Match Play: Lessons in Leadership

On the heels of the final rounds of the 50th US Open Tennis Championship, TCV’s General Partner John Doran sat down with George Mulhern, former tennis pro and CEO of Cradlepoint to discuss lessons learned on and off the court. In addition to being CEO of Cradlepoint, a global leader in cloud solutions for 4G/5G-enabled networks, George has been instrumental in driving economic growth in the Northwest region as a venture capitalist. Throughout his 20+ year career, George has drawn on his experiences on the tennis court to succeed through the highs and lows of the ultra-competitive tech industry.

Key takeaways include:

  • How to develop a competitive mentality that keeps you focused
  • The right attitude for responding to adversity
  • Why the mindset of your company’s culture determines long-term success

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John Doran: It’s not every day I get to talk with a fellow tennis player about what the game can teach tech founders and CEOs. How far did your tennis career take you?

George Mulhern: I went to college on a tennis scholarship and then played for a short time on the American Express Satellite tour, which is like the minor league of professional men’s tennis. That was far enough to know that I would have to make my living doing something else.

John Doran: What did tennis teach you about competing in the technology business?

George Mulhern: One of the most important competitive things you learn in tennis is to never give up when you are behind. You can turn around a match completely, like a major pivot in technology, if you keep your head and adjust your strategy and tactics. It truly is not over until it’s over. An equally valuable lesson, one you usually learn the hard way, is to never let up when you are ahead. If you lose momentum it is much tougher to get back on top, and you also give a big shot of confidence to your opponent. The same is true in business. You can never rest on your past successes. Every day is a new game and you have to approach it with the intention and intensity to win.

John Doran: Pro players often talk about knowing their competition and anticipating how a certain player will try to compete against them. Do you see parallels in your business life?

George Mulhern: My experience was that no matter how much you study your competition before a match, it is impossible to completely predict how they will behave. It is more important to have keen situational awareness, flexibility in your own game and the agility and willingness to rapidly adapt. Then you’re ready no matter what the opponent comes at you with.

John Doran: In tennis, top players often try to balance their strengths and stamina and stay in a match with a view to turning around the momentum. Has there ever been a time when you would conserve energy against an opponent in a long match?

George Mulhern: The context for those comments is that players today are achieving a level of conditioning that is unprecedented for tennis. They’re hitting harder and running more for every ball. So you can win a match by outlasting the other player, not just outplaying them. The same is true in technology. If you are investing enough time and effort into that level of conditioning, you don’t need to conserve your energy. Your competitor should run out of gas before you do. By conditioning I mean ensuring that you have, or are acquiring, the skills and capabilities your company needs to sustain success for as long as you stay in business.

John Doran: It’s often said that success in tennis is as much about the mental side of the game as it is about physical talent.  In your world now, as CEO, having a strong mental game is fairly pivotal as well. How do you keep your mental game sharp in the tech business?

George Mulhern: There are all kinds of distractions when you are playing competitive tennis: fans, competitors, weather, injuries, illness, even the last shot you missed. You need the mental toughness to put all those things aside and focus on what is most important, which is the point you are playing right now. It is the same in the tech business. The distractions are different – there is always the latest shiny object grabbing at your attention – but the challenge is the same. You have to stay focused on the key value drivers of your business.

John Doran: On the WTA tour, I understand that coaching is now allowed during matches at certain times, giving the coach a potentially bigger influence on the outcome of a match. Can you share any feedback that you took from your tennis coaches over the years that you still use today?

 George Mulhern: My college coach, whom I now think of more as “Yoda,” taught me it’s not about who has the best strokes or shots. It’s about a simple decision you have to make: (Yoda voice) “Winner, do you want to be?” If you do want to win, then the challenges of becoming a winner don’t feel like a sacrifice. They energize you. You are more than willing to put in the hours of practice and conditioning. You embrace the need to change something in your game if that’s necessary, and you summon the courage to fight until the last shot of the match even when you’re tired and it starts to feel hopeless.

John Doran: Applying the coaching metaphor to your business experience, what kind of performance feedback is most valuable?

George Mulhern: Direct and honest is the best. As you rise in an organization, more people will tell you how great you are. You have to find the folks that will tell you the things that aren’t so positive and nice to hear. As you move into higher levels of leadership you need to grow a thicker skin, but with some permeability so you can accept critical feedback and not over-personalize it. It’s just business. You use the feedback to improve and move on.

