The other day, an old friend asked me an interesting question:
What was the best piece of career guidance you’ve ever received?
As one who has had the fortune of working for or with industry heavyweights Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff and Scott Thompson, the CEO’s of Oracle, Salesforce.com and Yahoo, I could probably develop a long list of great career advice.
Below are three lessons that I find especially pertinent to running a successful Silicon Valley business.
From Larry Ellison, Oracle founder/CEO:
“Sometimes, you need to piss off the boss.”
Leading up to the meeting, we really needed to brief Larry on what MCI was looking to hear. However, Larry was eternally busy; everyone wanted his time. He didn’t reply to emails or voicemails; stalking his office was fruitless; but we needed him at this meeting. First, I’ll tell you the story of how I trapped Larry Ellison in his car in a secluded parking lot one night. This was around 1994. I was on Oracle’s sales team and handled the MCI account. A sales colleague and I were bringing MCI’s CTO and top 8 CIO’s to Oracle’s headquarters, to hear about Oracle’s vision for the Internet. It was early days of the Internet, when Netscape had not yet gone public; MCI owned half of the Internet backbone in the US, and Vint Cerf, “father of the Internet”, was working at the company.
At the end of the day, as we were leaving Oracle, we spotted Larry getting into his red Acura NSX, a phalanx of PR people holding out press releases for him to review. This was our chance! We pulled up in front of Larry, blocking his exit. Larry’s eyes bulged when he saw the doors swinging open on a black Lincoln town car, with two guys in dark suits simultaneously exiting from either side. When he realised it was his sales team, and not a hit squad, he snatched the 2 page briefing doc from our hands, slammed on the gas and roared off.
In the end, we did get what we needed. Larry waxed eloquently on Oracle’s strategy for the Internet (a strategy that Marc Benioff put together, by the way), and it was a hit. My car, for the record, never even got dented. So it was a net win for us.
From Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com founder/CEO:
“Break the glass ceiling in your head.”
In 2003, fresh in my role as the first CMO at Salesforce.com, I got a call from Marc for what would be the first in a series of outlandish marketing campaigns, each one more creative than the last. In the SaaS world, our new releases would trickle out on a regular cadence, without much fanfare. Marc wanted to change that, and turn our releases into a platform for big product announcements. He told me to name our release “S3”, to buy all the tickets to the San Francisco movie premier of Terminator 3, and how we were going to do a “S3 at T3” launch with 500 people in attendance. Oh, and he wanted me to raise $250K through partner sponsorships.
I had serious doubts about this, and I could think of 100 reasons why not to do it including the fact that we were an enterprise software company, not Hollywood hotshots. No one had done anything like this before. But I suspended my disbelief, pulled the team together, and lo and behold, we executed a world class event that was attended by and written about by local and national press. And I have my photo shaking hands with Arnold!
What I learned from Marc is that most of us walk around with an artificial glass ceiling on what we can accomplish. We find 100 reasons why an idea won’t work. This holds us back from reaching our true potential. What I learned from Marc is to constantly smash that glass ceiling, to take chances and push yourself beyond your comfort level, and tap into a whole new world of possibilities. At the end of the day, you want to be writing the rule book rather than abiding by one.
From Scott Thompson, Yahoo CEO:
“Your job is to make people successful”
Towards the end of 2009, I was almost two years into co-founding Zuora. Things were going well for us. In a tough economic year, we were on target to triple the company’s size, in terms of revenue, cash, and number of customers. At my quarterly one-on-one lunch with our board member Scott Thompson, who was President of eBay’s PayPal business at the time, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Scott could see that I was feeling like we had “made it.”
Immediately, Scott took me down a peg, saying, “This progress is great, but if you asked me for advice, and you haven’t asked me by the way, I would say the one thing you haven’t proved is that you can make your people successful.”
That came as a bit of a shock to me. It took me a while to internalize, but I understood what Scott was saying. He has observed that my style was to throw projects at people, and then let them sink or swim. If they sunk, I’d simply give the project to someone else. Zuora was successful, but it came at the expense of being a rough place to work! If I wanted to help Zuora scale to greatness, my focus needed to shift from just focusing on the company’s success, to the employee’s success.
“You are the CEO,” Scott said. “That’s your job. you’re on the hook and you have to own that responsibility.”
Scott, thanks for the wake up call, it was very timely. At the end of 2009, I saw the need to dramatically shift our strategy to pursue a much greater market opportunity – the Subscription Economy. But to pursue this strategy, we needed everyone in the company to take on greater roles. I realised that my job was to lay out our vision and priorities, and get out of their way. So I took the company to a two-day off-site where we talked about our core values. We talked about how we weren’t at Zuora for just a job, of how everyone wanted to be empowered to be their very best. We invented the word “ZEO”: the idea that everyone at Zuora is in charge of their own destiny and can be their own CEO. The ZEO philosophy has been key to our company’s success.
The reality is that everybody’s experiences are different in the Valley. Ask Aaron Levie or Aneel Bhusri. They all have different stories about moments of clarity and lessons learned, often painfully. But any of them will tell you that the good, the bad and the ugly has made them what they are today.