Who is the best CEO in the country? According to one rating service, it’s Jeff Weiner, CEO of social networking giant LinkedIn.
In 5 years of running the company, Jeff has inspired his team, the industry, and Wall Street, and he has helped build LinkedIn into a $US25 billion powerhouse.
Jeff recently visited Business Insider to talk to our team. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Henry Blodget: You write these wonderful essays on management and being a CEO. One of the most popular was your lesson that the pitcher never wants to come out of the game. It’s your job as CEO, the manager, to come in and say, “Sorry, I’m going to take you out and replace you.” It’s obvious on the baseball field: you can’t hit the strikes. What does it look like in the office?
Jeff Weiner: Leaving the pitcher in the game is less about the pitcher missing the strike zone. It’s more about the arm tiring and the other team teeing off. If you remember the American League World Championship with the Red Sox —
Pedro was up to the mound and it was very obvious his arm was tiring. And the Yankees were starting to get around on his fastball, and then the manager comes out and says, “Are you OK?” and he says, “Of course I’m OK.” It’s Pedro Martinez, one of the greatest pitchers in the modern era. And hit after hit, the Red Sox lost the game. I’ve been in business for roughly 20 years, and the entire time I’ve been managing people, not a single person has ever approached me and said, “I can’t do my job.” Not once.
So the key is knowing what to do proactively. I think this is one we all learn the hard way
, because we have the best interest of people at heart. We’re always rooting for people on our team. We also sometimes act, or don’t act, out of fear. We’re fearful over what people will think if we let that person go. We’re fearful of the morale hit. We’re fearful of the unknown. So we all just look away. And it will come back and bite you virtually every time.
And so when you have to ask yourself whether or not someone’s doing the job the way you hope they’re going to do the job, you already know the answer. And it’s been my experience that at that moment you actually put them on the clock. You do it in the most compassionate and most constructive way you know how. But you give yourself and you give that person some kind of timeline where you say: “I’m going all in with you; I’m going all in. Here is where I’ve observed the gap exists between your current performance and what we need from you. And I’m going to be transparent with you all the way. And if it doesn’t work out, we’re gonna figure out another role for you here hopefully, and if that doesn’t make sense, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re successful elsewhere.”
HB: So you say that you set aside 90 minutes a day to think.
JW: Up to two hours, yes. If you were to see my calendar printed out you would see these grey blocks, and it’s not a mistake. It’s done very much by design.
HB: Does it say, “Thinking,” “Jeff Time”?
JW: Jeff Time — it’s like the Seinfeld episode with Jimmy! It says buffer. I think as we evolve, there are two continuums that it’s very important we all navigate successfully in order to help scale the business. One is the difference between problem solving and coaching. Problem solving is much easier than coaching. Coaching takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting, because you need to understand what the person’s about, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes, dreams, and fears. And then you have to deliver messages in such a way that’s tailor-made for them so they can internalize it, and most importantly — this is where true scale begins to happen — they can start coaching people on their team to do it.
The other continuum is tactical execution vs. proactive, strategic thinking. And again, you’re a smaller startup, it’s all about building, it’s all about getting it done. Your competitors
are going to be waiting for a misstep; they’re waiting for you to become defocused. Thinking proactively and thinking strategically and starting to revise or refine your vision, your mission, your strategic objectives, that takes a lot of time. So that’s where a lot of my buffer time goes.
HB: What are the most important strategic decisions you’ve made to contribute to the success of the company?
JW: One is defining the core of the company. I remember we were in the process of recruiting our first independent board member and I was interviewing Leslie Kilgore, who at the time was the CMO of Netflix. She became our first independent board member. She’s amazing. She said: “So tell me about LinkedIn. How do you describe the company?” And I gave an answer and I thought it was a pretty good answer. She said: “That sounds pretty good, but that sounds like a lot of stuff. Let me ask it a different way. If you could only build one $US1 billion business, what would it be?” Came back to the office, and I ended up on the whiteboard, and I drew a target. And above the target I drew our core value proposition, which was connecting talent and opportunity at massive scale.
