Scaling LinkedIn with Jeff Weiner — Class 19 Notes of Stanford University’s CS183C

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 18 of Stanford University’s CS183C — Technology-enabled Blitzscaling — taught by Reid Hoffman, John Lilly, Chris Yeh, and Allen Blue. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Reid, John, Chris Yeh, and Allen’s entirely.

This class was an interview by Reid Hoffman of Jeff Weiner — the CEO of LinkedIn. This is the final class of CS183C, I’ll be doing a wrap up post, but there won’t be any more speaker posts going forward.

Video of the class, notes are below:

Reid Hoffman: When we persuaded you to come in and look at LinkedIn, we were 400 people at the company — what was the situation like from your perspective?

Jeff Weiner: I remember I came to LinkedIn on December 2008, and there were 338 people working there. It was a really talented group of people that Reid and Dan Nye (former CEO of LinkedIn) had assembled.

Before coming to LinkedIn, I was an EIR at Greylock Partners, and I went in to familiarize myself with the company. Upon looking further into what LinkedIn was doing, I realized there was much more than meets the eye. To this day, when people interview at LinkedIn, a common response I hear is “wow I had no idea this much was going on within LinkedIn” and I felt a similar feeling the first time I looked at the company.

Here was this platform with unlimited potential within the context for creating value for the global workforce. When I came in, LinkedIn was doing a lot of different things and making a lot of different bets — even with just a team of 338 people.

A big reason why LinkedIn was doing so many things was because of one of Reid’s first principles (if you spend time with Reid) is preserving optionality — this is why he does so well as an investor. Another big reason why LinkedIn was so successful was the early team invested in a lot of areas to get to critical mass. The question however is when you get to scale — if you had to do only one thing what would it be? — this is how you define the core of what you are doing.

Reid Hoffman: I opened with this first question because we had taken the company up to the village level of scale but now LinkedIn is well into a nation level of scale. When you came in, we weren’t well set up to get to the further levels of scale — when you first joined, what did you see that we needed to do in order to scale? What did you do in the first 100 days?

Jeff Weiner: In the first 100 days I did a lot of listening. I met with every single person on the team and I met with every single team — both one-on-ones and team lunches. We did a series of deep dives for every single product line LinkedIn had at the time.

I tried to learn as much as I could about the direction LinkedIn was heading and where it was going from the team's perspectives. Instead of trying to create a 100 day plan, I did a lot of listening to the people, leaders, and teams who knew best at LinkedIn.

Prior to LinkedIn and Greylock, I had been an exec at Yahoo, and here we were involved in a lot of different businesses. This was a huge advantage at a certain point in time but it became our achilles heel for the company. Yahoo had experienced a lot of competition in specific verticals we were trying to do and lost out to the companies who had extreme focus. Google did search, Amazon did e-commerce, etc.

The biggest lesson I learned at Yahoo which I applied to LinkedIn was to find the core of what LinkedIn was about when I joined. I took the actions to codify the mission, vision, strategy, priorities, culture, measurable objectives, etc. — which is basically the story of the company.

The good news is all of these things should fit on one page. It could take more than one page but I think it’s a good forcing function to be able to condense all of those things to fit on one page succinctly.

Reid Hoffman: One of the biggest lessons I learned from you is the need for preparation to scale and the need to write all of these things down. Can you go further into what you did to prepare us to scale?

Jeff Weiner: One thing that companies often confuse is the mission vs. vision. They are similar but different in important ways.

Mission — The mission is the overarching objective that the whole company participates in to achieve. A mission is measurable and realizable. Our mission is to connect the world’s 750M knowledge working professionals and help make them more productive and successful.

Vision — The vision is the dream. The vision is the true north of the company designed to inspire the people in the company. Historically the vision isn’t realizable nor measurable but instead creates a shared sense of purpose. Our mission is to create economic opportunity for every person in the workforce around the world — all 3B people.

Question from the audience: How do you know when to codify your company’s vision and mission — why would you wait to do it?

Jeff Weiner: If I was doing a startup from scratch, I wouldn’t wait to codify the vision or mission. Even though LinkedIn didn’t have these things written down, Reid and the founders had a good sense of what their vision and mission was.

In fact, if you look at the Series-B deck of LinkedIn which is what was used to pitch Greylock — it’s crazy how accurate Reid and the founders articulated the vision of where they wanted to take the company many years back before writing them down. Even though they never created the statements, they knew where they wanted to go.

Reid Hoffman: It’s a question of format — Jeff created a common language that people could use across various teams. This isn’t important when you are 15 people, but when you are planning to, it’s much harder to keep 10,000 people on the same page. This is the thing Jeff realized we weren’t set up to scale for — and this is the thing he did when he joined.

