Leadership

What Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer can teach you about running a better business

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, left, and CEO Steve Ballmer speak to each other at the annual stockholders meeting in Bellevue, Washington, November 9, 2004.
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Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, left, and CEO Steve Ballmer speak to each other at the annual stockholders meeting in Bellevue, Washington, November 9, 2004.

In business, you work with many partners. You may partner with vendors and clients on a regular basis, but arguably, the most important partnerships you'll ever form are the ones you have with the other leaders at your company.

While the partnership between business leaders within a company is critical, it's also challenging. One of the most famous partnerships of them all, between Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, exemplified the positives and negatives of these relationships in their 33 years of work together at Microsoft. Although the two parted ways and began drifting apart, their partnership and the projects they created together helped make Microsoft the billion-dollar company it is today.

Here's how you can learn from their successes — and mistakes — and use a strong relationship between business partners to create an enviable company culture.

1. Start with strong leadership

Neither Gates nor Ballmer could be accused of weakness as leaders. Strong leaders exemplify the qualities they want in employees. That's why it's critical to not only hire executives whose values align with your own, but to also invest in your personal development as a leader and in the development of those around you.

These types of successful relationships are what make companies thrive. At design and branding company Carbone Smolan Agency, for example, partners Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan have been working together for 35 years, and they've even written a book about what makes business partnerships work. While the two sometimes have different ideas about the company and its future, the fact that they are still supportive of each other and always want what's best for the business is the glue that holds everything together.

When your team members view you as someone they want to emulate, they're more dedicated to the company and to each other. If you expect your employees to work hard and commit themselves to your company while you fail to show the same dedication, expect turnover rates to skyrocket and work quality to plummet.

2. Be intentional about open communication

Ongoing communication is critical to any relationship — something Gates and Ballmer struggled with in the later years of their relationship. Marcus Lemonis of CNBC's "The Profit" says, "My advice to people who feel like they're in a relationship or a partnership that's falling apart is better communication, more frequent and more in depth."

Lemonis points out that communication can be easy when money is coming in and everything seems to be going well, but it's even more critical during the challenging times.

As a business owner, encouraging two-way communication and being completely transparent with your team allows you to receive honest feedback, which can help you make more effective decisions as you guide your business forward. Equally important is being honest with your partners — if the partnership falls apart, the company is at risk of falling apart, too.

3. Show recognition and gratitude to your team

Showing gratitude is key to building loyalty and trust in any relationship. In fact, it's so important that U.S. organizations spend more than $77 billion each year on incentive programs to motivate and reward employees. Recognizing the contributions of all the members of your team — and the time and energy that third-party vendors and consultants put into their relationships with you — will help you build bonds that last beyond the terms of a contract or the length of a project.

At bluemedia, a national leader in large-format printing for some of the best-known brands and sports teams, President Darren Wilson focuses on a people-first approach when building a long-lasting partnership. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the relationship between bluemedia's four key partners, and in that time, the company has grown to become a leader in the signage industry. According to Wilson, it's the people of bluemedia who have served as the foundation for the long-lasting partnership and the company's success.

Bill Gates
Photo by Pacific Press
Bill Gates

Building an attitude of helpfulness and gratitude internally will inevitably affect the way you treat customers, leading to improved customer satisfaction. Regardless of the industry, companies that understand that people are their most important asset will thrive.

4. Handle conflict immediately

Conflict is inevitable, no matter how strong a partnership is — in fact, 85 percent of employees said they have experienced conflict in the workplace. But it can be anticipated and minimized. Ballmer has emphasized the importance of respect in communication between himself and Gates, stating that they had "a brotherly relationship in the good parts and the bad parts."

If you're being intentional about effective and open communication, potential conflicts should be readily identified and discussed candidly and respectfully. Consider utilizing techniques like active listening or enlisting the support of a third party to provide an outside perspective.

Every time you're able to demonstrate your core company values, like integrity or respect, you strengthen your company culture. Thus, when conflict is approached as an inevitable — but resolvable — aspect of doing business together, it becomes an opportunity to put your values into practice and strengthen the bonds that hold your team together.

No matter how much the nature of work continues to change, strong relationships will remain the cornerstone of good business. Strong partnerships at the top lead to strong relationships within teams and a supportive culture across the company. Companies that understand this and establish a culture that supports relationship building will thrive.

Rhett Power is the co-founder of Wild Creations and the author of "The Entrepreneurs Book of Actions."

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