My Golden Rule
We asked 30 business visionaries, collectively worth over $70 billion, what single philosophy they swear by more than any other--in business, life, or both. Here are the secrets of their success.
By Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) – There Can't Be Two Yous WARREN BUFFETT, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

When you get out of bed in the morning and think about what you want to do that day, ask yourself whether you'd like others to read about it on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper. You'll probably do things a little differently if you keep that in mind.

Don't Be Interesting--Be Interested JIM COLLINS, management consultant; author, Built to Last and Good to Great

I learned this golden rule from the great civic leader John Gardner, who changed my life in 30 seconds. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Johnson administration, and author of such classic books as Self-Renewal, spent the last few years of his life as a professor and mentor-at-large at Stanford University. One day early in my faculty teaching career--I think it was 1988 or 1989--Gardner sat me down. "It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," he said. "Why don't you invest more time being interested?"

If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet--their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.

I can't say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner's golden rule--whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind--life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.

The Next Big Thing Is Whatever Makes the Last Big Thing Usable BLAKE ROSS, co-creator, Firefox

When Firefox began, the browser market was "dead," client software was "outdated," and many entrepreneurs were working on podcasting tools for goldfish and other "next big things." We focus on the everyday problems that nag at everyday people. There are more than enough to go around without imagining new ones.

Make Hiring a Top Priority STEVE BALLMER, CEO, Microsoft

Not long after I joined Microsoft in 1980, Bill Gates put me in charge of recruiting. The business was growing fast, but we were badly understaffed. I asked Bill to approve the hiring of about 50 people. He said no. I told him I thought we needed more great people in order to grow; he thought I was going to bankrupt the company. Bill was pretty conservative. He's since said that he always wanted to have enough money in the bank to pay a year's worth of payroll, even if we didn't have any revenue coming in.

We didn't hire as fast as I wanted, but we did hire, and I did all the hiring myself for a long time. No one joined Microsoft without my interviewing them and liking them. I made every offer, decided how much to pay them, and closed the deals. I can't do that anymore, but I still invest a significant amount of time in ensuring that we're recruiting the best people. You may have a technology or a product that gives you an edge, but your people determine whether you develop the next winning technology or product.

Business Can't Trump Happiness SHELLY LAZARUS, chairman and CEO, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

I am constantly asked by women how to balance careers with family. I know from experience that there is no silver-bullet answer; if there were, we would be seeing more women in the corner office. The truth is that balance is achieved through a host of individual dance steps, from being willing to suffer a little domestic chaos to insisting that performance be measured by results, not just time spent in the office. Unless you love your work, you won't find the balance. How can you, if you resent the time away from family spent at a tedious job? I fell into a job and a company I loved. I never wanted to leave and never worried that my family suffered for it. Finding fulfilling work should be an early and deeply pursued part of everyone's career path. This may sound soft and mushy, but happy people are better for business. They are more creative and productive, they build environments where success is more likely, and you have a much better chance of keeping your best players.

Surround Yourself With People Smarter Than You GEORGE STEINBRENNER, owner, New York Yankees

This is a rule that my late father, Henry George Steinbrenner II, taught me when I was a young man. Most young men listen to what their fathers say, but they do not always put their advice into play. I was no exception. I didn't appreciate the lesson he taught me until it had slapped me in the face several times. I guess I was a slow learner.

Not only was my father an outstanding athlete, but he also graduated first in his class in naval architecture, preparing himself for a career in shipbuilding. Even in light of his achievements, I wanted to navigate my own way through the waters of my early career, whether they were smooth or stormy. Mistakes were made, but the wisdom of my father's counsel finally sank in.

So I pass his advice along: Surround yourself with amazingly intelligent men and women. The people I work with not only are smarter than I am, possessing both intellectual and emotional intelligence, but also share my determination to succeed. I will not make an important decision without them.

