How do you get to work for a famous boss, like Jack Ma or Bill Gates? And how do you get them to see you as a peer? Steve Davis, the CEO of PATH, a global health NGO, in a previous life worked encountered these questions.
In the 1990s, he got to know Bill Gates and work for him. At first, he became his lawyer at Corbis, a digital imaging company owned by Gates. Later he was appointed CEO there. Today he still meets Gates regularly, as he is one of PATH’s major donors via the Gates Foundation.
Looking back at two decades of collaboration, he offered his advice to other people who might one day step into his shoes, telling us how he went from being an employee to a friend of this famous entrepreneur and philanthropist.
1. Be there through thick and thin
Davis was hired rather coincidentally to work for Corbis, a digital imaging company founded by Bill Gates in 1989. It was the then CEO of Corbis who brought him on board as corporate lawyer (Davis was until then a young human rights lawyer). But just a few months after he was hired, the CEO and many of his fellow executives left. The future of the young company was endangered. With just a few junior managers left at the company, Gates stepped up and asked Davis to act as interim CEO.
It turned out to be a winning and lasting cooperation. “It was important I told him I was willing to keep the company going,” Davis said. If he hadn’t, the personal relationship they developed might have never taken off. “After that, we went through the fire a few times,” Davis said. “That either ruins or strengthens a relationship.” In the case of Davis and Gates, it was the time when they got to know each other’s families, worked through some hard times, and came out of it stronger. “That is true with a lot of founder-CEO relations,” Davis said.
2. Be brutally honest and learn fast
As Davis took over as CEO, he figured he better be brutally honest to set expectations right, and learn very fast to not disappoint. “I told [Bill Gates] I wasn’t a technology guy,” Davis said. “I didn’t even know what a P&L was. But I told him upfront and said I could learn.” It was another critical success factor, Davis said. “You need to be clear about what is going to work and what isn’t. You have to put it on the table.” In the following months and years, Davis educated himself in the business world, and ultimately stayed on as CEO for many years.
3. Separate your duties
As a founder, successful business man, or branded personality, it may be hard to delegate your responsibilities to another person. After all, success comes from your own hard work and talent, doesn’t it? Yet it is important to learn and separate duties with your closest collaborators. “You really have to get the roles clear,” Davis said. “If the CEO is constrained by his or her Chairman or Founder because they’re a big personality, the collaboration is not going to work.”
In the case of Davis and Gates, they did so by dividing the lines. If they spoke to other people, Gates would set the direction, talk about the large trends and themes, and Davis would go about the specifics of managing the company. In conversations they had among them, Davis also wouldn’t go over the whole list of issues he encountered in managing the company: “It’s better to cover a few things, and drill down, rather than to go over everything,” he said.
4. Find ways to see each other as a peer
Over time, Davis and Gates got to see each other as peers. The basis for that, Davis said, was that “we were peers about the world we lived in.” He said: “At some point you realize: ‘I have a perspective, and I’m not any less’. They made different choices, of course. But it wasn’t because Gates was interested in computers, and Davis in human rights and China, that the one was less than the other. “I assume that I bring value, and because of that I am valuable,” Davis said.
Now, many years after they worked together on Corbis, Davis and Gates still stay in touch. A few years ago, Davis went back to work on a project that appealed to his human rights and development-oriented nature: he became CEO of PATH, a global health NGO that helps to cure the world’s ills (quite literally) by bringing together public and private sector in innovative health solutions. Gates, famously, moved into a similar direction, founding the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife. The Foundation now is an important donor to PATH, and Gates and Davis still meet, both professionally and personally.
When they do, they talk, listen and exchange ideas. On occasion, they also recommend books to each other. “We both read a lot,” Davis said. “But we don’t read the same things. He reads a lot of non-fiction, technical books. I read a lot of fiction, historical work and biographies.” And when Davis talks, Gates listens. “Bill has a strong personality, but is a good listener,” Davis said. “There is always a lot to learn. I certainly can learn from other people and they can learn from me. That is the basis of our friendship.”