Skin in the Game

Scenario where top-level insiders invest their personal funds in the stocks of the company they manage

Manu Lakshmanan

Reviewed by

Manu Lakshmanan

Expertise: Management Consulting | Strategy & Operations


November 17, 2023

What Is Skin In The Game?

"Skin in the game," a phrase popularized by renowned investor Warren Buffett, denotes a scenario where top-level insiders invest their personal funds in the stocks of the company they manage.

This concept, prevalent in business, finance, gambling, and politics, underscores a tangible commitment from key individuals, aligning their financial interests with the success of the organization they lead.

It serves as a powerful indicator of genuine involvement and accountability, emphasizing that these leaders are not merely steering from the sidelines but actively participating in the risks and rewards of the enterprise.

By utilizing their own funds, these insiders send a clear signal of confidence and responsibility, fostering a dynamic where their interests are intricately tied to the well-being and prosperity of the company they guide.

This principle of having "skin in the game" is a testament to the belief that true commitment involves a personal investment that goes beyond rhetoric, ensuring a more robust and interconnected leadership approach across diverse fields.

Key Takeaways

  • "Skin in the game" signifies a concrete commitment where company insiders invest personal funds, aligning their interests with the organization's success and demonstrating genuine involvement.
  • Skin In The Game, popularized by Warren Buffett, signifies a genuine commitment from leaders, demonstrating accountability and active participation in the risks and rewards of the enterprise.
  • Extending beyond finance, real-world scenarios highlight how personal investment, or "skin in the game," applies to diverse professions, promoting a balanced approach to incentives and disincentives.

Understanding skin in the game 

It is a phrase where "skin" is a metaphor for the personal or financial commitment involved, while "game" is a metaphor for actions that must be taken. 

So, the expression is about taking risks with potential rewards and not simply letting others pay the price of one's decision or mistake. It refers to genuinely being invested in attaining a specific outcome. 

When an executive risks a part of their own money and invests in the company they work for, i.e., puts skin in the game, it shows that they have confidence in that company's share price and future. In addition, this portrays a positive image of the company to the public. 

Other potential investors and people in the outside world may perceive that the company's executives are confident and believe in the company's outlook, potentially influencing investor sentiments and encouraging more individuals to invest.

It is thus seen as a form of personal investment or commitment, aligning individuals with the company's best interests and future prospects. Investors, therefore, see that the company will aim to ensure great returns for its investors.


Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, risk analyst, and former options trader. He wrote a book on this notion titled Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.

As a moral and risk management rule, one should balance incentives and disincentives. For instance, if one risks losing money for their clients, they should also expose themselves to that same risk. 

Warren Buffett believes the executives of firms he invests in should also have their funds or "skin" invested in the company. While Warren Buffett made the phrase famous, especially in its use in the financial domain, he did not coin it; the origin of the phrase is unclear. 

The origin is unclear, and while a money and investment specialist showed William Safire, an American journalist and columnist, the phrase's versatility, including its potential application to emotional investments.

Real-World Scenarios of Skin in the Game

Some executives and CEOs invest their own money in their companies. For example, Elon Musk owns over 227 million shares of his company, Tesla, as mentioned in his Schedule 13G report from December 31, 2021. 

Bankers can gain benefits from speculating in securities that carry systemic risk. Sometimes, they can bail out or transfer that risk to the government or taxpayers in case of a blowup.

However, they may still face consequences, such as regulatory actions or damage to their professional reputation, even if they do not have personal financial exposure.

Some literal interpretation of skin in the game includes:

  • Pilots can earn a lot of money when they carefully yet quickly fly their planes full of passengers from one destination to another. However, if a pilot is careless on the job and fails, the consequences can be severe, impacting the safety of passengers and the pilot's professional standing. 
  • If a cook or baker feels a personal stake in the quality of the dish they make, they will put in more time and effort to prepare it, ensuring the food is cooked well for their professional satisfaction and the satisfaction of those they serve.

