Zanny Minton Beddoes
Editor in chief, The Economist
Claire Hughes Johnson: Is there a difference between leadership and management?
Zanny Minton Beddoes: I think that there’s quite a big difference, although people sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Leadership is strategic, and management is more [about] implementation. Leadership is about setting direction, knowing where you want to go, convincing others to go with you, and explaining why you’re going there: setting standards, setting expectations, setting tone. Management is about implementing that: getting the processes right, getting the people right, getting the teams right.
Do you think that to become a great manager at a certain level, you need to become a leader?
I think that’s true, and I think both can be learned. Neither leadership nor management is some great thing that you’re born with. It is sometimes a problem if you confuse them and think one is the other. Part of being a good leader is knowing what you’re not good at as well as what you are good at. If you’re not good at managing, you need to make sure you’ve hired good managers.
What makes you able to lead is twofold: really knowing where you want to go and being able to communicate that. You also have to know yourself well enough to know what your weaknesses are, as well as your strengths. Then, you need to make sure that you get those weaknesses compensated for elsewhere. The worst feeling is that you have to be good at everything or have to pretend to be good at everything, because that immediately falls apart.
Did you learn that awareness of your strengths and weaknesses intuitively, or did you ask for feedback? Or did you have failures and think, “Next time I need a better failsafe”?
All of the above. Some things I’m perfectly aware of. Others you get through feedback. And I think one of the challenges of leading an organization is making sure that there are channels to get honest feedback. Your default assumption should be that no one is ever going to tell you the truth. Not in the sense that they’re lying to you, but if you’re their boss, it’s hard to tell you exactly what’s going on. Finding ways to make sure that you get honest feedback and that you have enough people who feel that they can tell you when you’ve messed up is important. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been working very closely with people for a long time, and we have that trust. In fact, my two colleagues who were on the shortlist for my job are now my deputies, and they’re both very capable of telling me what they think!
Besides having strong relationships and a long tenure of working with folks, do you have any processes you use to tease out feedback?
We have a very flat organization, and we have these two quite infamous editorial meetings, one on Mondays and one on Fridays. They are now 100-plus people on Zoom. Anybody can speak and anybody can give feedback. In the Friday meeting, we have a discussion around what people think of this week’s issue and what we could have done better. That’s a really vibrant discussion. People often say they didn’t agree with the choice of the cover, or they don’t like the way we did a certain thing. I really value that.
In addition to the regular editorial meetings, whenever we’re dealing with a difficult subject, we have meetings where anyone can come and voice their views. These often result in huge debates and arguments. We are still sufficiently small that you can do that. But the bigger you get, the more it takes confidence for people to put their hands up. So you then have to find other mechanisms. I often use my colleagues in the management structure to cascade down communications and then bring up feedback.
Do you facilitate those large editorial discussions?
Yes, and the lesson there is the less I speak, the better, because the point is to solicit feedback. When we have a conversation about something controversial or something where people might feel a little inhibited, I try to make sure I don’t say anything until the end of the meeting, because [otherwise] it shapes the conversation immediately.
You talk a lot about meritocracy and how important that is at The Economist. How do you maintain that?
I spend a lot of time thinking about that, because we pride ourselves on being—and we like to think that we are—an ultimately meritocratic organization, where the only thing that matters is the quality of your ideas and the rigor with which you’re coming to that. In some sense, that’s true. At these Monday meetings, anyone can propose ideas. It can be someone who has been there for 25 years or a summer intern who arrived last week. And sometimes it happens that we get someone who has just arrived and blows everyone away with this amazing idea.
It’s all about trying to find ways to make sure that everyone gets their voice. In some ways, Zoom makes everything easier. Some people find it less intimidating to put their hand up and speak on Zoom than they would in a big room with lots of people. Others find it more [intimidating].
I also spend a lot of time “gate-crashing” the departmental meetings. The bits of the organization that have their own meetings, I join them now and again because that way I can talk to people in smaller settings and get feedback in smaller settings. The bigger you get, the more you have to introduce processes to retain the informality and the meritocracy. If you’re a tiny startup or organization, you can do everything informally. But the bigger you get, you have to put processes in place. But for us there’s a trade-off, because you don’t want so many processes that you lose the culture that is very informal and meritocratic.
How would the folks who work with you most closely describe you as a leader and a manager?
I’d like to think they would say I’m consultative and collaborative, but in the end decisive. I’d like to think that they would say I know my weaknesses and my strengths and that I know what I should delegate and what I should do myself. That I care most about helping get the best out of others. And, I guess, to get some journalistic alliteration in, that I am rigorous but reasonable.
Do you think of yourself as both an excellent manager and an excellent leader?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s an impossible question to answer. It’s very hard to be self-aware enough to know when you’re any good at this stuff. I will say that nothing gives me greater pleasure than having a sense that my colleagues really care enormously. That, to me, is a testament of some sort of success. That we’ve got a bunch of people, all of whom could be more famous or rich working somewhere else, producing great work here.
How were you able to create such a high-performing place with kind people?
The Economist has a fantastic culture. I am genuinely just the current steward of a place that’s been going since 1843. My job is to try and ensure that it’s as good and positive a place as it can be. I think I’ve been lucky. The fact that much of the world has turned against much of the liberalism that The Economist stands for has made what we do feel important. It gives a purpose. Everybody at The Economist believes in the importance of open societies, free markets, the things we champion as the world has become less hospitable to them.
We’re very lucky because what we stand for is so clear and has existed for so long. Of course, there’s a challenge in reinterpreting it for today. There are lots of interesting questions that we have to ask ourselves. But there’s no question of the purpose of The Economist. Fake purposes are really problematic.
What is your advice for other managers right now?
My first piece of advice: It really is all about helping others get the best out of themselves. Learning not to take the credit. The more someone else takes the credit for something, the better.
The second piece of advice is much more practical: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure you don’t burn out. Make sure your team doesn’t burn out. Make sure that people have time and flexibility. That advice is not inconsistent with being rigorous and demanding. But you have to know that people have lives. That pays back in multiple ways.
My final piece of advice: I’m not a great believer in detailed sets of prescriptions. I think one should have set high standards. We have very rigorous quality control processes at The Economist. But I have a very, very simple principle that I use to set expectations, which is: Whatever it is you’re about to do, imagine it was written up on the front page of The New York Times. If you or The Economist would be embarrassed by that, then don’t do it. I’ve found that works for pretty much every situation.
Zanny Minton Beddoes is editor in chief of The Economist, an international weekly newspaper founded in 1843. Beddoes is the first woman to hold the position at the publication, where she leads the editorial group, a team of around 270 journalists, editors, and content creators.
Michelin three-star chef, Atelier Crenn
Claire Hughes Johnson: You are a very creative person, yet you run this incredibly logistically intensive operation. Running restaurants has got to be incredibly challenging from a management perspective. What does it look like to run an operation at that level and still maintain your creative self?
