From my very first meeting with Bill Gates it was clear he was someone you could learn from. That grilling in a tiny Microsoft conference room in the summer of 1992 was one I’ll never forget.
From then through to my time as Vice President of HR when I was afforded many one-on-one meetings with him, I learned many things from Bill Gates. Here are the 3 that stick with me.
1. Dig for answers
Chris Williams via Business Insider
That first meeting was just days after the Fox Software team arrived on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. Microsoft had paid over $170 million for the company, and it was clear Bill wanted to see what he’d bought.
Six of us, two of our top developers and me as the development manager, joined the owner and two program managers for our introduction to Bill. We were totally unaware how extraordinary a small face-to-face with him was.
Pleasantries were rushed through quickly and it soon became clear the reason for the meeting. Our product, FoxPro, was many, many times faster than Cirrus, the Microsoft product it competed with (later released as Access). Bill wanted to understand why.
He quickly figured out the developer responsible was Eric Christensen, a pure genius. Bill focused immediately on Eric and what followed resembled a Star Trek mind meld. Bill shot in rapid fire more and more detailed questions, until they were discussing the movement of single bits and the size of the Intel 80386 instruction cache.
As quickly as it began, the meeting ended. Bill nodded and smiled, almost proud of himself. He’d gotten his money’s worth. We were free to go.
In the years that passed, I saw Bill do this same kind of exercise time and again. He was always curious, always wanted to understand, always drilling for more detail. As a younger man this drilling was aggressive and harsh. As he got older, his passion for detail never left, just his method for getting there mellowed.
Bill and I are only six months apart in age and during the time I worked with him I watched both of us grow. Maybe it was having children, maybe it was working with ever larger organizations, maybe it was just getting wiser with age. But both of us learned how to get to the details without making a mess in the process.
2. Smell the bull
A big part of the reason for the drilling went far beyond fascination with the details. It was much more than just checking that the work was done. It was to identify the people who slung the bull. The people who, when cornered, just make things up.
It seems that Bill learned early on that pressing for details until failure resulted in two kinds of responses. There were the people who were strong enough to admit, in the face of the then-richest man on the planet, that “I don’t know.” And there were those who just started making things up. Guessing at answers. Pulling things out of thin air.
Bill wielded that cudgel with dexterity. His response to obvious bull was almost always “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” If it was egregiously wrong, he would throw in a personal insult or two. Questioning of one’s parentage or education. The latter faded with time as he received feedback about how little the personal invective helped.
But Bill’s ability to smell the odor of falsehood only seemed to improve with age. Later you could tell you were in trouble just from his facial expressions. That look of disappointment that told you, oops, perhaps I should retreat here.
It was hard to be in those rooms many times and not pick up some of that skill. I began to see the same kinds of signs. I learned to watch for the flittering eyes, the unsure tone, or the smell of desperation. In time I could recognize the face of someone who, it seemed, would rather die than say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”
3. Synthesize from nothing
Bill’s greatest skill, however, was his ability to see a mess and find the structure. To face a deeply complex set of facts and opinions and determine precisely the meaning in the stew. To synthesize clarity from a whole lot of nothing.
Too many times to count, I was in a project update with Bill and watched this skill at work. Teams would meet at least twice with him. Once for the project kickoff to ensure things were headed in a good direction, one that made sense and aligned with the rest of the company. Then they would meet shortly before release to confirm that the objectives were met, mostly just a Bill stamp of approval.
The largest or most important projects were subjected to interim reviews — as many as two or three as the project progressed. It was at the start or during these interim reviews when this synthesis often happened.
A team would bring in a deeply complex set of issues. Perhaps a fractured product market with a lot of competition and a broad range of possible technical opportunities to address the market. They would have miles of data and dozens of opinions on the correct path. They would say “we’re struggling to decide if we should do X and build this, or head toward Y and build that.”
Within seconds Bill had absorbed it all. Somehow, someway, he found the two or three variables that really mattered. He would blurt out “Don’t you see, this and that are what matters, it’s clear you should do X!”
The whole room would be silent, and then realize how right he was. Agreement was widely reached, a path was charted, the meeting soon adjourned.
When I first saw this happen, I was sure it was simply people agreeing with the boss. I later realized the Microsoft culture wouldn’t let that happen. If he was wrong, one of the senior people in the room would call him out. Someone who had earned his respect would’ve shot back “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” And laughed.
No, he was virtually always right. He had found the two or five things that really mattered. The variables that changed the equation. And from there, the choice was obvious.
Some of this was because he sat at the top of a large organization that itself was at the top of a large market. He had contacts, perspective, and visibility that many of us did not.
But most of it was because of him. His skill at seeing both the details and the whole picture in one frame. His genius at figuring out what mattered, and more importantly what didn’t.
I’ll admit I never learned how to do this. At least not at his level. I just learned to admire it. And I was fortunate enough to be able to get one-on-one time with him to use it. Use it for myself and the various teams I led at Microsoft.
I learned a lot from spending time with Bill Gates. All the noise around his personal life that may have surfaced recently have done little to dampen that. When I think of how much the opportunity to be in the room with him taught me, I just smile.
Chris Williams is the former VP of HR at Microsoft and a leadership advisor, podcaster, TikTok creator, and author.