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Earning my MBA from The Wharton School in ’99 was a transformational experience for me.  A big part of that experience were graduates returning to campus to speak to my class.  So I have returned to the school, once to twice per year (in more recent years, twice), on my own dime, ever since graduating to pay it forward to the best of my ability.  It strikes me that this isn’t unlike shoppers, who we see encouraged to write their own content as they read more reviews, answers, and stories from their peers, receiving value and being motivated to pay it forward (see this study with the Keller Fay Group).

Last Thursday, I spoke from 9am-4:30pm to Dr. Stew Friedman‘s leadership and teamwork classes.  Stew has been a mentor for around eight years now.  He authored Total Leadership, an amazing culmination of his life’s work and a book I deployed, with Stew’s help (he graciously visited us in Austin twice, and our London team attended his talk there), to the entire Bazaarvoice staff last year and then this year to all of our new people.  You can read about that experience here, which The New York Times graciously covered.

Every time I return to speak to Stew’s class, I reinvent my talk.  These talks come from the heart, and I prepare for them in the cab ride on the way to speak.  These are the key themes I spoke to on Thursday:

Humility. The single best leadership article that Stew pointed to me in our mentoring meetings was Level 5 Leadership by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great.  It is required reading for our executive team (and his class at Wharton), and I find myself referring to it often.  From the Wall Street meltdown, due to lack of transparency and oversight on very complex financial products (which still cannot be explained in most cases), to the hubris at AIG, we are living through a period of extraordinary transformation.

Lack of humility is a big problem in corporate America.  If you don’t have it, spend some time in the real world (perhaps you should go help Dick Grace build a hospital in an impoverished area in Tibet).  Whatever it takes, get humble and reflective.  Ask the tough questions.  Don’t sit comfortably with bad profits.  A lack of humility almost caused another Great Depression, but this time on a global scale.  It bankrupted an entire country (Iceland).

On the Bazaarvoice front, I believe our solution encourages humility through negative reviews.  You have nothing to be afraid of but having the data and the will to do something with it.  I have seen countless cases of initial shock to the negative, followed by the a-ha moment where the merchandiser realizes the reason they have such a high return rate with that product.  We are, after all, a digital reflection of offline word of mouth.  These are the conversations that people are having every day, like it or not (and you should like it – word of mouth drives your sales).  So have the humility to listen and do something about it.  Then have the wisdom to leverage it.

Transparency. The World Wide Web has brought us sites like Glassdoor.com, founded by Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia.  At Glassdoor.com, you have the ability to rate and review CEOs as well as report your salary information.  HR heads have reported the salary data as 90% accurate for large companies like Microsoft.  I learned about Glassdoor.com at Liberty Media’s NetLeaders event last year, where Rich was a speaker (his theme: everything – people, person, place, service, product, thing – that can be rated and reviewed will be).  The Web has also brought us TheFunded.com, where you can rate and review venture capitalists (and not without an uproar).

Obama embraces transparency.  Leveraging social media, he went straight to the people for his election campaign fundraising efforts, and raised more money, in small amounts, than any other candidate in history.  And now, as President, he is bringing social media to government.  He gets his share of criticism (such as not allowing visitors to comment on some of the government sites), but my belief is that the genie is out of the bottle.  Just like his campaign is being heavily studied, and will be imitated, so will his efforts for social media in government.  No one can question that he is racing through policy discussions, from stem-cell research to reform on Wall Street.  The pace of legislation is unprecedented in modern times.

With the Web, including blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Glassdoor.com, TheFunded.com, reviews, and so many other forces, leaders will be held accountable to a higher level of transparency.  The opaqueness of poor employee satisfaction (and ethics) on Wall Street is coming to an end, quickly.  This transparency will transform leadership as we have known it.  The command-and-control style, coming out of military training, is dying.

Connectedness. My daughter, who is now 4, will literally grow up on Facebook (or something like it), with a digital lifestream of connectivity to her friends.  When she is my age, 37, she will be able to jump to a different job at a much faster pace than my generation.  She will be connected globally to friends that she has known since childhood.  If she doesn’t like the company culture, her friends will know.  The level of transparency will be unlike anything we can imagine now.  As a result, the focus on leadership, management, and culture will be at a level that today we cannot imagine, as employee retention is already, today, often the most costly expense a company has.

Culture. Due to these themes, the importance of focusing on culture is greater than ever.  I’ll spare you our uniqueness here, and instead provide you with this reference to all of our blog posts that have been categorized under culture – there are many.  I spend around 15% of my time focused on culture, and I believe it is largely responsible for our success as a company.