Dominique Crenn: To get into the business of running a restaurant, it’s not about just cooking food. It’s a business unto itself. The way I manage things is that first, I need to understand the core of what my business is. Then, from that, I peel the layers off and understand where I need to be better or where I need to hire someone who can help me fulfill those tasks. I don’t know everything.
I studied international business and got a Bachelor of Economics [degree]. I think I understood at the beginning that the way I needed to open this business was not about my creativity but to put down the basics and implement the core foundations. It started with the people who I needed to hire. I knew that I had the vision, but I didn’t know how to bring that vision to life. I knew that I needed to find the right people to help me, which didn’t happen right away.
After 10 years, I have the most incredible team. Each of them is so special, but they come together as a team. You have to treat them with respect, and you have to help them and make them confident so that they can be their own leaders in the company.
Tell me a story about how you realized that. What was that journey like for you?
I remember something my dad [who was a politician and an artist] told me that was very impactful. I said, “Dad, you’re doing all of these [amazing] things. You’re thinking and you’re writing and you’re helping all of these people.” I remember he said, “Dom, I had to surround myself with people who could help me to do that.”
He told me that it’s very important to understand your strengths but also to understand your weaknesses. When you come to understand this, it doesn’t mean that you are less than you are. You have to make sure you surround yourself with people who can fill up your weaknesses.
I’d never opened a restaurant in my life, but I knew that I needed people who understood service, finance, human resources. I knew I couldn’t be creating dishes 24/7 and then not take care of the business aspect, which is the backbone of the restaurant. It’s not about creativity. It’s really [about] the business side of it.
If you hire someone and it doesn’t work out, what do you do in that situation?
You can’t be a sustainable business with people who won’t have your back. For me, a healthy business has a human touch. If you don’t have that, I can’t have you on board.
You have to act quickly, but in a very respectful way. It doesn’t mean that if it doesn’t work out with someone that they’re bad people. But I also have to put my foot down. It’s like, “No. This is not working out. This is not the vision. This is not how we treat people, and this is not how we run the business.”
What are your ingredients for creating a healthy team?
Making someone understand that they’re not just a number goes a long way. I do that with my cooks, and I do that with my management. You have to be able to listen. You have to be your own leader, but they also have to lead you sometimes. I want a director of operations who comes to me and maybe tells me that I’m wrong, or tells me, “Chef, I have something that we need to think about.”
I’ve always said that my vision is my vision, but I don’t know everything. I might be wrong, because I’m human, and I’m definitely wrong a lot of the time. I want you to talk to me and challenge me and teach me a better way to do things. When you find a good leader, they are great at leading, but they are also great at listening.
There’s a myth about chefs that they’re always yelling, that they’re taking the pressure they feel and applying it to the kitchen. You do not seem to have that style.
This aggressive management style, especially in my industry, started a long time ago. I don’t believe in that. I think verbally abusing people doesn’t get you anywhere. I’m strict. I’m kind. But I’m not a fool either. When I speak, my voice is often very well heard. I also include everybody in the conversation. You have to get your message across without being disrespectful. But you have to be strict about it.
Your people know their roles very well. How do they know your expectations? Do you have a document? Do you have training?
Often, in my industry, people just get thrown onto the job. I think this is the wrong way to do it. Training is very important, and understanding all the layers of the company is very important. If you’re hired as a cook, it’s not just about the kitchen. You need to understand how the company works, what we’re doing at the farm, how we’re doing things at the front of the house, how the director of operations is looking at numbers. You need an overall understanding of the company. And then the training is very important. We also need to refresh that understanding. Because when you train someone, it’s not like “Now you’re trained.” You always have to be on top of it.
You know what’s interesting: For my last meeting last night, we spent about two hours with my director of operations, my HR director, and my director of beverage redoing the employee handbook.
Really? You were actively involved in that?
Yes, definitely. Because it explains how someone is expected to conduct themselves. It’s about hygiene. It’s about respect. It’s about understanding their place, but also giving them a space where they are welcome to speak up in an open-door policy. Of course, we have to put a boundary on that too, because I don’t want to be your shrink either.
Is there a difference between leadership and management?
A leader is someone who inspires but is also inspired by others, and who leads by example. Someone who is a part of their team and works with their team, not someone who says, “I’m the boss and you work for me.” Someone who is inclusive in the way the work is being done. That’s a great leader.
To be a great manager, you need to be a great leader. It’s also about understanding how to delegate the work that needs to be done to the right people, because I think a great manager is not one who micromanages people. A good manager puts trust in the people who have the skill to do the task they’ve been asked [to do]. I often see managers who think, “Well, I’m the manager. I don’t know if they can do it. I need to do it on my own.” This is not a great manager.
What is the most important advice you would give to leaders?
I think the most important thing is to understand and not take for granted what happened in the pandemic. We have an incredible opportunity to make a beautiful change right now, to look at new ways to do things and understand that everything we do needs to have a purpose. Because any type of company that you have, if you are a true leader, you want to make sure that what you are building goes beyond your company. It’s also to do good in this world.
We also have to understand that we’re all connected. The restaurant business is not just making food. We are so connected to other industries. We can have different ideas about politics. But when it comes to humanity, we should have everybody’s back. I want people to be conscious and aware about what’s just happened, and maybe leaders can really come together.
Dominique Crenn is the first woman chef in the United States to be awarded three Michelin stars. She earned this distinction at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, one of the three restaurants at which she is co-owner and chef.
Chancellor, University of California, San Francisco
Claire Hughes Johnson: Do you think there’s a difference between leadership and management?
Sam Hawgood: The two are almost completely overlapping circles. It’s very hard to be a good leader if you’re not involved in management, and vice versa.
Leadership is frequently conflated with a person’s formal title. Hopefully people with important titles like CEOs or chancellors are leaders. But you can be a leader without a title, and I think that’s the most effective leadership—when you’re an influencer of what’s happening around you. People get to leadership positions with titles because earlier in their career they were leaders without a title. But again, it’s very hard to be an effective leader if you don’t understand management and what makes a good manager.
Were you a leader before you had a title?
Probably, yes. Not through any particular intentionality, but because of my natural curiosity in whatever ecosystem I worked in or whatever role I had. That probably made me have an influence on people around me simply by asking questions.
The first significant role I was asked to play early in my career was a division director at UCSF. I was asked to lead the division of neonatology, which means to lead the faculty and physicians across multiple missions: clinical work, research, education. But it wasn’t my responsibility to run the hospital side of my world. But it became obvious that for me to be a good division chief and an accountable division chief, I needed to understand how the hospital side worked.
So I made an appointment to see the chief financial officer of the hospital. I said, “Help me understand what you’re talking about when you show me a spreadsheet.” I think it was the first time in his life that a physician had come to him to understand his world and not just ask him for more money. I think that natural curiosity was helpful. In that case, it said to the CFO that I was a potential partner to work with, as opposed to the more adversarial relationships that sometimes occur.
Leadership is about understanding the system in which you’re leading and being able to influence the parts of the system that you might not directly lead.
