I’ve worked on many annual reports, but have never seen a message to shareholders quite like this one.

For one it runs 27 pages, as comprehensive an account of a company’s hopes, dreams, achievements and strategies as you can ever imagine. Yet it’s notable too for the self-deprecating tone that the company chairman takes in repeated sections.

“I’ve made some dumb purchases, paying far too much for the economic goodwill of companies we acquired,” he writes in one part.

He talks about a past “egregious error” and another instance where he “foolishly” used company stock to finance a deal. Another transaction “atoned for that folly”.

So why does he still have his job?

What’s the company, who’s the chairman, and why is he still on top if he keeps messing up?

The firm is Berkshire Hathaway (fourth largest public company in the world, with assets of $621 billion), and the chairman is Warren Buffet (fourth richest person in the world, with a net worth of $77 billion).

By any measures, Berkshire Hathaway and Buffet are all-time success stories. Yet in each annual report, Buffet highlights his mistakes – what he’s done wrong and how he’ll fix it – before getting to his accomplishments.

As one analyst observes, this approach is disarming. You get the impression that Buffet will always give it to you straight.

It works as a communications tactic too. By being self-critical, which is unexpected in corporate reporting, Buffet gets your attention and establishes trust.

It’s more than modesty

What Buffet is demonstrating is humility. Humble may be the opposite of boastful. But humility is much more than modesty.

As a corporate (and personal) quality, humility also means listening to and learning from anyone, saying that you don’t know it all, showing you always want to improve, and placing others in the centre of your attention.

Many organizations now put a formal priority on humility. I just worked with one that made it one of their new core values. A number of major companies have done so, like Kellogg’sIkea and Avon.

There’s research that managers who exhibit humility generate better employee engagement and job performance, or nurture inclusive work environments. Another study found that humble people are more likely to be top performers and make the most effective leaders of all.

So in day-to-day management and in corporate communications, show some humility. Stay open to diverse opinions. Acknowledge shortcomings. Reflect on what you’ve done and how you can do better. Appreciate and focus on others. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a slice of humble pie.

Not only are these worthy traits; they can also offer a competitive advantage. That’s something to brag about.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

September 13, 2017

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