Even the world’s richest man needs a mentor.
Bill Gates created software that runs in most computers on the planet, and then became a billionaire philanthropist, giving away more than $28 billion and working to eradicate polio.
So why would he need a mentor? Here’s why.
Bill Gates first met his mentor at a dinner organized by his mother. He thought he would have nothing in common with him, because he was just “this guy who picks stocks.” It turned out that they had more in common than he realized, and over the years he’d come to view him as a key mentor and advisor.
That man? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Gates wrote a piece about his mentor on LinkedIn last year, detailing what he’d learned from him. A big part of it was about learning to think in different ways. Buffett doesn’t just pick stocks, for example; he analyzes companies, and tries to define what their “competitive moat” is – the thing that gives them an advantage over competitors. Gates used that insight and others in thinking about Microsoft, and realized that Buffett “thought about business in a much more profound way than I’d given him credit for.”
But more than that, Buffett got his protégé fired up about philanthropy. Buffett himself famously lives relatively frugally and donates large portions of his wealth to charity, and he was the person Gates turned to for advice when he was setting up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We talked a lot about the idea that philanthropy could be just as impactful in its own way as software had been,” Gates wrote. “It turns out that Warren’s brilliant way of looking at the world is just as useful in attacking poverty and disease as it is in building a business. He’s one of a kind.”
Buffett had his own mentor in his younger years, and his work with Gates is a way of passing on those lessons to the next generation. Click here to read more about who his mentor was and what he learned from him.
The Early Years
When he was just starting out, Gates also had another mentor: Ed Roberts, inventor of one of the earliest personal computers.
It was reading an article about Roberts’s invention, the MITS Altair 8800, that inspired Gates and his friend Paul Allen to start Microsoft back in 1975.
Roberts was supportive of the two young men, and mentored them through the early years of setting up their company and writing software. It began a lifelong friendship – when Roberts was dying in 2010, Gates traveled to Georgia to be with his mentor at the end. After his death, he and Allen released the following statement:
“Ed was willing to take a chance on us — two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace — and we have always been grateful to him. The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things. We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed.”
Their relationship even survived a feud. Roberts was angry when Gates and Allen began selling versions of code they’d created for his computer to competitors. But they later overcame their differences, and Roberts remained an influence in the lives of both of his successful protégés.
Lessons from Gates, Buffett and Roberts
Here’s what the experience of Bill Gates can teach us about mentoring:
- It’s common to have different protégés at different stages of your career, or for different areas of your life – Gates learned about computers from Roberts, and about business and philanthropy from Buffett.
- Mentoring relationships can sometimes turn sour, but the strong ones survive through difficult times.
- Sometimes protégés seek out their mentors, as Gates did with Roberts, and sometimes they find them by accident, as he did with Buffett.
Could you be mentoring the next Bill Gates? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.