Exactly. I think that the more you can put yourself in the shoes of other parts of the system you’re interacting with, the better. Especially if you can do it before there’s a reason to. And if you could understand both the personality of the person you’re going to be dealing with and also their world and their stresses and strains, that’s very helpful. That natural curiosity and that willingness to learn about things that are directly critical to getting your own job done, that’s a trait I’ve seen in many leaders.
What would you say to someone who aspires to leadership and management? How do you get there?
I’ll come back to this word, “influencer.” No matter how brilliant your vision is, unless you can influence people to work toward that vision, then the vision never gets fully executed. You have to develop a sense of trust in your leadership so that the organization is willing to follow you, even if at times they may be concerned that the vision isn’t perfect or it’s different from their particular vision. For me, at least, it’s almost impossible to build that sense of trust and influence if the people you’re influencing don’t have a sense that you understand and respect their world.
How do you lead such a large institution with such varied responsibilities? How do you manage your time?
Every day brings unpredictable issues. That’s just a given. But for me, it’s about trying to understand your unique role in the organization. Obviously, with 30,000 employees, there’s a whole organizational structure that makes sure everything works. When I became chancellor, it was important for me to understand what was important for me to pay attention to within that framework. You only have so many attention units available, no matter how hard you work. So it’s a question of how you spend them.
I felt that an important role of being the chancellor was to make sure I was looking four or five years out and trying to think, “Where does a university need to go? What are those things with a gestation time sufficiently long that if I’m not thinking about them today, we’re not going to get there in five years?” [I’m] trying to find enough time in a given week or a given month [so that] even with all the fires that are going on at any time, I am thinking beyond them to make sure we’re going to be where we need to be.
How do you think the people who work with you most closely would describe you as a manager?
What I’ve heard them say is that I’m a good listener, I listen intentionally, and I’m relatively unflappable. I don’t respond quickly and emotionally to issues. So, a good listener, able to take input from a variety of sources, but still, at the end of the day, capable of making decisions—and also willing to change a decision as additional information or data comes in.
My job, largely, is trying to find ways to say yes rather than no, because most of the people I’m surrounded by are incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated to what they’re doing, and incredibly compassionate about the world in general. So it’s fairly rare that someone comes to me with an idea that is just wrong or inconsiderate. There are a lot of bureaucratic or financial or other reasons why it might be hard to do. But my job is not to immediately jump to all the reasons it is going to be hard, but to really try to think through the reasons the person has come to me with that particular issue and how I can help them get to their intention.
Despite everything that’s going on in today’s world, having a system and a strong sense of optimism is important. There are always reasons to be concerned and pessimistic, but I think having a sense of optimism, particularly about the work you do, [is important]. What we do at a university, particularly a health campus, should be inspiring to people.
You have such a mission-driven organization, and that’s inspiring unto itself, but what do you personally do that reminds people of that?
It’s important that you try to model the values that you’re hoping the organization has. Showing that I’m willing to work hard and willing to work, when it’s necessary, down to the details, not just give abstract advice. When it really requires someone who has authority to make things happen, [showing] that I’m willing to do the hard work to make something happen versus just delegating to other people who are going to struggle with an issue longer.
That means I have to check that I’m not micromanaging. That’s a mistake, if you’re undermining someone by being so accessible that someone will come around a perceived obstacle to get to me directly. It’s a battle between wanting to be very accessible and get things done, finding the yes rather than the no, but being careful not to micromanage and undermine others.
Was there a particular lesson you learned about being available but not micromanaging?
It was probably the transition from being the dean of the School of Medicine to the chancellor. As dean, I knew all of the chairs. But when I became the chancellor and I appointed a new dean in my place, that relationship with the chairs was still there. So the chairs would sometimes come directly to me instead of going to the dean, and I caught myself a couple of times realizing that I wasn’t setting the new dean up for success. I had to correct myself. And that was hard because I was telling people who I like both professionally and personally “I’d love to help you with this, but really, you should go talk to the dean.”
It feels like a lot of your leadership style is about listening and curiosity so that people feel like, “This leader understands my team.” That takes a certain humility.
In medicine, we use the term “lifelong learning,” which is important because obviously medicine has changed a lot since I went to medical school. It’s important to keep up with the technical aspects of our profession, but I think lifelong learning as a leader is important as well.
You can always learn more and look at other leaders that you think are exceptional—not mimicking them but trying to understand why they are a great leader. There’s no question that I continue to learn every day about what makes a good leader, and it’s something that I actually think you can learn. I’m way more comfortable now even than in the last five or six years. Having this kind of conversation 10 years ago would have frightened me to death, and you would have had to work hard to get one word out of me.
Sam Hawgood is the 10th chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco. Previously, he was the dean of the UCSF School of Medicine. With over 30,000 employees, UCSF is the second-largest public agency employer in the Bay Area.
Cofounder, LinkedIn; partner, Greylock Partners
Claire Hughes Johnson: Do you think you’re a good manager?
Reid Hoffman: I don’t think there’s necessarily a binary distinction of a purely “good” or “bad” manager, but a good manager for what? I’m a good manager of a team trying to solve an unknown problem: How do you find product-market fit? How do we make the right trade-offs?
Where did you learn to be a good manager for solving unknown problems?
In the room, problem-solving. [One] example of being in the room, honing the manager skill, is from earlier LinkedIn days. We launched LinkedIn and we were hoping that it would be somewhat like Friendster—that just because the internet was boring at the time, we would get an aggressive sign-up curve. But we launched and we didn’t get anything. We got a linear 2,000 sign-ups a week, which basically equals death. This is when I was still operating as COO. I said, “Okay, I’m going to work through a process to figure out how to get the virality to work, because without this, we’re dead.”
First thing is, we had to know what a viral growth curve looks like. It has to have a version of an exponent. It doesn’t have to be an aggressive exponent, but it has to be an exponent. To get that, we need to have a process by which people are sending out invites. And part of my theory of virality, which I think still largely plays out, is that it’s either driven by whales [large behavioral moves] or by a very robust small number of people. I actually haven’t seen the very small number work. It’s almost all whale-driven processes.
So I asked, “Okay, how do we do that?” Well, we need to get people’s address books. We’re going to experiment with the moment that the person signs up. Just after they’ve signed up, we’re going to ask them for their address book. A bunch of people are going to feel distressed by it, so we have to figure out how to do that in the most graceful possible way so that it will work overall and we’ll alienate as few [people] as possible.
I asked, “Well, how are we going to ask you for your address book?” Because if you just said “Upload your address book here,” what you’re going to get from the vast majority of people is “Whoa, no way.” Instead, we asked, “Would you like to know who else is on LinkedIn?” That’s the very first question people answer when they join a social network. And it’s like, “Yes, I would!” Well, the easy way to do that is to upload your address book. We can show you who else you know that’s here.
Now, of course, I think it was 92 percent of people who went “No, not that.” But 8 percent said yes. Once we got to the 8 percent, it was great. We got to the exponential curve.
Do you think leadership is different from management?
