Follow the Leader

In 1950, my Uncle Ed Kalin opened a small designer furniture store. After years of hard work, he saved up and opened a larger one. Growing up working there, I’d observe him doing things that, at first, were hard for me to understand.

First of all, when he walked around the store, he was constantly picking up trash. Little wrappers, paperclips, cigarette butts and the squashed paper cup that didn’t quite hit the trash can. When I first noticed it, I thought he was trying to drive home a point to me personally—after all, I was the assistant janitor—but it became clear he wasn’t just picking up trash in front of me, he did it all the time, naturally and quietly. You never heard him say, “Can’t they make it into the wastebasket?” He just picked it up and put it in. He was also always straightening: fluffing pillows, righting picture frames, sliding back barstools and getting down on his knees to level a rickety table. One day, the intercom rang out in the back of the warehouse, “Scott Weiss, to the front for a carry out.” Recalling my work ethic in junior high school, I certainly didn’t sprint to get there; I arrived just in time to see my uncle following a lady out with an end table in his hands. “Doh!” He never mentioned it—just did it.

Although this was a high-end furniture store, Uncle Ed was also unusually thrifty. He didn’t cut corners on quality but abhorred waste. “Scott, you don’t need to use that much bubble wrap for a lamp. Here, let me show you.” At home, he would set paper towels on the counter to dry after washing his hands: “They’re not dirty, just wet.” OK, thrifty was an understatement.

There were 80 employees at the furniture store and Ed knew every one of them by name. He knew their families. And whenever he passed anyone, anywhere, he’d have an authentic interaction with them—not a glad-handling schmooze. “When does your son graduate?” “How were you able to fix that scratch? Wow, looks perfect.”  Always with a smile and interested eyes that communicated, “You matter to me.”

In a competitive, low-margin, high-hustle retail business, Ed wanted to project Bloomingdales with a Wal-Mart budget. The showroom had to be beautiful, spotless—just perfect to look the part. Customer service was paramount. In order to be successful, every employee had to have this mentality.

Although we didn’t call it that then, I’ve come to believe that Ed was creating a company culture. We often get wrapped up in Silicon Valley with the “new-new” way that we can forget many times we’re simply rediscovering well worn lessons that date back to the beginnings of commerce.

Like it or not, everyone watches the leader. What does he do? What does he say? What does he not say? How does he react? His behavior is mimicked and amplified throughout the organization. The CEO and the leadership team ultimately set the company culture with their behaviors verses a set of policies rolled out by the HR department. Inspired by Ed, here are a few takeaways that I believe apply to all startup CEOs:

  • Naturally and quietly demonstrate, on a regular basis, that no chore is beneath you: clean up after a conference room lunch, carry the heavy crap to a trade show, replace the water cooler, wipe up the spill. When everyone pitches in a little, you can strip out 5% in overhead.
  • Do your own calendaring and wait as long as possible to hire an assistant because once you do, everybody suddenly needs one. One great office manager can scale to ~50 employees if everyone calendars themselves.
  • Write thorough, thoughtful, candid reviews and be on time with the process. If you don’t take it seriously, nobody will.
  • Get to know everyone by name and something about them—no excuses up to 500 people. This was really hard for me because I have a terrible memory, always have. Get creative: we printed out flashcards from the badge database when I inherited 900 employees at Cisco.
  • Prepare ahead and interview candidates hard—don’t wing it.
  • Be noticeably thrifty: fly coach, stay in cheap hotels, eat in diners.
  • Be unbelievably responsive, available and punctual.

Some of the suggestions above are simply about making a CEO more approachable—one of the hardest and most important attributes for a leader to exude. Are people comfortable disagreeing with him? Will they tell him when something is wrong? In my experience, the more formal the CEO is, the more formal the leadership team is and thus they all become less approachable. And it’s not just about wearing jeans—it’s about behavior. My uncle’s store was a very formal environment: he wore a tie and everyone addressed him as “Mr. Kalin”. That said, he was able to overcome this outward formality with fanatic friendliness, a familiarity with everyone and a willingness to get his hands dirty. Approachability, however you create it, is absolutely critical to creating an innovation environment where employees speak up and challenge the status quo.