the value of minerals in China or infrastructure in emerging nations or investing in clean water in Africa will get his undivided attention. Think of yourself as a biographer, not someone looking for a favor in return for a compliment.
2. Their challenges
When I interviewed Buffett, I asked what bothered him most about the press he gets (the best of any tycoon). Talk about a hot button. Buffett called it ‘the worst sin in journalism when reporters won’t change their hypothesis.” Despite great coverage, he recounted the occasions reporters lied, misunderstood, or just plain wrote sloppy copy about him. Each time I fed him a felonious headline, he came back with how the journalist missed the true story.
3. Their deals
Ask about any deal they are working on and sit back. If you have ever listened to a golfer talk about feathering a nine iron over the water on the 15th hole at the PGA in Hartford for a hole in one (in fact, I did in the Canon PGA Open), you know how excited a billionaire gets about his game, which is deal making. I asked John Malone, the cable magnate of Liberty Media why he didn’t vie for CNN when Ted Turner was selling it to Time Warner. Malone didn’t waste words, “Turner’s a nut.” Lots of interesting conversation followed.
4. Their advice
Ask something they can answer simply and in a short span. I asked Buffett, “you are a CEO, wealthier than Midas, but everyone loves you. How do you stay popular?” He said, “You can be popular when you’re 85 because people are nice to grumpy old guys, and when I turn 100 I’ll put a cigar in my mouth like George Burns and then people will really love me.”
5. Their winning
Every billionaire wants you to know it isn’t about the money. I remember a great line, “it isn’t the money, it’s the money.” The point was money for sake of spending has little motivation but as a scorecard it is huge. Which is why everything has a score with them. I asked Mike Bloomberg, #8 on the Forbes Billionaires list, what kind of plane his company owned. He turned to me with a wink and said, “When it comes to flying or floating, us rich guys don’t own, we like to rent.”
6. Their learning
Most wealthy people treat their social calendars like a yoga instructor curates her diet. So they are always happy to tell you how they hang around people whose brains are worth picking. Warren has a parade of CEOs, investors, and brilliant money men and women marching through his office. But where he really spends his time is on reading. He told me in the interview he reads for 5–6 hours a day. Think about that for a minute. Are you spending your time as productively as the world’s richest man?
7. Their thinking
The biggest problem every billionaire has is how to get intel before the other billionaires. In Buffett’s case, he has 75 portfolio companies and he talks to each of his CEOs every day about their business and weighs all their pros and cons. This way he gets a feel for the entire American economy. Then with his incisive mind, he channels this learning into his next investment. No one including the Federal Reserve chairman has a better brain trust.
8. Their solution
In the short space of time you have with a billionaire, you need to focus on the right question so they 1) get intrigued 2) enjoy answering 3) do justice to the time they have. Don’t start with, “How would you solve our problems with Russia?” That gets a shrug unless the questioner is Vladimir Putin. Instead, I would ask Buffett a question that takes him down a familiar rabbit hole, “How would you hedge the geopolitics in an investment in Ukrainian natural gas?” He would love to tell you the bet he would place and how it would work.
9. Their escape
While it doesn’t relate directly to business, there is value in asking a question about the personal side of life: “What do you do to relax,” I asked Buffett, and he talked about the joy he gets from biographies. That led to a discussion of great leaders he admires. From there we talked about how he takes 20 books on vacation. From there you can talk about anything.
10. Their family
I always like to get into family dynamics, but go carefully. Billionaires are rarely on great terms with all their relatives. Some are jealous, others are lazy, some are greedy, and few are close. In Warren’s case, he had a picture of his father on the wall in his office (the other picture was of Sophia Loren). I asked him about lessons he learned from the old man. He made it clear that his father’s honesty, candor, and spirit guide him at all times.