Lessons on Leading

In my last few years at Pandora, I spent a lot of time working with the automotive industry getting Pandora integrated into car dashboards alongside traditional radio. Through those relationships came an invitation in 2012: “Can you come to Detroit to keynote our Future Leaders Conference? We want a young, hip leader that this group can identify with. They’re Millennials within the first five years of starting their careers, and we’ve identified them as potential future leaders of the automotive industry.”

By Silicon Valley start-up standards, I am neither particularly young nor hip, but since they didn’t know this I readily agreed to go to Detroit to deliver the speech. I collected my thoughts and experiences on the topic of leadership, culling from my eight years at Pandora and seven years prior to that at places like Overture and Yahoo. During those years, I’d had the privilege of working with and observing some exemplary leaders. I shared with these Millennials of the automotive industry a list of ten observations about what makes a leader and, more importantly, what separates a good leader from a great one. The following is excerpted from that speech.

1) Great leadership is measured not by the number of people a leader manages, but by the number of people that leader inspires.

Let’s be honest, there are all kinds of people who are “in charge” out there. There are ones who are revered, and others who are reviled. Here’s something I want you to realize:

Everyone, at all stages in their career, has the opportunity to be a great leader. You don’t need to be the CEO, or even the head of the department. You can be a leader within a project team, within a peer group, within any group, even if you have no direct reports. You can inspire others.

How can I do this, you ask? If I don’t have a mandate of authority, how can I inspire or lead people? Why would they follow me? We can start to answer this with my second observation:

2) Leaders lead by their actions more than by their words. Great leaders are conscious and careful about their actions, big and small.

Leadership is a lot about how you conduct yourselves, folks. Let me give you some examples to illustrate this point.

In June 2011, Pandora went public on the NYSE. The entire management team was in NYC for the event, and it was a festive day, to say the least. After ringing the bell and doing the media interviews, we reconvened for an all-hands meeting in the afternoon that was broadcast from our NY sales office. That evening, there were a variety of celebrations around town and more than a few folks stumbled out of their hotel rooms or into the office a bit later than usual that next morning. Do you know where Joe Kennedy, the company’s CEO, was the morning after the IPO? He was back at his desk in Oakland, California promptly at 9am. He hopped on a commercial flight and flew back to Pandora’s headquarters after all the official events concluded on IPO day. He did this because he understood that his actions spoke louder than any words he uttered during our all-hands meeting. His message was clear – we were in the process of building a great company, and this IPO was in no way a finish line. It was time to get back to work, focusing on business as usual. And so the company did.

I had my own epiphany along these lines during my time at Pandora. In 2010 I had a baby, took a maternity leave, then came back to work. A few months later a colleague approached me in the company kitchen asking if she could speak with me. She was visibly pregnant and she gingerly asked me whether I thought it might be okay for her to take a six-month maternity leave. I responded instinctually, as a fellow mother, urging her to take whatever time she could afford to, knowing how precious those early months of bonding are with a new baby. Only later did it occur to me that she really was seeking my approval. As the most senior woman in the company, my four-month maternity leave may have set an unspoken precedent about what was “acceptable” time off for new mothers. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the other maternity leaves in the company following mine (about which I was aware) were four months, too. This realization jolted me into action.

I embraced the leadership role I realized that I held among the women in the company. I established a “Women In Business” group with multiple cross-departmental initiatives including career coaching and mentoring, a leadership speaker series, and community outreach. Mostly, I sought to foster a community of women supporting women within the company. Within a few weeks almost a third of the company had joined that group. There had clearly been an unmet need. When I left the company last year, the emails of thanks and support that I received from women across the company helped me to know how important the group had become to them and the impact I had had as a role model. Those emails are keepers, and so is the leadership lesson I learned: when you’re a leader, your every action carries weight.

So, start now in your career – think about your actions, big and small, and what they say about you as a professional. Be an exemplary role model in how you conduct yourself in your career. Step up to leadership opportunities when you see them – they don’t necessarily need to be company-sanctioned. Everyone will notice when you do this, and before long you’ll be given a broader leadership role.

