“Build a Team That Operates at the Speed of Trust” Leadership Lessons with Udemy CEO Kevin Johnson

“I’ve always believed in trust and I think if you can establish trust in the organization then you can actually move a lot faster. If you have a team that isn’t second guessing each other, that trusts each other. For example, Jill knows what she’s doing. Joe knows what he’s doing. Let’s move ahead. So build a team that operates at the speed of trust.”
We had the distinct pleasure to have a Zoom interview with Kevin H. Johnson, CEO, Udemy. Kevin is an e-commerce veteran with a passion for digital marketing and education. Before joining Udemy, Kevin served as CEO of Ebates Inc., a leading e-commerce marketplace ranked as a top-15 U.S. e-commerce brand by eMarketer. Prior to that Kevin held leadership roles at Acxiom Digital, Netcentives, and the Boston Consulting Group. Kevin also co-founded and served as CEO of Passporta.com, an e-commerce business providing hard-to-find local specialties. He received an MBA from Stanford University and a BA from the University of California at Berkeley.

What is your backstory?

I didn’t set out to become a CEO. Somehow, it just happened that way. Prior to business school, I was an investment banker and that turned out to be a surprising career. It was six months into the job, I’m a brand new investment banker in Houston Texas actually, and the bank that owned us in New York had a little bit financial trouble. So they called us one day and gave us twenty four hours notice to get out of our offices. This was at all levels. So I got laid off of my first job — which was a great experience. I mean that, because what happened was the senior bankers came to me and said “Yeah, don’t pack up just yet, stay, we may have a little something going on” . So we ended up forming our own investment banking boutique that survives to this day.

So my first job, which I thought was just an investment banking job turned out to be entrepreneurial. It was just me and the senior bankers and everyone else in the middle. You can turn a bad situation into something positive and take an entrepreneurial approach.

After business school I started consulting. In the initial dot com, the height of the bubble is when most consultants left consultancy and decide they should be entrepreneurs. So I started in 1999 , some friends asked me to start with them. When the bubble burst, I was asked by another company to come in and take over a company that they had acquired. So that was my first time being really asked to step in as a CEO.

What was the scariest moment in your career and what did you do to bounce from there?

Kevin: I would say the scariest thing ever was that first job that I got laid off from as investment banker. I got my job as an investment banker and bought a car and bought a condo and was feeling pretty high on life, when I got laid off in a 24 hour notice to get out of my office.

So that was that, and I had to recover from that, bounce back from that and really think about my career differently at an early age, and realize “you’ve got to stay entrepreneurial at all times and be ready to take charge of your career and manage it”. I think that was that was the valuable lesson.

How do you balance appreciating what Udemy has already achieved and also combine that with trying to be an innovator and continue to bring Udemy to new heights?

Kevin: It seems great to be CEO from the outside and it is great. I won’t say it’s not, but it is a huge amount of responsibility and I take it really seriously. I think what Udemy has already created is an awesome service for students and instructors and I definitely go to sleep every night, thinking about the company and how to make it better and wake up every morning thinking the same thing. So it’s definitely a big responsibility and a big honor, but I think what is also nice about it is that it is quite robust. We have 20 million students, we have 30K plus instructors and so it really is making sure that the instructors can bring their passion, their talents and keep growing our business and adding new courses and help guide us into new areas. Also besides listening to students, hearing what they need and continue to think about what would help them get that knowledge they need. So the good news is, fundamentals are all here and it’s a big value proposition.

It’s a mission I connect with and again similar to E-bates, there is a long list of things that we know will improve for the company both from student offerings and from the instructor standpoint as well.

I think that the hardest part honestly about the job is figuring out which of the hundred things we know we want, to do. We could put all the focus on the 5 that we can actually get done. That’s the tough part, is really saying no and focusing on just a few things at first to get done before we move to Item 6 through 100 on the list and so that’s the tough part. The way to do that is to keep relentlessly evaluating, “Is this is the most important thing we can do?”

