CS183C Session 19: Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn

Chris Yeh
Chris Yeh
Dec 2, 2015 · 15 min read


Today’s special guest was LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who sat down for a fireside chat with Reid Hoffman.

Reid and Jeff met in February of 2008, started talking about how to build companies, and had the good fortune to work together at LinkedIn.

Q: When you arrived at LinkedIn, there were 400 employees. What was the situation on the ground.

A: It was December 2008. We had 338 folks. I found an incredibly talented group that Reid and my predecessor, Dan Nye, had assembled, and a platform with almost unlimited potential for unlocking economic potential. I recognized that there was much more than met the eye.

There were also a lot of bets. Reid is great at preserving optionality, and the company was investing in a lot of areas. But you have to ask the question, if you could only do one thing, what is that thing? That’s how you find the core.

Q: At the time, we were a Village; today we’re a Nation. We weren’t set up well to scale. What did you need to do to prepare us to scale in that first 100 days?

A: The first 100 days was a lot of listening. I met with pretty much every employee, did deep dives on every product and business line. My previous experience was at Yahoo, which had a lot of businesses, by design. But that became an Achilles heel; a company that could focus like Google in search or Amazon in ecommerce could beat it in a vertical.

One of the first things we did as a leadership team was to codify our mission, values, measurable objectives, etc. It all fits on one page.

A mission is an overarching objective that everyone in the company can participate in. It should be measurable and realizable. Our mission at LinkedIn is to connect the world’s knowledge workers.

A vision is a dream. Done properly, it inspires people. It’s not something you operationalize or plan around, but it does provide a sense of shared purpose. Our vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.

Student Q: When do you know it’s time to codify or re-codify the vision and mission?

A: You can go back and look at the Series B deck that Reid and the founders used to pitch to Greylock, and it’s amazingly accurate about where they wanted to go. For me, coming out of Yahoo, I felt it was important to codify the mission as quickly as possible.

Reid: It’s not important to develop a common language when you’re 15 people. But when you’re 300, going to 10,000, you need a common language.

When you have 15 people, you say, “Can I have your attention,” and you’ve called an all-hands. When you have 1,500 people, spread across multiple geographies, you can’t do that. Nature abhors a vacuum; if you don’t have clarity around mission and objectives, people will start to project their own thoughts into that vacuum.

Q: One of the visible but rarely-commented on elements of scaling up a company is the implementation of a strong culture. At LinkedIn, we had a culture, but hadn’t defined it. What did you do to establish a culture for scaling?

A: A culture is the collective personality of the organization. It’s not just who you are, it’s who you want to be. If you’re not constantly walking the walk on those aspirations, people roll their eyes when you talk about the company culture. It’s like a Dilbert cartoon. I would also draw a distinction between culture and values. Values are the operating principles on which the company and its leadership make day-by-day decisions.

By the time I joined LinkedIn, there was increasing demand for culture. The first time someone asked, I probably cracked a joke. At my previous companies, it hadn’t been an emphasis. But people kept asking. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you reach this scale, you’re hiring people from companies that have already achieved scale. If the company doesn’t have a manifested culture, those people will bring in their own learnings. This is especially important when establishing other offices.

Arvind Rajan, who led our talent efforts, had identified a few employees and asked them about values and culture. I wanted to continue that, but I also sat down with the leadership team to make sure it was the kind of culture we’d aspire to work at, and be inspired.

Organizations who have the most effective values have leaders who naturally use those values as mantras. If the leadership doesn’t model the behavior, if you don’t recruit, manage, and evaluate people against the culture, it’s just words on paper.

Q: One of the things you quickly started systematizing was how do we find and develop leaders.

A: First, there’s a continuum with problem-solving on one end and coaching on the other, and second, there’s a continuum with tactical execution on one end and proactive strategic thinking on the other. Founders tend to be people who do stuff, so their knee-jerk reaction is to solve problems, rather than coaching people to solve them. You have to coach people to solve their own problems, and coach people to coach people to solve problems. That’s how you achieve scale.

I try to carve out 90 minutes on my schedule so I have time to think ahead. If you don’t carve out that time, you’ll spend all your time firefighting and playing catch-up with your competitors.

When you’re a 15-person company, you’d better be good at problem solving and getting shit done. As you start to get bigger, you need to start evolving across those two continuums.