3) A leader’s job is to absorb anxiety and instill confidence among employees.

Leadership is not only about setting strategic direction, assigning work, and managing results. It is a lot about being a steady, positive influence in the culture and atmosphere of the company.

There will be moments when you will find yourself part of a conversation at the office where people are worrying about something in the business and at those times you will have a choice. You can pile on, and add your own concerns or unique angles of worry to the dialogue, or you can provide perspective. That might mean reiterating the strategy as you understand it, or underscoring your confidence in the leadership team that is steering you down the path the business is on. If you have concerns yourself, the best thing to do in that situation is to keep them to yourself, and discuss them with your boss privately in a one-on-one meeting. The key is to not amplify others’ fears or anxiety. Over time, probably without even realizing it, people will come to rely upon you, and respect you, for this steady, calming quality. It will set you apart as a leader. And “setting you apart” is a conscious choice of phrase, because…

4) It is lonely at the top.

Does anyone here think leaders don’t feel anxiety? That they don’t doubt their decisions or make mistakes? Of course not, right?

The old maxim is very true. Leadership can be lonely. Leaders don’t have the luxury of confiding inner turmoil with those who report to them. The higher you go in the organization, the fewer peers you have. The loneliest job is CEO. She doesn’t really get to have confidantes in the office. Great leaders practice a huge amount of discretion.

I’m not saying that leaders always get this right. I am saying that the great ones usually do. I have admired this quality in Pandora’s CEO, Joe Kennedy. Never, in my eight years working for him, did I hear him complain about a business problem just for the sake of unburdening himself, or disparage another professional. In my meetings with him he was always pleasant, always present, always actively listening. He never appeared shaken, stressed or defeated…and let me tell you Pandora didn’t have a cake-walk to success. There were many times that I thought how lonely it must be for Joe, to not be able to vent his frustrations at work. But that is the kind of leader he is. And, he grew up, professionally speaking, in the auto business in Detroit, so…well done! You are clearly doing things right here.

5) The more you give, the more you give.

No, that is not a typo. The fact is that if you’re successfully executing as a leader and you’re inspiring those around you, they will want your time. They will want your counsel. They will want your mentorship and sponsorship. And, let me take a moment to draw the distinction between those two things, because it is pretty important. Mentorship is advice you get from someone who has been down the road ahead of you and who can counsel you on your professional development. A mentor is a trusted confidante, and someone who (hopefully) is willing to tell you the things you most need to hear, even if they’re things that you won’t like hearing. In contrast, sponsorship is career advocacy – someone who is willing to put her own reputation on the line by advocating for you and your performance, to help you get ahead in your career. We need both of these things in order to reach our full career potential. And, when you’re a successful leader, people will seek you out for both. It will be flattering, and you will feel compelled, in your leadership capacity, to oblige these requests.

The more renowned you are in your company or in your industry, the more people will come calling. It can be exhausting, but it is important. You need to know your limits, and make sure you have enough energy and mental space to focus on your own priorities, which should include yourself and your family in addition to your work. You’ve got to think of your career as a marathon, not a sprint, and reserve energy along the way. And you need to be great at time management, or get help from someone who can do that for you. Because being a great leader means spending a lot of time investing in others’ growth and development.

So, let’s talk for a bit about developing other people:

6) Great leaders hire people who could do their own job, and then they let them do it. Plus, they understand the 60/40 rule.

This is how you get ahead, folks. You cannot climb very high on the corporate ladder as an individual contributor, and you are only as good as your weakest link on your team.

When you get the chance to hire people, have the confidence to hire rockstars. Believe that there is much that you can teach them (and something you can learn from them), and let them shine. They will make you look good. And by the time they’re itching to have your seat, you’ll be moving on to another, more influential one.

There’s a corollary to this point, too: if you get a hiring decision wrong (and you will, we all do), figure it out fast, and help that person move on to something else at which they will shine. You are doing them a favor by having the tough, frank conversations about their performance, and coaching them into roles where they can excel. It may be tough, but if you do it compassionately, they will thank you for it later on. We cannot see our own blind spots. We need others to step up to the challenge of helping us see them. Leaders do this, and they do it in such a way that we believe they have our best interest at heart when they’re telling us something that is hard to hear. As the leader, you owe this to their co-workers as well. It sends a very bad message in a high-performing team to have someone who is not pulling their weight persist in their role. It affects morale, and is demotivating to your best employees.

