How did Bill Campbell, a football coach from Columbia University, become one of the most successful technology executives in Silicon Valley, including CEO of Intuit and board director at Apple? How did Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, manage to stay deeply involved with the businesses of eBay and Procter & Gamble while overseeing Intuit?
They are extraordinary leaders. I was fortunate and worked for them in the ’90s. I got to see firsthand how they choose to lead. First and foremost, they built great teams with layers of strong leadership. With that in place, they didn’t have to be hands-on with day-to-day operational details. Instead, they freed up their time to take on new challenges and fix big problems. The better leader you are, the more you can accomplish.
If you care about your business and career, you’re always working on developing your leadership skills. After watching successful Silicon Valley executives over the past 20 years, I have identified three traits of leaders that make the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
1. Great Leaders Confront Tough Problems Head-on
Both Cook and Campbell tackled difficult problems that others weren’t willing to face. Facing a difficult problem means that you need to step up. It’s all on you. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs running companies who were unwilling to make the hard decisions, including myself.
I started my first company, PayCycle, in 1999. As a first-time CEO, I initially failed to address the challenges and opportunities because I was unsure of myself. In hindsight, Cook and Campbell never let being unsure of themselves stop them from addressing the problem at hand. I didn’t really learn this myself until I left the day-to-day operations of PayCycle and was only participating in the company’s success as a board member. It is much easier to see the challenges and opportunities when you are not in the middle of it.
Great CEOs are leaders willing to make difficult decisions quickly. Sometimes they also possess futuristic vision or have the ability to see things others overlook, but they are always willing to make the difficult decisions. Cook was famous for bringing listening-to-customers techniques that he learned at Procter & Gamble and applying them to technology. This unique insight into customers enabled Cook to start Intuit and with a deep knowledge of the customers and the problems they had managing finances. It is what drives him, and is a core principle that helped him to act swiftly to stop projects or break up groups at Intuit that either weren’t delivering results or didn’t fit into the overall strategy.
2. Great Leaders Find the Time to Take on Big Challenges
In order to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to work long hours. In my own life as an entrepreneur, I’ve succeeded by working hard and never making excuses about not having the time. In fact, employees will sometimes comment that they “don’t want to bother me." I remind them not to worry about my time since that’s my problem. I need to know their issues first and foremost.
In every entrepreneur’s journey, there comes a day when working harder isn’t enough. There is only so much “you” to go around. For me, as the revenue scaled from $100,000 to $1 million to $10 million and we set our sights on $100 million, I was forced to realize that I needed to change things in a big way. Surprisingly, the big changes came when I figured out a way to free up my time.
I’m not suggesting that you, as an entrepreneur, take your foot off the gas right now. In the early days of Apple and PayPal, the company culture was to work all the time, 100 hours a week. My point is that Bill Campbell can’t work 100 hours a week at all the organizations he’s involved with: Intuit, the Columbia board of trustees, the National Football Foundation, and the National Football Hall of Fame. There’s not that many hours in a week.
One of Campbell’s great strengths was developed during his time as head coach of the Columbia University football team. As a coach, you’re not on the field. You manage the players and set the strategy and the direction. He learned that a great leader needs to let the team execute the brilliant plays on their own. By being a coach, instead of just a manager, Campbell is able to provide leadership for a number of organizations, instead of being totally consumed with one.
3. Great Leaders Aren’t Afraid of Breaking Things
Common wisdom says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This wisdom is no longer correct. There is opposition to a leader breaking things. It’s a huge risk. If the new structure or product isn’t better, you’ve just jumped off a cliff.
When you break something, you can’t be afraid. But you must also respect the risk. Early on in my career at Intuit, I set out to break a good-size business within the company. I had responsibility for the payroll-tax updates for QuickBooks. We would send these updates to customers on floppy disks, free of charge. Having come from the payroll-services industry, I realized Intuit was missing a huge opportunity. I pushed to turn this into a subscription service. There was enormous internal opposition. Colleagues were certain I was ruining the QuickBooks business and that customers would leave us in droves. Not true. Customers realized the tax-table updates were valuable, and today Intuit’s payroll business based on the tax tables is 15 times where it was when I decided to break something.
By breaking a business model or a working group structure or eliminating a product, you force rapid change. Things can blow up. Or, the explosion can power a rocket that takes your team in an entirely different direction. In Silicon Valley, we talk about the pivot, a radical shift in a company. This can encompass eliminating all products and betting all you have on building a crop of new ones or swapping out your entire team. It’s like jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord and your eyes wide open. You feel terror, excitement, and freedom and are forced to confront a drastic change in perspective. It’s hard to describe the emotions. People who participate in bungee jumps will just say that it’s fun and that they love it. If you’re breaking product strategies, team structures, or business models for the right reasons, you’re growing as a leader.
Scott Cook and Bill Campbell are effective leaders, not just because of their extraordinary vision and ability to coach employees. They also do the tough jobs—changing product strategies and teams. They find a way to keep having fun every day. They feel passionate about what they do. After 30 years, Intuit continues to take market share and define how software for the masses should be built. Now, that is leadership.
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