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Recipe for Success: Equal Parts Boss, Equal Parts Employee

By December 7, 2015Article

If I allow myself a look back at the path I’ve taken in life, it’s hard for me to know just where skill was involved and where luck prevailed. That’s not to say I’m not proud of my accomplishments as an executive, an engineer, a successful entrepreneur several times over, or that I haven’t worked hard to get where I am today. Rather, it’s an indication that, contrary to popular belief, leadership can come about unexpectedly – a thing arising by happenstance, growing around a popular concept, unfolding before you’ve a chance to give permission. 

Leadership, in many ways, comes down to ideas. You become a leader if you have an idea that sparks something in others and causes them to rally around it. Act-On came to be because the initial concept – for a product democratizing marketing technology, enabling smaller businesses to reach the heights of their peers in enterprise – struck a chord with people as a technology and a service worth building, selling and supporting. 

It’s this knowledge of our company’s beginnings that makes me the leader I am today: equal parts boss, equal parts employee. I came into this role by accident, in certain ways. And while I’ve thrived in it, I’m aware of where it first took root: late nights spent coding with just a few close friends and fellow engineers for company. These roots keep me attuned to the everyday efforts of so many people helping our business move forward. I’m as much an employee of Act-On as I am one of its leaders, and I credit this outlook to three simple principles. 

1. Open (office) doors open conversations 

I’ve made this my policy for years, well before ever coming to manage an executive team or company. And I’m richer for the effort, more aware of day-to-day goings-on, better at anticipating likely challenges, more accountable to the larger organization as a whole. 

By leaving my office door open and by also making a concerted effort to engage employees directly (wandering our company’s offices, paying visits to different cubicles and departments at random), I put myself squarely in the trenches with fellow employees. I’ve shared in their burdens, worked on the same projects, offered both counsel and direction. Even more crucially, I’ve seen firsthand what works and doesn’t, and I’ve had the chance to assess the chinks in our armor myself to revisit the decisions and policies made upstream that trickled down in negative ways. That insight has made an enormous difference over time.

2. Focus on the journey, not just the destination 

There are all sorts of ways to measure the success of a business. While familiar gauges like profit, loss and revenue are the norm, it’s important to take a more holistic view of success.

Being an engineer, I take a metrics-driven approach to leadership, since I believe that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. However, this is only half the story. For the organization as a whole to succeed, it is important that employees benefit directly from the journey, and not just the outcome. For an organization to realize its full potential, it must create an environment that employees find enjoyable as well as career enhancing. 

The great beauty of successful startup companies is that many of the early employees go on to assume bigger leadership roles than ever before. But just as importantly, all employees need the opportunity to hone their professional skills in cutting-edge tools, technologies and business practices if they are to remain passionate and dedicated to the company’s success. In the end, an organization is only as strong as its people.

As an example of this, we discovered that what attracts top engineers is not the free food or the ping pong tables or the beer but, rather, the opportunity to work on a cutting-edge technology stack. Marketers and sales teams are most productive when they are empowered to break down the traditional barriers between their departments and work together to put the latest ideas on social marketing, selling, knowledge sharing and collaboration into practice to drive revenue. 

All of this requires a corporate commitment to change, even though change comes with risks. But I have found that not changing comes with much greater risk. I have always believed that we ought to “obsolete” our own products before our competitors do that for us. 

3. Foster enthusiasm and passion 

At an early fork in my road, with a freshly minted Ph.D. in Computer Science in hand, I seriously contemplated pursuing a career in academia. However, as I interviewed with various universities, I began to sense a mismatch. I found a career in academia to be about more students, more publications and more grant money, whereas I felt a passion to really build, to create something of lasting value, to make a dent on the universe. 

This insight into the importance of passion led me to walk away from multiple job offers in academia and go on to have a long and very rewarding career where I have enjoyed each and every day of work. 

In all the leadership roles I’ve taken on, I made sure passion had a place to thrive and that bold and different ideas were nurtured. This remains true of Act-On today across all levels – from the talent we hire, to the talent within that we help to cultivate, to the innovations within our product over time (features and functionalities added, expanded, refined). Ours is a horizontal organization in many respects, where people across all departments have a say in what we make and what we do; and we’ve seen great gains because of it. 

There’s so much about leadership to learn in a lifetime, so many different kinds of leadership to practice. So I am under no illusion that my particular approach is appropriate for every circumstance. But if nothing else, it’s sure to make you an all-around better person: a better, more expressive communicator, a more empathetic listener, a kinder comrade-in-arms. 

Think like a boss, act like an employee, and you’ll be delighted by the strides you make. 

Raghu Raghavan is founder and CTO of Act-On Software.


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