These are just a few examples of how investing one's own money and effort helps balance the incentives and disincentives. Through this, one can manage the magnitude of risks they are exposed to and reap the benefits available to them and others if successful. 

Requirements for Skin in the Game

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent agency that is part of the United States federal government. The SEC is responsible for protecting investors and promoting fairness in the markets. 

As required by the SEC, funds must reveal the amount of money that portfolio managers and executives have invested in the fund each year. 

Thus, the public can see records of portfolio managers who have invested their own money into the fund under observation. They can then use that information while weighing their interests to help them decide where to invest their money and how much to invest. 

The SEC also mandates that an organization reveal insider ownership and purchase or sell its securities. Such trades by executives and directors can significantly affect the price of a company's share. Again, this is because they influence investors' perceptions of the company. 

Once compiled and released to the public, this information can influence and inform investment decisions. Potential and existing investors can evaluate the extent of insider ownership and the stakeholders' perspectives on the company's trajectory.


There are many forms that executives must file with the SEC to aid in disclosing specific fundamental values and information about shareholders and investments. 

The Disadvantage of Skin in the Game

Asking executives to invest their own money and have skin in the game can help boost confidence in the company's performance and prosperity, but it also comes with some limitations.

Some banks and financial institutions manage their clients' capital without allowing their employees to have skin in the game. This regulation, implemented by certain institutions, aims to reduce biases and conflicts of interest between managers and clients. 

For instance, some employees work as advisors to help investors decide where to invest. However, if those employees have their own money invested somewhere, the motive or reason behind their financial advice may be unclear. 

With the possibility of the advisor's financial gain, it becomes unclear whether their advice is indeed what would be most beneficial to the client. This is because a conflict of interest has been created. 

Preventing these employees from having skin in the game also tackles the problem of front running. This occurs when executives enter a trade and act on insider or non-public information about a sizeable upcoming transaction to gain an advantage.

There are also limitations to commingled funds, where corporate resources for clients and private funds held in a company are mixed.

Executives and directors are expected to stay objective while making decisions, and measures, such as avoiding conflicts of interest, are in place to ensure ethical conduct in investments.

Skin In The Game advantages for investors

The idea behind this phrase is that a moral and risk management rule is essential for passive and active investors.

This is because passive investors often rely on financial advisors or investment vehicles like index funds, while active investors make direct decisions about where and how much to invest.

For passive investors:

  • Passive investors may consider the investments made by their financial advisors, using that information to structure their portfolios, but they also make independent decisions about their overall investment approach.
  • These investors are not as involved in the investment process and typically only look for potential investments that may lead to long-term profits.

For active investors:

  • People who invest in the long term on their own seek to invest in companies where the top executives are also some of the largest shareholders.
  • Active investors are more involved in the process and typically monitor prices more closely, pursuing both short-term and long-term profits depending on their investment strategy.

A CEO with significant ownership in the company shares the same risk and potential benefits as other stock owners.

Investors often believe that a CEO with skin in the game is more aligned with shareholder interests, increasing the likelihood of making decisions that benefit both the company and shareholders.


Skin in the game is a phrase that describes when directors and executives have their own money invested in the companies they manage. This reflects confidence in the company and its future.

This idea is common in different areas, showing leaders are involved and accountable. When leaders risk their own money, it shows they believe in the company. But, in finance, some rules prevent employees from investing to avoid problems like bias.

There are also worries about conflicts of interest. Even with these issues, the concept is important for all investors. It means leaders and shareholders have the same goals, leading to better decisions and success for everyone in the long run.

Executives and directors should have the chance to reap the potential benefits of a positive outcome and pay the penalty in the event of a negative result, aligning their interests with the company and shareholders.

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Researched and authored by Laila Al-EisawiLinkedIn

Reviewed and edited by James Fazeli-Sinaki | LinkedIn

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