John Doran: One of the commonalties about this generation of top tennis players, especially in the men’s game, is the ability of the top players to continually improve and add to their games, allowing people such as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic to stay on top for so long. In the business and technology world, how do you ensure you’re making the necessary improvements to your game to stay ahead of the competition?

George Mulhern: My first year of college tennis, it really hit home to me that I had to get better every day, because there are a whole bunch of other guys out there who certainly are. It is the same in technology. Every technology company’s culture has to instill a sense of urgency and willingness to embrace and adapt to change. Your existing competitors are striving to improve, new competitors are starting up, and they all want to take your market share. At Cradlepoint we say, “stay humble and hungry, or you will be.”

John Doran: Even the greatest tennis players of all time have lost big matches throughout their careers. What can business leaders learn from that? How do they recover?

George Mulhern: It’s one match. Learn from it, adapt where you need to, and get over it. People in your organization will take their cues from you and react the way you do, so don’t run around like your hair is on fire. Just go to work on finding the path to the next success.

John Doran: Did any of the great tennis players of the past inspire you in ways that affected your success in business?

George Mulhern: One of my life lessons came from a tennis idol of mine – Arthur Ashe. When he was asked what it takes to become a champion, he said “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”  Whenever I am faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge or problem, I remember that quote.  If you just take that first step, the next step becomes clearer, and then so does the next.

John Doran: Thanks so much for your insights, George.

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TCV is an investor in Cradlepoint.

The views and opinions expressed in the transcript above are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This transcript is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/

 

 

 

 

 


Hiring for Leaders: Your Company Won’t Scale if the Leaders Can’t

By Jonathan Shottan

Companies that scale quickly share many of the same problems. Institutional knowledge becomes fragmented or lost as people leave. Decision-making authority changes or becomes opaque. New cultural norms are developed. Personality conflicts arise as the old guard and new guard merge. Collaboration becomes even more essential, because almost everyone is involved in creating new functions and establishing new processes.

But if the conditions during scaling are similar, the results vary widely. Some companies thrive through it, while others struggle. I’ve seen both in my career, working at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, and cultural differences don’t explain it. Leadership does. There is universality to the qualities exhibited by the best leaders at successful companies. If you’re hiring or promoting from within during a period of high growth, these are the qualities that you can and should identify. Leaders with these qualities naturally maintain momentum, exceed their objectives, develop and attract top talent, and amplify the best aspects of your culture. They are best suited to thrive on constant change and they are instrumental in driving success for the organization. Colloquially, they are the 10Xers.

From my own personal experiences leading teams through scale at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, I’ve identified a set of three attributes to consider when vetting leaders during the hiring or promotion process:

  1. Leaders That Scale Take A Position…

What is it: Leaders who can scale companies successfully know how to take a position. I know it sounds simple, but not everyone can do it – especially during times of pressure. A position is an informed stance amid a swirl of uncertainty, which galvanizes others to understand it, respond to it, and imagine how it would work. As such, it speeds the organization toward decisions and action.

Why is it Important: A position is not an opinion, because everyone has plenty of those. A position is also not a point of view because again, everyone has a perspective from which they view the world. A position is a singular proposal for addressing a particular issue. In taking a position, you may actually diverge from your own opinion or perspective, in order to take a position that’s more provocative and therefore more productive. Taking a position creates urgency and gets the conversation moving toward an agreement on next steps.

This is critical because as organizations grow, people can get stuck in paralysis by analysis. They’re not sure of their status yet. They may be afraid of making the wrong decision, or making the right decision, but in the wrong way for the culture they find themselves in.

Leaders who take a position dissolve all this. Though it may sound like a paradox, taking a strong position at the outset of a meeting is a unifying force, not a divider. Everyone else now shares the same task: testing the position, modifying it, figuring out whether and how it would work. It’s easy to focus because a hodgepodge of opinions and questions has been replaced by a proposed solution. Even if the stance is only a straw man, it sparks a productive conversation. And if the position becomes a North Star that everyone can navigate by, you’ve just taken a great leap forward.

How to Hire or Promote for it: First of all, you want candidates with a wide range of knowledge and interests, not superficially, but down to details. These people tend to be polymaths. They are familiar with a wide range of fields, technologies, cultures, and customers, and they can see the big picture intuitively. They can also explain it from multiple angles. They love to share their data or historical knowledge if it will enlighten or empower others. Typically, they can formulate their position as they walk into a room, because that’s how their minds work: synthesizing many factors into one proposition and pitching that proposition at the right level for others to understand and react to.

