I’m a fortunate man; I’m among a very small group of people who’ve had the priviledge of working closely with Bill Gates. When I was VP of HR, he and I had a number of private and quite frank conversations about key members of the Microsoft leadership team. We worked together to set compensation, decide assignments, and make tough corrective choices.
I’ll never forget the time we worked on his own salary together — it was almost comical. I had to implore him to take a reasonable number that even vaguely reflected his peers at the top of the Fortune 500. There I was, trying to convince the world’s richest man to take a reasonable salary. The company was moving to deemphasize stock and put more weight on salary; I wanted him to lead by example. To his credit, he pushed back relentlessly and I ended up recommending to the board’s compensation committee a number about 33% lower than what I thought was right.
Bill is a very special person, with legendary business insight to be sure, but it is coupled with a remarkable sensitivty and concern for his key associates. He treats them much like family-members, with all the good and bad that goes with that. Yes, his blow-ups are legendary, and he can carve new orifaces with the best of them. But more often than not, he is concerned about their welfare, about their family, about their mood and attitude. He values loyalty above most other things, and does not handle defection well at all.
I can think of no one in the world for whom I have more respect, and I know his presence at Microsoft will be sorely missed. Although well divorced from the day-to-day in recent years, he always served as a settling and humanizing force in the company. In the face of Steve Ballmer, a legendarily gruff and difficult manager (which I can personally confirm), this influence should not be underestimated.
I will have much to say about the future of the company in the hands of the new management team, but that will have to wait. Now I’m just too busy enjoying reliving the time I had working with one of the most special people in the world.