Keep the Ambition, Lower Your Ego. How to Thrive as a No. 2 Like Charlie Munger.
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Keep the Ambition, Lower Your Ego. How to Thrive as a No. 2 Like Charlie Munger.

Warren Buffett’s longtime deputy showed that rising to the top isn’t everything

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Dec 1, 2023 8:15amGrey Clock 3 min

Charlie Munger was Robin to Warren Buffett’s Batman, a business equivalent of the Edge rocking with the Bono of investing.

Munger, who died Tuesday at age 99, played one of the toughest roles in the corporate (or any) world: No. 2.

Succeeding as second in command takes a rare blend of confidence and humility, say people who’ve done it. The consummate right-hand person must be devoted to organizational success while accepting that someone else’s star will always shine brighter.

At a time when many American workers are reconsidering whether the race to the top is worth running at all, Munger’s apparent satisfaction with being the ultimate sidekick could be a model.

It helped that Warren and Charlie, as the duo was known, shared a personal friendship. And being a wingman is presumably more fun when you’re a billionaire, as Munger was. Most important, say those who knew him: Munger knew he was respected and appreciated.

Buffett made sure of it.

Harry Kraemer, former chief executive of the healthcare company Baxter International, recalls a conversation with Buffett at a CEO gathering around the year 2000: “I said, ‘Boy, you’ve got an amazing track record.’ And he goes, ‘It isn’t just me. Never mention my name without Charlie’s.’”

In a recent annual letter, Buffett wrote: “I never have a phone call with Charlie without learning something.”

There aren’t many pairs like Buffett and Munger. An analog might be the late Canadian telecom mogul Ted Rogers and his longtime lieutenant, Phil Lind, who died in August at age 80. Robert Brehl, who co-wrote Lind’s 2018 memoir, “Right Hand Man,” says loyalty is essential to a relationship like Rogers-Lind or Buffett-Munger.

Having complementary strengths and interests helps ward off resentment, Brehl adds.

“You have to have the yin and yang,” he says. “Ted wouldn’t have been as effective without Phil, and the same thing with Warren and Charlie.”

Before meeting Buffett, Munger was already a professional success. He served in World War II, went to Harvard Law School and co-founded a law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson, where his name was first on the door.

Even though his results as an investor were strong, over time, he realised he could be more successful—and happier—in a partnership. Understanding his own shortcomings contributed to his willingness to become Buffett’s running mate, he has said. He rejected Buffett’s initial overtures before agreeing to come aboard.

“It took me a long time to wise up that [Buffett] had a better way of making a living than I did,” Munger told CNBC in 2021. “But he finally convinced me that I was wasting my time.”

Not that it was easy to set aside his ego to take the No. 2 role and play to what his No. 1 needed. Buffett was Berkshire Hathaway’s public face and larger-than-life persona. Munger seemed to relish his freedom from talking to reporters and investors. In the background, he could be sharper, more direct and funnier.

The durability of the Buffett-and-Munger duo act stemmed, in part, from a shared intellectual curiosity, a measure of humility—for billionaires, anyway—and willingness to learn from their mistakes.

“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines,” Munger said in his commencement address to the University of Southern California’s law school in 2007. “They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and, boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.”

Savvy runners also know it can be best to let someone else take the lead to break the wind. A certain type of person prefers to run second, says social psychologist Tessa West, who is studying people she calls “runners up” for a forthcoming book.

“Once you get to a certain level of power, you realise that that top position doesn’t necessarily come with more influence—it just comes with more publicity and a lot more reputational risk,” she says. “The way I see it, Munger got to have his cake and eat it too. He had status without all the headaches.”

He also had a life outside of Berkshire and Buffett. One of Munger’s pet projects was a quest to design the perfect college dormitory.

He’ll be remembered as the consummate consigliere, but that wasn’t his whole identity.

—Geoffrey Rogow contributed to this article.



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Even amid two international conflicts and an upcoming U.S. presidential election, some philanthropic leaders are optimistic about the direction of overall giving through 2024.

Penta spoke with heads of several non-profits and leading philanthropists to gauge whether charitable giving will continue its reported slump from 2023 or rebound alongside renewed interest in various political and economic issues.

