Wisdom from the West Coast: Personal Lessons in Leadership.

Last month’s US CEO Summit welcomed some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures to pass on their collective wisdom to a select audience of startup founders. Every speaker had something to say about leadership; the big principles and their own personal style.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, discusses the importance of empathy in business.

So what could founder CEOs, with small, though growing teams, learn from these people, some of whom are leading tens of thousands?

First the bad news. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, stated, “most things you
can’t control”. “However,” he added, “there’s one thing you can control — how
you treat people.”

Jeff’s message was about action, not emotion. He has been with the company since 2008 and was instrumental in its acquisition by Microsoft for $26 billion in 2016. “Empathy is no good without action,” Jeff said. It’s just about treating people as you’d like to be treated — and that includes the competition. “Am I compassionate with my competition? Yes. Do I lower my defences? No.” Words like “empathy” and “humility” featured in Jeff’s description of his leadership approach, but this was realism not idealism. The ever-growing strength of LinkedIn strongly suggests his approach is a winning one.

Bananas Not Wine

A leader is not only defined by the decisions she makes, but also how she delivers them — how fast and how clean. John Hamm , CEO Coach and Octopus Venture Partner, urged the founders not to confuse difficult decisions with unpleasant ones. The former are foggy, the latter are clear, but emotionally difficult to execute. Firing a long-standing colleague, for example, can be an awkward, even painful, necessity. Holding back, mis-identifying it as a ‘difficult’ rather than an ‘unpleasant’ decision is not good leadership, particularly in the arena of hiring. “Hire slowly, fire quickly,” said John. “Problems age like bananas, not wine,” so clear seeing and clear action must cut through denial and avoidance.

The quality of the team you surround yourself with is any good leader’s concern. John expanded on the theme of hiring ‘A-players’. These are the people who, in turn, hire the best people. They are team players and they know their value to the company. They don’t need to prove it, they just do it. To keep the flow of A-players coming, John encouraged the founder CEOs to be “always meeting people”. Not necessarily hiring, just connecting, listening
and learning. “Your network is your most powerful tool,” said John, so staying
open to new introductions is smart practice, however content you are with
your current team.

The Power of No

Jeff Miller is a veteran Silicon Valley leader. As CEO of Documentum , he 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. Once upon a time, Jeff said no to a $1m deal. Why? Because it wasn’t on strategy. (“We’re not doing specials,” Jeff said.) It spawned the legend: “we may not be right, but we are not confused”. Jeff believes, and has proven, that any team 100% focused on an 80% right solution, wins. This means leaders don’t have to be right (and who is, infallibly?), but they do have to be clear and committed to a strategy.

Relationships

Dave de Walt (FireEye), made the surprising claim that good CEOs spend very little time running their company. They do however spend a great deal of time with the people they’ve hired to run it. “Spending time” doesn’t necessarily mean poring over figures and results. Asking, listening and shooting the breeze is as valuable as talking shop. In leadership, Dave was saying, relationships are as important as functionality.

Tom Reilly of Cloudera is a self-confessed introvert. A former mechanical engineer at IBM who “fell asleep on his pencil”, Tom is not a likely candidate for leadership. But he now leads a company that recently merged with Hortonworks to create a combined equity value of $5.2bn. He describes himself as a “practising extrovert”. He takes time to walk the floors of his company, deliberately looking people in the eye, asking their name and then using it three times in the conversation. Tom is nothing if not methodical, but his people get the attention he feels they deserve.

Hands On

Lily Kanter (founder of Serena & Lily) likes to see her teams’ shirt sleeves rolled up. “Every VP should own some piece of the ‘doing’,” says Lily. There is no longer room for “just managers”. So a Head of Marketing, for example, with strong analytics, should be closely involved in that area. Leadership in this case is not about personal heavy lifting; the load is shared through collaboration. Alluding to Dave de Walt’s point, a CEO should be in the business of tweaking, not wrenching.

Steve Lucas, CEO of Marketo, said, “no matter what you do, some people are just not going to like you!” He has a story to illustrate this hard reality. When he arrived at Marketo there was a company shuttle bus that was costing the company $2m a year. It was used by 11 people. He cancelled it immediately and emailed the 11 users a bus pass each. There was outrage, but, Steve noticed, only from those who didn’t actually use the shuttle. He was unrepentant. “This was not about culture, it was about being grown-ups,” Steve said. He tempered this lesson in thick skin by adding that “this does not give you the right to be flippant or dismissive. Ruffling some feathers is ok — if it’s done respectfully and humbly. No CEO should walk around thinking their title means they have all the answers.”

As You Would Be Done By

Taking flack, as Steve explained, can be part of the job, but Jeff Weiner added a counter-point; the ability to graciously receive compliments. It hinges on the question; who do your team need you to be? “I know how I want to feel around a CEO,” said Jeff. The position can carry with it a certain ‘sovereign’ or figurehead role, symbolic more than personal, which people naturally respond to. If someone pays you a compliment, Jeff urged, receive it gracefully. After all, isn’t that how you’d like to be treated?

Leadership undoubtedly includes making hard personal decisions. Doing what’s best for the company can lead some Founder CEOs to step aside as their company evolves. In our next post we’ll look at how leadership can affect the lifespan experience of a Founder CEO.

“A great time-out to reflect on strategy and the role of CEO, through the lens of the experiences of A-game players. The week has reframed my expectations of myself.”
 -Kate McLaughlin, We Got POP

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