When you go into companies like Ebates or Udemy to become the CEO, there’s going to be politics in play. How do you go in and not disrupt anything that’s going on. How do you not present yourself as a threat? How do you blend in with the team?

Kevin: You definitely disrupt things whether you try to or not, but hopefully you try not to do any harm as you’re disrupting. One interesting lesson is, you’ve got to take a moment to actually understand the business and the service and use the product.

That’s my connection, how I really care about the product and the customer experience. What’s a better way to establish credibility when you are entering into an organization, than to have already used the product, right? Make sure you know it, and you have something to say about its value, because you’re joining a company where people may have devoted their entire professional life to sell that product. If you come in and you don’t know what it does and who the customer is and how to use it, you lose credibility.

On the other hand, if you know it and have some passion yourself about it and you can come in and talk credibly, you instantly gain credibility and people say “Oh OK, yeah, he actually cares.”

My second point is — you can’t know everything, and you don’t have to know everything. So you can be honest about that. I think as new CEOs, some people go awry by overpromising. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you that I don’t, so that I’m not making anything up. I’ll explain that I want to learn more, and by the way, here’s how I intend to learn it. If I think there’s a question that I shouldn’t answer, I won’t obfuscate, I’ll just say, ‘hey you know, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to answer”.

So first understand the product and the business you’re coming into, and demonstrate that knowledge. The second lesson is being honest when you interact with people. I think that goes a long way to not break the good momentum within your organization. Once you do get in and you do understand the basics, then you evaluate.

I think what’s interesting is once you understand the fundamentals of business, you can actually move faster than you might expect to make changes without hurting the business. As opposed just coming in and making reflexive changes when you don’t have a full understanding.

What are the “5 things you wish somebody told you when you first became a CEO”?

Kevin:

1. One is don’t over promise and risk under delivering, as we discussed earlier.

2. Take the time to understand the product and service. “Look into it before you speak” is another way of putting that.

3. The third is once you understand the fundamentals, you can actually move faster than you might think to make changes. Organizations are resilient and no one person is critical. Organizations can survive and thrive even once you mix and change. Again, you have to understand the fundamentals.

4. The fourth is what we’ve talked about around trust. I’ve always believed in trust and I think if you can establish trust in the organization then you can actually move a lot faster. If you have a team that isn’t second guessing each other, that trusts each other. For example, Jill knows what she’s doing. Joe knows what he’s doing. Let’s move ahead. So build a team that operates at the speed of trust.

5. And the other is that, generally speaking, people want you to succeed. I try to remind others about this as well, but especially if you are a leader or the CEO, it’s important to remind yourself that your investors and your team really wants you to succeed. There will always be naysayers and or negative opinions, but you don’t really need to let those affect you. Don’t worry about what they’re thinking, and focus instead on the people who want to rally around you; they want you to be successful because they want the company to be successful. It’s good to remember that even when you feel like you’re having a having a tough moment.

When someone like you comes in as a CEO to a huge company like Udemy, do you actually feel like you make a big impact on the culture? Or is it more about sustaining the culture?

Kevin: Yeah, Udemy definitely had and has an established culture but I do think I’ve changed some things and I think the way you do is, is subtly and over time. You don’t say, We will now be a new culture, right? And “It’s going to be this way”. But I think within 6 or 12 months you really can, if you can change people’s habits, then the culture starts to change and you can change tone. It’s amazing, the degree to which that starts steering a culture in a slightly different direction.

Did an MBA help your career? Yes or no and why?

Kevin: People in Stanford aren’t going to see this, are they?…

I would say that is tricky because I get asked a lot about, “should I go get an MBA”? I think it really depends on where you are in your career and the individual. I say that academically, to be honest, there is not a lot that I pull out of the MBA and say, ‘wow I couldn’t do this job without the degree’. But that’s me specifically. I actually knew financial accounting. I’ve been an investment banker so that part was sort of checked off for me already so a huge body of learning, that I’d already learned. And that’s a big part of our message — continually learning — not just limiting yourself to one focus, is critical.