You may be wondering how to continue to motivate those high performing rockstars, keeping them challenged and happy over time. Indeed, they do tend to be slightly higher maintenance to manage than your average employee. Here’s the key:

Leaders recognize that we should feel 60% mastery and 40% stretch in our jobs at any given time. We draw our confidence from the 60% we know we’re nailing, and we grow from the challenge of the 40% that is new and uncomfortable for us. Leaders focus on this equation for all of their employees. And, for themselves. Confident, challenged and happy employees tend to stick around.

7) Being a leader means rolling up your sleeves.

In President Obama’s first campaign, he used the phrase “walk a day in another man’s shoes” and that concept applies well in business. A fast track to earning the respect of your employees and colleagues is by showing them that no job is “beneath you.” One CEO that I know very well put himself through an on-the-job apprentice course in every division of the company he was brought in to lead. He did the job of customer support, sales operations, product developer, front-line seller and so forth. Doing that taught him more about his new company than he could have learned in a month of briefing meetings (it saved a lot of Powerpoint decks, too), and more importantly it helped him develop the appropriate amount of empathy for the challenges of the work being done around the company.

Make sure you work to really understand the vantage point of your colleagues, at every stage in your career. Resist the temptation to see the world strictly through the lens of your particular business function. Great leaders are really good at taking off their departmental hat and seeing the business from others’ vantage points. This allows them to empathize with their coworkers and business partners, and makes them more effective in their roles.

Empathy is a good segue to my next point about leadership:

8) Great leaders listen more than they speak.

I trust you all know the difference between IQ and EQ? A common profile of successful CEOs and leaders in other walks of life is that they have a high EQ – emotional quotient. They might not have the highest IQ in the boardroom – they don’t have to, because they’re the most effective decision-makers and leaders. This is due to the fact that they listen, and they can empathize with different perspectives. They understand the impact of their decisions on their team and take the time to absorb the anxiety that a particular decision might cause. They inspire fierce loyalty in their team, because the team believes their leader has their backs, even if she doesn’t always agree with them.

For you Type-A personalities out there who know you have the right answer, you’re the first one to synthesize all the info and get to the punch-line of any discussion, and you’re impatient for everyone else in the room to catch up with you, you will likely limit your leadership potential if you don’t consciously work on your ability to actively listen. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. There have been some great, visionary leaders who were purportedly really bad listeners. But if you strive to be the sort of leader that everyone wants to emulate, then you need to be focused on this quality. Spend as much time listening as you do speaking. Invest yourself in others’ perspectives, and if you’re the senior leader in the room, wait to speak until others have got their views aired. Doing so doesn’t diminish your power in the room. It amplifies it.

And, let’s talk about power for a minute. What makes a leader powerful? I would argue that it all boils down to her ability to influence others. When you see influence being exercised artfully rather than through brute force, you’re watching a great leader in action.

But let’s not make any mistake about it, leaders are tough, and they can be stubborn at times. They need to be at times. They need to have to the confidence of their convictions in the face of adversity. Because…

9) Leadership takes true grit.

Leaders are constantly tested, and (big surprise here) they don’t always know what the right answer is. But they’ve got to be decisive and act. Often the stakes are quite high. It takes great courage to make judgment calls about whether to go left or right at a strategic inflection point, and be prepared for any outcome. Add to that the quality that I mentioned above, about absorbing the anxiety of their team and employees, and you’ll see that great leaders are tough. They don’t wilt under pressure. They have the confidence of their convictions, they’re patient, and they take the long view while maintaining empathy for their teams.

Being tough and decisive doesn’t mean a leader always gets it right. But, success means making more right calls than bad calls each day. It doesn’t mean being perfect.