Jeff Weiner: When your company is 15 people, if you want to hold an all hands meeting, you say “let’s talk.” When your company is 150 people you have to call everyone into a cafeteria a set aside a time to do so. When you are 1,500 people spread across multiple locations, you can’t just go to the cafeteria anymore.

If your mission and vision aren’t codified — a vacuum will be created and people in your company will start to project into the vacuum the way they think things should be done. This is the reason why hyper-growth companies go off of the rails. It’s much harder to keep people on the same page the larger you get.

Reid Hoffman: Culture is one of the tools that help keep people on the same page. At LinkedIn we had a culture but never defined it in a way to scale — what did you do to establish a culture for scaling?

Jeff Weiner: I believe it’s first important to have a shared understanding of what culture is. Culture is the collective personality of the company — namely the people inside the company. Culture is not just who you are but who you want to be — it’s aspirational. It provides the company a reason to want to reach something that is even better than where they are today.

One of the aspects of culture is, if you aren’t walking the walk and actually practicing your culture — people will think it’s all BS.

When I first joined LinkedIn, I got asked the question — what is our culture? I initially thought it was a joke. I had been in companies before but culture wasn’t a big focus for us — I hadn’t had to think about it before.

It goes back to what I was talking about before — the natures of a vacuum. As the rate of hiring increases, you are increasingly recruiting people from companies who have already achieved scale — who come from companies with strong cultures. If your company doesn’t have a culture, those employees will bring their own cultural baggage with them.

This is particularly important when you are going global and your offices are not in your HQ. If your company doesn’t have a strong culture and doesn’t have good cultural ambassadors in those outside regions — the leader of that office will instill their own culture for better or worse.

Before I had joined LinkedIn, Arvind Rajan who was leading our HR efforts at the time, led a bottoms up evaluation of LinkedIn’s culture. He surveyed the key employees of LinkedIn and asked what they wanted to achieve at LinkedIn, what personalities they wanted to work with, what kind of place they wanted to aspire to work at, etc.

We spent a fair amount of time wordsmithing exactly the right phrases that defined our culture. This is important because words and stories have real power.

It’s easy to paint your company walls with your culture and values — but at the end of the day, if the leaders of the company are not living the values, are not recruiting people against these values, are not evaluating performance against these values — the values are not worth the paper it’s printed on.

In order to make sure people believe in your values and culture — you have to reinforce it, hire against it, reward against it and you need buy-in from everyone in the organization.

Reid Hoffman: Let’s move to the topic of leadership. How do you develop leaders, how do you know who the leaders are going to be, how do you grow leaders within a company, etc?

Jeff Weiner: For leaders, two of the most important continuums are:

Problem Solving <=> Coaching
Tactical Execution <=> Proactive Strategic Thinking

Coaching — Founders tend to be people who are good at getting things done, therefore they look to solve problems rather than coaching people to solve them. The problem is when you add people into the organization — when they have a problem, if the founder solves it for them — they will keep coming back to the founders to solve problems.

This won’t scale. You have to coach people to solve their own problems. Then you need to coach people to coach people to solve problems. This is how you get to true scale.

Tactical vs. strategic — Execution is something teams get really good at doing. You have to carve out time specifically for proactive strategic thinking — I personally carve out 90m a day for strategy. It would be difficult to lead an organization if you are doing only tactics — it's just firefighting all day long.

When you are small you better be good at getting things done. As you get larger, these continuums require a shift, and you better get good at strategic thinking and coaching, while at the same time executing and problem solving.

Reid Hoffman: One of the most surprising things for me was you hired some coaches into LinkedIn when you joined. This is something a startup person would think is insane. Here you are hiring a person who isn’t building a product or selling a product or doing anything with product — why are you hiring them?

Jeff Weiner: When companies typically bring in coaches — it is an eye rolling experience. You think it’s not worth the time — and if you are a startup, this is the last thing you want to spend time on.

However once you get to scale — you need a leadership team who will make things happen on their own. This is when you recognize the importance of mentorship, development, coaching, understanding their fears, their strength, helping them develop their weaker areas, etc. That requires time, and it requires someone who knows how to coach.
While I was at Yahoo, they brought in a coach named Fred Kofman. I expected an eye rolling experience, and in fact, I didn’t even go to the first session when he came. However my whole team said this guy is amazing and encouraged me to spend time with him. When I did, I was extremely impressed, he became a mentor for me and was influential for my ambitions and career.

