Be humble. That’s a piece of advice common among most philosophical and religious traditions. In an earlier post, WAM co-founder and Kin product manager Craig Bryant argued that it is even fundamental to building a team’s culture.
Humility, however, is a messy thing.
It forces company founders to face the possibility that their visions, their strategies, their whole business’ reasons for existing could be flawed.
It forces us to deal with the humanity we share with our employees, our customers, and our competitors. That can be a big distraction when we would much rather be courageously blazing our companies’ trails forward, swords and shields in hand.
But humility is not a distraction. It is a virtue. It is a trait that founders, CEOs and executives should have if they expect their organizations to carve out a place in the world.
Below are 15 founders and CEOs, from across various industries, and the first-hand lessons they learned about the need to remain humble.
Humility Will Attract and Encourage Talented Team Members
The SVP is also a playwright, and Chou said this about attending one of his sold-out performances:
“I was part of a standing ovation cheering his writing last night,” I thought, ‘Who am I to judge this man’s creative output at work?’”
Chou contrasted this moment with a belief earlier in his career that “the CEO was the one who had all the answers.”
“It’s more important (and realistic) for the CEO to ask the right questions, build a great team, and be open-minded when making decisions,” Chou said. “For me, this meant checking my ego at the door and instead focus on serving my team to the best of my ability.”
PiinPoint VP of Sales Rajen Sanghvi even talks about the need for building a “creativity machine” within a company, and that is something that can only be built when a CEO or a founder is comfortable in letting ideas — even criticism — flow freely.
This insight was courtesy of a conversation Sanghvi had with an anonymous founder, whom he simply referred to as “Humble George.”
“If your team sees you trying new things, staying open minded to feedback and taking responsibility for your mistakes, they will continue to support you,” Sanghvi wrote. “Your team will empathize with you, help you come up with the solutions and even celebrate the entire learning process when you do in fact succeed.
“Humility enables you to remain objective, by allowing those around you to feel comfortable in challenging your ideas and opinions. This leads to more creativity within the startup.”
Even more directly, a CEO or a founder demonstrating humility in a job interview can stick with a potential hire who might be on the fence about moving to a new company or taking on a new role.
Deirdre Cerminaro, a systems designer at IDEO, tells the story of how she was impressed by CEO Tim Brown’s default behaviors.
“I traveled from Connecticut to Boston to interview with Tim,” Cerminaro writes at Medium. “After the interview, he asked if I knew how to get home. I explained that I’d taken a cab to the office from the train station, but was planning to take the subway back.
“Instead of giving me directions, Tim replied, ‘I’ll walk you there!’ Surely, I thought, the CEO of IDEO must have something more important to do. But before I could protest, he’d grabbed his jacket and hit the elevator button.”
Humility Will Also Build Trust With Those Talented Team Members
Everplaces co-founder Tine Thygesen points out that most CEOs will almost always be in a position where the employees under them either have more knowledge about the company or will have taken on some risk by joining that CEO.
“When you enter from the outside you have a starting period (100 days in my way of thinking) where your employees know more about the business then you,” Thygesen tells TechLady.com’s Alexandra Anghel.
“This is a challenging time where you as the CEO have to listen more than you talk, and where you have to be careful to double check your decisions because you don’t know the history of the company and what has been tried before.
“On the other hand, when you build a company you have the chance to build the culture from scratch, you hire your own team, and you know more about the business than anyone else. But here you have to attract people who are willing to take a risk with you, so that requires humility as well.”
Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project and New York Times contributor, writes that a leader’s humility, and the vulnerability that communicates, also allows everyone in an organization to be less vigilant around one another.
“I make missteps and mistakes as a leader, and they’re often a reflection of the same overused strengths and blind spots I’ve been struggling with my whole life,” he confesses in the paper’s DealBook section. “That’s a humbling recognition, and sharing it with others on my team requires vulnerability, which can feel unseemly, uncomfortable and even dangerous.
“But when I acknowledge to my colleagues that I’ve fallen short in some way, I can feel them relax their own vigilance.”
“With my team, I listen,” Vaynerchuk writes. “I listen a lot. Even though I am talking quite a lot, I’m listening when they talk and, on top of that, I’m listening when I talk by watching how they react to the conversation.
“But that isn’t what you see. You don’t see this humility right now. And this is what I’m most proud of. This is why I love the marathon more than the sprint. In sprints, I lose. You don’t like me in that ten second clip. But in a marathon, when you take the time to get to know me, I win.”
BuildDirect founder and CEO Jeff Booth argues that much of this trust is built on how founders and CEOs deal with failure.
Humans fail all the time in all areas of their lives, he tells BuildDirect board member Katherine Barr in an interview, and businesses should reflect this aspect of humanity.
