A long time ago, in a computer industry far, far away, I wrote a rather successful book about Silicon Valley management style. As research for that book, I interviewed the most successful CEOs of that time, including Bill Gates.
This was back when Microsoft faced a truly existential crisis. The Internet was changing how people used computers and Microsoft was still mostly focused on software for desktops and laptops. If Microsoft were to continue to grow or even maintain its current success, Gates had to pivot the company 180 degrees. That's daunting for a start-up. It's an insanely difficult task for a huge corporation.
So during the interview I asked Gates what was the most important thing he was doing as a CEO to ensure Microsoft's continuing success. Here's what he told me:
"Our corporate culture nurtures an atmosphere in which creative thinking thrives, and employees develop to the fullest potential. The way Microsoft is set up, you have all the incredible resources of a large company, yet you still have that dynamic small-group, small-company feeling where you can really make a difference. Individuals generate ideas, and Microsoft makes it possible for those ideas to become reality. Our strategy has always been to hire strong, creative employees, and delegate responsibility and resources to them so they can get the job done."
Now, that is as succinct a definition of smart management that I've ever heard. It hits all the right notes: creative thinking, personal development, small teams, delegation of authority, and appropriate funding.
What's equally eloquent, though, is what Gates didn't say. He made no mention of maintaining revenue, controlling costs, command and control, or catering to investors. It's not that Gates didn't think those things were important; it's just that he knew that if focused on creating a great corporate culture, that stuff would pretty much take care of itself.
As indeed it did.
Not only did Gates pivot Microsoft to be more Internet-centric, he launched Microsoft into data center computing with Windows NT and also developed the xBox, by far the company's most successful branded computer. And he did all this while maintaining and growing its Windows and Office user base.
Think about that for a second.
How many companies have simultaneously expanded into three utterly different markets while maintaining and growing a cash cow? Answer: one. Microsoft under Bill Gates.
In fact, one could argue that Microsoft has been coasting on the success that Bill Gates brought it in the mid-1990s by simply focusing on culture rather than numbers. And that's a lesson that applies to running any company--huge enterprises to seat-of-their-pants startups.