“Contrary to what some might expect, philanthropy has had resilience in these times,” says Stacy Huston, executive director of Sixdegrees.org, a youth empowerment non-profit based in Virginia founded by actor Kevin Bacon in 2007.

Huston’s view echoes recent data from the biennial Bank of America Study of Philanthropy published last year, which found that while affluent giving is largely down, the value of the average philanthropic gift is up 19%, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

The notion of what these gifts look like is changing, and is partially responsible for the growth. Philanthropy can be executed through more avenues than ever, whether through celebrity association, tech titans stewarding large endowments, or  athletes using their platforms to advocate for and create meaningful change.

“The industry and movement is creating new models, and you want to get it right,” says Scott Curran, CEO of Chicago-based Beyond Advisers. “No one should take their foot off the gas pedal.”

Curran spent a number of years with the Clinton Foundation in its infancy before leaving in 2016 to open his own consultancy, which focuses on philanthropy strategy at the highest levels. Curran and his team work with celebrities, athletes, multi-generational family foundations, and other affluent givers who need guidance in directing their philanthropic efforts. It’s a growing area of interest: Over half of affluent households with a net worth between US$5 million and US$20 million have, or are planning to establish, “some kind of giving vehicle” within the next three years, according to the Bank of America report.

Corporate philanthropy, rather than individual giving, is the cornerstone of Marcus Selig’s work as chief conservation officer at the National Forest Foundation, a Congressionally chartered non-profit based in Montana responsible for protecting millions of acres of public lands.

“Our outlook is business as usual,” he says, advising that giving may slow down, but not enough for the foundation to change course.

Factors such as political polarisation in the U.S. and the wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are pushing nonprofits to consider their niche, and how they might work with other groups, both on the corporate and philanthropic levels, Selig says.

“It leads to a little more sharing on the ground in what needs to be done,” he adds.

Steve Kaufer , founder of Massachusetts-headquartered e-commerce giving platform Give Freely and founder of TripAdvisor, says that the economy has a much bigger role in election years, as he looks to build and grow something that can act as a “counterbalance.”

“There’s a trend towards democratisation, and acting collectively can lead to greater impact,” he says.

Kaufer’s new platform hopes to leverage the everyday philanthropist through online shopping dollars to benefit major charity partners like UNICEF and charity:water, who earn funds as shoppers choose an organisation to benefit through an online clickthrough process.

“Whether a good year or bad year, e-commerce will continue to keep growing,” he says. “Nobody doubts that.”

Whether a legacy foundation, corporation or individual, the political landscape this year is requiring some to exercise caution as they consider what their own charitable actions might be and how it could be viewed more broadly. For the personal philanthropist, every move is now scrutinised more closely. On the nonprofit side, entities are exercising more due diligence to understand if a specific donor aligns with their mission and that there aren’t any underlying issues that could cause greater pushback.

“You have to be able to walk the walk,” Huston says. “For example, we’ve had to turn down very large donor checks from corporations because there’s a Reddit stream calling them out on their human rights practices.”

She adds that even a routine charity activation could now be aligned with a political party, and that adds complexities to how a higher-profile organisation like Six Degrees can activate, especially as the film Footloose turns 40 in 2024 (which Bacon starred in).

“A lot of organisations and states want to align themselves with this feel good moment, and we should be able to stand side by side with everyone, but we have to be aware,” she says.

Another topic attracting donor interest today is  mental health, an area that historically has been underfunded and under-resourced by philanthropy, according to Two Bridge partner Harris Schwartzberg, who has been closely linked to the mental health space for more than a decade.

Today, the issue for mental health nonprofits is less about resources and more about societal divisiveness and polarisation around the topic. There’s an “overwhelming demand” for solutions, but the space is in a “perfect storm” for the broader political issues to make things worse, Schwartzberg says.

In Curran’s opinion, the storms brewing are troublesome, but they are also creating new opportunities for corporate and personal giving. The  current state of philanthropy is one of “dynamic, expansive, and blurred lines,” meaning a careful blending of targeted giving combined with an understanding of the broader geopolitical landscape could lead to a successful overall philanthropic strategy.

“There are a lot of headlines that distract, but shouldn’t,” he says. “2024 needs more serious philanthropists than ever.”

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