Bite-size bits of wisdom from Bill Gates and Richard Branson

October 17, 2012: 10:19 AM ET

Want to know how Bill Gates thinks about creativity, or which business decisions Sir Richard Branson regrets? Two new books will tell you.

FORTUNE -- "People do play computer games at work, but they also doodle with pencils. Do you take away their pencils? That's not the way a modern workforce is managed. You've got to trust people."

So said Microsoft's (MSFT) chairman in 1996, according to Impatient Optimist: Bill Gates in His Own Words -- and, like most quotations in this pocket-sized book, it seems as timely an observation as it was back then. Editor Lisa Rogak, whose Barack Obama In His Own Words was a 2008 bestseller, has compiled sound bites from Chairman Bill by topic, from A (acquiring other companies) to W (working with his wife).

The result is like eating salted peanuts: Once you start reading, it's hard to stop. Here's Gates on bigness: "Size works against excellence. Even if we are a big company, we cannot think like a big company or we are dead." On risk: "A little blindness is necessary when you undertake a risk. You have to have a little suspension of disbelief." On creativity: "We tell people if no one laughs at at least one of their ideas, they're probably not being creative enough."

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Some of Gates' remarks in these pages shed light on his second career as a major-league philanthropist, like this one, on why corporations should give away money: "Profits are not always possible when business tries to serve the very poor. In such cases, there needs to be another market-based incentive -- and that incentive is recognition. Recognition…attracts good people to the organization."

Want to know more about his personal life? Here's a nugget from a commencement address he gave at Harvard a few years ago, about his lack of success with women while he was a student there: "Radcliffe [the women's college that merged with Harvard in 1977] was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were math-science types. That combination gave me the best odds, if you know what I mean. That's where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn't guarantee success."

And speaking of Harvard, it's clear Gates doesn't relish his status as a role model for dropouts. "It concerns me to hear that young people say they don't want to go to college because I didn't graduate," he once told a New York Times reporter. "For one thing, I got a pretty good education even though I didn't stay long enough to get my degree. For another, the world is getting more competitive, specialized, and complex each year, making a college education as critical today as a high school diploma was at one time." Tell your kids.

For sheer chattiness, it would be tough to beat Sir Richard Branson's new book, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School. Drawn from his syndicated column, the book rambles all over the place, like a conversation over an old-fashioned three-martini lunch, complete with candid confessions.

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One such concerns Branson's regret over not having closed Virgin Megastores when the brick-and-mortar music retailer, slammed by MP3s, started bleeding red ink. "We did not make a speedy exit in part because I resisted closing the business," Branson recalls. "But the scale of the losses meant we had to sell [the stores]…and focus on markets where we could be the disruptors, not the disrupted."

Although parts of Like a Virgin are as apparently as whimsical as its famously flamboyant author -- there's a whole chapter on why he hates neckties, for instance -- Branson has emphatic ideas about topics like customer service, especially how companies get it wrong.

"Most callers to customer helplines around the world are greeted with some variation of what's surely the most absurd statement ever recorded," he writes. And what might that statement be? It's this: "Your business is very important to us. Please continue to hold."

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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