I remember when, a few years ago, Warren Buffett let it be known that he pays his secretary $200,000 plus a year. Moreover, I remember a bunch of the reactions to this. “Whaaaat?” was one common refrain. “That’s ridiculous!” and “You can’t pay a secretary that!” were two other accompanying exclamations.
There’s a bunch to unpack here, isn’t there?
First, espoused in the above is the mind trap of thinking that there is some inherent, actual, way things are in this world as though given down from the universe above. Just as gravity pulls and water flows, so too are salaries of secretaries governed by these unseen forces. It’s just physics! (But it isn’t.)
Second, coupled with the above is the notion that things in “the economy” should and do have an absolute or real price/worth to be paid, rather than remembering and engaging with the notion of value.
An employee* is of value to a company. That is why they are there, working. If they weren’t of value, they wouldn’t have been hired.** The last thing a company wants to do is to increase its employee base unless it has to. And so, without those workers, the company would not be doing as well as it is. Even the brilliant leader with a brilliant idea*** wouldn’t be sitting on top of a successful (and/or profitable) company if there weren’t the workers generating the thing that is being provided to the market thus bringing in the revenues that leads to the company’s success. Our architecture firm, no matter how great the principals in charge, would not be able to produce all the work we do and keep all our clients happy so we could charge our fees for our work if all the architects, managers, drafters, and support staff weren’t there doing their jobs. Disneyland wouldn’t be the happiest place on earth and overflowing with high-paying guests if the janitors weren’t there to keep things remarkably clean and thus ensure a great park-going experience. Just like the coffee provider listed in movie credits, everyone engaged is a contribution towards the final product.
Which brings us back to Warren Buffett’s secretary. Given what she provides for Warren in his week to week business life, what she manages and arranges so he doesn’t have to, and what she organizes and delivers affords him the foundation upon which he is able to do what he does. Without her, he would be less effective. In other words, she is crucial in the results the company produces. So why shouldn’t she be compensated commensurate with that value?****
Getting caught up in the norm as reality and listening to “the market” as reality are easy traps to fall in to. But shake our views clear bit and approaching our lives and interconnectedness with both mindfulness and relatedness allows whole new realms of value, contribution, and civil humanity to open up and invite us to step towards.
* Employee is being explored here, but of course this applies most poignantly outside of the business world as well, in our personal lives, families, communities…
** OK, natch, there are many companies, especially large ones where people can hide out, where there are employees who are not helping things along and could even be detracting, and yet they remain on the payroll. These exceptions (as maddening as they can be if we have to deal with it!) do not nullify what’s being espoused.
*** Which itself, this notion of singular geniuses, is mostly overblown, but that’s a whole other topic…
**** I even would make the argument that given Buffett’s income that compensation may well be low (though truthfully we don’t know her exact wage) she should be compensated even more, just as all the employees at Disneyland should be paid a solid living wage and even beyond. “I pledge to pay employees what I can, not what I can get away with.”