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Melinda and Bill Gates reveal the common-sense secret to successful relationships

Leah Fessler
By Leah Fessler

Reporter, Quartz at Work

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Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates publish a letter about their philanthropic work and life lessons. This year, they began by identifying as resolute optimists, even in the face of endless headlines about political divisions, violence, natural disasters, and sexual harassment. “[B]eing an optimist isn’t about knowing that life used to be worse. It’s about knowing how life can get better,” they wrote. “And that’s what really fuels our optimism.”

Having a collective net worth of over $90 billion surely helps fuel their confidence. From investing $15.3 billion in vaccines to saving millions of lives in developing countries and taking steps to reshape higher education in the US, the Gates have a lot to be optimistic about.

However, none of their work (nor the Gates Foundation itself) would exist without their successful partnership.

While many view Bill as the face of the Gates’ philanthropy, this year’s annual Gates letter emphasizes Melinda’s role as a leader of equal stature in their relationship and their work. The body of the letter is devoted to answering “the 10 toughest questions” the couple gets, from why they don’t give more in the United States to whether they feel they’re imposing their own values on other cultures. But for anyone involved in a partnership at work or at home, the most relatable of the set is question nine, which asks: “What happens when the two of you disagree?”

Melinda answers first, identifying the gender and power dynamics inherent within this inquiry. ”Bill almost never gets this question,” she says. “I get it all the time. Sometimes, it’s from journalists hinting that Bill must be the one making the decisions. Other times, it’s from women philanthropists asking advice about how to work more effectively with their husbands.”

It’s a form of conditioning that has us believe that women are the caregivers—responsible for conflict resolution and peace-maintenance—while men handle important decisions and vision-setting. This bias, probably familiar to any female leader, exerts a particularly fraught influence in the nonprofit sector, where women comprise two-thirds of the workforce but hold less than half of the executive positions.

To overcome such imbalances, which are only amplified by Bill’s global fame as founder of Microsoft, he and Melinda ground their personal and professional relationship in two unsexy, yet deeply practical tenants. Melinda writes:

“First, we agree on basic values. For our wedding, Bill’s parents gave us a sculpture of two birds side by side, staring at the horizon, and it’s still in front of our house. I think of it all the time, because fundamentally we’re looking in the same direction.

Second, Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him. I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say. When I tell a story about what I’ve seen, he feels it. He might ask me to gather some data for good measure, but he doesn’t doubt the reality of my experiences or the soundness of my judgment.”

Exalted by countless management experts in different language—be it the importance of “strong opinions, weakly held,” advanced in the 1980s by Stanford technology forecaster Paul Saffo, now beloved by entrepreneurs like Marc Andreessen, or the importance of being simultaneously “assertive and open-minded,” promoted by hedge fund guru Ray Dalio—Bill Gates’ ability to listen to Melinda’s ideas, question his own assumptions, and act on rather than doubt her judgment cannot be overstated.

As Saffo has noted, excessive malleability will handicap any leader, but so will excessive rigidity. “Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect—this is the ‘strong opinion’ part,” he wrote. “Then—and this is the ‘weakly held’ part—prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.”

Melinda says that when Bill first came to the Gates Foundation from Microsoft, he was used to being in charge. “I’d stayed home with our kids, so I was restarting my career,” she wrote. “There were times I felt that disparity—in meetings when I was reticent and he was voluble, or when the person we were meeting with looked toward Bill and not me. It’s always been important to us that we are equal partners in our foundation’s work. We’ve learned over time to give each other feedback at home about times in the office when we didn’t meet that goal. And we’re better for it.”

Responding to his business partner and wife, Bill agrees that honest feedback is at the heart of their shared success:

“As she says, our common values serve us well. We agree on the big issues. Our occasional disagreements these days are over tactics. Because I’ve been a public figure longer, and because I’m a man, some people assume I am making the big decisions. That’s never been the case.

“Some people see Melinda as the heart of our foundation, the emotional core. But just as she knows I’m more emotional than people realize, I know she’s more analytical than people realize. When I get really enthusiastic about something, I count on her to make sure I’m being realistic. I also love watching her bring together just the right mix of people to solve a problem. She helps me understand when I can push our teams harder (as I pretty much always did at Microsoft) and when I need to ease off.

“We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work.”

You can read the full Gates annual letter here.

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