The multiplier you get working with people who practice rigorous thinking is huge. Most of the work is getting everybody to this point as Wes Kao explains here.
Doing the things listed here as a VP by Emily Nakashima sounds all nice and well (maybe fun even for some people), but the core deliverables of alignment and focus are the real test: both are impossibly hard to achieve and worth their weight in gold.
What you need on day one is to ratchet up expectations, energy, urgency, and intensity.
You can engulf your organization with energy, step up the tempo, and start executing the basic blocking and tackling with a lot more focus and higher expectations. It will feel like busting a log jam. All of a sudden, everything is moving and shaking.
Don’t let malaise set in. Bust it up. Raising the bar is energizing by itself.
MBO causes employees to act as if they are running their own show. Because they get compensated on their personal metrics, it’s next to impossible to pull them off projects. They will start negotiating with you for relief. That’s not alignment, that’s every man for himself.
The questions you should ask constantly: What are we not going to do? What are the consequences of not doing something? Get in the habit of constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing.
I always operated as if I owned everything, whether I did or not. That didn’t always sit well with peers or superiors. I have since always tried to increase our people’s sense of ownership so they will act as owners. That mentality needs to be nurtured.
We coped in ways I have used ever since: hire people ahead of their own curve. Hire more for aptitude than experience and give people the career opportunity of a lifetime.
We still say, “Architecture matters” at Snowflake; all of our successes at the three companies where I’ve been CEO trace back to superior architecture.
Underperforming tech assets seemed to follow me around like a bad habit.
I had to explain that there is no such thing as an override for CEOs. I said, “You can go to the board and see if they’d like to fire me and give you your old job back. In the meantime, we are doing as I outlined.”
There are times you need to check your own views at the door and bet on the conviction of others.
Today I am less driven by career ambition than by a hunger for sport, action, excitement, teamwork, and a never‐ending pursuit of self‐improvement.
When you take over a company with a wide range of issues, you have to start solving the more straightforward problems as fast as possible so you can narrow the focus on the harder ones. Bringing in some proven performers was a no‐brainer.
As I got more experience, I realized that I was often just wasting everybody’s time. If we knew that something or someone wasn’t working, why wait? As the saying goes, when there is doubt, there is no doubt.
For a more recent example, remember that when the Coronavirus pandemic first hit the US, lockdowns were described as a short‐term strategy to stop the contagion from overwhelming our healthcare system. But before long, lockdowns became the designated method to control the pandemic indefinitely, dragging on in many states for well over a year. Pandemic responses began to seem like a “make it up as we go along” approach to policy, completely untethered from any clear mission.
Not that there’s anything wrong with financial metrics or showing progress to investors or shareholders. I take those targets very seriously, but they are never our mission.
Investors and executives take huge risks on start‐ups that need to be rewarded when a company is successful.
Urgency is a mindset that can be learned if it doesn’t come to you naturally. You can embrace the discomfort that comes with moving faster instead of avoiding it.
Only the government can print money; the rest of us have to take it from somebody else.
The more high‐achieving people who desert their current employers to join us, the more we are winning.
As long as there are no new challengers with new ideas, you can do fine with an incremental approach. But in free markets, somebody is always thinking about dramatic changes. You’re much better off doing so yourself rather than hoping it won’t happen.
Folks prefer narratives that make them feel safe, however removed from reality those narratives might be. Intellectual honesty is a frequent casualty in business.
If you don’t know how to execute, every strategy will fail, even the most promising ones.
One of my favorite observations is that “good judgment comes from bad judgment.” Experience may be overrated by some, but it’s hard to find a substitute for it.
When we promote inexperienced managers to senior roles, chaos ensues. It becomes the blind leading the blind. Organizations cannot scale and mature around inexperienced management staff.
We sometimes use the expression “that dog won’t hunt”—not in reference to a person but to a strategic approach that just isn’t working, no matter what we do. It’s hard to say that if you’re irrationally attached to a strategy.
A strong product will generate escape velocity and find its market, even with a mediocre sales team. But even a great sales team cannot fix or compensate for product problems.
