Like most founders when I started my company I wanted to create a place that I would want to work. Savonix would be family friendly, we would encourage debate and disagreement to foster innovation. We would have a culture of accountability and transparency. A recent independent survey of our team tells me that we are doing pretty well as we grow – but it has been challenging as the CEO.
Truth to Power
One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that it’s hard for many people to tell truth to power. Most company cultures have a “kill the messenger” culture that discourages people from identifying risks and problems effectively. Many people have been conditioned to fear reprisal and punitive behavior if they disagree with the boss or the management team. Even a CEO that wants to have an open door policy can find it hard to maintain that as the company grows, as there are more and more meetings every day.
I find that communication on a weekly basis around this value is key. I look for management team members with steady temperaments that can engage thoughtfully in disagreements and will raise a red flag if they see a risk to any part of the company from product to a team member that is struggling. This is difficult – it requires near constant reminders to folks that, as CEO, I want to know the problems my team is facing, that I want to hear what is going wrong more than what is going right — I want to know because I want to help. That last part is essential.
The best leaders manage teams to make their strengths soar and their weaknesses irrelevant — easier said than done — but a good starting point is a culture that reinforces that employees can speak truth to power.
Why Genuine Empathy is Good for Business
There is no substitute for a leader that cares – period. We cannot expect people to give their all to a company where the management team has their priorities backward – and by that I mean that people are not first.
Ben Horowitz said it in his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, that a CEO and in fact the entire management team must take care of the people, the product and the profits — in that order. It can be tempting as CEO, to focus on quarterly numbers over employee health or needs – but such thinking represents a fundamental mistake in management.
Some people think of empathy as a “soft” skill. It isn’t. Empathy is a hard business skill that is absolutely critical to how CEOs manage their teams, to the bottom line. It’s about caring and being genuine. If you don’t care for people then you have no business running a company or managing a team. Showing genuine empathy and concern for employees doesn’t mean a lack of standards or work ethic – in fact quite the opposite.
At a recent panel, I spoke about flexible work hours at Savonix, which gives my employees the ability to create work/life balance. One CEO at the conference responded to me by saying: “I expect my team to work hard.” Great! So do I – just ask any one of them. Creating flexible hours and being empathetic to their schedules and needs isn’t the same as “ruinous empathy,” a phrase coined by Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor which is one of the best guides I have ever read on how to care and set the highest standards at the same time.
Why am I here – in this role as CEO? Turns out I am here to help others. I am here to make sure my team and everyone around me has the resources they need to do their jobs in an emotionally healthy work environment, free of harassment and discrimination. I want to create a management team that is engaged and cares about the people first.
One need only ride in an Uber regularly to understand how “tone at the top” flows down through an organization. I recently posted on LinkedIn how much of a difference I see between Lyft only and Uber only drivers – and I know that is a direct result of CEO leadership and “tone at the top.”
I sat next to Lyft founder John Zimmer a couple years ago, on a flight back from the Collision Conference and found him to be smart, humble and engaged. Look at the culture, one of partnerships not IP theft, one of respect for diversity not harassment, and you can see why Lyft only drivers provide a better experience for their customer – because they have a better experience at work from an app that allows riders to tip them to a CEO that isn’t an embarrassment to a modern company in the way Kalanick was for Uber. No company or CEO is perfect, but John impressed me with his thoughtful approach to difficult topics in leading a fast growing company.
Leaders that are in it for themselves and for power inspire contempt – leaders that are in it to succeed as a team inspire loyalty and commitment.
Journey from Entrepreneur to CEO
I love being an entrepreneur. But being a CEO is a whole different story. The best founders make that transition and we need only look as far as CEOs like Marc Benioff and Bill Gates as stellar examples. I also feel inspired by Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder and CEO of personal genomics company 23andMe.
Many founders lose their companies to VC installed leadership because they fail to understand the difference between the role of an entrepreneur (what it takes to start a company) and CEO (what it takes to scale and lead a company). I am finding this transition requires a healthy dose of self-awareness with a good side of curiosity, an “on the fly” ability to learn from one failure and a good amount of humility.
The hubris it takes to start a company combined with the humility and self awareness to transition to CEO sadly are often hard to find in one person – and this is why so many founders get replaced in the end. It is not that these founders cannot drive profit or growth – look at Kalanick and Uber – it is that they fail to care about their employees, they fail at servant leadership and instead focus on an authoritarian style that is about personal power and control.
Failing Every Day
As a CEO, I fail every day. I get too busy and forget to check in on a team member. I send an email too quickly and create miscommunication. I snap when I am tired or hungry. Leaders are human. But when we are our most human, when we are willing to say “that was on me” and to say the words “I am sorry” to a colleague or team member – we open the door to success.
It is a fine balance to be both inspirational and to inspire trust, but also exhibit vulnerability and other relatable human qualities – but this is what the best leaders do. I strive every day to do this as a CEO. I want to be accessible to my team, and hope they feel comfortable enough to speak truth to power. I care about my employees, I have their back, I deliver on my word, and I strive to set a tone at the top that assures these values cascade down through our culture.
Yes, Silicon Valley is currently facing a moral crisis
As a female founder in Silicon Valley, I want to raise awareness to the topic of implicit and explicit gender bias. Between the news headlines about the toxic, hostile and sexist “bro culture” at Uber which I spoke about, which ultimately led to the firing of its CEO, to the recent Google “anti-diversity” memo – things are at a tipping point, but hopefully that sparks change.
In my previous post on Implicit Bias and the Gender Divide, I explained how to raise awareness of implicit bias in the workplace and confront it. In the case of the former Google employee’s memo – that was clearly explicit bias. But implicit bias, also known as implicit social cognition, refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are often activated without an individual’s awareness and reside deep in the subconscious.
What is Bro Culture?
As a female founder of a digital health start-up, I’m fortunate to set the culture and tone from the top down. But I’ve also had my share of “Bro Culture” moments.
“Bro Culture” is what happens when a company prioritizes young men over all other employees, creating an environment that is a hotbed for toxic behavior like excessive partying and harassment of colleagues.
This culture seems to affect start-ups the most, primarily due to a lack of women in leadership roles. Only 6% of investing partners at venture-capital companies were women as of 2014, according to an article on “Bro Culture” by Business Insider. Business leaders and thought leaders seem to agree that “Bro Culture” is deadly for business and yet we still see backlash in the form of “boys will be boys” justifications that belong in a Mad Men episode not 21st century business culture.
What’s the Cure?
It all starts from the top. Leaders and founders have to set the tone for the business, and it can even start earlier – at the source of funding. If your VC investors and board of advisors model a certain code of ethics and behavior, founders will hopefully emulate and follow that behavior. What if every VC in the valley took Reid Hoffman‘s Decency Pledge – not a cure all and also not a bad place to start.
Rethink Impact, one of my major VC investors, is a female-led venture capital firm. I’ve been very fortunate to have the mentorship of Heidi Patel, who is one of the partners at the fund. Rethink Impact invests in impact companies, and are particularly focused on supporting companies that have women in management roles and use technology to generate positive impact at scale.