When you think of the name Jeff, who comes to mind? I don’t mean the friend you go to the gym with, or the co-worker you try to avoid making chit chat with. I mean public type Jeff. If you’re like most people who have been paying any attention to the Internet over the last 20 years, you probably think of Bezos. The Amazon visionary. The one leader to rule them all. The dreaded boss who sends emails to his executives with a single ‘?’. If you received it, you know you’re in trouble.
I was always more inspired by another public Jeff. As I was learning how to be an engineering leader and manager myself, I looked for role models that inspired and taught me. This Jeff became, unknowingly, one of my mentors.
So when Jeff Weiner announced last week he’d be stepping down from his CEO role, I felt that it would be a good time to stop for a moment and reflect on why he’s been so inspirational in shaping me as a person and as a leader.
Turning the Ship Around
When Jeff became CEO of LinkedIn in 2009, what he found was a company in trouble. With a little over 300 employees, LinkedIn was losing a cool $4.5 million a year, and had no business model you could speak of while keeping a straight face. Jeff “pulled a Steve” and re-focused the company on its richest and fastest-growing opportunity: its then 161 million member subscribers. Monetising those, through marketing, advertising, subscriptions and recruiter power tools, became the only game in town.
From there to going public, at a $7.8 billion valuation, took only a short two years. And five more, in 2016, to getting de-listed from the NYSE – not because it became penny stock, but rather as the closing step of its much publicized acquisition by Microsoft for $26.2 billion.
Today, LinkedIn has over 575+ million users, with more than 260 million monthly active users. It became the undisputed global marketplace for jobs, with a gigantic moat perpetually reinforced by powerful network effects.
So, beyond being in the right place at the right time, with the right product that people needed, what else contributed to this success story?
Great leadership did.
Jeff is known within LinkedIn for his “Next Play” mantra, which he picked up from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. As he explains it, “Take a minute to celebrate success or reflect on failure, but then move on." This mindset helps creating and maintaining the urgency towards constant progress, be it individual or collective, but also to stay balanced. Even the title of the blog post announcing his stepping down brings the mantra into focus: “It's Time for My Next Play and LinkedIn's New CEO”.
Urgency alone, however, is not enough. To find the path, and constantly re-calibrate the direction, Jeff leveraged the power of inquiry. According to David Hahn, LinkedIn’s VP of Product Management from 2005 to 2014, “he was able to ask questions that were really right on the money. They were precisely the areas we were having trouble with or spending a lot of time thinking about or influenced the direction we needed to go.”
Going on a “listening tour” is run-of-the-mill advice in any “first 90 days” type book. What’s less emphasised, is how leadership really is relationship building. When he joined LinkedIn, Jeff didn’t just sit down with his handful of direct reports behind the closed doors of an ivory tower. Instead, he personally met with all 338 employees, either 1-on-1 or in small groups. Putting in the legwork to listen and ask questions makes others feel heard. Great leadership is bringing others along.
Do The Simple Stuff Right
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” — Charlie Munger
Rather than repeat Yahoo’s mistakes of moving in too many directions, Jeff focused on getting the basics right: fix the website so it doesn’t break as often. Run a lot of tests to understand users. Be rigorous in analysing data. Get the product right. Instead of just building castles in the sky financed by loads of hollow cash, turns out good old-fashioned solid fundamentals are important.
The other critical signal every employee craves is direction. The ability to construct a vision and articulate that clearly to their team is one of the greatest skills a leader can have. Seneca once said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Jeff took every public appearance and, I suspect, every internal one, as an opportunity to reiterate LinkedIn’s vision, mission, and values. He was relentless in this. Constant clarity about what matters most is a catalyst for quality decision making across the board. A real competitive advantage, especially in large companies.
Learning from Jeff
When thinking about my key takeaways from everything I read, watch and listened to on Jeff Weiner over the years, five learnings stand out.
Scaling companies is about scaling leadership. Many leaders mistake scale for growth. And many think scale is a technology game only. One of the biggest ironies of startup success is how the skills that got you here won’t get you there. Jeff often talked about how you need to move across the continuum from problem solving to coaching – not just coaching others on how to solve their own problems, but coaching them how to coach. That's when you achieve true scale. As David Hahn again puts it:
“In meetings, when it's clear someone has made a mistake, Weiner displays a deft touch, turning the gaffe into a teaching moment for everyone. "The person who made the mistake or who can do better the next time leaves the meeting feeling good," Hahn says. "There's a magic to it, that he's able to do it in such a constructive way. You feel like you're part of a supportive team, and ultimately you feel like Jeff is behind you."
Be compassionate. While known for being a compassionate leader, he often talks about a time when he wasn’t. At some point, he understood he had to bring others along, and for that he had to be helpful. He describes compassion as a skill that enables you to see the world through the eyes of another person in order to alleviate their suffering or help them. He spearheaded The Compassion Project, with a goal of teaching compassion in every school. But make no mistake: managing compassionately should not be confused with avoiding difficult decisions.
Consistency over time is trust. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, recalls: "When we were in the midst of negotiating the acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016, their CEO Jeff Weiner turned to me and said, “Consistency over time is trust.”” As human beings, we’re notoriously poor at appreciating how the long term is an accumulation of discrete “now” moments. As a well-intentioned leader, you may expect to be trusted by default. But it’s by acting with integrity, and aligning what you say and what you do at all times, that you gain that trust. There are no shortcuts.
Block substantial time in your calendar for connecting the dots. It’s awfully easy to get overwhelmed in a fast-paced, ambiguous environment. You make it worse by trying to do everything all the time. As a leader, you need time to take a step back and “connect the dots”. What is urgent? What is important? Am I doing what needs to be done towards accomplishing my goals? Or am I spinning my wheels? Jeff is known for scheduling at least 90 minutes per day of alone time where he allows himself to think strategically, proactively and with a long-term orientation. My learning has been that if you don’t do this, you’re caught in the perpetual short-term, eternally putting out fires.
How to decide whether to stay or to go. Most people have, at some point, contemplated staying in or leaving the company they work for. I learned a simple but extraordinarily powerful framework from Jeff, based on three simple questions: Are you learning? Are you inspired by the people you work with? Are you making a difference? If the answer to at least one of these questions is a No, something’s off. And if none warrant a Yes, it’s surely time to move on.
I have never met Jeff Weiner, never spoken a word to the guy. I would however be surprised if he turned out to be a phoney asshole “in real life”. He seems to be a prime example of what good looks like for a leader and CEO. And judging by the 97% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor, I’m probably not far off the mark here. Turns out compassionate leadership is not incompatible with astounding business results. In fact, quite the contrary.
Bad leaders obsess with goals, numbers, and “performance”. They think caring about their people needs is weakness, that it will make them look soft. That that "wishy washy" stuff has no place in real business, for real men. That performance comes only from putting in the hours and doing what you’re paid to do anyway. Grit and hustle. Carrots and sticks.
Great leaders understand that doing requires creating the conditions to do. And that true success always depends on bringing others – fully and willingly – along.