Melinda Gates shares some insights on how to co-lead an organization with a person who has a reputation for being a demanding boss.
Bill Gates has never had a reputation for being the easiest guy to work with. Back when he was CEO of Microsoft, he was pretty much known as a "brilliant jerk," a tech-industry term for the guy who is so clearly the smartest one in the room that he has little patience or tolerance for those who can't keep up. In his younger years, Bill was known for being demanding and impatient with a tendency to yell.
But those days are long gone as Bill now spends most of his time focuses on his philanthropy work and working with his wife, Melinda, to run their charitable foundation.
In the couple's annual letter for their charitable foundation, Melinda Gates had a little fun with this. The letter was written in a Q&A format this year in which the two of them answer a bunch of the most common, and somewhat prying, questions they are always asked.
One of the questions that they answered was "What happens when the two of you disagree?"
Melinda answered first by writing, "We never disagree. Just kidding. Bill almost never gets this question. I get it all the time."
She said there's two types of people that tend to ask her this: "journalists hinting that Bill must be the one making the decisions" and other wives who are also running foundations with their husbands.
But she did answer it seriously. The most important thing, she said, is that the two of them share "the same values." This is symbolized by a present they received when they got married.
"For our wedding, Bill’s parents gave us a sculpture of two birds side by side, staring at the horizon, and it’s still in front of our house. I think of it all the time, because fundamentally we’re looking in the same direction," she said.
She also says that people have misconceptions about what it's really like to work with Bill. "Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him. I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say," she wrote.
He may ask her for more data on something she proposes — as she's a fellow geek who loves data, such a suggestion wouldn't offend her. And she doesn't feel like he's doubting her or discounting her or her judgment.
She admits, though, that it took them a while to learn how to work together. When Bill resigned from his day job at Microsoft in 2008 and went to work full-time at their foundation, which had been mostly her domain, it was tough on Melinda.
"He was used to being in charge," she said, while she had been focusing on raising their kids at home.
"There were times I felt that disparity — in meetings when I was reticent and he was voluble, or when the person we were meeting with looked toward Bill and not me," she explained.
They got through that by committing to each other that they were equal partners at the foundation. On days when things didn't go well at the office, they would discuss the situation later, at home, she explained.
To prove the point of how well they now work together, Bill chimed in by writing in the letter, "I agree with all of this!"
He also added that he's the one that can get exuberant and he counts on Melinda to reel him in.
"When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic," he wrote. "She helps me understand when I can push our teams harder (as I pretty much always did at Microsoft) and when I need to ease off."