Q: You actually hired coaches into the company.

A: I’ve been at companies where you bring in coaches and HR experts, and it’s an eye-rolling experience. But if you want to successfully scale, you’re going to need a leadership team that can help you make that happen. You need to understand what someone wants to accomplish in their career. Their hopes, their fears. That requires time, and it requires someone who knows how to coach.

I met Fred Kofman at Yahoo. I expected an eye-rolling experience. I didn’t even go to the first session. But my team members told me it was amazing, and eventually the executive team was encouraged to spend some time with Fred, and he’s become a friend and mentor. At one point, I invited him to join LinkedIn and to become part of our team. The platform gives him a chance to scale his ideas.

Fred studied economics at Berkeley and was a professor at MIT. He’s like a Buddhist Libertarian — first principles, compassion, and systems. He’s the most enlightened person I’ve met in business. You have to meet him. Every time I’ve spent time with Fred, I have learned something that has changed my perspective.

He’s not a traditional coach in that respect. He founded a company called Axialent to help leaders become more conscious and mindful.

Reid: Run of the mill coaches try to give you energy. Fred tries to give you conceptual tools to solve problems. The final thing you said to Fred that got him to come was, “Don’t come work for me, come work for the mission.”

I’ve give you another example. Global maxima versus local maxima — how do you get people to lift themselves out of their local context. Think of soccer. What is the job of the goalie? SPOILER ALERT: Most people say it’s to prevent the other team from scoring. The real job of the goalie is to win the game. It’s the same for every other player on the field. When you think your job is focused on your position, that’s a local maxima. When a coach gets the individuals to buy into something bigger than themselves, that’s powerful. Bezos calls it being missionary rather than mercenary.

Q: What is Compassionate Management? Why does it help you scale?

A: Here’s when I decided to aspire to a first principle of compassionate management. My boss got frustrated with one of the members of the team. It manifested itself with passive-aggressive behavior. It undermined our boss more than anyone else. During a one-on-one with my boss, I told him, the next time you’re frustrated with that person, go find a mirror and go yell at yourself. You put them in that role. Leaving them in that role, where you’re increasingly frustrated, that’s on you. Then I realized I was doing the exact same thing to someone on my team. I need to be more compassionate.

It’s really hard. I’m not talking about conditional compassion. It’s required most when you don’t see eye to eye with people. We get triggered easily. Rather than assume nefarious intention, realize that they might be having a bad day. Or maybe something you said triggered them. When you start to feel that emotion, you need to become a spectator to your own thoughts. You need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see things through their lens.

There’s a difference between compassion and empathy. Empathy is feeling what another person feels. The Dalai Lama says that if you come across someone on the trail with a boulder on their chest. The empathetic response is to feel suffocated. The compassionate response is to realize that the person is suffering, and to do something to alleviate their distress.

If organizations can learn to do this at scale, it’s a complete game-changer?

Q: How does Compassionate Management help you get to scale?

A: It comes back to this notion of coaching. Organizations that successfully scale help their leaders coach their teams so they can lead when they’re not in the room. Compassionate Management reduces conflict, which reduces churn. The most important thing is trust among the leaders and among the employees. They have a shorthand for communicating with each other. Compassion helps develop that; it helps people realize they’re all on the same team.

Q: How does Compassionate Management help you get to results?

A: One of the most important drivers of long-term value in an organization is the speed and quality of it’s decision-making. You can count on one or two hands the key decisions that made a company valuable. The problem is, that’s retrospective. Compassionate Management helps you make better decisions faster.

People think compassion is a soft skill. The strongest people I know are the most compassionate. True compassion requires almost superhuman strength. Not falling prey to insecurities and triggers, but rising above them.

People ask, if you’re managing compassionately, how can you let someone go? If someone is struggling in a role, the least compassionate thing you can do is to leave them in that role. They lose their self-confidence and sense of self. They become a shadow of themself. It affects their team and their family. The most compassionate thing you can do is to transition them out as gracefully as possible.

Student Q: How does Compassionate Management fit with diversity? How do you get people to engage with people who have a very different understanding of the world?

A: That’s why it’s important to build diverse teams. You need to better understand different perspectives. To make the right decisions, you want people who poke holes and play Devil’s advocate. If you’re surrounded by clones and mini-mes, you’ll all be saying the same thing in a cacophony of oneness. You’ll have no chance to be competitive.