Loyalty Counts as Much as Smarts SRIVATS SAMPATH, founder, McAfee.com; CEO and president, Mercora

Starting and building a company is like going into battle--and I always prefer to go into battle with a team that is loyal to one another and to the cause. At Mercora, most of us have worked together for six to 10 years, and the trust and loyalty we have for one another makes an extremely difficult task enjoyable.

Check With the Wife PO BRONSON, author, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest and What Should I Do With My Life?

I would never want to be the kind of luminary who admits that my wife is smarter than me, but alas, I am, and she is. My wife owes me no deference at all, and so she never hesitates to tell me I'm being ridiculous. I tend to check with her at these three stages:

1. At the very beginning of an idea, when it's still so vague that if she does not like it, I can pretend I simply hadn't thought it through enough to present it well.

2. Right before completing a project, when I'm up against the deadline and I can pretend it's too late to change it even if she doesn't like it.

3. Before going on television, in case she thinks I should wear a different shirt.

Only the Paranoid Survive (Now More Than Ever) ANDY GROVE, former chairman and CEO, Intel

By now most people in Silicon Valley know this is my mantra, but I'm not sure they know what it means. It isn't as crazy as it sounds; it's really a corollary to Murphy's Law, which states that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. If that's so, then the paranoid have an advantage.

I was always amused at how the phrase caught on--and who wanted to be considered even more paranoid than I am. Once, when I was receiving an honor at Harvard University, Bill Gates was saying some nice things about me on a video and said he had only one quibble: that he was the most paranoid.

I think the rule is more relevant than ever today. The U.S. economy is getting hollowed out, industry by industry. Health care is about to become one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and yet for the most part it's an industry that has never taken advantage of digital technology. Our country's infrastructure is fragile, even precarious. Just look at New Orleans. So I would say, Duh. We'd better be paranoid.

I know I am. But not about Intel. One of the benefits of no longer being the company's chief "paranoid" officer is that someone else gets to do that now. ELIOT SPITZER, New York state attorney general Never write when you can talk. Never talk when you can nod. And never put anything in an e-mail. CARL ICAHN, billionaire investor Don't confuse luck with skill when judging others, and especially when judging yourself.

Hard Work Opens Doors IVAN SEIDENBERG, chairman and CEO, Verizon

My first boss--he was the building superintendent, and I was a janitor--watched me sweep floors and wash walls for almost a year before he mentioned that I could get tuition for college if I got a job with the phone company. When I asked him why he'd waited so long, he said, "I wanted to see if you were worth it." The message: Work hard, have high standards, and stick to your values, because somebody's always watching.

Choose Your Mistakes Carefully CRAIG NEWMARK, founder, Craigslist

When someone points out a mistake to you, deal with it--don't go into denial. When I started running Craigslist, I made some serious goofs in hiring the wrong people, people whom I shouldn't have trusted. As a result, though, I eventually found a guy who's become a really good CEO and who has great judgment in hiring. I realized I wasn't a good manager, so I got out of the way.

I also issued stock to employees, not thinking it would be worth anything. Big mistake--eBay was able to buy a 25 percent stake in Craigslist from a former employee. But eBay turned out to be a good partner; we share a similar moral compass.

If You Think You Can't, You're Right CAROL BARTZ, CEO, Autodesk

Often I'm put in the position of persuading people to do something I want them to do, but they don't want to. So first I have to hear the "can'ts"--the limitations they carry in their minds. I always listen closely to the reasons why people feel they can't do something. I'll even bring them to the point where they say to me, "Now you're getting it, boss! That's why we can't do it."

When I hear that, I've laid my trap. I start by asking the person who is resisting me to tell me how much he or she can do toward the goal I'm expressing. That's because I have this core belief that you can do anything if you try. That's why we release new versions of our core AutoCad program annually--because when people say it can't be done, I say we can, we just don't know how. So we learn.

