How Billionaire Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates Settle Disagreements
As is their tradition, today Bill and Melinda Gates put out their annual letter detailing what the Gates Foundation has accomplished over the past 12 months and their goals for the future.
For the 2018 letter, the couple opted to organize their thoughts in the form of frequently asked questions about their priorities, how the current political climate is impacting the organization, how they decide where to donate funds and what kind of thought goes into their corporate partnerships.
But they also took time to address how they deal with disagreements. Though the first thing that Melinda Gates was sure to make note of is the somewhat gendered nature of the query.
“We never disagree. Just kidding,” Melinda wrote. "Bill almost never gets this question. 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."
They both observed that a shared sense of values powers the Foundation. Melinda shared that while Bill may ask for more data to support an idea or story, she knows he always trusts her judgement about whether a problem is something the foundation should be aware of and working to solve. Bill characterized their disagreements, when they do occur, as more about tactics and approach rather than about an issue itself.
Melinda described how their working relationship took time to develop after Bill left Microsoft to join the foundation on a full-time basis.
“He was used to being in charge. I’d stayed home with our kids, so I was restarting my career. 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,” Melinda recalled. “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.”
Bill noted that because he has been in the public eye longer than his wife that he is sometimes viewed, from the outside, as the final word about foundation decisions, but he explained why that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“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,” Bill explained. “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.”
So if you are working with friends, family members or a spouse, what can you learn from the Gates’ example? Make sure that you are on the same page from a values perspective from the beginning. If the balance feels off, be sure to speak up -- don’t hold things back, because in addition to harming your professional relationship, it can affect aspects of your personal one as well. And finally, lead with your strengths and trust that the other person will have your back, either advising you to step away and reassess or pursue something wholeheartedly.