I do. Management has a lot to do with whether we’re playing the game well, we’re developing the tools, we know what the dashboard looks like, we’re paying attention to the dashboard, and so on. Leadership has a lot to do with how you set the spirit of the organization. To some degree, it could be how big the goal is and what the goal is. But usually, it’s a goal that’s set in a way that isn’t necessarily operationalized well.
Management is how you get the mechanics of the pieces coming together. And leadership is more, call it a culture or energy of engagement—belief in the importance of winning. It’s that “We can do this” energy. When you give that speech of, “Look, hard problems are precisely the thing that differentiates between the great and the would-be-great, and we have a chance to be great here,” that’s a leadership speech.
On a continuum of leadership and management, where have your strengths been?
I’d say more on the leadership side, in part because I spend more time thinking about the questions: What does the game look like? How do you frame that game in terms of how you win? What’s the actual, real game? Sometimes it’s micro, in a tactic, but sometimes it goes to strategy and sometimes it goes to vision.
How have you actively built teams that complement your strengths and weaknesses?
There are two or three different ways I tend to complement myself. One is [through] operational excellence, and that tends to be with more people who go to 10 out of 10 on management. I would say I vary between five and eight, depending. And then, in terms of the way that I tend to operate and see things, I need to make sure that I have some generalists and ministers without portfolios in the mix.
How early in your career did you realize, “I need these people around me”?
My career started in entrepreneurship pretty quickly. My first full-time tech job was in 1993, and my first startup was in 1997. As soon as I got to startups, I realized this stuff. I was managing before, but I was managing the way a product manager manages. I had one or two people working for me. I wasn’t as focused on how the whole organizational dynamic came together until I was actually doing a startup. I think I’m pretty high on the self-awareness front. I think as soon as I started doing SocialNet, I was like, “Oh, we’re going to need this, this, and this.”
And was it because the people you hired happened to complement you and you recognized it, or because you realized “I have this blind spot and I need to find someone”?
More the second than the first. But also, the people I tend to hire and work with, we tend to be compassionately blunt with each other. Literally everyone I work with tends to feel comfortable saying “You could have done that thing better.”
One of the earliest guys I hired to do a bunch of the management stuff at SocialNet was very frustrated that I wasn’t enabling him to do the things he needed to do. His comment was “I wouldn’t hire you to run a McDonald’s!” I was like, “I wouldn’t hire me to run a McDonald’s, either. It would be a disaster.”
Then I asked, “Why are you saying that?” He said, “Well, we need to do this, this, and this, and this in the project management. And you’re not enabling me to do that.” I was like, “All right, let’s talk about how we enable you to do that.”
Reid Hoffman is the cofounder and former executive chairman of LinkedIn. He cofounded his first company, SocialNet, in 1997, and was on the board of directors of PayPal before joining as its COO. He is currently a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners and host of the Masters of Scale podcast.
Cofounder, Recognize; former CEO, Infor
Claire Hughes Johnson: One of the hallmarks of your career was looking not just at the organization but also externally and asking “Where does this business need to be?” You really advocated for big acquisitions, right?
Charles Phillips: Yes, one of my roles was looking externally and having a framework for how the industry would evolve. That started early on, because I was a computer science major by the time I got to the military. My time on Wall Street also helped me develop a framework for analyzing industries and companies. I would examine a business and think, “Okay, I can see how this will expand.”
At Infor, we wanted to be the first big apps company that one day would be run solely on AWS. That vision transformed the whole company. I went to the hardest sectors first, aerospace and defense, because they were going to be against it. I went to the toughest guys on security. If you get them first, then you can say to everybody, “Is your data more important in the CIA’s? Well, they’re running on the cloud with me.” I did it that way because I knew I had to convince everybody else, so let me start with people who are tough but innovative. And it made me better.
Do you think there’s a difference between management and leadership?
Management is about optimizing resources and leading teams. You sometimes have to make tough decisions. Leadership is about inspiring people to want to do those things with you and internalizing the mission.
That’s a good thing about the military: You can’t pay people more money, so you have to learn how to inspire them to do things they usually don’t want to do. It forces you to tap into people’s motivation and need for purpose. When you do enough of that, you realize we’re all pretty much the same: We want to do something important and be appreciated for it.
People follow you if you’re a great leader. If they don’t follow you, there’s usually a reason for it. In the military, you get graded on how inspired and motivated your people are. They study how well you execute in the field and whether you communicated with your team enough so they know what their job is and know how to do things if you’re not around. Culture becomes your chief operating officer.
How would you rate yourself as a manager versus as a leader?
Managing is about trade-offs, and I think you have to know about the things you’re managing to really add value. My rule was that I need to know 40 percent of everybody’s job. Not all of it, but the important 40 percent, so that when [people] have a conversation with me, they feel like they learn something, that I helped them do their job.
That’s where the management part comes in: diving deeper to help them think about problems and disaggregate them into components that they can solve. Help them see blind spots that they need to focus on. You need to know something about those roles to be able to push them in the right direction. At a certain scale, you spend more time just allocating resources and holding people accountable, and it becomes more difficult to maintain expertise. That’s why focus is good.
But eventually you need to become a leader in your career as a manager or you’re going to cap out, right? Because you’re more about execution than inspiration and vision.
As a manager, you have a certain skill, which is how you were promoted to be the leader. But now you need different skill sets to lead people.
It’s also important to have the broader context of your role. Ron Williams, the former CEO of Aetna, talks about the “two and two,” which is knowing the people and job roles two levels below and two levels above you. He says, “Don’t just look at your own job, think: How does your job work into the whole system? Think about the incentive for the person two levels up and two levels down. What’s driving them? Is it aligned? If not, then get it aligned.” Understanding the whole organization and process around you will help ensure you are aligned with your organization’s mission.
Back to change management: One change you just described was moving to the cloud as the entire model. But another would be if you are acquiring a big company or business.
To me, change is something people can adopt and accept if it’s explained in a logical way at the very beginning, like the first week at the new company. At those times I have said, “Things are going to change dramatically from what you’re used to. We have to create a culture of urgency. It’ll be a different pace, different compensation systems, different everything. But I’m telling you that up front.”
And I give them the analogy of the trains in New York. Sometimes when you approach a subway station the announcer will go, “This is no longer a train to the Bronx. Now it’s going to Brooklyn. You want to go to Brooklyn, stay on.” I’m going to leave the door open for a bit, and if you want to get off, it’s okay to get off. But we’re changing direction now. If that direction is not for you, okay. But if you want to come with me, let’s go. We’re going to have a lot more accountability, a lot more transparency, and we will move a lot faster. And the people who stay double down. I just make sure everyone knows that change is happening and why.
If I talked to folks who worked really closely with you, how would they describe you as a manager and as a leader?
I tried to combine strategic vision with a hyper focus on detail. There’s a line between attention to detail and micromanaging, but I attempt to find the balance. If you send me a 20-page document to review, I read it before the meeting and have good questions to start off, and I’ll feel your pain and go through it with you. And I think they would say I am open to change, because if I’m asking people to change, I must be able to change too, because I’m not the only one with good ideas.