There are times, of course, when people convince me that something can't be done. I'm really just trying to get a balanced view, to get people to be honest about both sides. My rule helps me to do that. It's a gimmick, sure, but it's a way to help people avoid getting stuck in the negative.

He Who Says It, Does It SIMON COOPER, president and COO, Ritz-Carlton

I use this phrase whenever someone convinces me that they can achieve something I consider to be unachievable. In the past I've been known to add focus to a goal by making a bet to see if they can make it--sometimes with amusing consequences. I remember being at a mountain resort in Canada and proposing an incredible goal for the season. The team convinced me that they could achieve it, and I offered to jump into the lake if they did. It's a long story, but they made it. There's a great scene of a hole being cut in the ice and an ambulance on standby while I gave a whole new meaning to the term "dunking." The cognac was very welcome.

One of the assets I look for in a team or a leader is a bias for action and a willingness to say "We can do it," coupled with a solid strategy. The way I interpret it, execution and commitment are absolutely essential to any strategy or initiative in an era too full of plans, processes, and procrastination. The expression speaks to the need for individuals and teams to commit to goals and actions and be willing to be held accountable for them. There is a flip side that goes something like "No one is more apathetic than in the pursuit of another person's objective."

When People Screw Up, Give Them a Second Chance RICHARD BRANSON, founder and chairman, Virgin Group

To be a good leader, you've got to concentrate on bringing out the best in your people. People are no different than flowers--they need to be cared for and watered all the time. This is true whether it's a switchboard operator or the chairman who just gave a bad speech. I should know; I gave a bad speech last night. The point is, people know when they've fucked up, and they don't need bosses ramming it down their throats.

When I was 7 or 8, I took some change from my dad's drawer and went 'round to the sweet shop. The shopkeeper called my dad and said, "We've got your son here; could you come down?" Here I am, with 50 pence, and the shopkeeper says, "I assume your son has taken this, that you didn't give it to him?" My dad says, "How dare you accuse him of stealing!" My dad knew I'd taken it, and I gave it back--but I never stole again.

Years later, when Virgin was about 20 people, the manager of a secondhand music shop tells me that one of our staffers is selling albums that were new from Virgin. It was petty theft. Rather than sacking him, I brought him in and we had a chat. Today he is the head of marketing of one of our companies and one of the best people Virgin has.

Whatever a Man Soweth, That Shall He Also Reap DICK PARSONS, chairman and CEO, Time Warner

This came from my grandmother, and it was the best advice I ever got. If I think of anything on a daily basis, in terms of a moral compass, that is the one. You treat people the way you want to be treated. If you treat everyone with respect, somehow it comes back to you. If you are honest and aboveboard, somehow it comes back to you.

Never, Ever Forget That You Are a Servant DAVID NEELEMAN, founder, chairman, and CEO, JetBlue

My grandfather ran a general store, and if a customer needed something that wasn't in stock, he did whatever it took to get the item--even running across the street to a competitor--rather than ask the customer to take her business elsewhere. He never told me, "Take care of others, and they'll take care of you"--he didn't have to. I saw it happen.

When I entered the aviation business, I never thought in terms of "passengers" or "tickets sold" but of "people" and "customers." It was distressing to hear airline colleagues complain about the customers--even going so far as to say how much easier it would be for them if there were fewer passengers.

When JetBlue started flying in February 2000, my goal was to bring humanity back to air travel. We hire nice people and train them in the skills they require to help run the airline. I don't think you can train someone to be nice. We are all servants in the best sense of the word, which brings amazing personal and professional rewards.

Get Face Time With the Customers ANNE MULCAHY, chairman and CEO, Xerox

Xerox's founder, Joe Wilson, used to always say this, and it's become my own golden rule. The way I see it, if you forget the customer, nothing much else matters. The brand deteriorates, employees lose jobs, and shareholders lose value.

My mantra around Xerox is to ensure that the customer is connected to everything we do. It's why every senior leader--from our head of human resources to our general counsel--is assigned a customer account to cover.

