How Bill Gates Learned to Be an Empathetic Leader

The awkward tech leaders of yesteryear no longer cut it — founders must find ways to strengthen their interpersonal skills if they want to thrive.


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Life of the party. Social butterfly. Chatterbox. They’re not descriptors typically associated with IT professionals. When most people think of techies, they envision Bill Gates in his younger days. Awkward. Nerdy. The list goes on.

Gates would agree with those adjectives. During a Reddit AMA session just last year, Gates said he would strengthen his self-awareness and interpersonal skills if he could go back in time — shedding his youthful geekiness to become a dynamic personality.

If you’re a founder in the tech world, take his words to heart. Emotional intelligence and empathy are seen as unicorn traits in the IT sector, which I know and see all too often as a VP at a tech company.

Related: 3 Social-Intelligence Methods for Building Strong Stakeholder Relationships

Being bold and relational isn’t always natural to people who lead tech companies. Take Elon Musk. In a CNBC interview, his college friend Navaid Farooq described Musk’s penchant for getting so focused that external stimuli didn’t register with him. Musk clearly has done well despite his unique outlook and oddly offbeat tweets. But tech superstars now need more than just coding skills to succeed.

Why tech industry leaders have to connect

What’s changed in the decades since Bill Gates awkwardly rose to prominence? Why is it so much harder now for IT introverts to lead and succeed based solely on their credentials than it was before?

For one thing, we realize more and more all the time what a strong impact tech has on our lives. And who tends to have the most access to everything from trade secrets and financial records in organizations? IT, of course.

Related: 5 Ways to Build Killer Relationships With Customers

Businesses and their customers need to trust their technical partners. Trust routinely comes not just from expertise but from the ability to foster deeper connections with other people. For that reason, leaders must understand others’ needs and act in a way that makes their authentic selves open to others — even if that isn’t their natural communication style. Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Accept the importance of building relationships

IT leaders are accustomed to dealing with logic and formulas. Although relationships aren’t necessarily logical, they tend to follow certain norms. For instance, learning about someone else and then taking an interest in what the person is saying is a natural way to forge a connection.

This requires listening and learning to discover what’s important to the other individual. There are all sorts of ways to build connections. You can talk about the person’s favorite sports team, outside-of-work interests or family. The relationship will get stronger from there.

2. Reframe selling as a friend-to-friend experience

In today’s business world, tech industry leaders may be asked to engage in sales calls and closings. That might sound horrible at first, but selling doesn’t have to be difficult or awkward. Start by getting to know your prospects. I always say, “Sell something like you were selling it to your brother or sister.”

Act as a trusted advisor, following through every time you say you’ll do something. Doing so builds camaraderie, which is woefully lacking between consumers and tech providers in light of reported unethical data use, security breaches and alleged power abuses. Being accountable and trustworthy should always be a top priority for tech founders.

3. Avoid thinking of relationships as transactions

In business, we can get trapped into thinking that everything must have an endgame. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s not. It’s perfectly fine to grab a coffee or beer with someone who hasn’t signed a deal with your company. Doing so shows your true intentions and usually breaks down their walls a bit.

Related: The New Networking: 8 Strategies for Building Real Relationships

You’ll need to temper the competitive part of your personality to make this type of shift. You might not immediately understand why you’d give the time of day to someone who shows no signs of buying, but just stay the course. Relationships are a long game.

4. Shine during imperfect moments

Life isn’t always smooth. Glitches happen. When something goes awry and causes a client to feel anxious, angry or confused, step up to the plate. Your natural instinct might be to withdraw into your shell to avoid conflict; push against that by rising to the occasion.

Many leaders miss key moments to wow customers who are threatening to leave. It’s also easier than you might think to turn a crabby customer into a raving fan. What would you want if you were in the client’s shoes? How can you give that to the client? As Harvard Business Review research reveals, merely responding to irritated customers can stop them from leaving — even if you don’t offer them anything but your time and a sympathetic ear. 

Being an IT leader is no longer an “out of sight” job. Tech leaders are now expected to give talks, mentor team members, spearhead projects and counsel clients. Focus on developing your interpersonal skills, and you’ll likely find that you surpass everyone’s expectations of how a leader in technology should act.

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