Mike Gamson says he’s not interested in building a diverse team because it’s in vogue; he’s interested because he wants to win.

Reid: Diversity is important to being adaptable to what’s coming (that you can’t see coming).

How do you allow for subcultures to develop in a productive way? We’re in 30 cities around the world. You travel to any of those offices, and you know that you’re at LinkedIn. But you also know that you’re in Mumbai, or Berlin. We want to build towards this overarching culture, but we also want to celebrate individuality and the things that make us different.

Q: What did you track as changing at LinkedIn as the organization grow? How did the way you used internal communications change?

A: Connective tissue and communication is essential as you scale. One of the devices we’ve used to great effect is the fact that we do an all-hands every other week. It started in the cafeteria. Today, it is broadcast to all 30 cities around the world. We focus on our operating priorities, and it’s completely transparent. It’s valuable, to celebrate what’s working, and more importantly, to figure out what’s not working.

The biggest change at the various inflection points is what we describe as “acting like an owner.” The most successful companies at scale are those where employees talk about challenges as “we” and not “the company.” People say, “Why does the company do things this way,” as if it’s not them. We’re the company. I’m constantly reminding our VPs that they run the company, day in and day out. It’s important, because they may have worked at large companies where they didn’t feel that way. I vowed that people would always feel like they can make a difference, no matter how big we got.

At each inflection point, you can feel it…people think the machinery is beyond their control. As soon as you start to think like a victim, that’s exactly what you become. It’s not just about saying this, it’s about reinforcing it, so that it works. We’re all owners. We’re all stakeholders. It’s our company.

Q: What are the unique lessons from LinkedIn being both consumer and enterprise?

A: If you can pull it off, it’s fantastic. It’s a high degree of difficulty; there’s more room for error. Ideally, you’d produce one thing, and do it with the smallest number of people as possible, though as WhatsApp shows, things are changing, thanks to technology.

If you’re going to try to do more than one thing, you have to know who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. We are the stories that we tell. Storytelling is the oldest known form of communication. We communicate with narratives. You need to codify and reinforce your narrative.

We have six values, and the first value is that our members come first. When you have an enterprise sales culture, that’s not typical. The next sale comes first. But we can’t execute against our enterprise business lines unless we have a flourishing membership.

The only way we’ve been able to do this is because the leader of our enterprise sales, Mike Gamson, believes this too. He likes to say, he’s not hiring sales people or sales leaders, he’s hiring business people and business leaders.

Student Q: What other resources have been useful to you?

A: The Art of Happiness, by Howard Cutler. That was the book where I learned what compassion truly meant. That book has been on my nightstand since 1998, and I’ve only read it once cover to cover. Just seeing it brings me back to the lessons I learned.

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It tells the story of Paul Farmer. Central Haiti is the poorest part of the Western Hemisphere. Paul Farmer began commuting to Haiti on weekends to treat people. He started Partners in Health (one of the co-founders was Jim Kim, who is now the President of the World Bank). He would hike eight hours to help a single patient. They learned so much about helping the poorest among us that they fundamentally changed the way that the WHO, the UN, thought about taking care of their poorest. The lesson there, coming out of Yahoo, was that I always thought it was about massive scale. But sometimes, you can change the world by helping one person at a time.

Reid: This ties into doing things that don’t scale.

Q: How do you be a product CEO?

A: Reid and I share a conviction that the most valuable Internet companies are led by product people. At the end of the day, these companies create value through their product.

Sometimes, you have founders who created the first product, but then layers develop between them and the product. Great leaders — Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg — are product people.

Q: How do you think about the changing needs of hiring as the company grows?

A: When you’re at 15 people, the team can do it. At 150, you need dedicated recruiters. At 1,500, you need sourcers. The machinery that goes into hiring at scale is quite substantial. What shouldn’t change, but unfortunately does, once you recognize your culture and values, the more you’re able to hiring against that culture and values, the more you’ll be able to achieve long-term success. During hypergrowth, the pressure to put butts in the seats leads companies to compromise. You might have a person who is great on paper, has all the skills, but isn’t a cultural fit. If you say, “We’ll make it work,” it inevitably doesn’t work out. What needs to happen is to say, “This person isn’t a cultural fit, let’s move on to the next person.”

