Connecting dots

 Shantanoo NarayenQ: What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

A: I really honed a lot of my leadership skills and style at Apple. I worked for Apple for many years, and I had a mentor, Gursharan Sidhu.  He forced me to think about doing things that I did not think were possible. Challenging individuals by setting goals and then letting them use their ingenuity to accomplish them is something that I hope I can pass on as part of my leadership style. If you set a common vision and then get really scary-smart people, they do things that amaze you.

The other aspect of being a good manager has always been getting gratification from what others do, because the higher you go the less you do yourself.

Q: How do you make sure goals are calibrated properly?

A: I like to say that if you can connect all the dots between what you see today and where you want to go, then it’s probably not ambitious enough or aspirational enough. On the other hand, if people look at it and say there is no way that’s going to happen, then it’s probably a little too much. So it’s a balance.

The other thing at Apple was that you really believed you were going to change the world. I think that if you do great work it can have just a tremendous and profound impact on society. I think it’s something that really can be very motivating.

Q: Are you changing culture at Adobe?

A: One of the things we have tried to do in the last couple of years is introduce this notion of general managers — you equip people with the responsibility to make the decisions that are required to drive their businesses. We’ve said to them, “Go run your business, make the decisions and make the trade-offs.” Some of them will be hugely successful and some of them will stumble, and I think that’s O.K. Creating a culture where you allow people to take risks and grow their careers, I think, is important.
We’ve also created this notion of “seeds,” to bring the venture capital culture into Adobe, to allow people who have a creative idea to run with it.

Q: How does that work?

A: The person who runs the seed is actually called an “entrepreneur in residence.” The way you budget for seeds is you don’t do the traditional, “O.K., how many engineers do you need and how many product marketing people do you need?” You say, “O.K., here’s a first round of funding, and tell me what your metrics are.” And if you accomplish those metrics, and if we still think we want to go from seed funding to first-round and second-round funding, then we’ll put more money into it.

Q: Talk about how you build a team.

A: My big belief in management is that people don’t change. You know, I’m highly unlikely at this age to fundamentally change what I am as a human being, and so my management philosophy also tends to be that if I can complement people’s strengths by surrounding them with people who can complement their areas of weakness, that’s probably a better recipe for success than trying to say, “Okay, you need to change.”

Q: What do you look for when hiring?

A: For me, the biggest predictors of success are raw intelligence and a passion for what you do. And I try to look for people who are going to have tremendous passion for being here, as opposed to this being just another job. As I’m looking for people at very senior levels, I also look for whether they share the fundamental values of the company. Unless people really internalize and believe in the core values of the company, they’re highly unlikely to be successful.

Q: What feedback do you get from your direct reports?

A: I am actually very comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and I believe that allows for more inquiry, which I personally like. I’ve gotten feedback at times, saying that being more declarative in some instances about what I think, is important.

One of my fundamental beliefs of management is that you accomplish great things by surfacing ideas that everybody has, and cutting off a conversation doesn’t accomplish that. But if you let a conversation go on too long, you could miss windows of opportunity.

Q: Anything different about the way you run meetings?

A: One of the ways I am trying to change my own management style is in the quarterly business reviews. I’m trying to focus more on getting people who are presenting to discuss their insights, and to lead the discussion of what they want to accomplish, and where the business is working, and where the business is not working. Because, frankly, they’re closer to the business. And the more you can get them to feel ownership for the decisions, I think the more successful you are.

You certainly give them your input, you certainly coach and guide them, you channel them into areas that you believe they need to think about. But that’s one way in which I’m trying to change as we grow this next generation of general managers. I want them to feel like the business review is their opportunity to talk about where the business is going well, where the business is not going as well, and what’s keeping them up at night so that I can help them, as opposed to them feeling like they’re under the microscope, and all they have to do is show you they’re on top of the data, which I think is a meaningless exercise.

Q: Any particular techniques for managing your time, the crush of e-mail?

A: I try to go to sleep every night, wherever I am in the world, with fewer than 10 e-mails in my in-box. I try never to read an e-mail twice, so I delete it when I’m done. One of my philosophies is I respond as soon as I can, and if it’s important enough and I’ve deleted it, it’ll come back. And I say 10 only because sometimes there are attachments that require a little bit more effort, and so you don’t want to be flippant, either. But for ones that are F.Y.I., you know, I just delete them.

I have another philosophy, which is, unless I am the sole person on the “to” line, I don’t feel the need to respond.

Q: What do you think business school should teach more of, or less of?

A: I think business schools need to focus more on a cross-functional curriculum to help aspiring managers think about things not from the perspective of finance or marketing, or accounting, but cross-functionally. The second thing I would say is leadership and really talking about how you equip people to think and learn and adapt.

Q: So leadership can be taught?

A: Well, I believe that sharing experiences and enabling people to reflect on what’s important to them and how they would react is certainly a way for individuals to be able to think about what’s important to them and how they hone their leadership style. I ask people to tell me the hardest issue that they have faced and how they worked around it, and how they think about it. I think that in dealing with adversity and dealing with challenges, you learn a lot more about how individuals react. I have a number of friends who run public companies. I tend to ask them about the tough times that they have faced and what they have done. You learn a lot from what others have gone through.

Q: How do you think about failure?

A: You know, there is no such thing as failure. You’re always learning. You gain experience. I have looked back at aspects of my career where somebody might look at it and say, you know, that start-up was not successful, and I look at it and I say, “I learned how to build a team, how to raise money, how to sell a vision, how to create a product.” It was a great steppingstone for me.

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