I remember getting on the elevator one morning at headquarters around the time of a quarterly earnings report, and our chief accountant stepped in right before the door closed. I started to ask him how the numbers were looking, but he was more interested in debriefing me on a customer call he'd just made in Louisiana. Our elevator ride turned into a longer discussion about billing resolutions for this customer (though I did finally get the analysis of our earnings numbers out of him).

This is why I make hundreds of customer calls each year. Hearing firsthand from our customers about their relationships with Xerox changes my perspective on the toughest of business decisions.

MARK CUBAN, co-founder, HDNet; owner, Dallas Mavericks Treat your customers like they own you, because they do.

Reinvent Yourself. Repeat. ALEX BOGUSKY, executive creative director, Crispin Porter & Bogusky

I was 24, working at a small ad agency in Miami and trying to become a junior art director, when I read Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. One chapter talked about how people position you or a product in their mind, and how you've got to disrupt to get people to take you out of that position.

I wondered, what kinds of things did I have to do to disrupt people and make them think differently about me? There is a lot of change in people and in their careers, and people are reluctant to see it. It's the way we think, the way we categorize things.

So I just embraced this notion that every six months I would radically change my look. I mostly did it with my hair, from a crew cut to a Mohawk to long hair to a mullet. I changed the color. It didn't matter what I did--I just had to change it. I wanted people to have to take the trouble to reanalyze what I was offering.

I'm 42 now, and I've stopped. What does that mean? It means it isn't about me any longer. Now it's about the agency. Sometimes we change the titles of departments and people. We changed the planning department to the "cognitive anthropology" department, and the account service department to "content management." We have to change just as often, so that we're not being evaluated by the same standards as last year.

At the Height of Success, "Break" Your Business ED ZANDER, chairman and CEO, Motorola

Companies that don't innovate don't survive, so the key to success is driving this innovation. This lesson is especially important to remember when things are going well. Though it's counterintuitive, successful companies actually need to be more innovative than the competition. It's like kids playing king of the hill--everyone aims for the kid at the top. Leaders that don't innovate are displaced by those willing to take risks.

This is why, when a company reaches the height of its success, a good leader will shake things up by "breaking" the business. One example of this is moving people around. Changing the company's organizational structure allows different people to interact and allows new, innovative ideas to take shape.

Every day I look for ways to break Motorola. Employees are excited to come to work every day because they, too, live, breathe, and imagine the next big thing. Breaking the business may sound like a strange thing for a CEO to do, but this strategy has sparked innovation at Motorola and it is the reason for our success.

Quit Taking, Start Giving RUSSELL SIMMONS, co-founder, Def Jam Records; founder, Rush Communications

You get a lot of benefit from giving, not from taking. You have to fill a void, give people something that's meaningful and useful. If it's an entrepreneurial venture, find what people need and give it to them. Give them something that's lasting. Be careful not to take a shortcut or give people what they think they need. My latest venture, UniRush Financial Services, offers a real benefit for people who are struggling. It's for people who are mostly locked out of the system, and they need it to get on their feet. It's not a way to exploit them because they are on their knees. It's a way to pick them up.

Believe in Something Bigger Than Yourself CARLOS M. GUTIERREZ, U.S. secretary of commerce; former chairman and CEO, Kellogg

My experience and observation have shown that if people see you looking out only for your own best interests, they won't follow you. You have to believe in doing good for those you serve, knowing that it will allow them to do extraordinary things. Another important lesson I learned from my father, who was the first great leader I observed. He taught me that you have to keep your perspective and have a sense of humility. As he used to say, "Tell me what you brag about, and I'll tell you what you lack."

