25 Lessons Learned from Bill Gates
Bill is full of lessons and insights. Here are 25 plays we can take from the pages of his playbook:
- Change the world, or go home. There is a little sign on many doors at Microsoft. It features the blue monster and it reads: “Change the world, or go home.” Not only does that phrase capture the spirit of thousands of Softies … it speaks to the way Bill Gates drives his life. He lives to build a better world, whether it’s one version, one platform, one system, one idea, one cause, one innovation at a time. The beauty is, he knows how to scale and amplify his impact in powerful ways – he’s on top of his game.
- Blaze the trail. The path isn’t always there. Sometimes you have to make it. Sometimes people will think you’re crazy. Sometimes you are just ahead of the curve. it’s a dream for a reason, and sometimes making your dreams happen takes going out on a limb and giving your all for what you believe in. Bill Gates believed that the personal computer was the future and that there should be one on every desktop and in the living room and it would change the way we work and how we live in unimaginable ways.
- Make an impact. Drive from impact. Bill Gates makes choices based on impact. Whether it’s following his passion or investing in a cause, he drives from making impact. He doesn’t just do things because he can. He does things because they matter and he can make them scale.
- Humanities greatest advances are the ones that level the playing field. Bill Gates has a strong belief that “All lives have equal value.” Help those that can’t help themselves. Everybody deserves a chance at their best life. Lift the underdogs of the world up. In his speech at Harvard, Bill says, “Taking a look back, one big reqret is, I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world. The appalling disparities of health and wealth and opportunity that condemned millions of people to the lives of despair. I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas and economics, and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences. But humanities greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
- A sense of urgency. The world changes fast. The market changes faster. Bill says, “In this business, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Unless you’re running scared all the time, you’re gone.”
- The market doesn’t always drive the right things. In one of his powerful TED talks, Bill says, “There are some very important problems that don’t get worked on naturally. That is the market does not drive the scientists, the communicators, the thinkers, the government to do the right things. And only by paying attention to these things, and having brilliant people who care and draw other people in, can we make as much progress as we need to.” Watch TED – Bill Gates on Mosquitos, Malaria, and Education.
- Live your values. When you let the world know what you’re about, you become a lightening rod and you attract people with the same values. At Microsoft, Bill Gates attracted people with a passion for changing the world and joining him on a journey to help create better lives through technology and innovation. On the philanthropy side, Gates connects with U2’s Bono beyond the music when it comes to sharing their global mission to end poverty, disease, and indifference. In 2005, TIME named Bono, Bill and Melinda Gates, “Persons of the Year” for their humanitarian work. On Bill Gate’s 54′th birthday, Bono had this to say before leading the crowd in Happy Birthday: “Without him, and without his business, we just wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s his birthday today. Bill Gates is in the house.” Watch Bono Wishes Bill Gates a Happy Birthday.
- Your best gets better with the right people. Don’t go it alone. You’re better when you’ve got the right people around you. Bill Gates built a culture of the best and brightest and was good at convincing his friends, such as Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer to join him on his adventures. By surrounding himself with smart people, Bill was able to scale. He also had a sounding board for ideas. More importantly, ideas could get better from the combined smarts and perspectives. Bill also knows how to complement his strengths by having the right people around that make up for his weaknesses.
- Innovation is the heart and soul of a business. It’s about bringing ideas to market and applying research. If you don’t innovate you die. The world keeps changing. To stay ahead of the game, or even to stay in the game, you have to keep innovating: innovate in your products, innovate in your process, innovate in the markets, etc. Bill Gates uses innovation as a way to drive impact whether it’s shaping software or saving the planet.
- Be the platform. Be the platform people can build on. See the role that you play in building something that let’s other people build on what you do best.
- Build a better system. Don’t just solve a one-off problem. Make the solution systematic and make it repeatable. Find, create, or leverage systems. There is always a system, whether it’s at the micro-level or the macro level. The system has inputs and outputs, cycles, and levers. Whether you’re creating the system or leveraging the system, you’re more effective when you realize that there is a system.
- Build an ecosystem. There are systems and ecosystems all around us. Bill says, “Personal computing today is a rich ecosystem encompassing massive PC-based data centers, notebook and Tablet PCs, handheld devices, and smart cell phones. It has expanded from the desktop and the data center to wherever people need it — at their desks, in a meeting, on the road or even in the air.” On creating partners for your ecosystem, Bill says, “Our success has really been based on partnerships from the very beginning.”
- Know how to turn the crank. Take action. Execute. The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s execution. Lots of people have ideas. There is an overload of ideas. The real gap is bringing ideas to market in a way that matters. The secret sauce is ruthless prioritization of the ideas that make the most impact.
- Take Care of Your People. Bill Gates says, “Great organizations demand a high level of commitment by the people involved.” He set a powerful example of taking care of employees, from private offices for developers to creating a workplace of extreme empowerment, engagement, and passion.
- Divide and conquer the problem. There is always a way to chunk up the problem and prioritize more effectively. Whether it’s slicing the problem into versions over time, or simply taking the most meaningful or highest ROI (Return On Investment) pieces of the problem and tackling them first, you can make progress on the worst of problems or the best of opportunities. No problem withstands sustained, focused effort that learns and improves over time.
- Improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success. One of Bill’s stories during his speech at Harvard is how he learned this lesson: “Radcliff was a great place to live. There were more women up there and most of the guys were mad science types. The combination offered me the best odds if you know what I mean.”
- You don’t have to be first to win. Bill says, “Microsoft has had its success by doing low-cost products and constantly improving those products and we’ve really redefined the IT industry to be something that’s about a tool for individuals.”
- The toughest feedback to hear, is the feedback you need the most. You get better by listening to your toughest critics. Your greatest source of growth can come from the people that will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Bill says, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill also says, “You’ve got to want to be in this incredible feedback loop where you get the world-class people to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”
- Business and technology go hand in hand. Bill says, “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other.” We’re truly living a knowledge worker world, where information technology is front and center. Bill says, “It’s pretty incredible to look back 30 years to when Microsoft was starting and realize how work has been transformed. We’re finally getting close to what I call the digital workstyle.”
- Frame the problem. Bill says, “I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.” Framing a problem is simply how you look at a problem, just like how you frame a picture. It’s about choosing what to focus on, what’s in and what’s out. When you frame the problem, you bound it. Framing also helps you get a better perspective on the problem, as well as share the problem more effectively with others. Some questions to help frame a problem include: Who’s the customer? What are their needs and priorities? What’s happening in the market? What are competitors doing? What are our options for responding? How do we differentiate? How is technology changing and what possibilities does it offer our customers? What are the priorities for our business?
- Celebrate success, but learn from failure. Don’t repeat the same mistakes and don’t wallow in your wins. Bill says, ““It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
- Technology is just a tool. Don’t lose sight of the end in mind or the difference that makes the difference. Bill says, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”
- Don’t automate inefficiency. Make sure something actually makes sense to automate, otherwise you compound the problem. Bill says, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
- Empower people. Put the right information into the hands of the people that can make the most of it. Bill says, ““The vision is really about empowering workers, giving them all the information about what’s going on so they can do a lot more than they’ve done in the past.”
- Go digital. Connect people, process, and technology. Create a digital landscape or a virtual world to reduce friction and to create new possibilities. Bill says, ““One of the wonderful things about the information highway is that virtual equity is far easier to achieve than real-world equity…We are all created equal in the virtual world and we can use this equality to help address some of the sociological problems that society has yet to solve in the physical world.”