Over three years, I was promoted from Producer to SVP of Product. I learned a lot about leadership during these “trial by fire” years.
“Leaders Lead” was a rallying cry for teams I worked on as we took on leadership challenges like acquisitions, layoffs, and product launches. I said it often during the three years I advanced from Producer at Electronic Arts, to VP of Product at Creative Wonders, to SVP of Product at both The Learning Company and Mattel.
Along the way, I learned:
1) What it takes to become a leader
2) The leadership skills required at various stages, and
3) What it takes to lead at scale.
In 1995, my co-founders and I launched “Creative Wonders,” an educational software firm, based on our exclusive relationship with Sesame Street. Given my inexperience, I was happy that our CEO hired a VP of Product to be my boss.
I was not in a rush to become a Vice President. I openly disparaged the role, referring to members of the exec team as “muckety-mucks.” I loved my job as it gave me flexibility to leave at 5 pm to windsurf on the SF Bay then return to work later wearing shorts and flip-flops. You could identify my cube easily by the piles of paper streaming out its door.
Unfortunately, in 1997 our VP of Product left the company. Later that year, our CEO, Greg Bestick, said to me, “Gib, leadership is totemic.” I was befuddled by his word choice but gradually understood that he wanted me to dress better, to clean my cube, then meet with each member of our executive team. Greg believed I was a strong candidate to become the new VP of Product, but other team members were wary. Greg wanted me to acknowledge the symbolism of the VP role — one of my first leadership lessons that year.
A month later I was promoted to VP of Product. The following day Greg let me know that The Learning Company (TLC), the country’s biggest educational software publisher, wanted to acquire us.
I met TLC’s CEO, Kevin O’Leary, the following week. (Today, Kevin is known as “Mr. Wonderful” on Shark Tank.) I still remember his last question: “How long have you been VP of Product?” He laughed when I answered, “About a month.”
In my last job at Electronic Arts I witnessed many painful acquisitions so was conflicted about the sale. I was hopeful about the opportunity — our software would get into more homes, we’d have more resources, and there would be bigger career opportunities. But as we lost our independence, there would also be changes that would impact our team negatively. I knew to consider both the opportunity and threat.
So, it didn’t surprise me when TLC asked us to move from our building in Redwood City to their headquarters in Fremont, extending everyone’s commute by 30 minutes. Worse, it was my job to let the team know.
A local pet store owner inspired my communication. I frequently bought new goldfish for my three-year-old and each time I left the store the owner suggested, “When you bring the fish home, lower the baggie into the water, let it acclimate, then pull out the baggie.”
The next day, I addressed the team, highlighting both the opportunities and threats, then told them about the move. I explained the Fishbowl Acquisition Strategy: We would have a separate wing within TLC, maintain the same organization and reporting structure, then after six months we would “pull the baggie.”
We moved a month later. Amidst occasional grumbling by the team you’d hear the more hopeful, “Fishbowl Acquisition Strategy” phrase repeated often. The words provided context that made the change palatable for most. This move provided my second leadership lesson — the leverage you have through context instead of control.
The acquisition went so well that six months later when we “pulled the baggie,” my boss became President of TLC, I became SVP of the entire TLC product organization, and each of my reports took on broader roles. That same year, we bought four other companies to achieve more than 50% of the educational software market. Then we sold ourselves to Mattel for $4.2 billion.
How to Set Yourself Up for your First VP role
For each promotion I was clearly in the right place at the right time. But I positioned myself for success in ways that I hope others can replicate:
- Join a high-growth company. Growth creates VP-level roles and battlefront promotions like mine.
- Deliver results. I spent nine months helping to sign a long-term exclusive to the Sesame Street brand, then learned to build, ship and market CD-ROM software that delivered substantial revenue.
- Embody the culture. The behaviors that a company seeks are articulated by who you hire, fire, and promote. Despite my quirkiness, I was “on culture.”
- Hire and train great people. Not only does a great team help you deliver results, but odds for promotion are higher if someone on your team can replace you.
- Demonstrate leadership. There are many opportunities to lead even if you are not a formal leader. Before I became VP, I took on ownership of the Sesame Street relationship and provided direction for how a Silicon Valley startup could work effectively with an NYC-based non-profit.
The formula for becoming a leader is pretty simple: deliver results in a fast-growing company that has VP-worthy roles.
During those three years, I made many mistakes, but over time, developed new leadership skills. Twenty-five years later, after interviewing hundreds of executive team members, these are the skills I look for when evaluating executive-level candidates:
- Leadership. I define this as the ability to communicate an inspired vision of the future.
- Management. Early in a product management career, these are the skills that enable you to build software in concert with engineering, design, data and marketing partners. As you grow into a leadership role, management extends to hiring, firing and developing talent to build a successful organization.
- Strategic Thinking. Over time, you learn to define a product strategy that articulates hypotheses about how you plan to delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.
- Pro-active, results-oriented. As a leader, it’s your job to initiate action and change — you can’t wait until someone tells you what to do.
- Culture. A distinct, well-articulated culture makes it easy for employees to make decisions without talking to each other. Great leaders understand the importance of culture, work hard to define it, and are role models for desired behavior.
- Domain expertise. It’s helpful to have experience with both the product category and stage of a company. (I had a little of the former, and none of the latter, but I am thankful that Greg Bestick saw my potential.)
During my career as a leader, I depended on these leadership tools:
- Mission, vision, and brand definition. I learned to articulate these in an inspired way that provided a “true north” for the organization.
- Strategy, tactics, and metrics. I used these tools to translate vision into action. The strategies articulated high-level hypotheses, the tactics were the experiments, and metrics helped measure success along the way.