Remember Who You Are, Not What BRAD ANDERSON, vice chairman and CEO, Best Buy

When a company starts its life, those who create it are very aware that it's a people-powered effort. They're a group of people with a good idea, trying to make something out of nothing. But as companies grow, something strange happens. They start to think of themselves in terms of what they are, rather than who they are. The irony is that just about every company that goes from "who" to "what" spends an extraordinary amount of energy fighting to regain that sense of "who." Trying, with apologies to Lennon and McCartney, to get back to where it once belonged.

Every organization gets its energy from the relationship between the customer and the person who serves that customer. If a company makes the leap--honestly listening to customers--employees will bring the best of themselves and pour their energy into their work. At Best Buy, we don't always get this right, but when we do, it's a beautiful thing. I can recite dozens of stories about employees who transformed our business because they saw a need and had the freedom to use their own talents to fill it.

Any organization is a human endeavor, but most big organizations work hard to dehumanize, to depersonalize. Why? They're scared, because we humans are unpredictable and messy. I say, Turn around and embrace it. Celebrate it. One of our employees said it best: Try to be "a company with a soul."

Once a Day, Take Some "Beach Time" MIREILLE GUILIANO, CEO and president, Clicquot; author, French Women Don't Get Fat

We have to take "beach time"--a space for ourselves--every day because we live in a world of burnout. Even if you take 20 to 30 minutes for yourself, you'll be a better worker, a better colleague, a better person. It benefits the people around you as much as it benefits you. Don't feel guilty to do your own thing during that time. And I don't necessarily mean going to the gym. I never go to the gym. I have a view of one across the street from where I live in New York. It's 7:30 at night, when you should be thinking about dinner and relaxing, and the gym is full of people.

I take my beach time each morning. I have a glass of water, and I walk along Bank Street to the Hudson River. A walk is the cheapest and best exercise, and it's the best 20 minutes of my day. It's an element of what I call "French Zen."

Learn to Give Back MICHAEL GRAVES, architect and designer

My parents told me that no matter how good you are in your work, you must make a contribution to society. Without that, you will only be selfish. My career has been an interesting mix of architecture, design, and education. I teach, which is a way to "give back" to the profession. I taught at Princeton University for 39 years and am gratified that many of my students have become teachers themselves.

But there's another way of giving back. Architecture and design are professions that inherently address the public good. Since I became partially paralyzed nearly three years ago, and spent considerable time in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, I have come to realize that some of those buildings are not functional at a basic human level and that durable medical equipment has rarely been regarded as anything but a necessary evil.

My colleagues and I can make a difference if we turn our attention to improving the functionality and appearance of the aids to living that many people need, even those with slight disabilities. We're working on a collection of them now, a contribution that I never expected but hope will make many people's lives more enjoyable.

MICHAEL LEWIS, author, Liar's Poker, Moneyball, and Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life There's something bad in everything good and something good in everything bad.

Don't Trust, Just Verify STEVEN D. LEVITT, coauthor, Freakonomics

So much of what we hear and what we're taught turns out to be false on closer scrutiny. Whether it is expert advice, what you read in the paper, or what your mother told you, if it is important, take the time to figure out for yourself whether it is really true.

Make Deals With People, Not Paper PENN JILLETTE, magician, author, and producer

This was the hardest thing to learn when I was 19. When we first started doing Penn & Teller shows, I thought that if you had a contract, it was enforced. I thought there were the contract police--so you'd sign a contract that says you're going to give me a million dollars, and if you don't have a million dollars, someone will step in and give me my million anyway. Right.

That's one of the hardest lessons for a guy like me who has no interest in business but now runs a multimillion-dollar enterprise. A contract is not much of a legal document. It's just an agreement that two people who trust each other have made. You can't enter into a contract with anyone that you wouldn't make a handshake deal with, because everything comes down to a handshake deal.

The more experience I got in showbiz, the less I read the contracts. Now I don't bother. If I can't make the deal in a phone call, and have them understand it, then it's not a worthwhile deal. You're making a deal with the people, not with the contract. That's a mistake that people make a lot: "We've got it in writing now." The contract is clarification, but it's not enforcement.