As the co-founder of $4.5-billion Intuit--you know, the legendary company behind TurboTax and QuickBooks--Scott Cook has had a remarkable career as an entrepreneur. That doesn't mean he hasn't learned his share of lessons. He shared three of them at Harvard Business School's graduation ceremonies on Wednesday, May 27.
1. Dig for feedback on yourself.
You might think: Wait a minute. I already know this. What could possibly be so profound about seeking feedback?
The answer is the word "dig." The digging is crucial if you're in a position of leadership. As a person in power, your employees are unlikely to share their true feelings about you--especially the negative feedback that will help you understand your own blind spots. That's why you have to dig for that feedback.
To illustrate the point, Cook told a story about a mistake he learned from 10 years ago. At the time, Intuit was in the midst of a large-scale initiative to adopt design principles throughout the organization. For an off-site event launching the initiative, Cook prepared a PowerPoint presentation. "I sweated every detail," he said.
He delivered the presentation to Intuit's top 300 executives. It was six hours long, with one 40-minute break in the middle. During the break, a speaker from IDEO, the globally renowned design firm, led the executives through a 40-minute exercise.
After the off-site, Cook asked his executives what their biggest takeaways were. It turned out that "80 percent of [their biggest takeaways] came from the 40-minute exercise," he said. "I was stunned. This rocked my world."
The obvious lesson for Cook was to no longer subject his team to what he now calls "death by PowerPoint." Another lesson was to incorporate exercises into all meetings at Intuit. Cook told the graduates and their families that today, at all Intuit meetings, 80 percent of the time is spent on exercises of one form or another.
In short, Cook himself became a better presenter--and his company learned to have better meetings--all because he asked for feedback. And once he received the feedback, he made changes in response to it.
He also made the process of soliciting feedback part of Intuit's leadership training. Intuit's leaders-in-training publicly post their goals--and they are responsible for asking colleagues how they are progressing in pursuit of those goals. During formal evaluations, the leaders-in-training summarize this feedback to their bosses.
In other words, the bosses don't provide the feedback; they listen and learn about the feedback the employee has actively pursued and received.
2. Get a coach.
Again, this is advice you've probably heard before, whether it's from Peyton Manning or another entrepreneur. Cook's advice went one step further. He offered three keys that will allow your coach to improve your performance.
The first key, simple as it sounds, is that the coach has to see you work. No coach can properly evaluate you if her only method for learning about your work performance is your calls or emails. There's a reason, Cook said, that great athletes like Tom Brady and Serena Williams have coaches. Those coaches watch them perform, over and over again, and base their feedback on what they see.
The second key is allowing your coach to "talk to anyone confidentially about you." This is another way you can learn about your blind spots. Out of fear or kindness, your employees and supervisors might be bashful about sharing negative feedback with you--even if you "dig" for it. Cook admitted that he was shy about sharing negative feedback with Brad Smith, Intuit's current CEO, after Smith had expressly asked Cook to critique his performance on an earnings call.
The point is, your colleagues are more likely to share the negatives with a coach, if they know the coach will protect their anonymity.
The third key is the most important: You have to listen to what the coach says. If your presentations are boring, you need to change them.
3. Savor surprises.
Intuit's first product, Quicken, was intended to automate the personal finances of the average consumer. But not long after Quicken came out, the Intuit team learned that about 50 percent of Quicken's customers were using the software to run small businesses.
You might think any entrepreneur who learned something like this would reroute his strategy and begin targeting businesses. Not Cook. "I ignored it and we stayed focused on our initial strategy, targeting personal finance," he said.
In other words, he didn't savor the surprise. He viewed it as unwelcome.
Before continuing his story, Cook asked two simple questions to the graduates. "Who took an accounting course?" Many graduates raised their hands. Then he asked: "Who loved accounting?" Most of the hands fell down.
Cook then explained that this basic emotion--the idea that accounting was not always fun--had blinded him to the realities of creating accounting software for small businesses. He was initially hemmed in by the assumptions and concepts that had traditionally defined accounting software: The general-ledger, double-entry bookkeeping method of listing debits and credits.
Eventually Intuit realized that small businesses were using Quicken precisely because it was not like the typical general ledger. It was "accounting software with no [traditional] accounting in it," he said.
Today, QuickBooks represents 50 percent of Intuit's revenues, said Cook. Quicken is about 3 percent. "And all because we savored the surprise which I resisted for years."