The Management Framework that Propelled LinkedIn to a $20 Billion Company

Before Jeff Weiner took the top spot at LinkedIn, he asked founder and then-CEO Reid Hoffman three questions: “How do you want to handle decision-making?  What decisions would you like to make, and what decisions should I be making?” Hoffman responded: “That’s easy. It’s your ball, you run with it.” A simple exchange, perhaps, but it kicked off one of the most successful CEO transitions in Silicon Valley history. Hoffman knew that to make it work, a company needs to give its leader clear and singular decision-making power over the day-to-day, and he was right. Weiner led LinkedIn through a blockbuster IPO to a current market capitalization of over $20 billion. After the IPO, he’s come out the other side with several incredible management lessons. Below are some of the thoughts he shared at the last First Round Capital CEO Summit.

 


Wind in the Sails

Most startups begin with a kernel of an idea and a lot of passion. This one idea is what the founding team knows and loves. It’s what keeps them working all day and up at night. But if this small early team doesn’t lay the right foundation — a combination of the right tools, people and protocols — their idea won’t scale, and they won’t be able to deliver on their vision. It happens all the time.

“I refer to it as the ‘wind in the sails’ dynamic… companies that break through and build something that no one else has ever created,” Weiner says. This is just like being on a sailboat under perfect conditions. The wind is blowing exactly the right way. Everything is easy. “When that’s happening, your hull construction, the skill, the strength and endurance of your crew, and the captain’s ability doesn’t matter as much. Everyone on the boat is celebrating how fast the boat is moving, and you can’t see anyone in the rear view. There’s no one else there.”

But perfect sailing conditions can’t last forever. “The wind is going to shift, and other boats are going to appear,” Weiner says. Meanwhile, if no thought was put towards improving the boat or recruiting the best crew, these competitors are going to catch up. “By the time they’re close enough to pass you, it’s too late. That’s why you’ve got to lay a strong foundation in the early days. You’ve got to get the infrastructure, the processes, and the people right.”

Vision is the dream. A company’s true north. It’s what inspires everyone day in and day out. It’s what you constantly need to be aspiring to.

‘Mission’ & ‘Vision’ Are More Than Just Words on Posters

Weiner believes getting your “boat” to the best possible destination requires a clearly-articulated vision and mission. These statements ultimately inform and invigorate a company’s strategy and objectives. Perhaps most importantly, leaders need to talk the talk and walk the walk on their professed values to keep the entire company unified and moving in the right direction.

That’s all nice to say — but how does a CEO enact these ideals? Too often, company values are relegated to posters on walls or preachy all-hands meetings. But Weiner believes a good leader can bring them to life — through coaching, a strategy designed to achieve the mission as it’s outlined, clear objectives and measured, communicated results.

Many people working in tech use the terms ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ interchangeably, and usually fail to implement them beyond lip service from executives. Weiner is convinced that clearly defining both, and living by them every day is a key defining aspect of building a successful technology company.

“Vision is the dream,” says Weiner. “A company’s true north. It’s what inspires everyone day in and day out.  It’s what you constantly need to be aspiring to.” He defines LinkedIn’s vision as “Creating economic opportunity for every professional," where 'professional' refers to every single one of the over 3.3 billion people in the global workforce.

The mission, on the other hand, defines how the company strives to fulfill that vision. For LinkedIn, that means “connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” Here the term ‘professional’ is all about the company’s immediate audience of more than 600 million knowledge workers in its network, and the opportunity to change their lives.

Visions aren’t immediately achievable. They’re pie in the sky ideals that may take generations, many partnerships, and many people to achieve — and even then, perhaps only in part. Missions, however, can be defined in terms of concrete objectives, and a company can be measured by how well it achieves them, Weiner says. Most companies, even startups, will only have one or the other. But a vision without reference to what the company actually does is unmoored from reality, and may not serve its purpose to inspire and organize employees.

Weiner uses Google as a prime example of a company with a mission that includes the hallmarks of an effective vision statement: it wasn’t “to be a faster search engine that also offered marginally better first-page results.” It was “To organize the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful.” The search engine and the company’s other products aspire to fulfill that mission. It’s how Google built a team of missionaries and not mercenaries. It’s how you can get the best people and inspire them to be great, Weiner says.

Putting Words into Action

Once the company has defined its core values, it’s up to leadership to plan the strategy to fulfill them. “Strategy is navigating the competitive landscape to achieve your objectives,” Weiner says, likening it to planning out your next moves in a chess game. You have to anticipate your opponents’ next moves, then decide how to deploy your assets to outplay them.

This umbrella strategy can then be broken into objectives, and great leaders make it clear how everyone in the organization can work together to achieve goals set for each quarter and each year. “As organizations mature, the job of any senior executive is about coaching and strategy,” says Weiner.  A strong objective is easily and clearly tied to the company’s overarching mission and vision, culture and values. Weiner says that too often even executive teams treat company values as “Dilbert-like placards throughout the office — something that Scott Adams would make fun of in a comic strip.” But if expressed values become a subject of derision in the break room among employees, then leadership loses credibility and its ability to motivate.