But I think the… and again this is individual, but the exposures to the classmates I had from around the world, the different ways of thinking, this sort of opened my eyes to the world of possibilities out there and so in that way, it was sort of a great time in my career to reassess, rethink what I wanted to do.

I got this great input from my fellow students and professors and then go on. I certainly draw on these relationships from business school all the time. I started my first company after consulting with two business school classmates who actually asked me to be the CEO of that company and now I’m lucky enough that my classmates seem to be CEOs all around the world. They’re giving me advice all the time and I continue to draw on these relationships.

What do you feel are the biggest mistakes that new CEOs try to do when they are first appointed to or brought on.

Kevin: There’s a lot of pressure on the CEO and I’ve watched others come in and sort of make these big bold statements before they really understood the situation and they had a hard time delivering according to what they said and so that, that immediately destroys trust and so I think it’s a really good practice and I’ve done it here with the board. I c ame in and after a few months in, my first board meeting was basically where I assessed the company. It’s a little cliché but we did the classic SWOT analysis. The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — but its valuable thing and I really laid out the different areas. Here is an honest look at the business as I know it, and if I find anything else, I’m going to tell you too. I’m really open about what the strengths are and what weaknesses are and what we have to work on and then I actually came back the next board meeting with a little bit more learning and also saying “here’s what I think the realities of this business over the next three years”.

I laid out very clearly my assumptions. Here’s where this business can go if we do X, Y and Z. I explained to the board, ‘this is what I think we can do. Is this acceptable? If it’s not, then we need a bigger, bolder plan to be able to follow through’. We would all sit around the table and say ‘yes, thumbs up, let’s go for that’ — and so that way we all have aligned expectations around the board table which is great, and now I can communicate that to the company and say, ‘here’s what we’re doing over the next three years’. This plan will serve as a guide post and as a roadmap to where we’re going, and now everybody has the same expectation of what we are trying to do and hopefully it’s optimistic, but also hopefully realistic, and this garners a huge amount of credibility in terms of our work so we understand what we’re doing together.

What are the major lessons you've learned from your experiences as a CEO?

Kevin: When I joined Udemy, one of the reasons I was really attracted to it was because of its mission: to democratize learning and provide widespread access to education. And at first, I wasn’t thinking about that for myself. I was thinking of those who don’t have the opportunity or access to education. For example, the number one job in the U.S. for non college educated workers is driving a motor vehicle, employing about five million people through truck driving, taxi driving, Uber and Lyft driving — jobs that are seeming to be eliminated over the next five or 10 years. The number two job for non college educated workers is retail cashiers. Another job that is likely to be displaced due to new technology and innovation, taking 4 to 5 million jobs with it over the next five or 10 years.

When I first started, I had these jobs and skills at the top of my mind, but what I soon discovered was, it’s impacting me too. The skills gap is a relevant and top of mind issue for all workers, all the way up to the C suite, because as I mentioned earlier, I think that the technical changes with AI, big data, automation, robotics, and all of that is going to accelerate over the next 10 years to the degrees that we don’t quite imagine. And so, I myself realize, I have to stay fresh and keep learning in order to succeed in this market. It very directly hit home for me because I came from a company where we were still on the Microsoft Office Suite — nothing I love better than a good PowerPoint or Excel. Then I joined the company where it was like “Micro what? No, I’ll slack it to you.” and I was like wait, I should go and learn what this is. And so I had to get back to the basics to learn all of these new tools, and it’s a slightly different style of working. There is an element where we are almost tweeting our job using all these different tools. So it really doesn’t matter at what level you are, you have to stay fresh and keep learning.

This was so informative! Thank you so much for your time.

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