You should resist this temptation by remembering an old joke: “Consultants are people who borrow your watch, tell you what time it is, and then keep the watch.”
The bottom line is that great execution can make a moderately successful strategy go a long way, but poor execution will fail even the most brilliant strategy.
Hire Drivers, Not Passengers, and Get the Wrong People off the Bus
Passengers are largely dead weight and can be an insidious threat to your culture and performance. They inadvertently undermine the mojo of the organization. They sap the animal instinct and spirits you need in business to thrive.
“How do I know if I’m a driver or a passenger?” My flippant answer was that he’d better figure it out before I did.
Don’t surrender to the temptation to go into wait‐and‐see mode, hoping that time will reveal everyone’s true value. You need to make things happen, not wait around and hope for the best. You have to practice sizing up people and situations with limited and imperfect information—because that is all you are ever going to get.
If you don’t act quickly to get the wrong people off the bus, you have no prayer of changing the overall trajectory. We often believe, naively, that we can coach struggling teammates to a better place. And sometimes we can, but those cases are rarer than we imagine. At a struggling company, you need to change things fast, which can only happen by switching out the people whose skills no longer fit the mission or perhaps never really did in the first place.
those standards, that’s fine too. I know this philosophy may come across as harsh. But what’s even harsher is not doing the job you were hired to do as a leader. If you can’t find the backbone to make necessary changes, you are holding everyone else back from reaching their full potential.
Then I started moving faster to replace people who were badly suited for their roles. And often not even catastrophically bad, just worse than the caliber of people we knew we could hire to replace them. This process of systematically upgrading the talent at each key role is called “topgrading,” a strategy developed by hiring expert Brad Smart.
You can’t wait till you have an acute need; that is a reactive posture. If you wait for a vacancy to open, you can only tap the then‐current supply, which may be quite suboptimal. So create a vetted, prioritized list of possible candidates for each critical role you are responsible for.
The problem is that people don’t learn from posters. Like children and pets, they learn from consequences and the lack thereof. If you want to drive a more consistent set of behaviors, norms, and values, you have to focus on consistent and clearly defined consequences, day in and day out.
Accountability is uncomfortable because we all live with the anxiety of not being good enough and the anxiety of telling others they aren’t good enough. But if you want a great company, you can’t give out free passes for mediocrity. Good enough is never good enough.
Culture doesn’t just happen because of a CEO’s declaration or because senior management exhibits the willingness to act on core values. It happens when most of the organization is willing to defend and promote those values and call out deviations on a day‐to‐day basis.
The paradox is that any business that’s large enough to have functional silos must pull together as if these organizational delineations barely exist.
My role as CEO is to facilitate their initiative and encourage them to reach creative solutions, not simply to tell them what to do. Everyone gets a seat at the table as we hash out challenging issues.
I am generally not a fan of just trying things, throwing ideas against the wall to see if they stick. We lose time and waste resources that way. Let’s try a rifle shot instead of a scatter gun.
Customer grievances are best solved by establishing proper ownership, reducing internal complexity, and removing bureaucratic intermediaries.
Good sales managers are constantly hiring and firing, which helps them develop a clear sense of which candidates are likely to become gunslingers.
Never simply throw them into stone‐cold territories without a viable plan or support. That’s setting them up for failure, which will lead not only to their own failures but to your reputation as a leader who breeds failure.
I have often distinguished between actual profitability and what we call “inherent profitability.”
The question is what would profitability look like if we substantially stopped investing for future periods altogether? Inherent profitability is driven by unit economics, or the gross margin line in the profit and loss statement. If things cost more than what we sell them for, the business will obviously never become profitable. The next question is how operating efficiency will benefit from increased scale. Those answers help us understand what the inherent profitability of the business really is.
So they play it safe. But trying to hang on to a modest business doesn’t mean you have a viable business.
How can I possibly answer those questions for someone else’s business? The answers are relative and situational.
If possible, always own your distribution rather than delegate it to a third party. Nobody cares about selling your product more than you.
