In the life of a company, every dog has its day. So says Randy Komisar, a veteran Silicon Valley venture capitalist and entrepreneur who has spent the last 25 years launching technology startups. Komisar is a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers where he specializes in working with technology entrepreneurs. “I’m not attracted to them because of the bottom line,” he says. “I’m attracted to them to them because of the top line–they change they can make.” His own pedigree: co-founder of Claris Corporation, CEO of LucasArts Entertainment, CEO of Crystal Dynamics, founding director of TiVo, senior counsel at Apple Computer, author of two books, and “virtual CEO” to an array of fledgling companies. In this Q&A, he warns of the classic mistakes of manager-wannabe-leaders, the perils of too many bullets and not enough Zen, and why CEOs are like dogs.
Kermit Pattison: What are the classic pitfalls you see entrepreneurs making over and over again?
Randy Komisar: Mistaking the difference between leadership and management. A lot of people believe the two are the same and believe that, because they have been effective or excellent managers, that they’re capable of leading. While the two ideally come together, the qualities and attributes of a leader and a manager are not exactly the same.
In your mind, what’s the difference between management and leadership?
Management is more operationally focused. It’s more of a supervisory role of setting priorities, allocating resources, and directing the execution. Leadership is more forward thinking, more about enabling the organization, empowering individuals, developing the right people, thinking strategically about opportunities, and driving alignment. Mind you, the line is not black and white. But it’s a classic mistake that because someone is a good manager that they’ll necessarily be a good leader.
In early stage projects, the CEO oftentimes is effectively a project manager. I’ve seen some of those people over-think leadership–literally start to compound the challenges by thinking too big and not immediate enough.
They start to think, “Oh, I’ve got to be a leader, I’ve got to start reading books and learning theory?”
Exactly–I need a vision statement, I need to define my culture in five bullet points. When I started running companies 20-something years ago, I learned that the first thing to do was to define my culture, which meant sitting down and writing up a cute little vision statement. What I realized, after being involved with enough companies, is that these vision statements all look alike, the words are gobbledygook and they’re not very meaningful.
Now what I usually say is, “We’re going to come up with a culture statement a year after we formed.” Put it on the calendar. Why after a year? Because then we can actually see what out culture is–what we don’t like about it and what we do like about it.
How much of leadership is natural versus a discipline that can be learned?
The first thing to realize is how many different styles of leadership can be successful. There isn’t one style of leadership that is innately more successful than others. There are certain skills sets, which are learnable, that are very important. You need to be able to communicate. If you can’t communicate well, you won’t be able to inspire, motivate and attract the resources necessary for success.
Prioritization is a really important skill. You’ve got to know what’s more important than the other thing. It’s amazing how many really smart people can’t prioritize. Only a minority of people can effectively prioritize and focus.
And you need to have effective interpersonal skills. That doesn’t mean you need to be social and it doesn’t mean you need to be outgoing. But it means that when you sit down in your office with somebody who’s relying on you for leadership, you’ve got to be able to emphatically communicate with them around their challenges, figure out how to help them be more successful and resolve their conflicts so they can do their job better than they thought they could.
You say companies need different breeds of leaders at different stages. How are CEOs like dogs?
I call the first CEO the retriever–the leader who has to go out and assemble the resources. They have to go out and find the people, the money and the partners. That person is really great sales person–they have sell the vision every day. They’re asking people to believe in something that doesn’t exist and take a substantial leap of faith.
The next is the bloodhound CEO. You got to find out where that value proposition is going to find paydirt so you can actually build a business around it. You’ve got something now, but how do you optimize it? You’ve got to sleuth that out.
The husky is the next one. Now you’ve got a product, a value proposition, and you’ve figured out your business model. Now you’ve got to pull this sled as it gets heavier with people, products and customers up a hill, which is essentially the hill of building a big successful business.
The one dog you never really want pulling your company is the St. Bernard.
The rescue dog.
Right. Because at that point you know you’ve got big trouble.
Even a great leader, if the wrong breed at the wrong time, can be a mismatch?
Absolutely. There are different talents in the creation of businesses and running of businesses that need to be taken into consideration. A mistake often made in the venture investment business is rushing to bring in a big CEO into what is still a small venture. The mismatch of skills is severe. The big CEO needs resources, needs a strong sense of direction and momentum, and is not very effective day-to-day with a bunch of people putting bits and bytes together. The other mismatch that’s harder to foresee is the small company with momentum. You say, great, let’s bring in the guy who can grow it to $100 million and take it public. The problem is that you may face yet another significant right or left hand turn in your business which that CEO may be completely unqualified to do.
I liken it to a story a friend of mine told me many years ago about driving through the Sahara. For three nights the road through the sand was dead straight to the south. On the third night, there was a right hand turn. At the base of that turn, it’s full of crashed trucks. I think about that CEO the same way. If you’re not an agile, venture CEO you are very likely to end up crashing at that turn.
What episode earlier in your career were formative experiences on leadership?
At Go Corporation I worked for Bill Campbell, who has absolutely been formative to me. Bill showed me, first and foremost, that business was worth doing. At that point, I was a lawyer and I certainly had no inclination to go into business. To me, business was about buying low and selling high–a fun game, but not an interesting life. Bill taught me the high art and that what was interesting are the people you work with, the people you sell to, the constituents and stakeholders you bring together, the art of being able to manage them all together to succeed, and to create potential beyond the obvious. I just found that mesmerizing–that’s why I do what I do today.
If you look at the ranks of CEOs today, who strikes strike you as being particularly thoughtful about leadership?
When I read interviews with CEOs lately around leadership, I’ve got to tell you, the stuff that gets published seems awfully conventional. I’m not seeing any brilliant insights about leadership lately from the leaders who get a following out there.
I’ve given up on the guru model and think more in the Zen model: things will change and that’s okay. What we need is a set of constant provocations. What I like to read are those things that really challenge my assumptions, authors who are willing to think differently, no matter whether I agree with them or not, because they at least broaden my own thinking. What I don’t like reading is the pablum–the 10 habits of great leaders or whatever. Those are constraining and not very effective for the average person.
Speaking of bad advice, what’s the worst advice about leadership you ever heard?
One of the most important lessons I learned is that people are not fungible. I’ve had bosses who said, “We’re not going to pay well, incent, or develop our people because there’s always somebody to take their place.” The problem with that logic is, while it might be statistically true, it fundamentally indicates a culture that is not going to invest in anybody. Nobody is going to become very effective.
The other piece of leadership that somebody tried to teach me, which I dismissed, is manage by the numbers–if you manage by the numbers everything else takes care of itself. Just get people to execute, measure, hold people accountable, and that’s enough. That’s not enough. Yes, it is important to instill accountability in organization, it’s important to have good metrics, to discipline the process, reward people, and withdraw those rewards when they’re not being effective. But that won’t get you greatness.
So what does get you greatness?
When I am most successful, it’s because the people around me have made me successful. It comes down to the fact that success is created by a group of people and not by any single individual. How do you get people to come together around a goal and objective and be great? It’s establishing a sense of common purpose. Greatness doesn’t come from a tactical sense of execution. Greatness comes having a vision that goes beyond yourself and even beyond the organization.