[Later, I said:]
“Hiring solutions. Let’s make that our first $US1 billion business.” I think that was an important decision.
HB: You are the highest-rated CEO. HIGHEST. Way above all these other guys we read about all day long at all these other companies that have even more, sometimes, visibility than you do. Do you have a CEO coach, or did you?
JW: Just bear in mind, I never aspired to be a CEO. Ever.
HB: So you were shocked when Reid Hoffman said to you, “I would like you to be CEO.”
JW: I wasn’t shocked. I just, growing up, I never aspired to be a CEO. And when I was at Yahoo, I really didn’t aspire to be a CEO. And I especially didn’t aspire to be a public company CEO. There were things that I wanted to do, I was very purpose driven, but I wasn’t title driven.
HB: If you go back to Silicon Valley in the 1990s, the wisdom was, “The crazy founder: sure they’re great to get the prototype up and running, and maybe they get a few sales and so forth, but then you bring in the professional CEO to run the place.” Now, thanks to Andreessen Horowitz and others, the prevailing wisdom is, “No, you keep the wacky, crazy founder as CEO and you hire a Sheryl Sandberg to represent to the world that they’re not quite so wacky and crazy.” You are a throwback to the 1990s because you didn’t actually found LinkedIn.
JW: Is that a compliment, or just an observation? “You’re a throwback!”
HB: Yes! How do you look at that? Why does it work so well?
JW: I don’t think there’s ever been an explicit discussion about where we sit along that evolution. I think it’s what worked best for us. And Reid is an extremely bright guy — very, very thoughtful. I don’t think he likes to make the same mistake twice. And before I got to LinkedIn, Reid had been the founder and the CEO, and then hired the professional CEO. And they had a lot of mutual respect for one another, but it was challenging because Reid maintained the title of President of Product, reporting to the CEO, who then reported to Reid, who was the Chairman and the Founder and the largest shareholder. They liked each other quite a bit. But it was just a really challenging situation.
Hear the full exchange on Reid Hoffman:
So the night before I started, I was interim president with all the responsibilities of a CEO. The night before I started, I called him and asked, “How is this going to work in terms of decisions? You’re in title the CEO, the founder of the company. I’m President. Which decisions would you like to make; which decisions would you like me to make?” He said, “This is very easy. It’s your ball, you run with it.”
That was the entire discussion. And he went further, so this is a great example of how thoughtful Reid is. After I started, for the first 8-10 weeks that I was at LinkedIn, he was out of the office for 6-8 weeks; he had scheduled travel. Because he knew no matter what we explained to people, in terms of my calling the shots, there was muscle memory there and people would go back to him. I just have a lot of respect for him and he’s not only a mentor, he’s become a very good friend.
HB: A very simple question: Is being CEO fundamentally different from being a manager?
JW: Yes. The more people you’re responsible for, the more your words and the way you communicate those words and your body language and essentially everything you do is taken into consideration by the team. You have to be that much more aware of the way in which you’re coming across. And I think the best leaders maintain awareness of their environment and in real time can course correct. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a one-on-one, a staff meeting, an all-hands, or speaking to thousands of people at a keynote. They are always aware of the way they are being received. They can course correct so they can ensure that what they’re saying is resonating and that it’s bringing people together.
HB: One of the issues in the economy right now is wages are at an all-time low, while CEOs, senior managers and shareholders are making out like bandits.
JW: I’m smiling because you have been all over this for years.
HB: And the average CEO pay now at Fortune 500 Companies has gone from 30 times the average employee to 350 times. You got a very nice raise last year — first of all, if anybody deserves it, you deserve it. It is a huge number, though. My question is: How do you decide what’s fair?
JW: I think that’s going to be different for every individual. I think oftentimes when determining compensations for people, I think you have to draw upon your own experience, I think you have to draw upon your gut, your instincts, and what feels right and what feels wrong. There’s internal levelling, internal comps, external comps, there’s a lot of market data on this. And I think that’s one place you can start the dialogue, but exactly to your point, regardless of what that data’s telling you, at some point, you have to trust your instincts, you have to trust your values, and you have to say, “I believe this is right, equitable, and fair — or it’s not.” And if not, you step up and you do something about it.