At one point I invited him to join LinkedIn with me. At the time he thought he was done working and was sailing around the world but he was so intrigued by the LinkedIn platform that he decide to join me and help — he’s been invaluable for us.

Reid Hoffman: You have developed a management philosophy called compassionate management which you take to heart — what is it? Why is it important for scale?

Jeff Weiner: At a previous company, one of my bosses got frustrated at one of the employees — undermining his leadership and frustrating everyone on the team. During our one-on-one, I told my boss to look at mirror and yell at yourself — you are the one leaving this employee in the role making them frustrated and it’s your fault.

My boss gave it a lot of thought and came back to me the next day and told me — thank you. After that I realized I was doing the exact same thing to someone on my own team — and I realized I needed to aspire to manage more compassionately myself.

I say aspire because it’s really hard to be compassionate. The #1 thing I hear from people trying to manage compassionately is — it’s really easy to do it with people you like — it’s much harder to do it with people you don’t get along with. The challenge is compassion is not conditional.

There is a difference between compassion and empathy. A good story to explain the difference is from the Dalai Lama:

If you are walking along a trail and come along a person who is being crushed by a boulder, an empathetic reaction would result in you feeling the same sense of crushing suffocation and render you unable to help. The compassionate reaction would put you in the sufferer’s shoes, thinking this person must be experiencing horrible pain so you’re going to do everything in your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering.

Reid Hoffman: How does compassionate management help you to scale?

Jeff Weiner: This comes back to the value of coaching — the organizations which successfully scale — are the ones that help their leaders coach their teams so they can lead when they are 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.

A huge part of scaling is trust amongst the leaders and the employees — knowing that each person has each other's backs. Managing compassionately helps reduce conflict amongst team members. If you let this conflict build up — over time it corrupts the entire foundation that the relationships are built upon.

The ability to know that your team members will have your back is beyond just a competitive advantage. Compassionate management helps with this — it creates a culture where we are all on the same team — we are all working towards the same mission and vision together.

Reid Hoffman: Compassion can be seen as this squishy touchy feely thing vs. winning and results. How does compassion get results?

Jeff Weiner: People think compassion is a soft skill. The strongest people I know are the most compassionate. True compassion requires superhuman strength.

A common question I get is — if you are managing compassionately — how do you let someone go from the company? That seems like the most non-compassionate thing you can do.

If someone is struggling in their role — the least compassionate thing you can do is to let them continue to struggle. It’s a terribly difficult thing to watch — when people struggle (and don’t overcome the challenge) they lose their self confidence which affects their team and their family (bringing all of this negative energy home).

If you turn the other way because you don’t want to make a hard decision — you make the worst possible decision for the person. The most compassionate thing you can do is to provide coaching to help them overcome their struggle or if this doesn’t work transition them out to a different role or to a different company.

If anyone thinks this is a touchy feely thing — I suggest you try this yourself.

Reid Hoffman: How did internal communication change as LinkedIn went from 338 people, to 1,000, 5,000, and now above 10,000 people?

Jeff Weiner: Communication is essential as you scale. One of our tools we used to great effect is an all-hands meeting every other week.

I started this when I joined — while we could all fit into the cafeteria. Now we broadcast our all hands to all of our offices in 30 cities around the world in different time zones (some tape it and watch after hours).

During these all-hands, we walk through what’s happening in the company — both the good and the bad things. These meetings are invaluable because we can:

  • Repeat every other week what our top priorities are.
  • We shine the light and highlight what is working and behavior we want to reinforce.
  • We identify things and areas that are not working — and have honest discussions about these areas.

The biggest lesson and one of the most valuable lessons I have learned at different levels of scale is what I call “acting like an owner.”

I believe the most successful companies at scale are the ones where the employees talk about the challenges “we” face vs. what “the company” faces. If there is a big challenge, it’s easy to blame it on their external “the company” but the truth is — they are the company. The leadership is the people who run the company — and this is not just the executives but everyone in the company.

I vowed if I had the opportunity to run a company, I wanted to make people feel like they could make a difference no matter how big or small to the company themselves. We reinforce this at each of the different scale levels and you can feel it.

Once people start to feel “the company” is this machine that is beyond their control — guess what? — it becomes beyond their control. As soon as you think like a victim vs. being able to influence the outcomes — you become the victim.

And it’s not just about saying it, it’s about reinforcing it. When people feel like they can come forward with problems and solutions, and then you execute those solutions — this reinforces the fact that we are all owners of the company. It’s our company and it’s us who influence the outcomes of our company.

Reid Hoffman: What are the unique lessons of LinkedIn being both a consumer and enterprise company?

