Jess Lee, the CEO of the socially powered fashion and shopping platform Polyvore, provides her staff with immersive training so that they can go off and found their own companies–and some of them do just that.
But that doesn’t scare Lee, who led Polyvore through a sale to Yahoo for a rumored $200 million this summer.
“Look, it’s Silicon Valley. Everyone here has some aspirations, some ideas. ‘Maybe one day I can start a company or be a founder.’ You just have to accept that great talent–a lot of times they’ll just graduate into doing their own thing. So rather than trying to fight it, I think you should just cultivate it,” she tells Fast Company.
Lee had planned to become an engineer when she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in computer science. Instead, she was recruited to Google’s associate product manager program in 2004–founded by now Yahoo CEO and Lee’s personal mentor Marissa Mayer. The program trained fresh graduates with a trial-by-fire method of throwing them into the mix of executive meetings, financial decisions, and other aspects of the Google business.
Lee, who worked on Google Maps as a young product manager, now uses the same method with Polyvore’s 110 employees, giving them access to company information and opportunities to build leadership skills by participating in multiple parts of the Polyvore business.
“It was like learning how to run a company. So I’ve brought that with me everywhere that I’ve gone. And I’ve tried to make Polyvore’s culture very transparent, and about learning. I think about it as ‘startup school,'” Lee says.
Here’s how she trains–and encourages–her employees to strike out on their own:
Every week, each Polyvore department sends updates about its goals and strategies, how they’re performing against them, and links to project documents.
Employees even have access to strategy updates on the profit and loss statements to understand the financial side of Polyvore–something engineers at most other tech companies wouldn’t even think to consult in their regular duties.
“We’re very transparent about that, because those are the struggles that you have to face when you’re actually running a company,” Lee says of financial considerations. “We specifically designed a lot of the culture and processes at Polyvore to make it so that anybody could learn different aspects of how to run a company, so they could one day run their own company.”
Lee is so invested in the transparency tenet that her team set up a Slack “bot” to automatically post Polyvore financials into a daily Slack channel for all to see.
“It’s in your face all the time, and you really have to think, not just about your day-to-day job, but the company overall,” Lee says.
Furthermore, Lee says being transparent about her strengths and limitations has been her secret to hacking it as a first-time CEO (she started at Polyvore as a product manager and became CEO in early 2012).
“It took me a while to figure out how to be a leader while also being myself. I feel like I don’t really fit the classic mold of a CEO. I had to figure out how to be authentic,” she says. “So I’m transparent. I think people are more likely to trust me because they know I’m just myself all the time. What you see is what you get.”
Your employees are likely naturally creative, and they probably have their own back-burner projects already. So why not give them the opportunity to enhance their skills?
“At any given time, there’s so many startups, and there’s very few startups that are actually winning. So you’re most likely going to be one of the startups that is not winning all the time. So you need to keep your team motivated, not just in the good times, when you’re winning and everything’s going great. But in the bad times. It’s like a rollercoaster. What keeps people around is opportunities where they might learn something or grow.”
She’s a fan of author Dan Pink’s motivational book Drive, and his corresponding video about what motivates people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose, instead of what Lee calls “sticks and carrots” incentives like raises.
She implores leaders to get over the possibility that their employees will abdicate if presented with the tools to bloom and start up on their own. Training employees to run a business may encourage them to incubate their own ideas–but it’s far more likely to make them excel at their current positions in the meantime.
“To actually leave is a pretty big step. You have to have an idea. You have to find funding,” Lee says. “I find that when I talk to other CEOs, their people are leaving not to actually start their own company, but to go to a unicorn where they think they can make more money. And if you can’t compete with that, then you have to compete with culture. Culture is a huge competitive advantage.”
Polyvore’s competitive advantage partly lies in its “startup school”–Lee’s method for training and encouraging her employees to be business savvy and ready to take their ideas to the next level.
“I encourage our PMs to think of themselves as mini-CEOs. They’re very empowered to run the company,” Lee says. “Our office managers always tend to graduate from being office managers and go and do something cool. A few of them moved into sales. One of them left to start her own company after four years of being at Polyvore. She started out stocking the fridge.”
Lee credits her courage to be transparent and instructive with her employees to those early days working for Mayer at Google.
“My first time meeting Marissa was when I was interviewing for the associate product manager program at Google. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a PM, and I told her that. She said, ‘Okay, well, when I look back on all the tough decisions that I had to make, I would always try to pick the more challenging path. Because at least I knew I would grow and learn.’ So that advice has actually guided me through a lot of different decisions,” Lee says. “That very philosophy has guided me towards running the company a specific way, so that other people could have those same opportunities. That wide-open space where people can define what they want to do and say, ‘I see a problem–I want to fix it.'”