This year, we got down to the tough questions. Where can personal lives, family, and career intersect? How can businesses impact the world—and their bottom lines—for the better? Where do we find meaning in our work?
These lessons in leadership aren't just worn-out self help advice: They're experiences lived by people who've wrestled with those questions and more, and are often still grappling with what works and what doesn't. Creative, conscious leadership often doesn't arrive at neat solutions, but keeps moving forward anyway.
Peruse our year in business review, from Pixar and Facebook to the startups just forming, and see where your own story fits into the narrative.
A recurring theme this year was the balance of social good with successful entrepreneurship—two ideas that seem to sometimes be on opposing sides. Before tackling world peace, companies would fare well to simply treat their own employees kindly. Netflix’s HR practices—including welcoming recruiters instead of banning them—are a guide for any business looking for ways to treat their people as, well, people.
Could "let yourself be stupid" be the new "move fast and break things" mantra of 2015? Tobias van Schneider, Spotify’s design lead, believes in side hustles to take would-be entrepreneurs from cogs in someone else's machine to innovators in their own rights—but only if that step makes sense to them. "All of these doubts kick in, overcomplicate things, and kill projects that could have become something," says van Schneider. "When you’re focused on just taking that first step, or that next right step to keep things in motion, you won’t ask yourself all these questions."
Another common thread this year: Women in leadership. Suneera Madhani’s founding of Fattmerchant embodies the spirit of strong leadership: When her ideas were ignored, she took matters into her own hands. "The owners of my last company—both male—told me it was a stupid idea; they did not want to support it," she said. "I went and did it on my own, and I'm 100% sure they regret that decision now."
We’ve discussed family and career frequently this year: Is it possible to "have it all," or should one or the other take priority? At Palo Alto Software, CEO Sabrina Parsons lets those worlds intermingle. When the messiness of family life affects the buttoned-down office, it’s time to rethink policy. "I tell people, ‘Don’t give employees burritos, foosball, and kegs. You need to think about the real things that will matter to employees and give you access to talent you’re losing," she says.
If Apple called you today with a job offer, how quickly would you clear your desk and book a flight to Cupertino? Joseph Pigato made a choice that seems crazy on the outside: He picked a small startup over the tech giant. Give what you’re doing everything you’ve got, before jumping to greener pastures, he advises. "When ‘work doesn’t seem like work,’ quality of life soars."
Public relations can be a complicated, hectic industry. Caryn Marooney, head of technology communications for Facebook (and former PR agency cofounder), pares down branding and outreach rules into simple ideas. "If your message isn’t unbelievably simple, you’re missing the point," she says. Her look behind the scenes at Facebook culture is worth studying, as well.
Between the brainstorming sessions filled with laughter and "brain trusts" of perfectly assembled teams, Pixar’s an example of how to run an efficient, highly creative company—without losing the charm that started it. But it’s not achieved by magic. "All that anyone sees is the final product and there’s almost a romantic illusion about how you got there," Catmull says. "When we first put up something—these stories suck."
Rose Marcario left a career in private equity to join Patagonia as CFO, and became CEO five years later, in 2013. She was drawn to the company when she realized something was missing from her career, an industry which had a "very one-sided view" on success: profit. "I don't think you can solve problems unless you're curious about them," Marcario says. "To me that's a natural quality that you’ve got to have—about business, your colleagues, challenges—it helps you be a better leader."
At work, we tend to ignore the tough details of life outside of our roles. Emotions are hard to manage, in ourselves and especially in others. But if you’re planning to do any hiring this year, paying attention to emotional intelligence could save you from a turbulent year ahead.
Ideally, your company is taking off like you've never dreamed—or you're dreaming that it will some day. At some point, you'll have to scale, and assemble a larger team. Either way, engineer Aditya Agarwal has advice for you: Give people the opportunity to learn and jump into the business at the start, and they’ll become experts at their roles.