Course  Startup School 2019
July 22, 2019, Mountain View, CA., USA
Course Startup School 2019
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Ali Rowghani - How to Lead
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About speaker

Ali Rowghani
CEO YC Continuity at Y Combinator

Ali Rowghani is the CEO of YC Continuity.Previously, he served as the Chief Operating Officer of Twitter, Inc. from 2012 to 2014, where he was in charge of Twitter’s product, design, business development, developer platform, and media teams. He was hired as Twitter’s first Chief Financial Officer and served in that role from 2010 to 2012. For the 9 years prior to his time at Twitter, Ali served in several roles at Pixar Animation Studios, Inc., including as Chief Financial Officer and as Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning.Ali holds a BA and MBA, both from Stanford University. Ali is on the Board at Checkr, Lob and Restoration Hardware (NYSE: RH), and is a Board observer at LendUp.

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About the talk

Topic: Business

To succeed in building a big company in the long-term, founders must become good at leading, motivating, and retaining great people. Ali Rowghani, YC Partner and CEO of the YC Continuity Fund, takes from his experience working with great leaders to share his three observations on leadership.


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Good morning, everyone. My name is Ali rowghani. I'm a partner Y combinator and it's a pleasure to welcome you guys to this lecture and I understand this were the last ones and start of school which in a way is really appropriate because my talk is about leadership, which is something important, but probably not top of mine for everyone in here and you probably got more burning concerns as you're getting your start up off the ground and figuring out what to build and working through product-market fit and fundraising and so on but it's a really really important

long-term question because if any of you is going to succeed and building a big company in the long-term, you've got a really get good at leading motivating retaining great people. And so I just wanted to take some time this morning to share some of my experiences and hopefully help you guys develop a bit of a early mental model try to think about leadership at your startup's. so first a quick word about me part of Y combinator, I had a 15-year career as an executive at two companies the first was it pixark the animation studio where I

spent almost 10 years and I was the CFO of Pixar for the last four and then I spent about five years at Twitter where I started is the CFO and then I was the c o o And during that time. I had the amazing Good Fortune of getting a chance to work with and observe some really amazing leaders in action people like the founder of Pixar Ed catmull the CEO of Pixar at Steve Jobs Twitter's Founders, Jack Dorsey at Williams biz Stone, and now some of the really amazing founder CEOs at YC on people like Patrick Collison

and Peter Reinhart Drew Houston and so on. So I've had to have a front row seat and I'm being able to observe some great leaders in action. And so what I wanted to do is to share three observations on leadership that I've learned in my career and as I said before, you know, this may not be pertinent exactly today. If you're just a couple of people working on an idea, but hopefully for most of you it'll be pertinent very soon. The three observations on leadership. The first one is that there's no single archetype for a great leader. No single archetype great leaders come in all

shapes and sizes all personality types and characteristics and I say this from personal experience because it was a big lesson for me. I used to think that there was kind of a single leadership Persona like a way you had to be aware you had to act in order to be a great leader to be followed by people, but it turns out that all of the great leaders that I work with and got to observe. They were all really different somewhere introvert somewhere extroverts somewhere technologist other storytellers somewhere diplomatic and very calm and others were emotional and a little bit

hot-headed somewhere nerds and somewhere cool kids. So if you think about it, it's kind of a liberating idea. Actually that leaders come in all shapes and sizes because it means that anyone fundamentally has the capabilities to become a great leader, but the other application which I think is also really important and I'll touch on again later is that in your quest to become a great leader in your quest to have other people follow you. You have to be yourself. You have to be authentic to who you are. You can't try to be someone else. If you want to be a great leader. You can't try to

imitate Steve Jobs and hope that you know, people will just kind of think that you are Steve Jobs. I remember reading a quotes some years ago from Reed Hastings the amazing CEO of Netflix who basically said the same thing and he said for the first few years of his career as a CEO, he was just trying to imitate Steve Jobs and he realize you'll have some possible. I have to be read and it was that simple sort of realization that help them become a much better leader. So you can only be yourself in the end because humans are very good at detecting inauthenticity.