In fact, I made an effort to be reachable and get broad input from all levels of the organization. If you’re an engineer who builds something over the weekend, you can ask and within 48 hours I’ll make time for you to show me a demo. I think that motivates people.
Anybody in the organization can reach out to you with an idea? Even in a company with around 17,000 people?
Yes. We had internal instant messaging and mine was open 24 hours, even on the weekends. Everybody had my cell phone number, too. Although most people didn’t use it, they liked that I was available. Flattening the organization matters. I wanted people to tell me what we could be doing better. And it went both ways. We all had to be open to feedback and willing to change.
How did you manage your own time and energy? If you’re that accessible and have such attention to detail and such high expectations, how did you scale that to such a large organization?
I spent a lot of time on product direction and key customers and making sure we were building something that they valued. And the example I set created behaviors in a lot of the managers. I didn’t force anybody to do what I was doing, but I watched them make efforts to be more accessible.
It sounds like you are really open to feedback.
I’ve always worked with smart people, and it would be crazy not to hear their thoughts. Even if I disagree with feedback, I will listen to it because it tests my own assumptions. You also want to make sure information flows up and down the company with speed.
Can you leave us with some advice to your younger self or to aspiring leaders?
Structure time to learn and deepen your expertise, make your meetings more efficient with better and earlier content, build relationships even if you can’t see an immediate benefit, and nurture the talent around you. And remember that people work for people if they have a purpose. It took me a while to figure that out. First, I saw it in the military, and I wasn’t sure it would translate into the civilian world, but I discovered that it does. People don’t go to church as much anymore. The thing they have is their company, so they expect more and more from those companies. You need to spend a lot more time on values and purpose than I would have thought. Over time, I learned to spend more time on that. Purpose is everything.
Charles Phillips is a cofounder and managing partner of Recognize, a technology investment and transformation firm. He is the former president of Oracle and the former CEO and chairman of Infor. Prior to his business career, he served as a captain in the US Marine Corps with the 10th Marine Regiment.
Executive chair, Adtalem Global Education
Claire Hughes Johnson: Do you think there’s a difference between being a manager and being a leader?
Lisa Wardell: I absolutely think that there are few key differences between being a manager and a leader. But I would preface that by saying that you absolutely need to know how to manage in order to broaden to leadership. It’s good to assess where you start on the leadership end of the spectrum in terms of those things that need to be developed. An ability to energize people and really give a compelling vision and story, that’s leadership. Some people have to learn that, and to some people that comes more naturally.
On the management side, the work is more [about] understanding process and deadlines and empowerment and team building. At the end of the day, you have to have both.
The good news from my perspective is that most people can be a leader. They just have to understand where on that continuum they are and continue to learn. For example, if you are leading a large organization, you can no longer be the personal driver of every single decision.
A theme that’s emerged in my interviews is self-awareness, and you touch on that here. Would you say that’s been a key for you and your own career?
Absolutely. And for me, as with many people, it’s been a journey. While I might not have always been self-aware about what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, I’ve always been really open to learning new things and taking feedback. People always put that word “constructive” in front of “feedback,” but we all know it can be hard to hear. Even difficult feedback that is not constructive is important. It’s the key catalyst to change and then move ahead.
How do you make sure you’re hearing what you need to hear?
I’ve had an executive coach for almost 12 years now. I started with her at my prior job because I was managing a large portfolio and I was—and still am—very much a driver, and I didn’t feel I was seeing the sorts of results I wanted. Even though I’m an extrovert, I’m shy, and I was not thinking through the whole stakeholder group effectively.
My executive coach had done this 360º [review]. She said, “Well, Lisa, part of the feedback is that you walk too fast. You move too fast. I don’t mean moving from one idea to the next, just physically moving.” It just so happened that our women’s restroom was right past the receptionist. [My coach] said to me, “Next time [you walk by reception], I want you to literally slow your pace down.” I recalled that the receptionist had a pet rabbit, so when I came by reception, I said, “How is the rabbit?”
Well, [the receptionist has since] retired, and she still sends me Christmas notes. It had a real impact. Obviously, you can’t do that with thousands of employees. But you have to think about how to connect to the group with messaging. Relate to people.
Do you have a formal feedback system in the company?
Yes, we call it Achieve 365. The reason we do it is to shift away from these long periods without feedback. Away from “Let’s talk now that there’s been 12 months since your last review.” Instead, we have a system where you ask for feedback on something specific. Like, “How was I on that interview today? Do you feel like I really hit the right points?” And it’s important to participate in that system. It’s tone from the top. I expect my direct reports to do the same.
How have you evolved from a COO to a CEO?
As CEO, I would say the number one success factor is being able to pick talent. That, and create followership. For me, I’m also an operator. I’m a numbers person, and I’m an operator in the sense of “roll up your sleeves.” It annoys my team because sometimes I will come in and start digging because I haven’t got the answers I want, and I can smell if something is not right.
But the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn, whether you are an operator or just a driver in general, is that you get to that point where it’s impossible for you to be successful without trusting others to do things better. And that breakthrough is when you go beyond being a manager. A leader has to spend their time on things no one else can do. If you’re doing something that others on your team could do just as well, you’re wasting your time.
Did you have a breakthrough moment in your own career where you had this realization?
When I became CEO, there were lots of different issues in the organization. And as a board member, I’ll say we had not done a great job of bringing the shareholders along with us in a transparent way. We were meeting with shareholders and managing all sorts of different issues across the team, and three months in I realized I can’t also do all these things that I used to do. You have to give up the perfectionist, detail-oriented ideal. You have to give yourself grace and give your team members grace to be able to not be perfect but be their best.
It’s not intuitive, but I think a big part of becoming an effective leader is being able to be vulnerable.
Absolutely, no question. And being transparent about that fact. I have found that people appreciate that sort of authenticity. I’ll be the first to say “Hey, you know, I didn’t get that right.”
What in your life led you to have the ambition and self-direction to take on the hardest problems?
I can’t say [I’m] self-directed because I’m not one of those people that was always clear on “This is what I’m going to do.” So I can’t pat myself on the back for that. But I had a couple of breakthroughs. One was when I’d had my two sons, who are now in college. I was in private equity and I wanted to change. I thought I would take some time and just be a work-at-home mom. After four weeks I thought, “This is the biggest mistake of my life! What am I going to do?”
I connected with Bob [Johnson, the cofounder of BET] and he said, “You know, I’m looking for somebody who can do this.” It attracted me because it was greenfield and the mission was in and around SMBs way before it was cool. As in: How do we build businesses where there are these glass ceilings for leaders, for women and specifically for African Americans? How do we buy these businesses and bring in new leaders who are women and minorities? His biggest pet peeve was when people would say “We can’t find any qualified women or African American or Latino [people].” We decided we were going to change that.
