Bill Gates’ Ruthless Management Style of Yore

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 26JAN12 - William H. Gates III,  Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USA captured during the session 'Global Economic Crisis: Role and Challenges of the G20' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2012. Photo by Sebastian Derungs
Bill Gates at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2012. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

These days Bill Gates is known primarily as the benevolent overseer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle through which the world’s richest man (estimated net worth: $56 billion) tackles poverty and disease and seeks to improve education. But back in the early days of Microsoft, Gates was known as a fearsome manager.

“I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations,” Gates recently told an interviewer for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program, in which celebrities disclose which music and books they’d take with them to a desert island. This work-all-the-time mindset was applied to his employees, too: “I knew everybody’s license plate so I could look out at the parking lot and see, you know, when people come in.”

Peter Holley, a writer for the Washington Post, recently compiled some anecdotes about Gates’ old management style from people who worked with him. The stories suggest a man for whom work/life balance wasn’t just an afterthought, but a  totally alien concept. This is in stark contrast, of course, to the professed mindset of so many of today’s New Economy companies that are offering unlimited paid family leave, for example.

He cites Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who wrote a piece for Vanity Fair a few years ago about how Gates would “prowl” the parking lots on weekends to see who had come in to work. One employee put in 81 hours in one week finishing a project, only to be asked by Gates “What are you working on tomorrow?” When the employee replied that he was planning on taking the day off, Gates asked “Why would you want to do that?”

“He genuinely couldn’t understand it; he never seemed to need to recharge,” Allen writes.

Gates also had a harsh leadership style that included the frequent deployment of f-bombs, with one of his favorite sayings being “That’s the stupidest f—- thing I’ve ever heard!” writes Allen.

These days people with a management style like Gates’ are condemned as “toxic bosses.” But the sentiment is hardly universal. Holley notes that the authors of the book Primal Leadership described Gates’ style in a Harvard Business Review essay as “harsh” and yet, “Gates is the achievement-driven leader par excellence, in an organization that has cherry-picked highly talented and motivated people. His apparently harsh leadership style — baldly challenging employees to surpass their past performance — can be quite effective when employees are competent, motivated and need little direction — all characteristics of Microsoft’s engineers.”

Of course, Steve Jobs was another tech titan with a famously acerbic management style, one that reportedly left many people in tears (interestingly enough, Jobs himself also cried frequently, according to Walter Issacson’s biography Steve Jobs). Gates and Jobs are visionaries, the type who attract people willing to forgo things like having family time, or being treated with some semblance of respect, in the furtherance of building a company or product they believe will change the world (the promise of hefty stock options no doubt can make it a little more bearable, too). But visionaries don’t have to be nasty in order to get people to accomplish great things — and even Gates himself has acknowledged he’s changed and mellowed a lot in the intervening years. With the rise of social media, I would suspect it’s a bit harder to get away with a management style like that today and still be able to attract great candidates.