Total Leadership. Stew’s book is the start of many initiatives to focus on the development of the whole person.  Although that may not directly help you sell or service more widgets (although it actually will raise performance), it will lead to greater retention, employee satisfaction, and, ultimately, productivity, in this era of transparency and connectedness.  Learn more at TotalLeadership.org (and check out TLTV).

Soul. The Corporation, a stirring documentary I watched 4 years ago, made me think hard about the soul of a corporation.  I’m a believer in karma, and the more successful we are, the more I focus on the nourishment of our company’s soul.  The Bazaarvoice Foundation is a part of that nourishment, but there is much more (such as the charity CEO speaker series Tony Capasso launched this year).

After speaking all day (both exhausting and exhilarating), Stew and I had the pleasure of hosting dinner at Tequilas, my favorite interior Mexican food in Philadelphia, with Glen Senk, CEO of client Urban Outfitters; Dmitri Siegel, head of Direct at Urban Outfitters; Fiona Dias, EVP of Partner Strategy and Marketing at GSI Commerce; and Dana Lasher, an old friend from CDnow (former VP of Sales and Marketing) that helped me design Coremetrics’ initial reports who is now an entrepreneur herself at get Ready girls, an affinity sportswear company.  It was a magical evening of discussion, and I passed along my endorsement of Total Leadership in the hopes of helping others.

I hope that this post encourages you to speak at your alma mater.  I have found it to be an incredibly reflective process, one of the most important leadership development activities that I do, and have really enjoyed the karma of it all.  To teach is to learn.

27 Responses to “Leadership Themes from My Talk at The Wharton School”

  1. Brett Hurt

    Tim,

    I’m writing a book on this subject currently named, “How to Make Your Company Suck Less”. The short answer to your question is that culture is always evolving. Ultimately, it is a result of who you hire and how you shape it. Shaping it takes a lot of time, as does hiring (we are really careful/thorough here).

    I personally spend around 10-15% of my time each quarter on cultural activities – whether that’s meeting with the executive team to discuss how to evolve it, taking new hires out to eat lunch and get to know them, presenting at our quarterly All-Hands at the Alamo Draft House, celebrating a milestone by the gong, or coaching our executive team in their quarterly performance review (as well as intensely reading the management feedback survey on myself, filled out by the executives that report to me as well as any of the team members that don’t).

    The most important practice that we developed as an executive team within our first year of business is making the time to shape culture. Every quarter, our executive team meets to discuss strategy in a two-day off-site. Around 20% of that meeting has been dedicated to discussing culture. The “ah-ha” moments have come out of those discussions, including our controversial vacation policy (we trust the team to use what they need, and there is no accrual).

    Thanks for the great question,
    Brett

  2. Brett Hurt

    Tim,

    I’m writing a book on this subject currently named, “How to Make Your Company Suck Less”. The short answer to your question is that culture is always evolving. Ultimately, it is a result of who you hire and how you shape it. Shaping it takes a lot of time, as does hiring (we are really careful/thorough here).

    I personally spend around 10-15% of my time each quarter on cultural activities – whether that’s meeting with the executive team to discuss how to evolve it, taking new hires out to eat lunch and get to know them, presenting at our quarterly All-Hands at the Alamo Draft House, celebrating a milestone by the gong, or coaching our executive team in their quarterly performance review (as well as intensely reading the management feedback survey on myself, filled out by the executives that report to me as well as any of the team members that don’t).

    The most important practice that we developed as an executive team within our first year of business is making the time to shape culture. Every quarter, our executive team meets to discuss strategy in a two-day off-site. Around 20% of that meeting has been dedicated to discussing culture. The “ah-ha” moments have come out of those discussions, including our controversial vacation policy (we trust the team to use what they need, and there is no accrual).

    Thanks for the great question,
    Brett

  3. Brett Hurt

    Tim,

    I’m writing a book on this subject currently named, “How to Make Your Company Suck Less”. The short answer to your question is that culture is always evolving. Ultimately, it is a result of who you hire and how you shape it. Shaping it takes a lot of time, as does hiring (we are really careful/thorough here).

    I personally spend around 10-15% of my time each quarter on cultural activities – whether that’s meeting with the executive team to discuss how to evolve it, taking new hires out to eat lunch and get to know them, presenting at our quarterly All-Hands at the Alamo Draft House, celebrating a milestone by the gong, or coaching our executive team in their quarterly performance review (as well as intensely reading the management feedback survey on myself, filled out by the executives that report to me as well as any of the team members that don’t).