This is why it’s so important to continually communicate values — long past the point where it gets boring for execs, Weiner says. “You have to repeat the vision. You have to repeat the mission. You have to repeat the strategies, objectives, your priorities, and take the time to define who you are and who you want to be culturally.” Only through constant repetition do people start to internalize and understand. And at a rapidly growing company, you’re always inspiring the new faithful, the future torch carriers.

Making OKRs More Than an Acronym at LinkedIn

LinkedIn manages its teams using a task-tracking system called ‘Objectives and Key Results,’ abbreviated as “OKRs.” First developed by Andy Grove at Intel, the strategy was popularized by John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins. Today, this shorthand is all over Silicon Valley. But it’s easy to dismiss a corporate-sounding acronym as just another leadership trick for distilling people’s work. Nothing about OKRs sounds inspiring. It’s how LinkedIn used them that helped employees connect more to the company’s collective mission.

In Grove’s famous manual “High Output Management,” he introduces OKRs by answering two simple questions: (1) Where do I want to go? (2) How will I know I’m getting there? In essence, what are my objectives, and what key results do I need to keep tabs on to make sure I’m making progress? When you think about it, these questions are very personal, speaking to the core of how people spend their days. It makes sense that everyone within an organization should have their own OKRs every quarter. The important thing is tying these individual OKRs to team OKRs and, ultimately, organizational OKRs. This alignment packs power and efficiency.

Understanding the personal nature and motivating potential of OKRs, Weiner defines them more broadly. They should be about “something you want to accomplish over a specific period of time that leans toward a stretch goal rather than a stated plan. It’s something where you want to create greater urgency, greater mindshare.” For all these reasons, OKRs should become more important the more senior an employee becomes. When you’re in a leadership position, “You are sending the signal to the rest of the organization that ‘this matters,’” Weiner says.

OKRs should definitely not be is easily achievable. Low expectations may seem to yield glowing results, but they eventually stall people, teams and companies in the long run. OKRs shouldn’t be too malleable either. They’re supposed to be quarterly beacons, not shifting from week to week. Along these lines, Weiner prefers that his team members set three to five OKRs for themselves in any given quarter. Anything more than that has the potential to distract from what really needs to get done.

How to Run Effective Executive Meetings

Weiner’s team of executives meets once a week for three hours and every six weeks for a full day. And twice per year for an offsite spanning multiple days. Each tier of meeting takes on a different purpose and scope, with the goal of guiding the company on micro and macro levels.

The weekly meeting is all about general tactical updates, how everyone’s doing on their OKRs, any big changes to plan, etc. It’s definitely not a rehash on everyone’s laundry list of activities. Instead, it’s meant to provide a high level view of what everyone is doing and to ensure that they’re all operating against the same goals and principles. On top of this, Weiner blocks out an hour on both Monday and Friday for strategic deep dives if needed. By separating out tactics from strategy, he makes sure the team stays focused and on track without constantly switching between long-term and short-term contexts.

Weiner also kicks off these weekly staff meetings a bit unconventionally with “wins.” Before delving into metrics or the business at hand, he goes around the room and asks each of his direct reports to share one personal victory and one professional achievement from the previous week. This ritual infuses these meetings with positive energy from the start. Otherwise, Weiner notes, they have a tendency to devolve into a round robin of complaints.

He’s also discovered that making these meetings as impactful as possible is just as about what he does outside of the conference room. Namely, not having too many meetings, and definitely not back-to-back if he can help it. Weiner says he’s found tremendous value in keeping a two-hour buffer that allows him to connect with his team one-on-one and collect his own thoughts. “As a leader, your key roles are coaching and strategy, and you can’t do either of those well without the appropriate time to process what’s going on around you.

In addition to creating time to think proactively, Weiner believes that success for a manager comes from being ‘compassionate’ rather than ‘empathetic.’ Empathy refers to experiencing what another person does as if you were that person.  Compassion is understanding what the other person is experiencing, and maintaining enough objective space where you can act accordingly.

Weiner draws on the example of a bystander observing a man being crushed by a boulder. An empathetic person will feel the same suffocation and be unable to help. But the compassionate observer can understand victim’s pain while also taking action. The skilled leader’s task is to understand things from another person’s perspective, and use that strength to improve the situation. 

Adding It All Up

Incredible IPOs don’t come out of nowhere. Despite all the talk around the Valley and in the media about meaningless valuations and the crazy market, it takes great skill to make it to a public offering at all, much less one that people will remember. The day LinkedIn went public, it made instant headlines after beating analyst and public expectations. People still talk about it.

When asked how he made this possible, especially for a less flashy company – one that profits more from beating a reliable drum of utility over flash — Weiner lays out the advice he shared above. Values. Compassion. Leadership around unified goals. The issue is that most companies dismiss these concepts so easily as somehow stale or separate from the work they need to get done day to day to get to that next, coveted level. This is the error, Weiner says — being so thrilled with your full sails that you don’t see that IPO out on the horizon. You fail to take care of your boat, and you’ll sink before you get there.