It takes intellectual honesty and humility to admit how big a confluence of factors gave rise to your original success. Just because you struck gold once doesn’t mean you know how to do it at will.
I know I said earlier that growth should be prioritized over profitability, but when it costs much more than a dollar to generate a dollar, you don’t really have a business.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have strong financial oversight and discipline on sales compensation. You may be tempted at some point to make your comp plans more generous to recruit and retain top sales talent, but abandoning financial rigor can be a fatal mistake—not just during the planning stages of each year but every day, literally from one sales deal to the next.
But the most valuable leaders are those who can combine the scrappiness of a start‐up leader with the organizational and diplomatic discipline needed in a big company. Those who can scale up or scale down as required. Those who can set aside their experience when necessary, apply first principles, and think through situations in their elementary form.
When a truly new market does appear, it’s usually due to a confluence of industry‐wide factors and circumstances, not the innovations of just one company.
The issues we faced in scope, expansion, and runway now preoccupy my thinking. As a leader, you need to make time to assess these issues from day one; don’t wait for the crush of urgent business to calm down.
Having a bunch of roles on your resume without clear success at each one can become a strike against you. You start to look like a passenger, not a driver.
Start‐ups typically need hard drivers, passionate leaders, goal‐oriented and achievement‐focused personalities—the kind of people who are easily frustrated in larger, more rigid, slower to evolve enterprises. We often liked people with a chip on their shoulder, who had a lot to prove to themselves and others. But it is easy to see how others would be less enamored by such personalities.
The longest‐serving employees tend to be the most prone to nostalgia, constantly reliving the romance of the early days. Those days always seem better in retrospect than they did at the time.
Dan Warmenhoven, the highly successful CEO of NetApp, once remarked that every great CEO has a large ego because you simply could not do this kind of work any other way—but if you can’t keep that ego in check, you’ll be insufferable and therefore ineffective. That’s an uneasy balance.
Even so, continue to share credit as much as possible with the founders. Never lose sight of the fact that success takes a village, and the founders are still honorary members of the village.
Conceding the board’s authority for every major decision isn’t playing it safe. In fact, in the long run it’s much riskier than asserting your own authority and legitimacy and taking responsibility for your own decisions.
You’re not there to make friends or get a gold star for obeying orders; you are there to win.
Apply those experiences, and the insights we’ve discussed in previous chapters, to become a truer, more honed, more effective version of who you already are. Finding your own path, however long it takes, will unlock your personal power.
At the end of the day, great leaders at any level have great outcomes. You can be the most empathetic, charismatic, and popular leader ever, but none of that will matter if your business falls short. And when it does, there will be nowhere for you to hide. No one will care about your legitimate explanations, let alone your excuses. No one will care about the unlucky breaks that were completely beyond your control. Is that fair? Of course not! But it’s the world we live in, the world we have to accept as leaders.
“Success in knowledge isn’t about the facts we know, but by how good we are at judging the truth of uncertain things.”
That’s a very good treatment of why meetings are work and removing all of them can have negative effects.
You need to use your time differently. You need to rise above the work. You need to figure out how to make yourself less busy with your current workload to make room to do higher-value work. No one will do this for you.
She was trying to teach her team this lesson: you can’t work yourself to death and succeed over the long term. It was a hard cultural challenge, because her team believed that this overwork was not only highly valued by the company, but demanded.
You don’t win the game for running up and down the court; it’s the points on the board that count.
But if they are successful, the other thing that you will notice is that they have a ruthless focus on the things they care about. It may seem that they are not doing a good job—but maybe that is just on the part that you are looking at. You need to understand: what else are they doing?
Welcome to being a leader. This is your job. Your job is not to deliver work when everything lines up to support you. Your job is to get the most important stuff done despite everything that lines up to kill you.
I know that what I wanted from my staff was for them to catch all the work, analyze it, make judgments about business priorities, and come back to me and negotiate. I wanted them to debate with me about what is most important and why and suggest how to rework the plan to do the most important things first.
