Leadership and career

Why Does Bill Gates Go to Work?

By September 10, 2014 No Comments

Any discussion of motivation should begin with an analysis of people who have shown great application of it. Arguably, those whom Fortune ranks among the wealthiest in the world might make the list, especially if money were the only criteria for measuring motivation. It’s not, but it does provide a way of looking at the score after the game. It offers no clues about what got the person on the list in the first place, however.

I doubt Bill Gates has a mortgage, worries about tuition for his children, or asks his wife to clip coupons. Yet, he continues to work, largely in the arena of philanthropy. If he doesn’t need the money, what motivates Bill Gates? And what can business leaders learn about motivation in those who aspire to reach his level of mastery?

Decades ago, Abraham Maslow offered us a model for understanding healthy people: a pyramid of human needs that culminates in a person seeking self-actualization after the more basic needs have been met. But Maslow didn’t go far enough. How can we better understand those who have reached a level of self-actualization? How can business leaders know this group of exceptional performers?

Much of what we believe about motivation doesn’t apply to star performers, and most business leaders haven’t caught up to this new understanding of what motivates us. The myths and theories of human potential and individual performance are outdated, unexamined and unproven.

For instance, behaviorist B.F. Skinner assured us that people will seek rewards and avoid pain—the beginnings of the “carrot/stick” approach to management. Reward behaviors you want repeated; punish those you want to extinguish. Extinguishing comes in handy if you’re a fire marshal, but it doesn’t really apply to humans—much less exceptionally gifted humans. Also, extinguishing tends to eliminate things you never intended to purge, like intrinsic motivation and creativity.

What drives star performers?

1.  Achievement. They enjoy the feeling that comes with accomplishing something important or difficult. They don’t want to stick to the status quo or stay in the rut. They want to innovate and create. Purpose-driven and focused, they welcome opportunities to learn and to use their talents in new ways.
2.  Control. Unlike average or typical employees, star performers crave autonomy. They want the freedom to live the life they choose and to do the work they enjoy. To thrive, they need to stay in charge of their own lives and frequently want to influence the lives of others.
3.  Affiliation. Even though they are success-driven and independent, star performers derive comfort from relationships. They like feeling a part of something bigger than they are but don’t gladly associate with those they don’t respect.

Bill Gates’ achievement drive led him to leave Harvard in his quest to do important work. He took a path less traveled but controlled his destiny and that of millions of others. He formed critical relationships along the way and allowed them to create the foundation of his life.

I have written repeatedly that even the best leaders can’t motivate people because motivation comes from within. You have to hire motivated people and then do your best not to demotivate them. But more needs to be said. You also have to understand them better and create an environment where they want to work.


Dr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations.

She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat , The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works.

Dr. Henman can be reached at linda@henmanperformancegroup.com.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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