    The most important practice that we developed as an executive team within our first year of business is making the time to shape culture. Every quarter, our executive team meets to discuss strategy in a two-day off-site. Around 20% of that meeting has been dedicated to discussing culture. The “ah-ha” moments have come out of those discussions, including our controversial vacation policy (we trust the team to use what they need, and there is no accrual).

    Thanks for the great question,
    Brett

  4. Brett Hurt

    Terry,

    Tweeting is good for having many “surface-level” conversations simultaneously. The random interactions lead to business opportunities, including new jobs (or candidates), clients, and partners. It is like a huge cocktail party (read http://budurl.com/jwtweet).

    Reading books is making a real investment in yourself. There is nothing like an author taking the time, researching past work, and putting it all down in writing for you. You are literally leveraging the wisdom of the ages, “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    No matter how busy I get, I take the time to invest in myself and read. It is incredibly important to my evolution as a leader, which directly impacts Bazaarvoice.

    Take the time, even if that means taking vacation to do it.

    Best,
    Brett

  5. Brett Hurt

    Terry,

    Tweeting is good for having many “surface-level” conversations simultaneously. The random interactions lead to business opportunities, including new jobs (or candidates), clients, and partners. It is like a huge cocktail party (read http://budurl.com/jwtweet).

    Reading books is making a real investment in yourself. There is nothing like an author taking the time, researching past work, and putting it all down in writing for you. You are literally leveraging the wisdom of the ages, “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    No matter how busy I get, I take the time to invest in myself and read. It is incredibly important to my evolution as a leader, which directly impacts Bazaarvoice.

    Take the time, even if that means taking vacation to do it.

    Best,
    Brett

  6. Brett Hurt

    Terry,

    Tweeting is good for having many “surface-level” conversations simultaneously. The random interactions lead to business opportunities, including new jobs (or candidates), clients, and partners. It is like a huge cocktail party (read http://budurl.com/jwtweet).

    Reading books is making a real investment in yourself. There is nothing like an author taking the time, researching past work, and putting it all down in writing for you. You are literally leveraging the wisdom of the ages, “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    No matter how busy I get, I take the time to invest in myself and read. It is incredibly important to my evolution as a leader, which directly impacts Bazaarvoice.

    Take the time, even if that means taking vacation to do it.

    Best,
    Brett

  7. Brett Hurt

    Alicia, thanks so much for the kind words. The 9am session was the hardest because I was just forming my speech for the day! It gets easier after you give it a few times.

    It was my honor to present at Wharton, and I look forward to doing so again in November (I believe the Tech Club is arranging something with my assistant).

  8. Brett Hurt

    Alicia, thanks so much for the kind words. The 9am session was the hardest because I was just forming my speech for the day! It gets easier after you give it a few times.

    It was my honor to present at Wharton, and I look forward to doing so again in November (I believe the Tech Club is arranging something with my assistant).

  9. Would love to hear your views on “culture evolution”. Are there different techniques to creating culture to maintianing? Or is “never stop creating”?

  10. Would love to hear your views on “culture evolution”. Are there different techniques to creating culture to maintianing? Or is “never stop creating”?

  11. Hi Brett,

    “And read, read, read (I read hundreds of books in my first two years as the CEO of Coremetrics).”

    Today it seems as if everyone has a short attention span limiting conversations to either a 30-second elevator pitch or a 140 character Tweet. It was good for me to see your recommendation to “read, read, read…” I wish more leaders would make the same recommendation. The more I read the more I realize how much I have to learn. Reading helps: understand different views to an issue; patience, listen to the complete question rather than jump in mid-sentence; expand your horizons, there are other ways to approach business, new discoveries, new failures (you can learn what not to do). There is a place for Tweets and there is a place for substantive detail. Reading can spark a thought or discussion that will lead to solutions or services that otherwise you may have missed.

    Best Regards,

  12. Hi Brett,

    “And read, read, read (I read hundreds of books in my first two years as the CEO of Coremetrics).”

    Today it seems as if everyone has a short attention span limiting conversations to either a 30-second elevator pitch or a 140 character Tweet. It was good for me to see your recommendation to “read, read, read…” I wish more leaders would make the same recommendation. The more I read the more I realize how much I have to learn. Reading helps: understand different views to an issue; patience, listen to the complete question rather than jump in mid-sentence; expand your horizons, there are other ways to approach business, new discoveries, new failures (you can learn what not to do). There is a place for Tweets and there is a place for substantive detail. Reading can spark a thought or discussion that will lead to solutions or services that otherwise you may have missed.

