Can British businesses still learn from Silicon Valley? Seven lessons from Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt

Employment & Skills | Reports

Ann Hiatt, NED at Armadillo, is former Executive Business Partner to Google CEO, Eric Schmidt and ex-EA to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos having worked in Silicon Valley for 17 years.

Does Silicon Valley really have a secret formula for success? Are those lessons applicable and replicable in the “real world”?  The answers are yes, and yes. I’ve spent the last 17 years in Silicon Valley working as the right hand business partner for the most influential CEOs of our generation and I’ve found several small and simple core truths to be applicable across sectors, borders and careers with astronomical results.

  1. Use a learning, not a performance, mindset to increase your impact

Instill a culture of innovation to create an environment which rewards learning over perfection.  When employees are not only encouraged to but also given safety and resources in which to experiment, you receive exponential results.  Do you have an incentive structure in your company that rewards creativity and challenging the status quo? Or does your incentive structure reward staying in your comfort zone where you always hit a ten out of ten but remain mediocre?  Reward employees who aim for the stars and are able to deliver the moon along the way.

  1. Don’t live in fear of failure (even if you almost kill your boss)

My first job after university was Executive Assistant to Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.  Only 2 months in, I almost killed him when a helicopter I’d hired crashed with him inside. Luckily, the story doesn’t end there.  Rather than firing me, Jeff saw the way I reacted and rewarded my ability to respond well under pressure with assignments well beyond my professional experience. As a leader, how do you publicly reward your teams for the way they manage failures?  Do you do that at all? Are they given opportunities to share and apply those learnings across the company or do they hide their failures for fear of retribution and deny your organization those lessons learned?

  1. No is not an answer – Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt has a plaque on his desk that says “If at all possible, say ‘yes’!” Eric lives this motto to the fullest and is the revolutionary leader he is today because of it.  For me, it has meant putting my hand up to own stretch projects where the likelihood of public failure was extremely high. Is your company open to the expression of talents in new areas?  Or do people feel that they must stay safely in their traditional boxes? Celebrate high risk with high rewards.

  1. Institutionalise a culture of teamwork and transparency

People often ask me what is the common denominator between Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt.  I think their leadership styles both demand “radical candor” (as Ray Dalio calls it in his book, Principles) and risk-taking from their teams. They tell the entire company exactly what they’re aiming for not only to seek support but to keep each individual’s daily actions aligned in that purpose.  They also surround themselves with people who tell them the truth. Jeff Bezos taught me to only hire people that you have to hold back, not push forward. Far too many leaders are told that all their ideas are great and all their jokes are funny.  You cannot do your best work unless you have all the honest facts and feedback at your disposal. Often the most innovative ideas come from the bottom up rather than the top down so actively create a pipeline in which that communication can happen. This kind of leadership style takes great humility but yields exceptional results, and this is often the difference between a good company and a great one.

  1. Take time to step away – Jeff Bezos

You cannot be strategic and visionary whilst immersed in your daily grind.  When I worked for Jeff Bezos he took a few days every quarter for a thinking retreat.  This was back when Amazon was not yet profitable and the success of the company was not certain. It would have been tempting for Jeff to do the expected and increase his hours in the office and take on more meetings.  However, Jeff had the wisdom to know that if we were going to succeed in changing the world he needed to do things in a way that had never been done before. He would lock himself in a hotel room without any technology or outside stimulus, just a blank moleskine, and use that time to invent the future of commerce. Had he kept himself buried in the grind he never would have had the moments of inspiration that enabled the company to not only survive the early years but become a dominant player.  I have seen many leaders make well intentioned errors in this department. Do you create time for reflection and inspiration? Do you have a thoughtful, proactive company culture? Or do you have employees trained to be more reactive than proactive in their work?

  1. ’Time for happiness’ – quality time gives people happiness, not money

Google is famous for its office perks: free food, onsite gyms, product launch celebrations, bringing your dog to work, world class speaker series and beautifully designed work spaces. These are all thoughtfully offered because of the quality of work received in return. It is a documented fact that providing quality time leads to more satisfaction and long term dedication than rewarding employees with money.  Does your senior management give employees quality one-on-one time? Do you reward with holiday time, educational opportunities, childcare or other perks which give your employees quality time back? Do you give as much to your employees as you demand that they give to you?

  1. Ingrain a culture of moonshot ideas

After my first year at Google I was proud to turn in what I thought was a stellar result on my annual goals.  Instead, my manager, Marissa Mayer (who went on to be the CEO of Yahoo), told me that she was disappointed in my A+ report card and that I should have aimed much higher even if that meant I only accomplish a fraction of them.  This insight changed the entire trajectory of my career and gave me the vision to do things differently with much greater impact. Do you encourage unconventional thinking? Do you reward ambition over rote performance?

The truth is that the “secret sauce” isn’t actually secret and it really comes down to a few basic principles that have an enormous impact when embraced. They might not appear revolutionary at first glance but I have seen how these adjustments can transform the entire trajectory and power of a corporation when adopted. You don’t need a secret formula.  You need to ask yourself the simple but hard questions of how you can get the best out of the talent you have around you and how you can lead by example of humility, creativity and ambition.

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