Principles of modern leadership from 5 influential IT CEO'S

The question is eternal: What makes a good leader? Predictably, we have no definitive answer. But one thing is certain: As business technologies and processes evolve, hot industries come and go and employee demographics shift, the best leaders are those who can change with the times. They’re the ones with foresight and adaptability, who don’t rule from a manual but rather customize a culture that’s specific to each company, its mission and the personality of its work force.

We’ve taken a look at the new trends in leadership, eyeing the shift in thinking that’s necessary to nurture the modern labor pool–in particular, that smart, finicky, outspoken group known as the Millennials. Additionally, we checked in with some bigwigs who have taken their companies to new heights through skillful command with a dynamic, collaborative approach.

Lead on.

The Constructive Critic
Jeff Weiner, CEO LinkedIn

Jeff Weiner, CEO LinkedInThe adopted mantra of LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is “next play,” a phrase borrowed from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who calls it out after every sequence on offense or defense. Weiner explains it as: “Take a minute to celebrate success or reflect on failure, but then move on.”

As a manager, Weiner takes time to acknowledge relatively small accomplishments by his employees. He often ends a meeting or speech by asking what he could have done better. His workdays are as long as or longer than those of his employees. “That allows him to be extremely credible as a leader,” says David Hahn, LinkedIn’s vice president of product management.

Weiner’s style earns raves from his staff. His Mountain View, Calif.-based company, with more than 3,000 employees and 200 million members, consistently ranks as one of the best places to work, earning a 92 percent employee-approval rating in an anonymous survey last year by

Hahn says Weiner impressed him from his first days on the job with his ability to pinpoint issues and deal empathetically with employees. “A big part of leadership and a big part of being a disciplined manager is being able to ask really great questions,” Hahn says. “He was able to ask questions that were really right on the money. They were precisely the areas we were having trouble with or spending a lot of time thinking about or influenced the direction we needed to go.”

In meetings, when it’s clear someone has made a mistake, Weiner displays a deft touch, turning the gaffe into a teaching moment for everyone. “The person who made the mistake or who can do better the next time leaves the meeting feeling good,” Hahn says. “There’s a magic to it, that he’s able to do it in such a constructive way. You feel like you’re part of a supportive team, and ultimately you feel like Jeff is behind you.”

The Empowering Force
Phil Libin, CEO Evernote

Phil Libin, CEO EvernotePhil Libin never wanted to work anywhere that had more than 50 employees. But six years as CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based Evernote, which provides a suite of note-taking and organization apps, have changed his mind. “I want this to be a 20,000-person company, and I want to still be a startup when it happens,” he says.

The key to leading a “100-year startup,” as Libin describes it, is to ensure that his employees–currently numbering 265–feel like they’re working for one. “No one should be doing something they think is stupid,” he says, noting a “militant” focus on making sure everyone understands the impact their work has on the company and, by extension, the world. Evernote even has “officer training,” in which employees volunteer to attend meetings in unrelated departments to get a better sense of the big picture.

The company’s focus is on results. Even summer interns get to see the features they work on go live, and successful hires are trusted implicitly from day one. “We think people who work here want … to do as much work as humanly possible to make something great, and our job as managers is to eliminate all the obstacles so they can move mountains,” Libin says. That includes offering benefits that help zap stress and increase productivity, like unlimited vacation time and even bimonthly house cleaning.

When it comes to running operations, Libin relies on the mentorship he received from Hiroshi Mikitani of Japanese online mega-retailer Rakuten, who said that each time a company triples in size, all systems should be overhauled, from HR policies down to ways in which employees communicate with one another. “Everything starts to creak, and you need to plan that ahead of time, to examine everything,” Libin says. (Incidentally, Evernote tripled revenue and tripled membership to 47 million in 2012 and is on track to double both this year.)

According to Gary Little, Evernote board member and partner at Menlo Park, Calif.-based Morgenthaler Ventures, Libin’s biggest gift as a leader is his ability to communicate his grand vision to employees, investors and customers alike. “It’s a bit like Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field,’” Little says, referring to stories of how the Apple chief’s charismatic personality could convince employees that anything was possible. “But with a warm, embracing personality that draws people toward him and the company. It’s how he gets the best from all his people.” – Jennifer Wang

The Positive Influence
Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

Not all lessons are learned from mistakes; some of the most influential have roots in success. Take it from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, whose company LinkExchange was acquired in 1999 by Microsoft. Hsieh, 24 at the time, sold the company for one reason: He didn’t enjoy going to work anymore. The deal turned out to be more than just a $265 million windfall–it was a lesson Hsieh parlayed into a coaching company and bestselling book, Delivering Happiness.