We're really good at telling when someone is being fake and we don't generally follow or trust those that we find inauthentic so first observation on leadership. Is that there's not a single archetype anyone can be a great leader. But in order to do so, you have to be yourself II. While there's no single archetype great leaders, nevertheless Share three fundamental attributes and you kind of got to be really good at these three things. If you want to be a great leader, the first is great leaders think and communicate clearly and this

really makes all the sense in the world. If you're going to have other people follow you if you're going to have other people want to do the thing you're compelling them to do you have to be able to paint a clear and compelling vision of the future for them to be able to follow And as a company grows as any organization grows, your communication has to get better and better and better because you've got more and diverse more diverse people who are hearing it and your process seems that you used to communicate can no longer be one-on-one, but they have to scale as the organization itself

scale. The biggest lesson and good clear Communications to me. The most sort of important thing is that great communication needs to be simple. And simplicity in communication is really is really hard and to communicate simply takes a lot of time and preparation. There's an example here of Woodrow Wilson President Woodrow Wilson who was once asked how long it would take him fast to give a speech and was asked. How long would it what do you need to prepare? And

he said well, it depends how long you guys want me to talk if it's a 10 minute speech then I need two weeks to prepare for it. If I can talk for half an hour, I only need a week. but if I can talk as long as I want to then I don't need any preparation all I can speak right now so that from you know, one of the presents United States in effect captures the point if you want to communicate simply if you want to you know Express things that are memorable and it can be repeated. If it takes time to prepare another great example here from business for

me is from Jeff Bezos when he was asked about Amazon's retail strategy. What is Amazon's retail strategy? And he said that the way we think about our retail strategy. Is it there three things? That will never change in our world. In other words customers will always want three things from Amazon will always want lower prices. They're always want bigger selection of merchandise and I'll always want faster delivery. So lower prices more merchandise more selection and faster delivery and then he could never imagine that a consumer would

ever want the opposite of any of these three things and that became those three things became two pillars of Amazon Suite L strategy for the last 20 years and employees knew that anything they did to drive those three things lower prices faster delivery in more selection would be in the long-term strategic interests of Amazon and it was clear as day and it drove the strategy of the company for a long long time. So that's the kind of communication that were talking about. That's the kind of Simplicity. That's that's effective. So how do you get good at this obviously clear

concise communication comes more naturally to some people than others, but I do believe that practice does make you better when it comes to communication and I believe that even in small startups even in two to four person startups as long as you have other people you're working with it pays to work on communicating clearly. So the way you get better is number one to realize that Clarity of thought precedes Clarity of language. She have to think clearly to communicate clearly. And so the first step is to free up time

in your schedule to just think and try to jot down your thoughts and try to think about how do I express these thoughts and clean clear and clear Waze? And planning practice your Communications. This is probably more appropriate in a slightly bigger company. But if you're standing in front of a group of employees don't wing it try to prepare try to have it written down if the company is big enough practice in front of a smaller audience get some coaching ask for feedback. All these things will help you guys become better communicators and there's really no reason not to start now to try

to work on this. It's such a fundamental skill. Okay, so great leaders are all different but they share three fundamental attributes. The first is Clarity of thought and language. The second is the great leaders have good judgment about people. And why is this important? Why is it important for you to have good judgment about people. Well is your organization's grow is your startup's grow, you know before long when you get to have 20 or 30 employees, you're going to have to either hire or promote other people to be leaders in the company to be managers and directors and

one-day vice presidents and so on. And the decisions that you make in terms of who to empower as leaders in your organization have a really profound impact on the future of the company and if you make consistently bad decisions on the people that you're bestowing Authority and power to then your Authority your followership the trust that people have in you will diminish so you have to make really good choices in terms of Who You Empower because in the end they become extensions of you. So, how do you get rid of this one? You can you know good judgment good EQ is