While we’re on the subject of decision-making, here’s a quick aside - another little lesson I’ve learned: in navigating your business, if the decision you’re faced with is a hard one to make, and there is no external forcing-function requiring you to make it right now, then give it more time. Some decisions simply aren’t ready to be made yet. Chances are, more insight will be gained from taking additional time and in many cases, the right answer will reveal itself to you if you’re patient. And, that happens to be an excellent segue to my next, and last, point:

10) Patience is a virtue.

Yes, this is a trite phrase, but let me explain what I mean by it here. One of the unfortunate things about us young folk who want to do great things in the world, and be great leaders, is that we think we’re racing against the clock. We’re in a big hurry. We’re like caged racehorses, chomping at the bit to show what we can contribute, and make a significant and lasting mark. Can anyone identify a little bit with that description? Well, this last point was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn early in my career. I was in a big hurry. I wanted more responsibility, more challenge, more recognition, and it simply couldn’t come fast enough. And, that probably has something to do with the fact that I get to be up here at this podium talking to you today. Remember, ambition is not a bad word. But, it is simply not a substitute for experience. I wish I could have taken the advice to heart when I was told, “Relax, be patient, it’ll come.” They were right, it did. And time flew. I could have relaxed more.

No matter how smart you are, no matter how motivated, no matter how many more hours you’re spending on the job than your peers, if you are early in your career and you’re chomping at the bit, straining the reins to climb the corporate ladder faster, then I’ve got some tough love news for you: you are probably coming across as cocky or arrogant to those around you. Your peers will resent you for it (because they’ll feel threatened by you), your employees will not respect you for it (because they’ll think you’re putting your own aims above theirs), and your superiors are likely to want to knock you down a peg or two, and discount your talent by saying you’re still professionally immature. Let’s face it - those aren’t leadership qualities.

Understanding how you are being perceived is one of the most important keys to evolving into a great leader. How do we get that insight? We listen more. See how all of these tie together so neatly? Trust me, I’m speaking from personal experience on this one. Some things just take time, and you need to relax into the knowledge that if you perform your best, you strive to be a great leader at all stages and in all moments, and you put the company’s interests above or, at least, on par with your own interests, then the universe will hand to you the challenge that you’re ready for. It might not come in the form that you were expecting. You might have to leave the company you’re at in order to achieve it. But keep your antenna up, do your best work, and it’ll happen. There is a Buddhist proverb that goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think the same is true with professional opportunities. Of course, this isn’t a passive thing. I also firmly believe that you make your own luck. But you do that by focusing on being a great contributor, a great leader, and putting yourself at the intersection of preparedness and opportunity. In the meantime, you’re amassing really valuable experience in the business world.

Over time, arrogance mellows into gravitas, bravado becomes quiet confidence, and smarts evolves into wisdom. Those qualities – gravitas, quiet confidence and wisdom - can’t be rushed, but in my opinion they are three of the best hallmarks of a great leader.

One last digression before I close: Inevitably, some of you out there are reflecting on all of this and pointing to exceptional examples in your head like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who started and led legendary companies before even finishing college. If those stories inspire you, you may be thinking, “I don’t have time to wait around for others to perceive me as wise, I need to just get on with it and make my mark on the world”…then my challenge to you is this: start your own company. You can be a CEO tomorrow. As an entrepreneur you will learn, through trial by fire, all of these lessons and many, many more in a very condensed space of time. If you don’t learn them well, you will fail. And that is a great lesson, too. Most great leaders have been well prepared for success by prior failures. Failure breeds resilience, humility, and determination. It hones ideas, and makes us prematurely wise. So, if you’re wired that way, and you’ve got what you think is a great product and business idea, I say go for it!

For all of the rest of you who are planning to leave this conference and go back to your jobs in a day from now my challenge to you is really, really simple: LEAD. Do it now. Do it well. Don’t wait for an invitation.

This speech was delivered to the Future Leaders at SAE Convergence, Cobo Center, Detroit, MI on October 16, 2012.

On Leadership

Lessons on Leading

    Jessica Steel

    Written by

    President at UrbanSitter. Early Pandora exec. Lullaby-singing mother, lucky wife and amateur tennis player. Enjoying the journey.

    On Leadership

    Lessons on Leading