Over the years, I’ve worked with a bunch of CEOs whom I respect and admire. Below is an overview of each of their leadership philosophies and why they became mentors of mine.
Dr. Eli Harari: “Let’s build a great company together”
In 2006, when I was doing my PhD at Georgia Tech, I took up an internship at SanDisk, which was a 5000-person company. That’s where my first interaction with Eli Harari, the CEO of SanDisk happened. For those unfamiliar with Eli, he founded SanDisk, recruited the other two founders and led it to an IPO and more than $4B in revenue. In hallway conversations, Eli had heard about my work from a few people. He actually changed SanDisk’s HR department’s rules and brought me on board (a PhD student in the middle of his program doesn’t normally get a written job offer saying they can come back whenever their PhD is over, irrespective of whether it takes 1 year or 2 years or 3 years).
Eli was big on motivating employees with metrics. When the company just started, he used to tell employees that they could build a billion dollar company together. Since most of the early employees at SanDisk were entrepreneurial, they thought of it as their own company and worked like mad to make the $1B goal. Even today, when I meet George Samachisa, who was employee #8 and VP of Technology, I see him preserving his ID card from 25 years back and talk passionately about how they built a whole new billion dollar company from scratch (SanDisk).
In the mid 2000s, Eli set a goal which he called 10-10-10. He wanted us to work together and generate $10B in revenue and $10 in EPS in the year 2010. The company had become a 5000-person company then, and a lot of people thought of their work like a “job”. The goal did not happen and neither was there significant energy created when 10-10-10 was discussed.
Lesson Learned: “Let’s build a great company together” works when your company is small. But, it doesn’t work once the company grows big and many employees think of their work as a “job”.
Zvi Or-Bach: “Work hard to make your high performing employees grow”
As Eli retired and SanDisk became “a big company”, I wanted to do a startup. Zvi Or-Bach had just started one of the last startups in the semiconductor world. For those who don’t know Zvi, he had grown Chip Express to $40M in revenue and sold it. He had recently been forced out of eASIC, a startup he founded which had raised money from KPCB in several rounds. I saw Zvi at a conference and we talked and really connected.
Off I went to work for Zvi, at something which was essentially a garage startup. It was an apprenticeship like no other.
Zvi’s management philosophy was all about helping his high performing employees grow. When he saw I was pushing my limits, he gave me management responsibilities and made me manage areas like marketing and software that I previously did not have expertise in. I learned a lot in those years. Zvi was the best boss I’ve had in my career.
Lesson learned: Help your top performers grow. They will follow you anywhere.
David Cohen: “Clearly articulate your WHY “
Techstars Ventures funded Chowbotics in our last funding round. Since then I’ve had the good fortune of interacting with David Cohen, the co-founder and co-CEO of Techstars. David has invested in more than 100 startups in his career, and has seen companies fail, and seen companies succeed. This massive early-stage pattern recognition gives him insight very few people have.
David is a big believer in what Steve Sinek says in his Ted Talk. Check out the video at Ted.com. I guarantee you will find it fascinating. This method works. Techstars has some of the most passionate employees I’ve seen in any company I’ve interacted with.
What’s my leadership philosophy?
I’ll talk about my management philosophy at Rambus, where I was a Director responsible for their Resistive RAM efforts. I’m a big believer in management setting an example.
My involvement with Rambus started when it acquired Unity Semiconductor for $35M. The company had spent 10 years trying to develop a new type of memory. They had fundamental intellectual property on Resistive RAM but had not launched a product. I was brought in to help this division bring in revenue. As soon as I started managing the team, it was clear a few things were wrong.
- One of the managers on the critical path was a misfit. He had not delivered results, worked the least among all team members and liked peeing on other people’s ideas in meetings. This was exactly opposite what I expected a manager to do in my organization. I made the difficult decision of letting go of him. That made a dramatic difference in culture of the organization. Others started expressing themselves more and the team grew harmonious.
- Energy levels in the team were low. Not surprising considering they had not launched a product in 10 years and morale was low. The only way to solve that was to work really hard, make progress, get momentum and show “wins”. As we changed the direction and the new strategy showed results, energy levels automatically increased. People also saw I was working insanely hard (the Unity team members were not used to their colleagues putting in 20 hour days). And when the manager worked insanely hard, employees put in a lot more effort as well.
With these changes, we got a 256kb Resistive RAM chip working well within 10 months of the new direction. This was done at a $2M budget (yeah, semiconductors are costly). Other companies spent $100M and 3-4 years to get to the stage we did.
Essentially, if someone has to be a successful manager at Chowbotics, I believe they will need to set an example through their work ethic, skills and energy levels. That’s one thing I’m big on. And since I’m in my early 30s running my first company as CEO, I keep looking at CEOs around me and learn. We’re fortunate to have people like Rich Page, Don Douglas, John Shaw, Ed Hubbard, Amos Schwartzfarb, David Cohen and Justin Siegel work closely with me and coach me through blind spots I have.
(Yes, every CEO has blind spots. I believe the best ones know what their blind spots are and cover them by learning or surrounding themselves with others having complementary skills. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
By: Deepak Sekar