Jeff Weiner: If you can pull it off, it’s fantastic.

The problem is the more things you try to do as a company, the higher degree of difficulty it creates. 2 things is harder to do than one thing. Every incremental thing you add — means the more things you need to do to communicate, the more plans you need, the more goals you need, etc. More things = more room for error.

However there are counterexamples — Whatsapp, Instagram, etc. Things have changed and you can get to more scale with less capital because of technology and globalization.

If you are going to try to do more than one thing — it goes back to what you are trying to accomplish — which is your mission, vision, and story of the company. Storytelling is the oldest form of communication — it’s part of the fabric of humanity — we communication through stories — we are the stories we tell.

For a company — the vision, mission, culture, goals, etc — this is the story of your company. You need to define your story and reinforce it. Our story for LinkedIn is we are trying to build an enterprise business on top of consumer business. It’s part of our values.

We have 6 values and our first value is 1) members come first. If we had an enterprise sales culture this would not be our first priority — it would either be hitting quality, the next sale, etc. Results matter to us but it starts with our members first.

We can’t execute on our enterprise business if we don’t have a flourishing member driven ecosystem. The only way we can pull off an enterprise company on top of a consumer company is if the person who runs our enterprise salesforce, knows that members come first.

We are lucky to have Mike Gamson, who manages 1,000’s of salespeople, also be our top leader in our values and culture. Mike is not just talking the talk — he manifests our values in everything he does. One of the things he says is he isn’t hiring salespeople — instead he hires business people. He hires, rewards, and promotes people based on our values.

Question from the audience: Are there books which have been as useful to you as Fred Kofman (the coach) in terms of being a CEO?

Jeff Weiner: I’d recommend three books:

  • Conscious business
  • Art of Happiness — this has been on my nightstand since 1998
  • Mountains beyond Mountains — A story about how Dr. Paul Farmer would commute from Harvard to Haiti to help one person at time which eventually helped change the World Health Organization and how countries take care of their poorest people. Coming out of Yahoo I thought that only things at massive scale could have massive impact — but I learned that sometimes scale could come about by helping one person at a time.

Reid Hoffman: One lesson for the class is you frequently get to scale by doing things that don't scale — Brian Chesky’s story is a good example of this.

Allen Blue: Linkedin has grown tremendously and hiring has always a #1 priority. How has the hiring process changed as LinkedIn scaled?

Jeff Weiner: In some regards the hiring process is the same and in other regards it’s drastically different.

  • When you are 15 people, a single person on your team can do the recruiting.
  • When you are trying to get to 150 people you need dedicated recruiters.
  • When you are trying to get to 1,500 people you need sourcers, recruiters, schedulers, managers, and people to support this whole group.

The machinery behind recruiting gets substantially more complex at each level of scale.

What shouldn’t change is your culture and values. Where hypergrowth companies go off the rails is when they need to grow from 150 to 300 people to keep pace with the competition and even though they have set their quality and culture bar clearly, they start to compromise.

For example if someone comes in and they have great skills on paper but during the interview process you find out, they are not a cultural fit. You are headed for trouble when the hiring managers say they aren’t a cultural fit but we can make it work — we’ll coach them, there will be a process of osmosis, they’ll figure out how we do things around here, etc.

If you talk to people who have hired the person in this situation, they will tell you it didn’t work out and this causes more trouble than what it’s worth.

A company can scale effectively when they look at skills, they see they aren’t a cultural fit, and they move on to the next person. If the hiring team can decide this, even when you are not in the room, this is when you are on the path to scale.

Reid Hoffman: Why do you believe it’s critical to be a product driven CEO?

Jeff Weiner: This is leading question because I was asked to lead question, partially because I was a product person first.

Reid and I both share the conviction that the most valuable companies in Silicon Valley are lead by product people. You could have been a product manager, engineer, product designer, or anything where you developed a good product sense.

At the end of the day, Silicon Valley companies create value through their products. The further removed a CEO is from the product — the more challenge it’s going to be for that company to create value over time. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, you all know the names — these people are all product people first and foremost.

Jeff Bezos has a quote from a long time ago before Amazon became what it is today, which I liked: “Amazon isn’t a book store — it’s a customer store.”

Question from the audience: When it comes to managing people — how do you manage the smartest people?

Jeff Weiner: You can’t make very smart people do anything. However what you can do is to inspire them to want to take action.

The difference between managers and leaders is: Managers tell people what they want them to do. Leaders inspire people to do it.

Once you identify talented people — you can find out what they want to accomplish, tell them what you want to accomplish, and then hopefully find alignment between what they want and what you want. If you can find common ground, you can authentically say why their skills can help achieve this goal and hopefully they will want to join you and do that.