    Best Regards,

  13. Hi Brett,
    I was in the 9 AM section that you spoke to, and I loved your talk. It was one of the best I’ve heard @ Wharton (and as you know, there are a lot). Your humility was really disarming, considering how successful you have been, and it made an impression on me and many of my peers.

    I have ordered the books you recommended and am looking forward to reading them. Thanks for making the visit and continuing to make an impression on Wharton students!

    Best of luck,
    Alicia

  14. Hi Brett,
    I was in the 9 AM section that you spoke to, and I loved your talk. It was one of the best I’ve heard @ Wharton (and as you know, there are a lot). Your humility was really disarming, considering how successful you have been, and it made an impression on me and many of my peers.

    I have ordered the books you recommended and am looking forward to reading them. Thanks for making the visit and continuing to make an impression on Wharton students!

    Best of luck,
    Alicia

  15. Brett Hurt

    Alex,

    Follow your passion always. Think big. Change the world. Focus. Never settle on recruiting. Build culture from day one.

    If you’re young, read “Fierce Conversations”. And read, read, read (I read hundreds of books in my first two years as the CEO of Coremetrics). Constantly seek mentors that are more experienced than yourself.

    Best,
    Brett

  16. Brett Hurt

    Alex,

    Follow your passion always. Think big. Change the world. Focus. Never settle on recruiting. Build culture from day one.

    If you’re young, read “Fierce Conversations”. And read, read, read (I read hundreds of books in my first two years as the CEO of Coremetrics). Constantly seek mentors that are more experienced than yourself.

    Best,
    Brett

  17. Brett Hurt

    Alex,

    Follow your passion always. Think big. Change the world. Focus. Never settle on recruiting. Build culture from day one.

    If you’re young, read “Fierce Conversations”. And read, read, read (I read hundreds of books in my first two years as the CEO of Coremetrics). Constantly seek mentors that are more experienced than yourself.

    Best,
    Brett

  18. Brett Hurt

    Kat, I highly recommend the book “The War of Art” (recommended to me by several Bazaarvoice employees and I loved it) for your question. In short, yes, I do. I think any small business should care deeply about culture. Culture may be even more important for them as the loss of a key employee would hurt even more.

  19. Brett Hurt

    Kat, I highly recommend the book “The War of Art” (recommended to me by several Bazaarvoice employees and I loved it) for your question. In short, yes, I do. I think any small business should care deeply about culture. Culture may be even more important for them as the loss of a key employee would hurt even more.

  20. Brett Hurt

    Kat, I highly recommend the book “The War of Art” (recommended to me by several Bazaarvoice employees and I loved it) for your question. In short, yes, I do. I think any small business should care deeply about culture. Culture may be even more important for them as the loss of a key employee would hurt even more.

  21. Katherine Fan

    This is really insightful – thanks for sharing.

    Do you feel like these principles can be implemented on a smaller scale? I know a small network of friends across the country who are all attempting to establish themselves as independent photographers. Some are working for themselves, while others collaborate with other local artists and/or hire student interns of their own.

  22. Katherine Fan

    This is really insightful – thanks for sharing.

    Do you feel like these principles can be implemented on a smaller scale? I know a small network of friends across the country who are all attempting to establish themselves as independent photographers. Some are working for themselves, while others collaborate with other local artists and/or hire student interns of their own.

  23. Katherine Fan

    This is really insightful – thanks for sharing.

    Do you feel like these principles can be implemented on a smaller scale? I know a small network of friends across the country who are all attempting to establish themselves as independent photographers. Some are working for themselves, while others collaborate with other local artists and/or hire student interns of their own.

  24. alex schliker

    very cool. for entrepreneurs at wharton, in austin, and in cali, what would be the biggest piece of advice that you wish you had gotten when you were in their shoes? advice on how not to die (as a startup), maybe? or “don’t postpone life”? or?

  25. alex schliker

    very cool. for entrepreneurs at wharton, in austin, and in cali, what would be the biggest piece of advice that you wish you had gotten when you were in their shoes? advice on how not to die (as a startup), maybe? or “don’t postpone life”? or?

  26. alex schliker

    very cool. for entrepreneurs at wharton, in austin, and in cali, what would be the biggest piece of advice that you wish you had gotten when you were in their shoes? advice on how not to die (as a startup), maybe? or “don’t postpone life”? or?

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