And it fits with my story. I went to high school in a not necessarily low-income but not well-served area. And I did well there. But I literally applied to Vassar College on a fluke because folks [from Vassar] came down to my high school. Somebody saw that I had some sort of ability and let me in. And I went on to Stanford Law School and to the Wharton School of Business. I tell people my story and it’s great, but it works for so few people. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who need and have a right to the exact same opportunity. So when I saw that potential with Adtalem, I felt like it was the perfect place to drive that social mission. And I know how to do it in terms of getting a diverse team, because I know that those people exist and you just have to change your lens around what you’re looking for.
Tell me a little bit about your first management opportunity.
[This wasn’t quite a] real management opportunity because I wasn’t really the manager, but I was acting as the manager. I was in high school, and I was working at a retail shoe store. I would have to close the books at the end of the night and make sure we had inventory right. What I learned is to listen to those folks who you wouldn’t necessarily think are the people who know. The person who taught me about inventory was the woman who cleaned the store. She saw where all the shoes were put away, even in the wrong places.
At Adtalem, we have medical schools in Barbados and St Maarten, places where you don’t get to be there all the time. Whenever I go, I talk to people in every role. You get really good information from the folks you might not [otherwise] meet.
How would people you work with describe you?
I think they would say, “The less you hear from her, the better. When she’s coming in and being more directive, then you know we probably need to course-correct.”
I am much more about the discussion. I don’t necessarily enter the discussion and say “I have what I think the solution is.” I will say, “I don’t have the answer. And, by the way, I’m not doing that CEO thing where I say ‘Oh, I don’t have the answer’ but I really, secretly do. I really don’t have it, so I hope you guys come up with some real answers.”
What would you tell people who are just starting out in a management role?
To somebody in that first role, I would say, “It is not an accident that you are in this role.” The first thing you should do is look at this glass as half full. Think, “Here are all the reasons why this is the right place for me to be and how I can excel.”
You are the one who knows best what you can do. Recall the two or three things that when someone said to you “You’re getting this role,” you thought to yourself, “Really? Because I’m not sure about this part.” Then go out and address that up front.
It’s much easier for you to get the feedback to improve when you ask. Go out and talk to people—ask for that feedback! I have one person on my team, she has the best feedback I think I’ve ever received or seen given to other people. But she has one rule: She says, “I do not provide feedback unless somebody asked me for it.” I think the biggest piece of advice is when you’re starting out, get out there and say, “I want the feedback.”
Lisa Wardell is the current executive chair and former CEO and chair of Adtalem Global Education, a workforce solutions provider. She is also on the board of American Express.
President and CEO, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Claire Hughes Johnson: Do you think there’s a difference between leadership and management?
Dan Weiss: There’s a significant difference. Leadership is about convening people around a common purpose, setting objectives, and helping to instill in the leadership of the organization the values and priorities that define the mission. Management is [about] getting it done. It’s making sure that the staff have the support that they need to help set goals, holding them accountable in a more specific kind of way. There are many people who probably could do both very well, but I think they are distinct activities.
What are important traits for leaders and managers to have?
All good leaders have to be self-aware. If you’re not able to learn from your experience and your mistakes—and we all make mistakes, all the time—and if you’re not able to evolve as a result of that kind of feedback in the first instance, you’re not going to become a better leader.
The other thing is that there is a world of information and knowledge around you that you need to be receptive to. If you’re not a good listener, then it’s hard to imagine how you can be a good leader. Having said that, I’m much more comfortable offering this kind of perspective to you now than 20 years ago, when I had just started a new leadership job and I didn’t even know what the hell the job was. I just tried to keep up.
How would people who work with you describe you as a leader and a manager?
I know what they would say because since I’ve been at the Met, we have convened the process of 360° reviews. Every year, my team has a chance to weigh in confidentially about what kind of leadership I provide.
I think they would say that I’m a very team-oriented leader, that I’m a very good listener, that I pay very close attention to what people say, because I recognize that for the most part, in the area we’re discussing, they’re smarter than I am. They would say that I use a sense of humor quite often. And that’s not only because I like a good sense of humor, but I also think it has value in a work environment. And they would say that I’m very focused on bringing teams together and very much committed to their voices. It’s not going to end well if somebody is reluctant to share their opinion or simply wants to do what I think is a good idea. I don’t have time for that. I think they feel that I have an expectation that they really are partners.
How was the 360° review process received? Do you think it’s been valuable?
I completely do. I brought a commitment to transparency and feedback as a value to the job. The Met is a magnificent institution and it has a great history, but at the moment I arrived we were not in good shape. There had been a series of circumstances that resulted in very deep financial deficits. There was suboptimal communication between management on the one hand and the board on the other.
When I arrived, my job was to surface the challenges and begin to address them. My own values are around accountability, so I brought a report to the board with all the concerns. I proposed, and they fully agreed, that there needed to be a 360° process. If you don’t have a good feedback loop, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to continue to evolve as a leader. We put it in place, and it was very helpful. Now it’s expanding, and we’re doing it for the senior leadership team.
Is the senior leadership team receptive to that?
They are. Of course, when you’ve never done it, the fear is that people are saving up concerns for decades. The trick is, the first time you do it, you do it in a way that is seen to be constructive and developmental rather than evaluative and punitive. We needed to make it clear that this is really for the leader to improve. It’s not for management to decide if the leader should stay or go. It’s a development tool. Once you put that process in place and you’ve effectively got it going, then it can be less traumatic.
You made what was, at the time, a very controversial decision to change the Met’s admissions policy from a pay-as-you-wish model for every visitor to requiring non-New York residents to pay full admission fee. How did you lead through a change like that?
When I arrived at the Met, I was told by the board that we had what appeared to be a slowly growing financial challenge that we just needed to be thoughtful about. So I sat down with the CFO to understand the issues more deeply, [and I realized that] there was a major financial problem lying beneath the surface. It had been going on for years, and we had been subsidizing operating losses in our budget by drawing down other resources that would hurt us in the long term. Decisions about the use of these funds were approved by the board, but the information wasn’t being presented to them in a way that they fully understood. So one problem was that there was this very substantial financial issue. The other problem—the bigger problem—was governance.
We brought that to [the board] with full candor: “We have a problem, and our job is to share information with you so that you can make good decisions, but your job is to expect that.” They immediately rose to the challenge, and we became partners—the leadership team and the board—to address the issue.
The first step is always to diagnose the problem in a way that is transparent so that people understand what you’re talking about. We realized that the reason we had such operating deficits was because on a whole variety of fronts, the institution was no longer supporting itself. One way in which this was happening was the admissions policy. The pay-as-you-wish policy was failing. It had declined 67 percent in 10 years, but nobody had paid attention to that. So we brought it back to the board and to the city government, who oversees our admissions policy: “Here’s our problem. We have these big deficits. We’re the preeminent art museum in the United States, or even the world, and we can’t fund our mission in part because this policy is failing.”
Who's obligated to pay for culture at the Met? Whose job is it to support us? We have trustees, we have donors, we have city government, we have state government. We have the public who come in our doors. We have retail operations. We have restaurants. We have all these things. The visitors part was not generating much revenue. Many people said, “The museum should be free.” I completely agree. That would be great. But if it’s free, then who pays? Should we go to the government? Should we go to a couple of billionaires and say, “Your job is to support this institution forever”? What’s the right answer? Those conversations don’t go very far. Ultimately, what makes universities in this country thrive, and cultural institutions, is a philanthropic model that is distributed across various groups, including the public. That’s why we changed our policy, because we thought that was equitable and fair, and it worked out well.