This is how you keep your boss from continuing to pile things on. Get him on the hook for the same critical business outcomes—your Ruthless Priorities.
Yes, you need to find a way to succeed if your boss is being stupid, but if your plan requires you to win against your boss, you will lose, even if you are right.
If you’re tempted to work on everything because it feels less risky, just realize that you will remain unremarkable because you have not given yourself the opportunity to really excel on something that has a big impact on the business.
Only when you are mind-numbingly bored with talking about your Ruthless Priorities will your organization really know you are serious and feel confident about acting on them.
Getting big things done is so powerful that you will get smarter as you do it. Getting things done helps you see around corners. You learn, because you can actually test the reality of the impact of what you got done.
But you must focus. If you don’t, you will work very hard but fail to deliver significant business outcomes. So you will fail. This is one of those lonely leadership moments. All leaders face this. The most successful ones get on top of it. They rise above the work.
It’s critical to recognize that your job as a leader is to collect and respond to all of the requests that come from above, but not to try to actually do them all. You are expected to tune the workload, to change the game, to figure out better ways to do things.
If your executive management could figure out which of the things, in all of this work they assign to you, were truly critical to the business, they wouldn’t need you. That’s your job.
It is a core trait of the most successful people to rise above being overbusy. If there are any secrets to what really successful people do, this is one of them. They make more time.
When communications are not clear, the number of questions and individual conversations rises exponentially. Be really clear about decisions, priorities, and issues, and find a communication mechanism to distribute the information. You will increase the capacity of your team greatly if you simply communicate better.
If you are good at fixing things or just can’t stand unanswered questions, open loops, or disorganize data, get over it. You can’t fix everything, and most of it doesn’t matter anyway.
Make three lists on one sheet of paper, in three columns. In the first column, list the things on your to-do list that you are actually getting done. In the second column, list things that you have committed to get done to your boss or your customers or your peers or your team—but are not getting done. In the third column, list the things that you know are really important, but that you have no chance in hell of being able to do because of the existence of the first two lists.
Having more energy multiplies your time. You don’t just work faster; you take on things you wouldn’t otherwise. You solve bigger problems and pursue bigger challenges. You have more to give to others. You help your team and your peers more. You have more confidence and make better decisions.
Do things on purpose that help you recover your energy, but don’t give yourself too hard a time for being in a slump along the way. If you keep moving forward in your life and your work, even if you are not at your most brilliant, the slump will eventually pass.
Once you realize that your job is both your job description and dealing with all the crap that gets in the way of your doing your job description, and that what you are actually getting paid for is dealing with the crap, not the enjoyable parts, it all makes more sense.
The first and biggest hazard of taking your strengths for granted is that you waste too much time trying to fix your weaknesses. As humans we tend to focus on the things we are not good at. I don’t believe in investing in fixing weaknesses. It is a waste of time and energy, especially compared to building on strengths.
They decided it was important to thrive. They redefined the terms under which they were willing to work. They stopped trying to do their job as it was defined for them, focused on what they were really good at, and worked with other people to cover the areas they were not good at.
Leaders emerge because they are seen to get the work done through their leadership, not by their personal effort.
When you are a workhorse, people value you for your work output; they don’t value you. They don’t care how hard you work; they only care that the work gets done. Your company can absorb an unlimited amount of work from you.
It’s about figuring out how to do things better when the world and budgets are set against you
If you don’t enable and allow your team to make you bigger, you shouldn’t have a team.
if, as a leader, you are not sure what to do, talk to everybody.
Build a plan to drive the overall strategy for your team and its contribution to the business. Look for game-changing opportunities. Clarify Ruthless Priorities. Tune everyone’s workload to ensure that they deliver on the most important things. Ensure that there is strategic alignment of your team, peers, and boss with priorities and values. Assess your organization’s fitness for what it needs to do, and make changes, train, and/or upgrade talent where necessary. Create systems and frameworks to execute, track, and measure the work so you can feel comfortable that you know what is getting done without diving into the details. See also chapter 7, Delegate or Die. Create a specific learning agenda for your team, such as understanding the financial realities of the business, getting closer to customers, or competitive awareness and positioning. Develop talent. Help your team become better leaders and support them. Focus on the development of their top talent. Improve communication inside and outside your organization. Find ways to steadily reduce the cost of things you do every year to make room for new things. See also chapter 8, Better with Less. Continually make connections outside your direct organization to create positive visibility for your team and create a broader base of support.