HB: And so part of problem, and why we’ve gotten to this, is Wall Street. Money management has been unbelievably professionalized, right down to pension funds and everything else, coming at you, CEO of a company, saying, “You work for us, we want X more ROI, whatever it happens to be. Enough with your compassionate management crap, deliver more to me, on the bottom line, because I’m going to get fired if you don’t.”
Enough with your compassionate management crap, deliver more to me, on the bottom line, because I’m going to get fired if you don’t.
When you went public, the stock soared and everything was great. [It’s come back up, but] earlier this year, the stock dropped significantly. How did that make you feel? And then how much time do you invest with shareholders, what do you feel you owe to them, do you have to apologise and start groveling and say, “I’m going to get the stock up, don’t worry?”
JW: So, a few things to consider. For starters, before going public, I was asked by one of our board members what kind of public company we wanted to be. And I was speechless. I had never been the CEO of a public company, I had never taken a company public, and I thought naively that things would just continue going the way they were going. And I said, “Let me get back to you, I need to think about it.”
So I thought about it. And I came back and the next meeting I said, “We’re going to be the exact same company as a public company as we were as a private company.” Same vision, same mission, same strategy, same long-term focus, same culture, same values — all of which had been codified. And I said: “If we go public, and something changes, one of two things has happened. Either we weren’t ready, or I wasn’t the right person to lead this company.” After the meeting, our CFO and general counsel, being excellent members of the team, pulled me aside and said, “Psst, come here for a sec. You know how you said nothing will change? You realise some things have to change.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “Well, one of our values is being open, honest, and constructive — and at the all-hands, you’re basically transparent with everything (we do an all-hands every other week). And as a publicly held company, you’re not necessarily going to be in the same position.” And I said, “Why not?” They said, “It’s not the way it works — there’s risks and so forth and so on.” I said, “No, it’s not going to change. We’re going to play up to who we aspire to be and not play down to the lowest common denominator out of fear of what might happen. As soon as you do that, it’s done.”
We’re going to play up to who we aspire to be and not play down to the lowest common denominator out of fear of what might happen. As soon as you do that, it’s done.
And that’s been the approach ever since. You said, “How do I feel with the stock trading here vs. there and every other place?” The street determines our day-to-day share price. We determine the long-term value.
HB: You are 100 per cent right, and yet Wall Street pressure ruins great companies by forcing people like you to focus on six months and this quarter instead or three-, five-, seven-year horizons where you can actually create long-term value. And many great CEOs buckle to that pressure, “I work for my shareholders; I have to answer to them.”
JW: Yes. A few thoughts. We’re a dual-class structure, so I think that certainly helps. It comes back to leadership and it comes back to culture. If we are successful in building what we want to build, the value and ultimately the price will take care of itself.
HB: And how do you convey that and get everybody on board with that? Amazon has done it — their stock went from 150 to 3 and then back up to 1,000 and whatever it is. But at other companies, the stock tanks, the morale is in the toilet, everyone is talking about that all the time. How do you get everybody on board and say, “Just stop, just stop, it will take care of itself.”
JW: It can’t be all of a sudden. It has to be consistent throughout. You invest very heavily and thoughtfully in deciding what kind of company you want to be. And then you repeat it, over and over and over again. A friend of mine once paraphrased David Gergen, saying on the subject of repetition, “If you want to get your point across, especially to a broader audience, you need to repeat yourself so often, you get sick of hearing yourself say it. And only then will people begin to internalize what you’re saying.”
So repetition is a big part of that. And then once that’s set and it’s codified, you need to be consistent and be true to it, with everything that you do. Your hiring, it starts with recruiting. I think one of the ways hyper-growth companies go off the rails is that they’re growing so quickly, there is so much demand for product, there are so many opportunities ahead of them, that they lower the hiring bar to put people in seats to get the work done. And I think that’s the beginning of the end for those companies.