How would you characterize the reaction of people who had been working in the Met for many years when you explained that a change was necessary?
I think that the museum is a lot like universities in this sense: Mission-driven institutions do change slowly, but it isn’t easy. And that’s because various people have important voices and vested interests. So how do you get people to come around to a point of view?
Changing our admissions policy was seen to be a third rail for the museum when I arrived. We followed a very painstaking, albeit for the circumstances accelerated, process of consultation. I had a team that met with various departments. They had 44 meetings across the museum to talk about this issue, to show them the data, to explain what was driving the problem, to outline the various options we were considering, to take their feedback on those options, and to outline the implications of what executing each of those options would be.
My deep interest was to get to the right answer. My second interest was a certain amount of consensus around the path we were taking: Even if people individually don’t agree with it, they understand that it’s smart, thoughtful, mission-driven, and therefore they could live with it. That’s exactly what happened. Our staff was wholly opposed to changing the admissions policy at the start, but as they were exposed to the same information we were exposed to and they were able to offer their own views about how we might do it, which informed our final decision, they were more comfortable with it.
Then we had to do the same thing with the public. We had to go to the city government, persuade them that they had to let us do this. Then we had to deal with the media, opinion makers, and others. It was a very big process, and in the end, we had plenty of critics. But it was far fewer [than it could have been], and they were more respectful of what we did, because they understood better what we were doing and why we were doing it.
What you just described is a very painstaking change management process, which to me is management.
I completely agree with you, but the way I did that was we laid out a leadership vision. We outlined what the issues were. Then I asked two of my direct reports, who are both brilliant, to do the change management. They were the ones who had 44 meetings with our staff. They were the ones who developed the decks for every single meeting. They were the ones who prepped me. So they were managing the change and I was leading the change.
Have you always been good at delegating?
I’ve always been comfortable delegating. I’ve always had a sense that the best way to lead at any level is to surround yourself with people who can do that job better than you can. I’m at my worst when I’m working with people in whom I don’t have confidence. When that happens, you need to make changes sooner rather than later. If you don’t have confidence that you can delegate to them, then you need to replace the person, not step in and do the job for them.
Do you miss getting into more of the day-to-day work?
Deep down, what I’m most interested in is my work as a scholar and as a teacher. That’s who I think I am most. I love the work I do as a leader, but it’s really about enabling this institution to provide what makes me happiest to everybody. The greatest privilege in my life is that I vowed early on to stop fighting who I am. You don’t have to pick one or the other. Do both. Just figure out a way to have the life you want.
I’ve done that. As a result, I think I’m a better leader and a better scholar because of the relationship between the two. The trick is you have to be very disciplined in your time, because it’s a lot to do. So you have to figure out how to manage your time.
How do you carve out that time?
I get up early on Saturday morning and I go to my desk to write, because I love to, and I do that for half a day. Then I go do something else, and I feel fulfilled. I take a little bit of vacation time each year to write. I’m thinking about that all the time. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t bother. But I have found over the years that there’s a real synergy for me. I feel like a more authentic leader of a mission-driven place like the Met because I’m doing the work that we all need to do here at some level. If I was completely lapsed as a scholar and I didn’t know what it was like to struggle with those issues and didn’t have that same proximity to the work, I would probably be a less thoughtful leader than I am. The reward for being able to do both is so great for me that I make the time.
The gift that I’ve had in my life is that I have the opportunity to do that. But one of the lessons that any leader needs to embrace is that how you spend your time is your decision. You’re not going to be remembered for how many meetings you went to. You’re going to be remembered for what contributions you’ve made. You need to figure out as a leader how to use your time in ways that make you as good as you can be. That means prioritizing around what’s important.
Thinking back to you 20 years ago, what advice would you give to someone today?
I’ll acknowledge from the outset that leaders all have different ways of leading, and there are lots of models that work very well. I can only talk about mine. But I have found the greatest joy in empowering others. One of the great privileges of leadership is to have the power to enrich and enlighten the lives of other people—both directly, in those who report to you, but also in the cascading consequences of what those leaders do for everybody else.
I think the best lesson I can give is: If you want to be a leader, ask yourself why. What are the rewards? Yes, you get to go to fancy events and you get a lot of attention. But in the end, those are transitory and potentially corrupting. The real reason you should want to do this is because it gives you the ability to have an impact that enriches and improves the lives of others. I saw that early on. That’s why I wanted to hire and support really strong people. If you can do that and you have enough self-confidence to be in a room full of people who might be smarter than you, then you can lift an institution. That kind of generosity model of leadership is one that I think works the best over the longer term.
And you might get to go to a fancy event like the Met Gala.
You might. It’s true.
Dan Weiss is the president and CEO of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art where he oversaw a change to the Met’s admissions policy, improved governance, and instituted 360° performance evaluations.
Founder and CEO, Zoom
Claire Hughes Johnson: Do you think there’s a difference between leadership and management?
Eric Yuan: I do. When it comes to building up a business, you’re normally focused on three things: vision, strategy, and execution. Managers are focused on day-to-day operations. As a leader, you also need to set up a vision and always review that vision, think about a strategy. That’s one difference. You also need to make sure your entire team follows your vision. A strategy is not only about day-to-day operation.
You’ve said that your company is invested in happiness, culture, and care. What does that mean to you as a founder, leader, and manager?
Care is a company value. Meaning, we care about the community, customer, company, teammates, and ourselves. If we share the same values and culture, everything else follows.
Do you get honest feedback from the people who work for you?
Yes, I do, though maybe not initially from newly hired leaders or managers. It really boils down to trust. I give feedback quite often, not just in 1:1 settings but in front of a whole group. I want others to do the same for me. I don’t think feedback just in 1:1 meetings is honest.
How do you encourage feedback, especially for new people who might not be comfortable offering criticism of you?
It’s not easy. I encourage them to give me feedback, good or bad, in front of others. When they see others doing it to me, they see the example. I also give them mandatory reading: The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey. Even if I give you negative feedback in front of others, [people] know I like you. I trust you. I want to get better. Nothing is personal.
Even critical feedback, you might offer it in front of a group?
Yes. We want to make everything open and transparent. Initially, some people don’t feel comfortable with this model. But if you really want to improve and become more self-aware, you need it. We’ve adopted a lot of this from Ray Dalio’s Principles book.
What in your leadership and your culture allowed you to have confidence that you could achieve the level of technical scale at the speed the pandemic required of Zoom?
Another one of my favorite books is by former Intel CEO Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive. We are very paranoid. We always think about: What if you have 10 times more capacity or 10 times [more] usage? Can you survive? Do you have any security or reliability or performance holes? We always think about that, and that’s why we are mentally well-prepared.