You need to be prepared emotionally for not being the expert any more and for finding your value elsewhere. You need to earn your team’s respect with your leadership skills, not by trying to stay as smart as they are on the detail.
Don’t think of delegating as just giving work to other people; think about it as making sure the highest-value work gets done at the right levels.
Let some important stuff go undone, or get done poorly, so you make it clear that you really need the hire.
Always think of delegating as a teaching opportunity. Remember, delegating is about taking responsibility to ensure that the highest-value work gets done at the right levels. It is about pulling your people up and making them more capable.
You may be more comfortable with the deliverables, but you are completely cutting off the possibility that, with your encouragement and support, they could become even better at it than you. In fact, you are limiting them to never being any better at it than you.
If you overmanage people, they will not be motivated to excel; they will just be motivated to get you off their back.
As a leader it is your job to cut the cost of doing the same stuff year over year—full stop.
Dealing with shrinking budgets and increased responsibility is a way of life. As a leader you can’t let that prevent you from raising the bar and driving higher-value business outcomes each year. No one will help you with this. Your team will get annoyed that they have less money to do the same stuff. It’s up to you to lead.
A high-trust environment is a fast, competitive environment. A low-trust environment is a slow, dysfunctional environment.
If you try to avoid all negative discussion or always put a positive spin on everything, you will be seen as clueless by your people who are experiencing the reality. That will destroy trust. If you acknowledge difficult issues, then get your team focused on what they can do during times of uncertainty, you will build trust.
You must get comfortable with differentiating. Treating everyone equally is not fair to your high performers.
Do this now. With each of your reports, say the following: “As your manager I am going to worry about what matters to you. When I worry about you, what should I worry about?”
But it is imperative that you have a “What happened? This is unacceptable. What are you going to do about it?” conversation. Although these are not fun, comfortable conversations, if you avoid them, you are degrading trust.
Good work does not stand on its own. Delivering results alone does not ensure you will get recognized and rewarded. It’s sad but true. You need to take it upon yourself to make your work visible and make it count.
You need to show that you can think like a general manager about the whole business and put the business first, at the center of your thinking and discussions.
Doing your job well, as defined, keeps you from getting fired. What makes you stand out is finding additional ways to add value to the business over and above what is in your job description. Otherwise, you are just one more person doing what is expected of them.
Bringing the external voice of the real world back into your business sets you up as highly credible because most people don’t bother.
Being inconsistently good just pisses people off. It creates a high expectation and then a big letdown.
When you observe me at work or life, what is always true? What do you always see? What is my manner of communicating? What do I “look like” when I am delivering? What am I expert in? How do I relate to others at work: What do I give? What do I expect? How do my personality and values affect what I offer? What outcomes do you associate with my being involved in something?
By focusing on her brand, she gave herself the opportunity to sell her strengths without hesitation.
If you operate in your own department most of the time and don’t have personal relationships or functional reasons to talk to your boss’s boss, your boss’s peers, and leaders of other organizations, you can consider yourself invisible. And you can consider yourself stuck.
When the executives talk about who is the best, the people whose names are known (even if nothing else is known about them) come out way ahead of the more-talented people whose names are not known.
You can be doing a fantastic job, but if some of your key stakeholders either don’t know about it or have an incorrect, not-that-impressed perception of your work, it can be a huge block to your success and your ability to get promotions and resources for your team members or approval for projects you care about.
If you are remote, it is up to you to not disappear.
