How An Introverted Engineer Came Out Of His Shell To Lead Mozilla

Former Mozilla CEO John Lilly had to transition from the classic introverted engineer to a people person once he became a manager. So he approached leadership like an engineer: he broke the problem into component parts and figured out how to make them work better. Here’s how it transformed him.

John Lilly

You might think John Lilly is a raging extrovert: he blogs, tweets and has earned the stature as a not-so-elder statesman in the Silicon Valley tech world. But the former Mozilla CEO describes himself as a classic introverted engineer who is perfectly happy to immerse himself in a problem so deeply that he might not even notice you passing in the hallway. When he became a manager he had to teach himself to be more of a people person. So Lilly approached leadership like an engineer: he broke the problem into component parts and figured out how to make them work better.


Before Mozilla, Lilly worked at Trilogy Software and Apple and was founder and CEO of Reactivity (an enterprise security infrastructure company later acquired by Cisco). He left Mozilla last year to join the VC firm Greylock Partners. In this Q&A, Lilly talks about how to prevent a casual comment from being interpreted as a command, why a CEO needs to get the story straight, and trying not to look at his shoes.

Kermit Pattison: Bob Sutton once blogged about how as CEO you came to appreciate the importance of small gestures like offhand comments or greeting people in the hallway. What have you learned about the microbehaviors of leadership?

John Lilly: I started my first company, Reactivity, when I was just 26. I had been a manager before that but I hadn’t ever really thought too much about what it meant to manage people or what it meant to be managed.


When Reactivity got to be 30 or 40 people, I would walk by and look at some of these projects and I would say, “Oh, it seems to me like it should be a little more orange,” or “That doesn’t make any sense to me,” or “I don’t understand why you’re doing that. Why don’t you do this?” I would offer those comments off the cuff. Over time, I realized that, because I was the founder and CEO, I had these two sort of amplification titles. When the founder says, “Why don’t you make button a little more orange?” it somehow has more meaning than an individual contributor saying that. Now, that’s not how I meant it. I meant it as an individual contributor.

As you get more and more responsible for the organization and people, you can start projects with throwaway comments. Reid Hoffman is a great friend of mine, a partner at Greylock and founded LinkedIn–he gives an off the cuff comment and 18 startups start just because of how seriously people take his point of view.

What can you do to avoid misinterpretation?


Over time, I discovered a couple of things–both aimed at reducing these effects. Number one, I went out of my way to explain the context in which I was making the comment. I’d say, “Look, I’m going to say some things but this is not the CEO talking or not the founder talking. This is a guy who likes design or this is a guy who uses products. Please understand it in that context.”

The second thing is I started noticing my interactions in the hallway. I’m an engineer by background and a bit of an introvert naturally. When I walk between meetings, I think about things. A lot times I’ll be looking down my phone or looking down at the floor while I think things through. It’s sort of a natural engineer behavior, but it’s pretty off-putting if your CEO walks by you and doesn’t look up and notice you.

And so I forced myself to do things that aren’t natural for me. This is going to happen more and more because increasingly leadership in companies is coming out of an engineering background. We’re learning to cope.


How did you discover this was perceived in a negative way?

It’s still not clear to me that I notice every time. It’s a continual process of growing. Mitch Kapor is one of my mentors and one his favorite jokes he told me was, “How do you know the difference between an introverted engineer and an extroverted engineer? The extroverted engineer looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.”

Obviously, I’ve learned to figure that stuff out and be interpersonal. Many people think I’m pretty extroverted. But it was a conscious behavior change for me. Some days I get it right and some days I don’t.


Can you point to a time when you started to “get it” about leadership?

I’ll have to let you know when that happens. I am not sure if has happened quite yet. I’ve interviewed several thousand people and hired a few thousand and managed a bunch. My conception of leadership changes all the time. I don’t think I’m ever going to really understand it. I think that there’s lots of different ways to lead.

In your mind, what’s the difference between leadership and management?


For me, leadership is imagining the world that you want and figuring out how to go make it that way and how to get other people to help you. That happens sort of all up and down the spectrum of people. Teachers do that every day. At Mozilla, a lot of times developers were leaders. Designers increasingly are leaders in our society. Obviously lawyers and politicians have been leaders for a long time. CEOs can be leaders and leaders can be CEOs but they’re hardly synonymous. Same thing with managers–managers can be leaders and leaders can be managers but it’s not a one-to-one relationship.

Who’s the best boss you ever had and what did you learn from that person?

I’ve learned so much from every person. One of my CEOs was such a good people manager and ultimately couldn’t get to an outcome–he couldn’t get the company to the place it needed to be. On the other hand, I had a CEO who nailed it and got the company to change the world but was not a very good people manager. I learned things from both those guys.


You’re interested in education and your wife is a teacher. How has thinking like a teacher been helpful in dealing with people in the workplace?