I think one of the ways hyper-growth companies go off the rails is that they’re growing so quickly … that they lower the hiring bar to put people in seats to get the work done. And I think that’s the beginning of the end for those companies.
Hopefully they recognise it early enough where they can course correct. One of those very special moments, those inflection points — this was way back, and someone said: “Look at this candidate on paper, on their LinkedIn profile, they’re a great candidate and they have all the skills. I’m a bit concerned about their background because they might not be a great cultural fit, but we’ll make it work.” Hire the person, inevitably you know how the story ends.
If you repeat that across too many people, who are all bringing their own backgrounds and their own cultural legacies, they’re going to start to manifest the way they believe things should be. That’s going to create problems. And it’s very expensive to unwind that. And when you know when you’re on the right path is, fast-forward X number of months, we’re around a similar table, and someone says, “Look at this profile, look at how talented this person is.” And they say, “But they’re not a cultural fit, so let’s move on to the next candidate.” And when that starts to happen, you realise you’re on the right path, especially when those discussions are happening without you in the room. So it starts with hiring, and then it’s onboarding — it’s reinforcing that once they are hired, just because they signed on, it doesn’t mean you’re done. That’s when all the work begins. And every time you [reinforce your culture and values this way] you get stronger, and that’s what you see with Amazon, and that’s what you see with Netflix.
HB: You’ve stressed the importance of identifying great people and persuading them to join your team. But what if you have to work too hard to persuade them? If they’re like, “Yeah, you know I’m kind of interested, you know, maybe, throw a few more dollars at me, maybe another title” — when does it cross over to, “You know what, I just laid it out there for this person, and they’re just not interested. I’m not going to marry somebody who doesn’t want to marry me.” When?
JW: It’s an excellent, excellent question. That’s in large part instinct. There’s no checklist or script. But I can tell you that moment because it’s clear as day. There’s a time where you’re bringing them along and you recognise that they’re happy where they are, and you’re bringing them up to speed on why the opportunity makes so much sense. Once they internalize it, there’s going to be some back and forth, like, “Well, I think I may want to stick around where I am,” or “God, this opportunity is so interesting to me,” and then they’re torn.
And then there’s time and it’s like, “You gotta make a decision.” And once you get into that time, and there’s still the equivocation, it probably makes sense to move on, for both people. Because ultimately you’re looking for fit, and oftentimes egos get involved and it becomes all about the transaction. It becomes all about the close, as opposed to having the truly honest discussion about whether or not there’s a fit.
HB: You’ve said that it’s important to you that you’re not surrounded by “yes” men. How do you get the company culture to the point where employees are totally comfortable going to the mat for an idea. They totally believe they’re right and your idea is wrong. And you say, “That’s great, I’m so glad you did that. We’re doing my idea.” And then they have to say, “You know what? I’m 100% on board with that.” How do you let people invest emotionally in their own ideas that much and then you do something else and they have to follow you?
JW: You develop trust over time. That doesn’t happen in one sitting. Because if that only happens once, and people have to make a snap judgment, it’s going to be, “Well what’s that all about?” But the second time, the third time, the fourth time, the fifth time, they’re right a few times, someone else is right a few times, and as we go, we see what worked and didn’t work and we’re course correcting and we’re doing post-mortems and we’re figuring what went wrong. And we’re not lamenting the mistakes, we’re not lamenting the fact that we took the wrong path — we’re learning from them.
An old friend of mine once said, trust equals consistency over time.
An old friend of mine once said, trust equals consistency over time.
There’s no substitute for either one of those things. So just because you come that one time and you have a great idea and you get shot down, and I say, “Trust me the next one will work out your way.” That’s not how it works. They will evaluate it based on the next discussion, and the next discussion, and the next discussion, and the next discussion. And if you’re creating an environment where the best idea wins and it’s not about politics and it’s not about manoeuvring — it’s about aligning yourself, your teams, against what the company is trying to accomplish — that’s how you create a winning culture.