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Bill Gates Reveals He Used To 'Drive' Performance By Memorizing Employee License Plates

Forbes logo Forbes 03-02-2016 Victor Lipman, Contributor

In one of the more unusual management techniques I’ve ever come across, Bill Gates recently revealed in an interview with BBC’s Desert Island Discs radio program that in his early days at Microsoft he memorized employees’ license plate numbers – to help gauge their level of commitment by keeping  track of their comings and goings.

From a management perspective, what do I make of this exceptionally candid personal admission?

AP Photo/Michel Euler© Provided by Forbes AP Photo/Michel Euler

It gives new meaning to the term “micromanagement” – Beyond the fact that this practice is a bit, for lack of a more scientific term, creepy, it shows just how closely Gates was attuned to individual employee performance.  Studies show that many managers, even senior executives, have chronic problems with effectively holding people “accountable.” It definitely appears Gates never had any such problems.

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It’s a window into his single-minded focus and intensity – Greatness never comes easy.  It’s a major misconception to think brilliant people simply roll out of bed in the morning and through the sheer force of their genius make advances that change the world.  Great people don’t accomplish great things without great effort.  It’s obvious Gates had a laserlike focus that was applied broadly (perhaps at times a little too broadly!) throughout his entire operation.

It’s fascinating that he chose to memorize license plates and not cars – I believe the vast majority of people who would undertake such a scheme would focus on more easily memorable cars than on license plates.  But I guess he likely wanted to avoid any possibility of duplications and potential misidentifications.  And I guess we always knew Gates was pretty good with numbers!

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Gates also acknowledged in the interview that he had to “loosen up” on his license plate habit as Microsoft grew.  That’s no doubt a good thing, as there were undoubtedly far weightier systems issues to take up space in his considerable gray matter than detailed automotive attendance-taking.

It also goes to show just how long and winding the road is that Gates has traveled from his early days as a tightly wound entrepreneur/businessman to one of the world’s greatest philanthropists.  Genius takes many forms, and no doubt in his current incarnation humanity is the real winner.

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Victor is author of  The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World.

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