Wisdom from the West Coast: Communication, communication, communication (worth repeating).

Last week Jo Oliver , partner at Octopus Ventures, accompanied 16 portfolio CEOs through an intensive three day event in California. In a “blast of wisdom” (as one CEO described it) a hand-picked cohort of iconic Silicon Valley leaders passed on their combined wealth of experience — Jeff Weiner , LinkedIn CEO, among them. In this, the first of a series of themed summaries, Jo draws out the recurring theme of communicating — repeatedly — your vision.

Tom Reilly, CEO of CloudEra, focuses on communicating a product’s value to its customers.

There’s a hunger for people to connect to the mission and vision, culture and values.

“Repeat them over and over and over. When you’re sick of hearing
yourself say them, that’s when they’re beginning to hear you.”
-Jeff Weiner, CEO LinkedIn.

Jeff, along with every one of our speakers, was stressing the importance of communication. It came up over and over across the three days: once the vision — the “where are we heading?” — has been honed, it’s about aligning the team ruthlessly against that goal. How? Repeated, clear, motivating communication. Repeated and repeated again.

There’s the apocryphal story of JFK asking the janitor at NASA for his job description and receiving the reply, “I’m here to help put a man on the moon”. Last week we were hearing from the people who’d made such a single-minded vision a reality in the companies they’d influenced. Dave de Walt gave us his version from his time as CEO of Documentum . The company supplied cutting-edge document management systems to the pharma industry, but Dave framed it that they were doing nothing less than helping cure cancer. The rationale stacked up: better document management; faster process; better, faster research; a quicker route to finding the cure. His company loved it.

The theme continued as Steve Lucas of Marketo named the “deep intrinsic kernel of what matters” that any good CEO should be personifying and communicating from dawn ’til dusk. Joni Reicher, formerly Steve Jobs’ Director of Human Resources, put it in terms of a “continuous articulation”. When asked what the company is here to do, any single employee should give the same answer, without hesitation.

Jeff Miller, as CEO of Documentum (Jeff hired Dave de Walt to succeed
him), grew the company from a staff of 15 with $500k of sales in 1993, to a listed company of 1,200 with revenues of $200m in 2001. On the subject of communication, he put it bluntly: “Do not underestimate the number of times your people need to hear the same message -and it needs to come from you!”. Our own John Hamm, Octopus venture partner, put it even more viscerally: “Repeat it ’til your tongue bleeds”.

Your Customers

Tom Reilly of Cloudera (which just recently merged with Hortonworks to create a $5.2bn company — virtually as Tom was speaking to us) turned the focus to the customer. “It’s not exactly what your product does — it’s how you communicate the value of it.” Others had cited this too: the ability to tell a story, or “evangelise” to your customer. Steve Lucas outlined the narrative his former sales team at Salesforce had used. It started, “I have a secret, and this secret will have a profound impact on your cash collection and cash flow. Do you want to know what it is?” This played into the realm of Customer Success, shifting from a product-centric to a customer-centric worldview, which we’ll cover in subsequent posts , but it served to nail the communication mantra firmly to the customer relationship.

“Communicate a lot. Tell the ugly and what you’re going to do about it.”
-Barry Eggers, Lightspeed

Your Investors

Barry Eggers of Lightspeed Ventures, expanded the message out to the importance of communication with investors. “Good things and bad things happen. But if you don’t tell me the bad things how can I help?”. Barry pushed the point: “Communicate a lot. Tell the ugly and what you’re going to do about it. Transparency, trust and respect is the most important thing. I pick CEOs based on that.”

Your Board

Finally, Tom Reilly covered all bases by touching on communication with the Board. Tom has established a ‘buddy’ system at Cloudera, where every Non-Executive Board member communicates directly with a member of the Executive team, based on their respective expertise. This creates a two way system, where responsibility is shared across the Board. It also ensures that Tom as CEO isn’t the focus point of all communication.

Your Vision

An overarching point, made by Steve Lucas, highlighted the importance of a founder CEO’s vision, even over the product itself. “Your vision must transcend where your product is now”, Steve said. Companies that grow with the speed and durability of our guest speakers’ (the combined shareholder value created by our line-up is in the region of $200bn) have done so by looking beyond the product and the company as it is today. What they see on the horizon is what needs to be communicated, constantly, to their employees, their customers, their investors and their board.

Identifying then communicating the vision until it’s embedded in the DNA of every company member takes a special kind of leader — a subject our speakers also had plenty to say about — and we’ll be covering ‘Leadership’ among other themes in the forth-coming series.

“This was, I can say without exaggeration, the most intellectually stimulating, relevant, actionable and generally inspiring three days I’ve spent on learning about anything to do with making a business.”
-Ed Cooke, Memrise

Want some help asking the right questions to help your business to succeed? Get in touch with our experienced team at Octopus Ventures.