Hsieh joined Zappos shortly after the Microsoft buyout, first as an investor and advisor. As the company grew and he took over as chief, he worked with his staff to develop the Zappos Family Core Values, the 10 commandments that dictate the company’s brand, culture and business strategies. They include not only a commitment to customer service, but also the creation of “fun and a little weirdness” and the building of a “positive team and family spirit.”

“Tony’s imprint is all over the company,” says Jamie Naughton, the so-called “speaker of the house” at Zappos. “Our culture was inspired by how he does business and the people he hires and how we all are as a group.”

Naughton says Hsieh takes a hands-off approach to leadership that requires effective delegation. “He likes to say that he is more of an architect; he designs the big vision and then gets out of the way so that everyone can make the things happen,” she says. Naughton acknowledges that some employees may need more structure, but Hsieh’s approach seems to be working at Zappos, which was purchased by Amazon in 2009 in a deal valued at more than $1.2 billion.

Today Hsieh is rising to guru status as business owners strive to emulate his leadership style. Alex Wilcox is CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based private aviation company JetSuite, in which Hsieh has made a $7 million investment. (Hsieh also serves on the board of directors.) Wilcox says JetSuite has adopted some of Zappos’ corporate-culture strategies, and he credits Hsieh as the catalyst for the decision to implement Wi-Fi on flights.

Hsieh is “an incredible leader,” Wilcox says, as well as one of JetSuite’s biggest customers. “If he is delayed by an external issue or something that we have overlooked, he never raises his voice. He lets us know about the issue and lets us solve it, and is always very receptive to what we have done to solve it. In that way, he has taught me a lot about how to be effective without getting upset, without raising your voice. He’s very quiet, which means that when he does speak, you pay extra attention.”

We’re All In This Together
Ted Devine, CEO Insureon

Ted Devine, CEO InsureonInside the LaSalle Atrium Building in downtown Chicago, a short walk from Lake Michigan, Insureon CEO Ted Devine has his desk arranged in one corner of the company’s open-plan office space. The CFO is adjacent. The head of marketing sits just 15 feet away, and the head of sales is nearby. There are no offices–not even cubicle dividers. In fact, from where Devine sits, he can look out on all 20 of his employees at company headquarters.

Devine came to Insureon in 2011 from Aon Risk Services, where, as president, he worked in a more traditional setting, one befitting the guy in charge of an operation with 28,000 employees and $5 billion in annual revenue. But it drove him crazy, Devine says, to sit in his resplendent office and see people lining up in the hallway outside, as if waiting to be granted an audience with the pope. So for Devine, the open floor plan he instituted at Insureon conveys a message that extends far beyond any interior design aesthetic. It goes to the heart of the company’s management style and workplace culture. It symbolizes an openness of spirit and Devine’s availability to everyone in the company, no matter their station–and no waiting required.

“For me it says a couple things about leadership,” he says. “One is: No walls, no barriers, no hierarchy. Everybody can talk to everybody. Everybody can participate in a decision. We work together, and that’s very important in leadership.”

The Team Player
Sheila Johnson, co-founder BET cable network

Sheila Johnson, co-founder BET cable network“It’s best if you lead arm in arm with the team,” Devine says. “The best leaders are the ones who will roll up their sleeves, and the team knows they’re going to work with them, and they’re respected. That’s what the floor plan says to me- everybody knows I’m accessible.”

As Sheila Johnson tells it, the secret to her success has been something you can’t learn in B-school or the boardroom. “Above all else, I hang my hat on character,” says Johnson, who co-founded the BET cable network; serves as team president of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics; and is CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, a hotel-management company based in Middleburg, Va. “I want every one of my employees to look at me with dignity and respect. I want to be someone they are proud to work for.”

To foster an environment that values this approach, Johnson strives for “unfailing dedication” in making choices that put the “greater good” first.

As part of this effort, she encourages employees to take responsibility for their choices and to act with humility, never seeing individual effort as being bigger than the group. She dubs this strategy “collaborative compromise.”

“If we’re all accountable for the choices we make, we can look back at a day or a week and measure the time in what we were able to accomplish,” she says. “Failure is OK if you tried something for the right reasons and you’re able to learn and move forward.”

Curtis Symonds has worked with Johnson for more than two decades, both at BET and the WNBA, where he served as president of the Mystics. “Above all else, Sheila leads by example through her passion,” he says. “It’s difficult to work with her, be around all of her excitement and energy, and not want to join in and get involved.”


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