This is very different than telling them what to do. The smartest people aren’t going to respond well to being told what to do.

Question from the audience: Can you elaborate on the economic graph you are trying to build with LinkedIn? What do you mean by the economic graph?

Jeff Weiner: One of the things I am doing at LinkedIn which I have never done before — is we are trying to operationalize our vision. Historically for me, our vision is our dream. Our dream isn’t something we try to do or measure — its our true north and where we aspire to get to.

A few years ago we recognized that we were growing our membership faster than we had anticipated. When we codified our mission we had 32M members, we recently surpassed 400M members, and we are on the trajectory to exceed our goal of 750M members.

We started to ask ourselves — once we connected the world professionals, what would come next? Where we ended up was trying to bring our vision to life — creating economic opportunity for everyone in the global workforce — all 3B people. This is not just knowledge workers but everyone in the global workforce.

The way in which we decided to do this was to digitally map the global economy across 6 dimensions — this is the economic graph.

  • A profile on LinkedIn for every member of the global workforce — 3B people.
  • Having a presence for every company on the planet including all small to medium sized business — 60–70M companies.
  • A digital representation for every available job opportunity at every single one of these companies which would be digitally accessible — ~20M+ jobs.
  • A digital representation for every skill that is required to obtain these jobs offered by these companies in which you could access through standardized data — 100,000’s of skills.
  • A digital presence for every University and vocational training facility in order to obtain the skills in order to get the jobs offered by these companies.
  • A publishing platform that would enable every individual to share their professional knowledge.

Through this graph we would allow all forms of capital (intellectual, working, human) flow to where it could best be leveraged. In doing so we could help lift and transform the global economy. This is the economic graph.

When we first started talking about it — it sounded like science fiction. It was our dream but overtime it started to become a reality. We started to build out the infrastructure, the teams, the people, acquisitions, etc. in order for us to build and operate the economic graph at scale.

When I first joined the company, we had 6–8K jobs on LinkedIn. Along the way, we identified 500K white collar jobs as the total available market and when we hit 300K jobs — I had a meeting with the team and told them to start thinking about how we could get all of the jobs on LinkedIn — not just the white collar ones — 20M in total.

The team thought I was joking so I went back in and told them I was serious about this — at that moment you could tell reality sunk it and the team realized I had meant this. The team went out and developed a roadmap and strategy to get all of the jobs onto LinkedIn

We acquired a company called Bright and now we are up to 5M jobs on LinkedIn available today. We have 2x this amount which have been indexed and we are in the process of figuring out a way to offering them all up. We are now on our way to hit the goal of 20M jobs on LinkedIn.

You can do this same exercise with the number of members we have on LinkedIn, companies on LinkedIn, skills on LinkedIn, etc. We didn’t want to just identify the skills on LinkedIn but we acquired Lynda.com to offer up coursework to help people get those skills. This was one of the last fundamental building blocks for our strategy.

We aren’t just talking about our vision anymore — it’s coming to love — the only thing preventing us from realizing our vision — is time.

Question from the audience: How do you identify talent? Especially evaluating who the top 10% vs. top 5% vs top 1% are?

Jeff Weiner: I don't have a formula for the percentages per se — this would be a Reid Hoffman question, I’m sure he has a formula (lol).

What I am looking for in terms of talent is more dependent on the role. More broadly I am looking for smart people. However I don’t just mean broad based aptitude smart but:

  • People who can learn quickly, love learning, gain fluency quickly, enjoy synthesizing ideas, connecting the dots, and sharing these conclusions with others.
  • People who are both passionate about the work we do and the work they do — and hopefully there is alignment between these two.
  • People who are compassionate — and recognize the value to take the time to see the world through other people's perspective.
  • People who I look forward to working with. Over time I have learned it’s not worth it to work with assholes — no matter how much they contribute.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a CEO is a metaphor from baseball: you can’t leave the pitcher in the game for too long.

Even if you have a star pitcher, past 5 innings, you can see their fastball is getting slower, batters are getting through their curveballs, etc. The manager will come out and see how the pitcher is doing and star pitchers will respond “I am doing great.” It’s not the manager's job to ask how the pitcher is doing but rather it’s to assess whether the pitcher can win the game.

The most valuable lesson is when you recognize someone might not be the right fit for the role they are in now — you already know the answer to the question. The question is what are you going to do about it?

The key part of scaling an organization is not only identifying the right talent to bring into the organization — but it’s also about assessing the talent you currently have and making hard decisions.