We always enjoy attending Bristol Media’s Vision Keynote events, and last week’s talk from Ann Hiatt on innovative leadership was no exception.
Ann is former Executive Business Partner to Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon), Eric Schmidt (CEO and Executive Chairman at Google/Alphabet) and Marissa Mayer (an important figure at Google who went on to become CEO at Yahoo!).
Drawing on a number of stories, Ann gave us a unique – and entertaining – insight into the minds of these visionary leaders. So, what can other leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs learn from the way Silicon Valley operates? Here are our top ten takeaways.
In innovative leadership, don’t …
Ann opened her talk with an anecdote about working at Amazon with Bezos and being given seemingly impossible tasks at the age of 20. The first was being handed a list of numbers with no explanation. She figured out that they were GPS coordinates of places Bezos wanted to visit – miles apart, in the middle of nowhere, and in an incredibly short time frame. She made it happen, but the helicopter she booked crashed and nearly killed her new boss. Her resilience through the task and the ensuing disaster got her noticed.
The sign above Eric Schmidt’s desk read “if at all possible, say yes” and this remains central to Ann’s approach to her work.
Surround yourself with ‘yes people’
Even as CEO it’s important to realise you’re not always right – surrounding yourself with people who will laugh at your jokes and love all your ideas doesn’t make for a good leader.
Think of what you can’t do
“If you don’t have an answer or a solution, offer a question or a thoughtful response to disrupt the problem,” advises Ann. “You don’t always need an answer, but you do need a thought or a proposed solution.”
She talks about the endless interviews she went through to get her first job at Amazon, citing her final interview with Bezos when he asked her how many window panes there were in Seattle. “It wasn’t about me getting the right answer, it was about how I approached the question,” she explains. “Little did I know at the time how relevant that process would be to my first few months working with Jeff!”
Be afraid to fail
Ann says that “failure is like a badge of honour in Silicon Valley. If you haven’t failed, you’re not aiming high enough!”
She talks about Google’s ‘20% project’ that allows staff to use 20% of their working life on a project they care about – it’s a brilliant way to try something new and different and step out of your comfort zone to truly innovate.
The flat management structure at Google meant the senior executives were accountable at all times. A weekly global conference was open to anyone in the company and gave staff the opportunity to grill company leaders on any subject. It was this open forum for discussion that allowed all staff to have their concerns, ideas and questions heard and responded to.
In innovative leadership, do…
Be prepared to learn from others
“I got used to feeling like the least smart person in the room – both when I was studying my PHD and at Google, says Ann. She believes it’s important to ask questions and learn as much as you can from those around you. “Sitting with Jeff for three years taught me more than going to business school ever could.”
Take on the thankless tasks
Another anecdote involved an image of Ann alongside the Obamas and the president’s ‘bodyman’ – a friend of Ann’s called Reggie. Reggie started out as a volunteer intern in Obama’s office. He took on a task which no one else wanted to do of organising the Whitehouse’s post system. Not only did he take it on, he also did it so well that it got him noticed and he was given more responsibility, eventually ending up by Obama’s side at all times.
Hiatt says she went on a similar journey at Google. When she started she felt in over her head, but she decided to volunteer for a thankless task. It meant lots of weekends working, but she got to know the business inside out and had direct contact with senior staff. It worked by opening doors and new opportunities.
Put yourself in uncomfortable situations
All the leaders Ann cites share the trait of being insatiably curious. “They put themselves in situations where they feel uncomfortable and where they don’t feel like the expert.”
Work out the best approach for different people
Ann talks about the different techniques she would use to persuade different leaders she worked with. For example, Schmidt was incredibly data driven and had to see the facts and figures to make a decision. Work out how different minds operate and communicate with them accordingly.
Find something enriching for you
Running your own business can be busy, time consuming and stressful, so it’s important to have things that rejuvenate you. Ann describes this as ‘resting while you run’ – finding something that is enriching for you and allows you to keep running at a high pace.
Visit the Bristol Media website to find out more about the Vision Keynotes events, speakers and forums.