When you’re responsible for an organization that has 200 to 300 people, every day somebody’s bitching about something. On good days, it’s only a few people unhappy. On bad days, it’s everyone. As we got bigger, I was just adding everybody’s stress to my own and what I really needed to do is kind of average it out–take the general feel of the stress as opposed to adding it all up.

I realized that I was the unhappiest when I had a bunch of my own work to do and people were struggling and I had to help them figure out what to do next. My whole attitude changed when I flipped it and I said, “We hired awesome people. They just don’t know how to do this yet. So let me act like a teacher and help them figure out how to learn and how to be really good at this.” I was immediately less stressed about my own individual work, I was less stressed about their work and I was more focused on what do they needed in order to be great. That changed a lot for me.


Technology has pushed a lot of innovation to the edges made central command and control less important than it used to be. How does that change the art of leadership?

I don’t think it’s completely changing. Apple, for example, is this incredible company. Innovation from the edges would be a pretty bizarre concept for Apple. Apple is clearly a central command and control. And it’s killing it–they’re doing better than anybody in the world right now.

Now, that’s not how I prefer to live and that’s not how I prefer of work. You can make it work in a decentralized way. At Mozilla, it was always about how do we put things into the world? The assumption of command and control leadership is that the center is the source of all the good and you’re trying to drive it out with as little loss as possible and trying to get the pure vision out to the edges. The assumption that I always made–it’s a theme of my career–is there are more smart people outside the room than there are inside the room.


So it was always about, how do you help others be good? When you notice good work, you highlight it and try to help others do the same thing and learn. As a VC, that’s essentially what I’m doing.

You often blog about parenting. Has being a dad influenced the way you manage employees?

It’s a good question. There are a lot of facile answers about how dealing with management teams is like dealing with a bunch of three year olds, but that’s more of a throwaway joke than anything else. I do find I spend more time trying to understand what my son is saying, his point of view and why he thinks the way he does. I’m thinking about point of view, understanding, misunderstanding and context a lot more than I used to.


That actually brings up another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot. A lot of people say the number one job of the CEO is to keep money in the bank, or the number one job is to be strategic and the number one job is recruiting. That may be a true, but when I was at Mozilla the activity I did mostly was to tell the story–tell the story simply, understandably over and over and over again.

At Mozilla, we had this mission: we’re trying to make the web better, we’re trying to make the web more participatory. We told that story over and over and over again. But then we went through a transition year, 2009 in particular, when the story I told over and over and over again was look, “We’re moving from being a desktop web company to being desktop plus mobile plus web services.” I told this story probably 10 times a day, every day that year.

The founders and managers that I know are all pretty high clock speed–they think very quickly and they’re smart–so telling the same story over and over again gets boring, really boring. I’d feel bad about telling the same story 50 times, so I started to change it and embellish it from time to time. What I realized is that if I told a different story to 50 different people, then suddenly the whole organization will be slightly out of alignment. And so, my job was to tell the story in a simple way that was repeatable and amplifiable, not to make it all diverge.


Now the tricky part is periodically you have change a story. But I learned to change it with a harder shift, and not slide into the changes. I didn’t want to change a story 3 % or 5 % at a time. If I change it, I say, “Look, here’s what you’re changing. Here’s why we’re changing it.”

What else is on your mind these days?

I’ve been interviewing a lot people for jobs at Greylock and portfolio companies lately. I’ve been struck by how strongly their first job imprints them. People who went to Google out of school have a certain way of talking and thinking about the world, people who went to Amazon, have a different way thinking about it, Facebook a different way. They’re all obviously effective and they’re good for different things.


I was thinking a lot about what imprinted on me. I went to Stanford, was at Trilogy for 18 months and then went to Apple. One thing that imprinted more than anything else on me was recruiting and that was because of Trilogy. Trilogy was this tiny little company in Austin that nobody ever heard of doing enterprise software. But we were so aggressive and so voracious about getting the best, best, best engineers and designers out of Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and MIT. It changed my whole life and gave me a point of view about how to get great people involved. By and large, if you get great people involved, the rest kind of just works out. I was just thinking in retrospect how lucky I was to get that imprinting.

How did that become apparent to you? Is this something that interviewees volunteered or did you just start to notice “Oh my God, this is the third Facebook person who said this.”

That’s it. You just start to see patterns. You say, “Oh, that’s an Amazon construct,” or “that’s totally a Googley way to look at the world.” We all know that companies have personalities and management teams have personalities. But I was just struck by how strongly it linked back to the first job.

What’s the take home lesson for leadership? Look at that first line of the resume very carefully?

From an organizational leadership point of view, you should think hard about what your organization is imprinting on people. You company, hopefully, will be huge. But what you imprint on people and the diaspora that comes out of your company later may or not may not be an important and lasting legacy.

For somebody who wants to become a leader, try to understand how your experiences have influenced your view, because sometimes it’s going to really, really help you and sometimes it’s really going to get in the way. Just being a little bit cognizant of is pretty important.

Click here to read more Leadership interviews from Kermit Pattison