The best advice on success from 2019: Leaders at Andreessen Horowitz, Facebook, and Harvard share their most important tips
- I learned a lot about success this year.
- For example, an HBS professor told me how to spot opportunities for innovation. And I read a book by the founders of a popular web app company, who caution against thinking your business is changing the world.
- Here are the most meaningful lessons on how to be successful at work and at home.
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Having a job that requires me to find interesting people is by far the most interesting thing about me.
The last 12 months have been no exception.
In January, I read a book by the founders of web app company Basecamp and realized why telling your employees they're changing the world is a terrible idea. I got seriously starstruck meeting entrepreneurs dressed as bananas at the "Shark Tank" casting call in New York City in May. And at LinkedIn's Talent Connect conference in September, I found out how the organization's head of sales successfully changed career paths.
As 2019 draws to a close, I'm reflecting on everything I've learned this year about how to be successful - as a manager, as a founder, and as a human being. Here are the highlights of each season.
It can be helpful to discuss work problems with someone outside your organization
Career coaching for the masses - and not just for top execs - is getting popular.
I tried a free coaching app called Bravely, which is used by companies like Zillow and Evernote, to see how helpful it really is. On a call with a Bravely "pro," who told me she had 20 years of experience in leadership development, I talked about wanting to master my current role.
The pro asked me a bunch of questions about my job ("How do you measure success in your role?"), some of which were harder to answer than others. Together we outlined a plan for a new type of story I wanted to write and how I'd pitch it to my editor, which I did a few days later.
I found it surprisingly helpful to talk to a non-journalist about things like pitching and reporting. The pro offered a fresh perspective that was arguably more useful than the perspective of someone who's familiar with my day-to-day work, and she could be more creative.
Ambitious entrepreneurs can make it big by starting a thriving business that bolsters the economy
That's because, as Christensen writes in "The Prosperity Paradox," which he co-authored with Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon, electric cars created a new market in China. Those low-speed plastic vehicles aren't designed for the wealthy elite. They're narrow, meaning drivers delivering products on the city streets can do their job more easily.
The key to market-creating innovation, Christensen and his co-authors write, is spotting would-be consumers who are unable to use a particular product, typically because it's too expensive.
"The market-creating innovation in China is to make this little vehicle affordable and accessible," Christensen told me. And now, he added, "the market is just booming."
Business leaders should stop telling employees they're changing the world
The founders of web app company Basecamp readily admit that their business "isn't exactly rewriting world history." In "It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work," Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson encourage other execs to be similarly honest with their team.
The problem with telling employees that the business is revolutionary, they say, is twofold. Not only do you sound ridiculous; you also convince everyone that it's worth working 23 hours a day.
Take the burden off yourself and employees, the authors urge. Instead "set out to be fair in your dealings with customers, employees, and reality."
Women say professional success has a lot to do with who sponsors you
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Lean In and McKinsey & Company surveyed women in the financial-services industry and found a striking difference between how early-career women and late-career women think about success.
While 54% of early-career women believe "strong communication skills" will help them advance, 56% of late-career women believe "sponsorship by a senior leader" will push them forward. (A sponsor is someone senior in your organization or industry who can get you your next job.)
McKinsey partner Marie-Claude Nadeau, who co-authored the report, told me that senior women may be perceiving things accurately. Sponsorship may be more meaningful as women advance in their careers, at least in financial services, she said. While entry-level positions tend to be roughly split between men and women, more senior positions tend to be dominated by men.
If you're trying out for 'Shark Tank,' highlight your personal story
Ivan De Luce/Business Insider
But when I visited the "Shark Tank" casting call in New York City, casting director Mindy Zemrak advised the crowd - including a guy dressed as a banana and a child dressed as a strawberry - never to say that to the casting agents.
To be sure, VCs care about market size, and how big your company can eventually get. But at this stage, Zemrak said, the casting agents want to learn about you and your company.
"'Shark Tank' is 50% about your business or your product and 50% about you and your backstory," she said. If you took out a second mortgage or depleted your kid's college fund, for example, they want to hear about it, so they know you're "all in."