Are you being clear, succinct, and compelling? Have you tuned the presentation to be highly relevant to each audience? Do you get to the point? Are you sure you are not boring? Have you made sure you won’t be tempted to go on and on about details? Do you show strong personal presence? Do you show confidence rather than defensiveness? Can you deal with disagreements and attacks and not get drawn off track? Can you field questions succinctly and not get nervous? Can you continue to be succinct and not babble on and on when you get drawn off topic? Can you regain control of the conversation?
For example, don’t talk about needing data on something. Ask questions like, “What decisions will you be making based on this data?” or “What action do you need this data to inform?”
You first need to get yourself there. Once you are there, learn really fast, do the job, and get more comfortable and confident as you go. Then leap again.
The world is not waiting for you to check all the boxes; they are merely watching to see if you’ll step up. The ones who step up and go for things are the ones who get them. The ones who are fearless get there faster.
Any executive is much stronger after having spent significant time with customers where the business really happens. Spending time in sales changes your perspective forever, for the better.
This is one of the reasons it is so important to make more time, as we talked about in chapter 3. If you are completely consumed by your current job, you will not have any time or energy to do the things you need to do to get a better or bigger one.
You are already committed to your day job. Your extra work that you volunteer for should serve your personal purpose to get ahead.
A key test of executive presence is to look like you are doing your job with ease and grace. Even if behind the scenes it is chaos, what people should see is you being calm and in control.
The bigger the role, the broader your influence needs to be. As a top executive your impact needs to be on a much broader and more external stage. You need to prove that you know how to impact business growth and transformation internally and externally in a big way, if you want a big job.
However, building your career and letting your life go to hell does not work either. The trick is, if you want to do better at either work or life, you need to get better at both.
Your company wants you to have a good life that you enjoy. They know they will get more out of you at work if you are happy outside of work.
Anything north of half a million a year is the hazard pay for the company acting like it owns you, letting you know your time is not your own, and finding seemingly laser-targeted ways to torture you.
If you have a toxic or useless boss who is damaging you and your career, you need to get out. It’s not worth your time, your health, or the money that lured you into this in the first place.
Bluffing is just another example of why being an executive takes a fair amount of guts, and you need to be OK with the fact that from time to time you are going to be scared and way out of your comfort zone. That is a requirement of the job—get comfortable with it.
As long as you demand rigorous accountability to the business and measure and manage performance accordingly, you can be nice to people.
Along these lines, I often get asked whether you can or should be friends with a boss or employee. Yes, you can be friends, as long as the friendship does not keep you from being tough on accountability and results in the business. If you are the kind of person who can keep those separate, friends at work are fine. But if you end up holding your friends less accountable, or not imposing consequences because they are friends, and this makes you uncomfortable, then don’t make friends with employees. If you don’t seriously manage performance with employees who are friends, everyone will see that you are letting your friend get away with things. You will squander huge amounts of trust. People will accept your friendships as long as they see you being fair.
I am a firm believer that growing businesses come from growing people, and to be highly successful, you need to make the people supporting you successful too.
I’m thinking of calling this realization “organizational growing up”:
> There will be times when you’ll think “This is a problem and someone should say something”…and realize with a sinking feeling that that someone is you. —Joy Ebertz quotes Tanya Reilly
As a company scales, there are phase shifts which feel like they suck all the productivity out of an organization. The way to get through as described here is familiar: categorize and capture everything, reduce WIP and loop through your process.
Since the one digital thing that Germany is really good at is copying, here is the UK’s 2025 roadmap for digital and data. Just copy-paste it and do everything that’s in there.
- Exceed public expectations
- Equip civil servants for a digital future
- Enhance government efficiency and security
Anything less than that is not really acceptable anymore.
This is a levelling model around work conflicts by Jack Coates that I think is thought-provoking and productive with at the end these take aways:
- conflicts will persist
- the senior person should move first
- bring somebody in who can resolve the issue
Ilya Grigorik notes down a perspective on what people at the higher senior+ levels should be doing. At that level things can get fuzzy and people tend to struggle.
- It’s not your job to solve the problem
- Focus on perspectives
- Build technical leaders
Scroll down especially to read the excellent list of tactical everyday best tips.