- Organizational design. Beyond hiring and developing teams, I learned to experiment with organizational structures to enable highly-aligned, loosely-coupled teams to work together. There is no “right” way to organize a company, so I experimented with different structures every six to twelve months as we grew.
- Management systems. I relied on weekly one-on-ones, weekly team meetings, monthly strategy meetings (for each product “swim lane”) as well as quarterly product strategy meetings.
Probably the greatest challenge for me was evolving from a renegade, “say anything” style, to a more thoughtful approach. Once, in a quarterly strategy meeting I flippantly said, “I hate Macs,” when I noticed the large amount of testing resources needed to support the tiny Mac market. The next day I wandered into a designer’s cube and as I entered, he furtively tossed a jacket over his Mac. When I gave him a funny look he responded, “I was trying to hide my Mac. I heard you are getting rid of them.” After this, I learned to more thoughtfully craft “one message to all” to ensure my meaning was understood throughout the organization.
Over time, I also developed habits that helped me to learn and grow as a leader:
- Ask “What’s best for the company?” As an individual contributor it’s easy to be partisan, fighting for things that benefit you at the cost of others. I learned to focus more broadly on the needs of the company and its customers. An example: At TLC, I advocated for layoffs in the product organization when it became apparent that the team had grown too large.
- Make decisions quickly. Early in my career, I agonized over decisions. But over time, I became comfortable making decisions with only 70% of the data, and consequently made decisions faster. Decision-making became easier, too, when I recognized that most of my choices were reversible if I got them wrong.
- Over-communicate. Given the importance of alignment in an organization, and the fact that most people can only remember 2–3 things, I learned to focus on just a few “big rocks” each quarter.
- Think long-term. Early in your career, your job is to execute the short-term projects. You learn that executing better and faster will help the company learn faster, and thus succeed. As I took on broader leadership roles, I learned to think further ahead. By operating at a more strategic level, I could help the company “skip ahead” by a quarter or two. And if you maintain a five-year horizon, you begin to learn that it’s possible to do the seemingly impossible.
- Be you. Personal passion inspires folks. It’s also the most efficient way to demonstrate authority. Over time, I learned to channel my “quirkiness” in ways that helped me to be authentic, but also moved the company forward. An example: early in my tenure as a leader I would figuratively “head out to sea” for a few days then return to the day-to-day work with a manic level of energy. Over time, I learned to temper this behavior so I didn’t drive my team crazy.
Over twenty-five years, these leadership skills, tools, and habits helped me to lead large teams. But, from time to time, in the face of new leadership challenges, I still repeat the phrase, “Leaders lead.”
I joined Netflix as VP of Product in 2005 and left in late 2009. During that time I watched Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) develop as a leader. So, in 2011, I was curious to learn about Reed’s response to one of the most significant leadership challenges I have seen: the “Qwikster” debacle.
That year, Netflix communicated its plan to spin out a “Qwikster” DVD-by-mail service, requiring its customers visit two websites to maintain both streaming and DVD services. Before the change, the service was $10 for both DVDs and streaming, and the proposed price was $8 for each separate service, adding up to a substantial price hike for those who wanted both.
The negative response was swift. Within a week Netflix was the butt of jokes among late night talk show hosts, but worse, Netflix lost 800,000 customers. Netflix’s market cap dropped from $18B to $5B.
While at Netflix, I had watched Reed practice his leadership skills. He would lunch with folks to discuss different ideas, then present to his executive team. Based on feedback, he’d present to his broader leadership team, and then the Board of Directors. By the time he spoke at company meetings, he had a well-crafted message.
My friends at Netflix gave me consistent reports about how Reed addressed the Qwikster fiasco at the next company meeting. Reed began by explaining that due to a string of successful decisions he had made, he became overconfident and lost his humility. Worse, he had failed to focus on delighting Netflix customers.
His message: “I made a mistake. But here’s the good news: it was self-inflicted.” He explained that unlike market changes or competitive threat, it’s easier to recover from self-inflicted errors. He reminded everyone that the same focus on customers, culture, and strategy that had brought Netflix this far, would help the company to recover.
In the end, he summarized his message in four words: “Just keep getting better.” Over the next few years, employees repeated this phrase often. Today, Netflix has 120M members and a market cap of $120B. The recovery is complete.
After twenty years of practice as the CEO of Netflix, here are the behaviors that Reed demonstrated:
- Put the tough issues on the table. Responding to adversity is critical leadership behavior. You can’t bury your head in the sand.
- Admit mistakes. Part of the job of a tech leader is taking on risk, so you’ll make many mistakes. Admitting errors helps others to learn from them, too.
- Be authentic. Reed’s display of humility was very “Reed-like.” Fist-pounding would not have been as effective for him.
- Inspire through context, not control. Reed didn’t give marching orders. He inspired the team through consistent focus on strategy and metrics, and in this case, four simple words that motivated teams for years.
The thing I appreciated most about Reed, beyond his focus on consumer science, strategy and culture, was his ongoing effort to practice leadership. As leaders, we need to maintain the same focus on ‘just getting better.’
Whether you aspire to be a formal leader, are already a leader, or are leading at scale, you need to practice leadership on an ongoing basis. And given that each of us has a unique personality, there’s no “right” approach or style. It’s helpful to experiment to find the approach that works best for you.
But for all leaders, the job is the same: To communicate an inspired vision of the future. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, highlights both the challenge and opportunity of leadership:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Twenty-five years after skipping out to windsurf and tempering my manic “out to sea” behavior, I hope that you and your teams will find new oceans to explore — and successfully navigate the inevitable leadership challenges.
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Many thanks to Hayley Leibson, John McMahon, John Russell, Paul Oeschger, John Ciancutti, Diego Mendes, Reed Hastings, Ashita Achuthan, and Fabian Fischetti for their editing help.