probably, you know more natural for some people than for others, but my best advice here, especially this is a few steps ahead of probably where you guys are now, but when you're starting to recruit for any position your company, you should try to meet a lot of people should put real time and energy into it. You should try to even meet people who you have. No, hope of hiring because it's important to kind of get a sense for what really great leaders are like at what great, you know engineering managers are like what great sales leaders are like excetera and

just talk to them about their jobs and their backgrounds and how they how they came to be where they are asked her about how they leave people what they think goes. Well doesn't go. Well this type of kind of educational interview will really help you or really helped hone your judgment about what's good. And what's bad and who's good and who's bad? And don't be don't be don't think that you're wasting time in doing this. I know you guys will many of you will be hiring senior people one day for the first time. You'll never have hired a CFO before don't don't cut Corners

spend time meeting people and honing your instincts. The other thing I would say is, you know, as you guys start to grow your company's you're obviously going to have to hire and recruit a lot of people and some of those people will not work out just make sure that you view the hiring process is something that you can learn from every single time and just be very diligent in terms of learning. You know, who you hired why you hired that person what went right what went wrong in terms of their original hire their own boarding in their career to Company B self-reflective about the

development of people in your organization and your own choices as to who you're empowering with authority. Okay last thing the great leaders have in common great leaders have strong personal integrity and commitment that means standing for something meaningful Beyond themselves and being motivated by things outside of their narrow personal interest. It means avoiding behavior that diminishes trust diminish his credibility in a leader like favoritism conflicts-of-interest inappropriate language inappropriate

work relationships Etc. Commitment means making your work into a life mission in ways that Inspire other people it means giving it your all people see this and they respect it and they follow it. So, how do you get good at this? Well, my simple advice on this one is to try to hold yourself accountable to the transparency test. Which means Ask yourself if all of your private Communications and behavior towards others Etc. If all that were to be transparent to everyone at the company. If everyone saw everything you said and

it would you be embarrassed by any of it? We obviously all make mistakes but patterns and mistakes are bad and mistakes that sort of damage the Integrity that you have or damage the perception of Integrity or the worst of all, so that is I think of very important characteristic and leaders third observation about leadership. So number one all leaders are all different. There's no single archetype number to nevertheless. They have three common traits communication judgment about people and integrity and commitment and the third observation about leadership is

the best way to measure great leaders. Is in terms of the amount of trust, they're able to engender and the people who work with them for them around them Etc. Trust is the metric the success metric for leadership and Trust in a 360-degree sense of the word. I would say that across any organization. The job of every leader is to build trust trust in employees investors customers users and so on and building trust is both an art and a science. So the science of trust is fairly simple. You have to be right about

the empirical question in your business, you know, if you're predicting. Hey, we should build this product. We should try to sell this customer or you know, we should try to market the product in this way these things over time like these choices get proven right or wrong and hopefully you're right much more than you're wrong because if you're consistently wrong then and you know, you diminish the amount of trust people having you it's almost like asking someone What's 2 + 2 and if they consistently answer 5, then they can be the most trustworthy ethical person on the planet,

but you're not going to trust them at the end of the day with anything had to do with math. So that's the science of trust. I find the founders often get this part, right? The second aspect of building trust is more of an art. This is about being able to show empathy and good judgment having timing good timing when you confront issues. It's about striving for something bigger than yourself and not being selfish or self-centered. And this is a more delicate. Obviously the art of trust Billy the art of trust the more delicate topic and again practice makes you better but I always try to

keep it in mind. My parting advice for you guys as you guys are sort of tadpoles on your way to building big companies. Is that as you with every step that you take forward try to optimize for truck as Leaders, you're going to have lots of hard decisions to make in the coming years. You'll have to fire people you'll have to admit mistakes to your customers. You'll have to say no to people because you disagree with them and their ideas try to view every challenge that comes in your way. Try to view every challenge as an opportunity to increase the trust that

people have in you as a leader try to view every challenge as a trust-building opportunity. And as you evaluate one course of action versus another ask yourself, which path is going to generate more trust in you as a leader and always try to choose that path. That's my parting advice. I wish you guys all the luck and success in the world, and it was great talking here today. Thank you.

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