Best advice: Gates on Gates
The father-and-son duo talk about what it was like growing up Gates as they reflect on the advice that has influenced their careers and their relationship.
PARIS (Fortune) -- It's certainly a unique father-son relationship. The man who created one of the largest fortunes in history, now in his second career as a philanthropist, has his dad working for him as co-chair of the world's largest charitable organization -- the $27.5 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Actually, this is a second act for both men. Bill Gates, 53, stepped down from day-to-day work at Microsoft last June, while his father, Bill Gates Sr., 83, retired from the prominent Seattle law firm Preston Gates & Ellis (now known as K&L Gates), in 1998. These days both men give counsel to each other, but for years, of course, Dad doled out indispensable advice to his son. I recently sat down with this unlikely buddy act in the famed Leonard Bernstein suite at the Hôtel de Crillon on Paris's Place de la Concorde to ask them about the best advice they ever got.
Bill, I'd like to ask you about the best advice that you've ever gotten from your dad.
Bill Gates: Well, my dad and my mom were great at encouraging me as a kid to do things that I wasn't good at, to go out for a lot of different sports like swimming, football, soccer, and I didn't know why. At the time I thought it was kind of pointless, but it ended up really exposing me to leadership opportunities and showing me that I wasn't good at a lot of things, instead of sticking to things that I was comfortable with. It was fantastic, and now some of those activities I cherish. They had to stick to it because I pushed back a lot, but it was fantastic advice.
Mr. Gates, do you remember specifically dispensing advice, or was it something that was just a natural part of parenting?
Bill Gates Sr.: I think to some extent his mother and I were explicit about this, but it was mostly just instinctive. We did feel like he ought to go turn out, go and play on the neighborhood softball team and things of that kind. We thought it would be good for him and that he'd enjoy it, and apparently it turned out to be good advice.
B.G.: Even though I wasn't very good at it.
B.G. SR.: You were okay.
You make it sound very easy, but all of us who are parents know that raising a family is not always that way. In your new book you mentioned dinners on Sunday nights and wearing the same kind of pajamas [on Christmas]. Does that stuff really work, Mr. Gates?
B.G. SR.: Well, I guess on the basis of one family's experience, my answer is a loud yes.
What do you think, Bill?
B.G.: I think family traditions that get you to come together and talk about what you're up to -- going on trips together, always sitting at dinner and sharing thoughts -- really made a huge difference. We learned from our parents what they were trying to do, whether it was United Way or a volunteering activity or the world of business. I felt very equipped as I was dealing with adults to talk to them in a comfortable fashion because my parents had shared how they thought about things.
Things weren't always so smooth, though, between the two of you. Like any father and son, you've had some rocky moments, right?
B.G.: That's right. I don't think I was easy to bring up. I had a lot of energy and stubbornness about things that I wanted to do. At one juncture, when I was in my last year of high school, I got a job offer and it would take me away from school, and I was amazed that my dad, after meeting with the headmaster and getting all the data, said, "Yeah, that's something you can go and do." Most of the rockiness had been before that, when I was still confused about, was I trying to prove something vs. my parents. There was actually a professional who I went and visited, who my parents had me chat with. [That person] explained to me that there wasn't really any benefit to fighting with my parents. It was all about the issues, the battles were going to be about the real world, and they were really on my side. And that was fantastic. It just changed my mindset. I was only 12 or 13 at the time. I think it made things a lot smoother from that point on.
A lot of times 12- and 13-year-olds are told that their parents are not their enemies, and it goes in one ear and out the other. Yet you were able to actually take this advice and listen to it, and you began to become closer to your parents after that?
B.G.: That's right. As I was starting Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), I'd go over on Sundays and share with my parents what the challenges were and get some thoughts, just vent about what was complicated. I remember when we were taking the company public, I was saying that I thought that would have some real drawbacks, and we talked about how to mitigate those.
So there was a lot of camaraderie that came from the fact that we'd gotten on an even keel, and they were very encouraging even though it was a business that was mysterious in some ways. The scale of the opportunity was beyond what would have been predicted.