Do you make people list the risks, or do you just ask the hard questions?
Actually, this is a lesson I learned: My number one priority as a CEO is to think about what kinds of risk factors we need to focus on. When I realized that, I told our team transparently that I had made a mistake: “I used to be only focused on the culture, value, product. But now I think that’s not right. My number one priority is to think about the risk factors.”
What’s another management lesson from your career that you often repeat to people?
The biggest mistake I made [early on] is we did not focus on writing [down] the company’s business principles. It’s very important for us as we scale because I’m very hands-on, but I can’t focus on everything. To delegate to other leaders, we need to write down our principles on hiring, on firing, on performance, on security, on many things. For anything we do now, the critical question I always ask for a project, for this strategy, is: What’s our business principle? We need to write it down first. I should have done that several years earlier.
You’re describing something that I think is easy to miss, which is: Does everyone understand the strategy principles? Because as things get complex, you forget what you’re optimizing for.
For almost everything, we want to understand why. What’s the business principle we needed to think of first? Either the strategy or some concrete project, or any process or practice—anything.
What advice would you give to a newer manager who wanted to become a leader and was working on their management skills?
I tell them to read! I always ask folks what they’re reading at the moment. And then I tell them to read The Speed of Trust and Principles.
It’s almost an interview question to test whether they’re curious: Are they learners? Do they want to get better?
Yes, exactly. If I interview anyone, that’s the number one thing I look at: Do they really want to learn? If they want to learn, I don’t care about their background anymore.
What was a career-defining moment you’ve had?
Once, a mentor told me, “Eric, you’ve got to look at yourself. Make sure you’re looking at your strengths and weaknesses every day. You need to have a plan to become more aware of yourself every day.”
I’m still doing this. I put it in my calendar and call it “15-minute thinking and meditation.” And I ask myself: If I start over today, what can I do differently? Did I make any mistakes? Can I improve tomorrow? Sometimes I write down something important. But most of the time, the thinking is enough.
As your company gets bigger and more popular, criticism inevitably follows. What would you say is the bedrock that holds the people, the organization, and the culture together?
Building self-awareness and a self-improvement plan, whether you’re a manager, leader, or individual contributor. But it’s the same for the business: How self-aware are you about the business? Write down the business principles and the strengths and the weaknesses.
Eric Yuan is the founder, CEO, and chairman of the board of Zoom. Previously, he was vice president of engineering at WebEx, which was acquired by Cisco in 2007.
President, Anker Innovations
Claire Hughes Johnson: I remember that you joined Anker very early. You moved from Google because you were setting up the operations, right?
Dongping Zhao: Yes, sales and operations. It’s been a very interesting journey. There’s obviously serving the customer and the growth of the company, but I think some of the best value has [come from] learning who I am. When I worked for a big multinational, I wasn’t the one making the tough decisions. When you’re facing the tough decisions, you know who you are, because at the end of day, it’s not driven by logic and business rationale. It’s more what you really believe, what you feel comfortable choosing. I feel that’s very rewarding.
I had a lot of wrong perceptions of myself before doing this startup for eight years. For example, I always thought I was results-driven, but now I know I’m not that results-driven because I care more about how I feel when I do this thing. I feel like as long as we try to be the absolute best, it’s okay to accept the results.
Do you think there’s a difference between leadership and management?
There is a huge difference. Skill sets or overall leadership come in different levels. When I first graduated, I cared the most about hard skills. When I worked at Dell, I worked on the marketing side, but Dell was famous at that time for its supply chain model. All my attention went to figuring out how I could move from the marketing team to the supply chain team.
Then I met Dell’s financial controller, who was very good, so I focused on transferring to finance. But my whole thinking process was to get all the hard, functional skills. This was also driven by the Chinese mentality. When I was a kid, parents would always say you should learn science instead of the arts because that’s what puts food on the table, no matter where you go.
Then I entered the second stage of my career, when I first became a manager and was asked to lead the Dell product marketing team in Greater China and Korea. Dell had a “Dell score,” which is like a 360° feedback evaluation from all your team members. When I got the survey back, I had received the lowest score among all the function heads. I was almost fired!
I had to do some reflecting. I got the opportunity to lead the product marketing team because I probably made some right business decisions. That hard-skills knowledge was helpful until this point, but I had to learn how to work with people. I didn’t know how to be a manager and I didn’t know how to influence others. I was just a good individual contributor. When I got hit with that, my attention shifted to softer skills: communication, problem-solving, and many other things, which are not easy. It’s not very visible, like accounting knowledge or harder skills. The recognition of needing both the hard skills and soft skills helped me during my career at Dell, and then during my four years in Google.
I also got a chance to work with a few guys from McKinsey and learn McKinsey’s seven-step problem-solving approach. I would rank this as the most helpful skill I learned in my career. The Anker notebook that we hand out to every employee has McKinsey’s seven steps to problem-solving on the first page. It helps bring the whole company to structured and rational problem-solving, and it will lower our risk of making wrong decisions and [help us give] good feedback.
Would you consider yourself more of a manager or a leader?
More a manager. When I moved to Anker, I had to become more of a leader. You have to solve every problem. It’s more of a struggle emotionally because there’s a 90 percent chance [the startup] fails. You don’t get paid for the first few years, and it’s very tough when you face the family of the very junior people just out of college. This is the third level of learning. The first level is hard skills, the second level is soft skills, and the third level is the most challenging level: how you show up emotionally, how you keep being a champion and make everything possible. Sometimes you have to suspend disbelief and lie to yourself to keep on doing it.
But also, you have to use that psychological toughness to translate it into something that other people want to follow. You have to share optimism and vision.
Yes. I initially categorized leadership as one of the softer skills because when we work in multinationals, leadership was marked as working together, problem-solving, communication. Then I read the three books that Jack Welch wrote, which are all about leadership. I also read In Search of Excellence, this McKinsey book written in the 1990s, when the American economy was facing a challenge from Japanese companies. McKinsey did comprehensive research on how American companies could continue to lead. It puts leadership above any other skill.
What’s your advice to others who want to be leaders and managers?
I try to understand why I’ve survived in organizations and why so many others haven’t. I now understand why people say being a professor or doctor or lawyer is considered a good job. There are a few common attributes in those types of jobs. First, your boss doesn’t really matter as much. Second, your customer normally doesn’t argue with you. Third, as you become older, you become more valuable, so you emotionally feel safe. Fourth, you don’t really need to collaborate.
An organization is anti-human. The reason I say that is because there’s a lot of self-interest in how people behave and operate. But the jobs where you feel more secure are only 20 percent of the openings on the market. For 80 percent of the openings, you have to work and survive in large organizations.
What’s the lesson you’ve taken away from that?
Don’t feel surprised when you see unreasonable things happening in the organization. [People] would probably describe me as someone who has empathy. I always admit that the world is not perfect and we can’t solve all the problems. Control what you can control.
Dongping Zhao is the president of Anker Innovations, a global leader in device-charging technology based in Shenzhen. Prior to joining Anker, he worked in sales at Dell China and Google China.