“A bad leader cuts somebody’s legs out from under them when they fail and that either erodes trust or limits possibilities,” Booth says. “When that happens, you never see failure again. It is still there, but you just don’t see it anymore. Part of the organization dies under that leader, and value is lost.
Humility Can Untangle Your Ego and Its Needs From a Business’ Success
Rodney L. Anderson, CEO of the Pancheros Mexican Grill chain, took a page out of IKEA founder Ingvar Kampard’s book and performed every job within his restaurants at some point during the first years of business.
He cooked. He washed dishes. He ran the register. He mopped the floors.
His willingness to do so, he told Business Insider’s Jacquelyn Smith, gave his company a slight advantage over others in the fast-casual space.
“In the restaurant business it is very important to realize and understand that what you are doing is probably not groundbreaking,” he said. “You’re delivering a product and service that most people are most likely already familiar with.
“Sure, there are small things that differentiate you, but the experience as a whole is one that people are accustomed to. You need to be humble enough to continue executing and executing well on the most basic things, like excellent quality food and superior customer service. If at any point you feel as though you are above these fundamentals, you will likely fail.”
Similarly, being able to simply say “I don’t know,” then proceed to ask for advice was how Lara Morgan built her toiletries company Pacific Direct, which she sold in 2008 for 20 million GBP.
“I had never sold in the hotel market,” Morgan said in an interview with Easyspace. “I had never sold a bar of soap in my life. Never shipped anything. Never been in logistics. Never had any knowledge about freight.”
But her humility and her willingness to find out brought her success during the 17 years she led that company.
“Find experts and phone them up and pick people’s brains using quality manners and a begging technique and just an approachability, a willingness to learn,” she advised. “An interest in learning, a respect for other people’s knowledge — those things are priceless.”
Dave Carvajal, CEO of his own headhunting firm, argues that a good founder or CEO should be able to trust others on the team with decision-making.
The next step is to let go of a need for control.
“In The Founder’s Dilemmas, Noam Wasserman distinguishes between the drives to be ‘Rich versus King’ or the ‘profit’ motive and the ‘control’ motive,” Carvajal writes on Medium. “He says that by opening up our decision-making processes to others, we lose control. More importantly, we also build stronger businesses and experience greater rewards.”
Sometimes, These Lessons Are Learned the Hard Way
Dave Balter, who founded BzzAgent in the early 2000s, admits he let his company’s success go to his head.
In an op-ed for Inc.com in 2011, just after he sold the company for $60 million, he said his ego almost ruined the company’s great fortune:
“My entire style evolved from confident to cocky. When I heard rumblings that members of my family were put off by my ‘inflated self-worth because of BzzAgent,’ I chalked it up to being shortsighted. When I interviewed job candidates, I was less conversational and more confrontational.”
That was 2007. The next year, a global recession began to spread, and BzzAgent’s upward trajectory flattened out. By 2009, more than 40 people had to be let go, and numerous other talented team members took jobs elsewhere.
But the problem wasn’t strictly economical, Balter wrote.
“Board meetings became tense as we recognized the problems stretched beyond the economic climate, but struggled to identify the root cause. After one such meeting in early 2010, our chairman pulled me aside and said it was the worst meeting we’d had in five years but not because of how the business was faring. My attitude was the problem. That was the wakeup moment.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings notoriously demonstrated a lack of customer awareness in the fall of 2011 by announcing that his company would spin off the DVD division and then up the prices for customers who wanted both streaming services and disc delivery services.
“A 60% increase in the middle of a recession was arrogant,” Hastings later told Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. He also noted that Netflix began placing much greater emphasis on listening to customers after that scandal.
Finally, Humility Puts the Work You Do in Perspective
David Gillis, former partner at design firm Teehan+Lax and now a product designer at Facebook, has digested that same lesson Hastings learned from Netflix customers.
Gillis, however, ties that lesson back to individual growth in a post on Medium.
“True feedback can be painful because it jumps past all of the care and cleverness we put into our design decisions and focuses relentlessly on the outcome,” he writes. “Avoiding or ignoring feedback can be tempting, but don’t do it! Don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn about your own limitations, to create something that’s bigger than yourself, and to ultimately grow as a result.”
“Read more history and philosophy. Philosophy humbles you and history gives you perspective. Then you might see how many ‘special’ people came before you and how little anyone remembers them. Also you might see how arbitrarily our world is put together by people who didn’t really know what they were doing, and that everything can be rearranged by anyone.”
“Be gentle to yourself when your work fails your demanding standards. You are not your work. Your immense value as a human being is completely unrelated to the worth of the things you make. The success or failure of a project, the presence or absence of attention, the silence or applause of an audience… all of these things are useful commentary on your work — but your work is outside of you.
“Apply that feedback to the things you make, not to your self-worth. Success doesn’t make you a better person, and failure doesn’t make you a worse one. There is no rest or satisfaction in thinking you will finally be happy if only your work is a success.”