Student Q: How do you manage the smartest people?

A: I think you said, “How do I make them do the things the company needs them to do?” You don’t make very smart people do anything. Hopefully you inspire them to take action. Managers tell people what to do, often without good results. Leaders inspire them to do it.

I have been lucky enough to recognize people who are smarter and more talented than me. If you can recognize the alignment between the company and their goals, and express it, hopefully they’re going to buy into it.

Student Q: What are some of your first principles?

A: Managing compassionately is my first principle. But another is not to make a decision before I’m ready. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. But too often, people rush it. There’s no such thing as having perfect information. Effective decision-makers rely on pattern matching and the people around the table. If they’re not feeling it, it’s okay to say, “I’m not ready to make this decision.”

And if you make the wrong decision, don’t be afraid to admit, change your mind, and move on. If things aren’t working, I want to know as soon as possible so we can do something about it.

Reid: When you’re blitzscaling, you have to make a decision quickly enough so that you can keep the pedal to the metal. You might be able to remake it.

The worst possible thing is not to make a decision. After leaving Yahoo, I wasn’t sure if I was burnt out on that particular situation or on operations. On the first day I set foot at LinkedIn, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. We could make decisions in minutes or hours, where in previous companies it would take days or weeks.

Student Q: Elaborate on the economic graph.

A: We’re trying to operationalize the vision. A few years ago, we realized we were growing faster than we anticipated. We’re at 400 million members, past the midway mark to the 780 million knowledge workers worldwide. So now we’re looking at our vision of helping the global workforce.

The economic graph would mean having a LinkedIn profile for every worker — all 3 billion. It would mean having a profile for every company. A digital representation for every available job — 20 million per year. A digital representation for the skills required. A digital presence for all the educational institutions that would teach those skills. And a publishing platform where all of them can share their knowledge.

It sounded like science fiction, but over time, it started to become a reality. When I first joined the company, there were 6–8,000 jobs posted on LinkedIn. We thought the addressable market of white collar jobs was 500,000. When we got to 300,000, I told the team to start thinking about how to get all the jobs — all 20 million. They thought it was a platitude. I told them, “You do realize that I’m serious about this.” We ended up acquiring a company called Bright, and now we’re up to 5 million jobs, and we’re on our way to 20 million. You can do the same exercise for the members, the companies. We acquired Lynda.com for the skills. The publishing platform started with 500 influencers; now 1 million people have published on LinkedIn.

Student Q: What’s your vision for Lynda? There is a convergence of education, learning, certification. The enterprise market is very different than the consumer market. How do you scale that?

A: The short answer is a platform approach. Any company that develops its own materials should be able to offer them through Lynda, either just to its own employees, or to partners and students. The platform won’t be limited to enterprises either.

Student Q: How do you identify talent?

A: What I’m looking for depends on the role. Across any role, I’m looking for people who are extremely intelligent. Not just broad-based aptitude or high IQ, but people whose learning curves are nearly vertical, and love operating in dynamic environments and sharing their insights. Looking for people who are passionate, who see how their job brings them one step closer to their dream. Looking for people who are compassionate, who recognize that all of us are egocentric, but recognize the value of seeing the world from another’s perspective. And looking for people I look forward to working with. It’s just not worth it to work with assholes. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as CEO is don’t leave the pitcher in the game for too long. As soon as you ask yourself if someone isn’t the right fit, you already know the answer. The question is, what are you going to do about it? You have to help them get above the bar, and if they can’t, transition them to another role or out of the organization.

John: How many hours did Reid interview you before he hired you?

A: Over 30 hours. But it wasn’t an interview; it was a conversation. Shortly after I joined, the question people kept asking was, “What’s it like working with Reid.” They didn’t realize I wasn’t at LinkedIn in spite of Reid, I was at LinkedIn because Reid was there. We had developed a relationship based on trust before I started the job.

Blitzscaling: Class Notes and Essays

The official collection for Stanford’s CS183C: Technology-enabled Blitzscaling.

Chris Yeh

Written by

Chris Yeh

Entrepreneur, Investor, Writer, Dad.

Blitzscaling: Class Notes and Essays

The official collection for Stanford’s CS183C: Technology-enabled Blitzscaling.