You guys have this incredible working relationship, and obviously a close familial one as well. What do you think the secret to that is?
B.G. SR.: One of the [best pieces of advice] I ever had is related to what you just asked about, and that is the business of getting along with and encouraging the right things with your youngsters. Bill's mother and I early on were involved in parent effectiveness training, [an] activity at the church we went to. And the thing that the people there taught us and emphasized, which is so central and so significant, is that you should never demean your child. When you think about the centrality of that, in terms of the relationship with an offspring, you're off to a really good start. I'm a great fan of my son's. I think he's an incredible citizen and a wonderful businessman, and we let that show in the things we do together.
B.G.: I think it's because we have well-defined roles. I'm kind of a driving, "Why haven't we gotten all these things done?" [kind of person], and dad is the voice of wisdom. We'll be having a meeting, talking about the calendar or the cost or those things, and he'll make a comment that will get everybody to stop and think, You know, we missed that way of looking at things. And his being there at the foundation full-time really has shaped the values. When we have the foundation meeting, people get up and applaud because they see that that really makes a difference. And to create a family foundation, when I was busy, and yet to know that the values were going to be right and strong, I give credit for that to my dad.
And your son maybe didn't always take your advice, Mr. Gates. I mean when he told you he was going to drop out of Harvard, what did you say to him?
B.G. SR.: Well, the first time he said he was going to take a period away and then go back, the emphasis was on, well, he will go back. Second time around, after he did go back, then he again felt like he had to go to Albuquerque, where the company was, and work there more. We were much more concerned the second time. The company was becoming very demanding, and Paul Allen was out there in Albuquerque, and Bill needed to help him.
Bill, let me ask you about another one of your mentors. What's the best advice Warren Buffett has ever given you?
B.G.: Well, I've gotten a lot of great advice from Warren. I'd say one of the most interesting is how he keeps things simple. You look at his calendar, it's pretty simple. You talk to him about a case where he thinks a business is attractive, and he knows a few basic numbers and facts about it. And [if] it gets less complicated, he feels like then it's something he'll choose to invest in. He picks the things that he's got a model of, a model that really is predictive and that's going to continue to work over a long-term period. And so his ability to boil things down, to just work on the things that really count, to think through the basics -- it's so amazing that he can do that. It's a special form of genius.
If you're getting too balled up with a lot of complicated things on your schedule, do you actually go back and think, What would Warren do?
B.G.: Yeah, sure. I think Warren is so nice to everybody -- how does he say no in a nice way? Or how does he think about priorities and have that explicitly in mind? And he turns down an unbelievable number of things, and yet everybody feels great about it. His grace in talking to people where he's always saying, you know, "You probably understand this better than I do, but here's how I messed it up when I first got involved in this." You know, that's a special talent, and I do find myself thinking, Hmm, how would Warren say this in a friendly fashion?
There was a case at the annual meeting where somebody asked a question about should you sell the stocks that have gone up and keep the ones that have not? And he sort of said, "No, you look at the value of the business." And then Charlie [Munger] added, "He's telling you your conceptual framework is all wrong." Which is in fact what the answer had been, but there wasn't one element of, "Hey, dummy ..."
What about growing up, Bill? Teachers in high school or at Harvard? Were there any experiences you had there where you got a piece of advice that kind of gave you an ah-ha moment?
B.G.: Well, my parents were nice enough to have me go to a great high school. It was a private high school. And a lot of the teachers there were very encouraging in my math and science and giving me the books that they liked, letting me read ahead. And the whole computer experience, the exposure came because Lakeside was sort of forward-looking. They were truly amazing -- that when the teachers found it too confusing, they let the students take over. Most schools would have just, I don't know, shut the thing down or something. It was a very weird deal where we kind of took charge and even the whole way we started using computers to pick when the classes would meet -- that was a friend and I in charge of doing that.
So they had a comfort, and you know, there were a few teachers that I would give a lot of credit to -- they let us go and dream about where we would take it.
Do you remember their names?