During the interview pick a big hairy sector, such as transportation or education, and ask the candidate “How do you think this sector will change in 10 years? In 50 years?” Ask about the candidate’s hobbies, pick the one you’re most familiar with, and ask the candidate to talk about it at length; you’re looking for what it says about them, their passion, and their personality. What was the last book they read? What is the next book they want to read? Do they play a musical instrument or a sport? Ask them to analyze the strategy of the organization they’re working for now, both pro and con, to see how many different perspectives they incorporate into their analysis.

  1. Leaders Don’t Get Stuck On A Position…

What is it: The second trait for leaders who scale is effortlessly moving off their own positions when the time is right. They do this because they understand that the position is a means to an end. If you’re familiar with the expression “strong opinions weakly held,” you understand this trait already. In many ways, it’s the flip side of the first trait. Strong opinions weakly held means that leaders readily evolve their positions in the face of new information or through an ability to read a room. They understand that a stronger position is forming – and this was the reason for taking a position in the first place.

Why is it Important: Why does this matter for scaling an organization? Because you need everyone to share their ideas, even if they’re shy. Being inclusive of thought accomplishes this. It also draws out sharper analysis from bolder or more informed members, because they trust that they’re not going to hit a wall if they voice partial or even complete disagreement with a leader’s opinion. Getting to a new, better, shared position makes everyone feel connected to the outcome. Now it’s time for action.

How to Hire or Promote for it: Testing for the ability to gracefully move off a position can be fun for you and the candidate. Before the interview, pose a real-world business problem within an area where you have lots of data but there are many ways to solve the problem. For example, if you’re at a ride-sharing company you could ask “How would you build a driver loyalty program?” Once the candidate states a position in the interview, begin to challenge it constructively, as if you were colleagues in a meeting. Probe for the thinking behind it. Share new data and see how they change their position. You’re not just looking to see if they’re open to revisiting their conclusions. You also want to see if they can continue to effectively articulate their position in the face of resistance — without getting stuck on it.

  1. Leaders Embrace the Outcome…and Adapt Appropriately

What is it: Unless you’re the CEO you don’t get to make the final decision most of the time. That’s when leaders need to have a third critical trait: they embrace the outcome of the conversation that just concluded. If the board decides to cut marketing hiring by 50%, the leader of the marketing department could respond in a variety of ways. The one you want is understanding and expressing the consequences of that decision to the department, in a constructive way.

Why is it Important: Psychologically, this leader has an innate ability to assume best intent. If a management decision goes against such individuals, or their organizations, they don’t take it personally. Quite the opposite, they default to a position that the people above them or around them share a vision for success and that the decision was necessary. Today is not forever, and marketing will be hiring again in the future. The focus now is making the current strategy succeed, rapidly. A good leader will take a positive, proactive position on how to do that.

This natural aptitude is an invisible bulwark against confusion and fatigue during times of rapid change and growth. Why? Because leaders with this trait are consistent in message, countenance, and style. When the environment is constantly changing, people look to their leaders. If the leaders are showing up as constructively positive in good times and bad, their teams will adapt a similar penchant for consistency and there will be fewer productivity troughs.

How to Hire or Promote for it: There are two approaches that can help you identify candidates who will naturally embrace an outcome, turn it positive, and lead their team to success with it. The first approach is to ask the individual to describe a time they disagreed with a boss or peer, and how they responded. You’re not looking for surface answers like “Of course I had to go along” or “I won.” You’re looking for the ways the candidate turned the adversity into opportunity – graciously.

The second approach is to actually put the candidate through adversity as part of the hiring process. If you gave them a homework assignment before the interview, change the terms before they can present their work. Substitute in an interviewer they didn’t expect to talk with. Pick something on their resume that could potentially be a deal-breaker and ask them to reframe it into a deal-maker instead. Again, you’re not looking for pat answers. You’re looking for the natural inclination to embrace what’s happening and turn it positive.

 

The Most Important Deliverable You Have

In my own career I came to realize that vetting for and then fostering leadership attributes on my teams was more important than any other deliverable I had. I am also aware that this knowledge can get crowded out when your company is on pace to grow 10X in two years, because you’ve got so many high-priority problems to solve. Fight the tendency. Sure, you don’t want to be distracted. But you still have to get leaders in place who can scale. Making this a priority benefited my teams tremendously. Individuals with the traits described above were resilient culture carriers who instilled confidence, trust, and good-will in the organizations they were involved with. They were best suited to manage constant change and rapid growth, and most responsible for the ultimate success of the organization.

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Jonathan Shottan is an Executive-in-Residence at TCV.

The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This blog post is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.