Generation Growth’s Advisor Series: Interview with Mark Carges

Mark Carges is a Senior Advisor to Generation, working with several of the companies in the Growth Equity portfolio to help them bring technology innovations to market. Mark brings decades of experience from his roles as CTO and SVP of eBay, BEA Systems and Bell Labs. He is also a Board Director at Splunk and Veeva Systems. We recently chatted with Mark about his career, his advice for founders, and his views on the importance of sustainability to long-term commercial success.

Why did you decide to work with Generation?

Sustainability has been important in my life from my early days. My first investment, with my wife, was in the Parnassus Fund in the late 1980s, a mutual fund that only invested in companies that do good things. When I was contacted about being an advisor to Generation, I was really excited because I connected with their purpose. I really enjoy the work and feel honored to help find and grow companies where sustainability is at their core.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone looking to scale their company?

Many years ago I learned about the concept of the ‘steel thread’ which is a really helpful way to think about how to build a superior product. A single steel thread may not be as strong as a whole cable, but it reaches across an entire distance.

When you’re building a product, it’s more important to build the end-to-end capabilities that will have an impact on your customers. They may not be complete, they may not be the full cable but it’s important to have a vision and prove out the end-to-end use cases, before you start adding to the cable. A lot of companies start building the cable fully at one end and then they have trouble taking it across before they’re figured everything out, using too many resources in the process.

When you focus on that steel thread, your investments build end-to-end and you will learn a lot about your product, even though it may not do everything you want initially. After you’ve nailed that, you can add on to any point in the thread.

What is your #1 piece of advice for an entrepreneur who wants to build a truly sustainable company?

It is important to be very clear about what sustainability means to you, so you can really articulate and measure the things you care about the most. Ensuring sustainability is truly meaningful will affect the decisions you make and also how you measure your success. It can impact everything from who you hire, to your company travel policy, whether you have offices and more. Founders have such an important voice and have to be very clear about the decisions that they make — by thinking about these things early, you can weave sustainability into your culture from the beginning making it easier to scale as you grow.

What makes someone a great leader?

There are three things that I think make a great leader:

Learning Agility: Whether you’re scaling a company or becoming a leader in a larger company, you must demonstrate a clear and obvious desire to continuously learn and adapt. Sometimes people think if they show that they don’t know something, they will be seen as weak but it is quite the opposite. When someone admits they don’t know everything and shows an openness to soak it all in and make decisions based on that, it is inspiring.

Balance of EQ and IQ: Strong leaders hire people that are better than them, and make them better as a result. No one person has all the skills, but you can build that with a well-rounded team. “A Players” hire other “A Players” and “B Players” hire “C Players.” “A Players” recognize what will be better for everyone.

Fostering upward feedback: I didn’t like feedback early in my career, but you get to a point where you can’t grow without it. Ultimately, I was able to say to my entire team that I was willing to take feedback from anyone at any time. I challenged all my managers to get to the same place where they could be comfortable asking for feedback.

Who is one of your mentors and why?

One of the people that inspired me and impacted my leadership style was Bob Swan, the CFO when I was at eBay and until recently CEO at Intel. He could go into any meeting and know what needed to get done and would flex his leadership style to make it happen.

For example, if he already knew what decision needed to be made and he just had to convince everyone that was what we were doing, he would take a very direct communication style. Sometimes he was in data gathering mode, and would take a completely different approach, asking lots of questions and really listening.

The depth of his leadership was very impressive and changed the way I led.

What is one small habit people can change to make a big difference in the world?

It sounds very simple, but at times you should only ask questions and make no statements. It’s amazing how much you’ll learn and how empathetic you’ll come across. By asking sincere questions, people know you’re listening. It’s a very hard thing to do, especially for leaders used to telling people what to do. It can have a huge impact on how people perceive you and how much you can learn.

What is a tough lesson every leader must learn?

It’s a tough but important lesson to recognize that you will not be successful in every environment or every company or every situation you’re put in. The key is to learn something from the experience to figure out why it didn’t work and how you can grow from that.



Investing in companies that are accelerating the transition to a more sustainable economy

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