A boss should never be surprised when an employee quits
Julie Zhuo started at Facebook and became a people manager there a decade ago. Now she's the company's vice president of product design. In "The Making of a Manager," Zhuo distills the most important management lessons she's learned in that time.
Here's one of the most powerful lessons: If you're shocked when someone on your team announces their resignation, you're not doing a good job as a boss. Zhuo learned this the hard way.
"In those cases when I was surprised" by someone quitting, Zhuo said, "the person didn't feel comfortable enough telling me how they were feeling." To avoid another situation like that, she makes sure her direct reports know they can share their biggest challenges, as opposed to telling her that everything's fine.
Zhuo also recommends that managers check in with their reports every so often to find out whether their goals have changed, or whether they need a new challenge.
Some top venture capitalists look specifically for 'egomaniacal' founders
Courtesy of Andreessen Horowitz
The deck described the firm's ideal candidate in a single word: "egomaniacal."
The firm changed that language after LPs hesitated. But that's still essentially who they look for. Kupor told me, "We wanted people who were so confident in themselves that they were literally willing to quit their jobs and start over from scratch and walk through walls and do something that everybody has told them to their face is a waste of time or can never happen."
It helps to understand that, for VCs, investing in entrepreneurs is a numbers game. The VC knows most of their investments won't pan out. But if they manage to find the next Bezos or Musk, that doesn't matter. So they invest in a bunch of "egomaniacal" and "partly delusional" founders (to use Kupor's language), hoping and assuming that one of them will make it big.
Companies that think they can wing people management are probably wrong
When Cornell assistant professor Daniela Scur started surveying executives on their approach to management, she was "shocked."
Scur's research found that companies with structured management practices - for things like tracking progress and helping struggling employees - are more productive. Specifically, those companies are more likely to hire top talent, more likely to keep those top performers, and less likely to fire people.
But Scur told me she couldn't believe how many organizations didn't have any systems - and had never considered using them. She encourages leaders to take an online assessment of their company's management practices and see where they might be falling short. Then she tells them to pick the one area where it seems easiest to improve, and start there.
A prestigious job isn't always preferable to one that's more fulfilling
Choosing between two career opportunities can be tricky - especially if one would be more enjoyable, but the other would look good on your résumé. At MIT Sloan's Global Women's Conference in New York City, Ruby Chandy shared a framework she used to navigate this type of dilemma.
Chandy is the president of Lumina Advisory Services, which consults and advises private equity and venture firms. At one point, she was juggling offers from two different companies who wanted her to serve on their board.
One company, Chandy said, was more established. The other had a younger CEO who needed her specific skills on his board. Chandy chose to work with the younger CEO, specifically because she'd gain experience that would further her own career. If you find yourself in a similar position, Chandy recommends that you draft a list of the skills required for each role before deciding.
Maintaining company culture gets meaningfully harder as an organization grows
Courtesy of Andreessen Horowitz
When I spoke with Horowitz, he pointed to Uber as a prime example of how tricky it can be to scale company culture. Horowitz said Uber emphasized competitiveness at all costs - which started as a good thing.
But as the company grew, Horowitz added, competitiveness "got interpreted in ways that ended up being destructive." For example, an HR manager reportedly dismissed complaints about sexual harassment by a manager because that manager was a high performer.
Uber's then-CEO Travis Kalanick and his leadership team hadn't been specific enough about the limits of competitiveness, or "what you would not do to win," Horowitz said.
It's best to approach career changes with a backup plan
In 2014, Dan Shapero left his position as vice president of global sales for LinkedIn's recruiting business, Talent Solutions. He wanted to be a leader at a tech company, and in his current role, he wasn't gaining the skills and experience to do that.
So Shapero embarked on a "tour of duty," in which he was an individual contributor working on different LinkedIn products.
In the meantime, Shapero talked to his wife about what they would do if the career transition didn't pan out. He'd already found someone to replace him as VP of global sales, so he'd have to find a similar job at a different company (or at LinkedIn, if a position was available).
When I met Shapiro at LinkedIn's Talent Connect conference, he said he knew that the job search might be difficult. "But I'd at least thought it through." That made it easier to accept his mistakes, and to avoid getting overwhelmed. Today, Shapero is LinkedIn's head of global solutions, a role that combines his passion and skill for sales and tech.
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