B.G.: Yeah, Fred Wright was the key person who ran the math department, and I think [he] deserves most of the credit. There was a physics teacher, Gary Maestretti, who encouraged me. Even when I was first in 8th Grade, and I was doing very well on these national tests, a guy named Paul Stocklim was incredible at just saying -- Hey, you should have more confidence. You're really good at this stuff. Getting that kind of encouragement -- it was very helpful, and that was a great environment. All those teachers were thoughtful. I think I got more than my fair share of their energy because, you know, I was so excited about the subjects and the frontiers. They kept throwing new stuff at me because of that.
So Mr. Gates, why did you decide to write this book? In this book, there's a fair amount of advice and learning, and obviously, you feel compelled to share some of that. What was it that prompted you to do this?
B.G. SR.: It started with writing a memoir and really as much as anything, my colleague in that work, someone by the name of Mary Ann Mackin whose name is on the cover of the book, encouraged me to think in terms of making it more of a book than just one that I would give to the family or friends as a memoir. I was reluctant about that, to be candid, but she persisted, and finally, well, okay, okay, let's go that way. And I'm delighted that I decided to. It's really been an interesting experience. I mean it's an industry I knew nothing about, and it's really revealing and fun to see how the book business works, and I'm tickled with the book.
Has it surprised you that you've met all manner of associates and friends of your son's and that these people have ended up being peers and people that you work with? Did you ever imagine that would come to pass that way?
B.G. SR.: No, no, that isn't the kind of thing you would expect to occur, and you describe it well. It's a surprise. It's not a prediction I would have made, the way my life was going to work.
Who were some of your son's associates or friends that you feel have really contributed to your learning process?
B.G. SR.: Well, a good many of them. Certainly, his two key associates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer, would be in that category. Very bright, insightful, thoughtful human beings.
B.G.: And I'd also say probably Patty Stonesifer.
B.G. SR.: Yes.
B.G.: Together with my dad, [Patty] really created the foundation, the whole approach, the values. I think the integrity, humility. Together with Patty they thought through a lot of things so that once I was ready to go full-time, it was a thriving concern that was pretty far into some interesting, complex problems. And so it's been an incredible gift for me that as I move over, it's not a startup, it's a going concern with amazing people, and Dad's values have really shaped the direction it's gone in.
B.G. SR.: The other person who would be on that list, by the way, would be Melinda Gates, who is more than just a daughter-in-law. She's a friend, and she brings wisdom to the table.
Bill, as you move from Microsoft to the foundation world, from computer science to natural sciences and beyond, have you gotten advice and learned new things from this whole new group of people that you now associate with?
B.G.: Yeah, it's a different world, and you want to make sure you're bringing what's good about the business environment and the kind of engineering world that I spent most of my life in, and abandoning some elements that aren't going to work.
What about advice or lessons learned as you were growing Microsoft from say, Andy Grove or people at IBM?
B.G.: We learned [a lot] about quality control, particularly from IBM Japan. Our Japanese customers on the whole were so tough about quality and precision -- that was fantastic, because we did a lot of business there early in our existence. Intel (INTC, Fortune 500), we kind of grew up with together. Andy would sometimes be very friendly, offer good advice. Sometimes he was very tough on us. But it was all very helpful. I mean, he's brilliant. And he helped us think about things in new ways. Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) is a competitor, but in terms of getting the Macintosh to critical mass, Microsoft was the key partner who had all the early software. You know, that was an interesting learning curve. Working with Steve Jobs is also exciting and not totally predictable, but he was brilliant and inspired us in a lot of ways.
Is there anything you specifically learned from Steve Jobs over the years?
B.G.: Well, Steve's kind of a fanatic about things, and you know, I think fanaticism is underrated. I'm a fanatic about running the engineering groups and the quality of them. Steve is a fanatic about the user experience and the design, and it clearly has made a huge difference for Apple that he says that it all has to come together -- not some committee-type view that has a list of things, but rather a holistic view. That's a deep insight.
Do you guys celebrate Father's Day? What do you guys do to mark that day?
B.G. SR.: We do birthdays and things like that pretty assiduously, but Father's Day, we've occasionally had a dinner or something
B.G.: Yeah, we always talk on the phone on Father's Day.
B.G. SR.: Yes, we do.