To help you sift for the very best leadership advice, Inc. tapped many of this year's 250 Best-Led Companies for their CEO's pro tips. Some execs had just one piece of sage leadership advice, while others had multiple points to make. The resulting list is jam-packed with unvarnished, wise words from the mouths of CEOs who know of what they speak.
1. On Starting Fresh ...
Even CEOs need a little time to warm up to a new brand. Satish Malhotra had operated at the highest levels in retail for more than two decades, but he was a newbie at the Container Store when he took the top job there in February 2021. In fact, he'd shopped at the home organization retailer only once--10 years prior. Here's Malhotra's cheat sheet for getting up to speed, fast:
- Pick up the phone: "I make a point to talk to other executives and vendors about the challenges they're facing and how they're overcoming them. We're all trying to make our companies successful."
- Really talk with your team: "I spend time visiting our stores and conducting roundtables with our teams, so I can learn from them. Many great ideas have come from our store specialists and designers."
- Be your own customer: "I regularly buy products from our website and stores. I recently designed and installed more than a dozen custom spaces in my home. This lets me experience firsthand what's working and what's not from a customer's perspective."
2. On Making Work Fun ...
"Don't take yourself too seriously--try to have fun in the context of the work. Things happen and challenges arise, but I find it easier to work with folks who take our mission and our tasks seriously, but don't take ourselves too seriously."
--Stephen Beard, CEO of workforce solutions provider Adtalem Global Education
3. On Going Against the Grain ...
"Culture will shape the behaviors of your team and the quality of the outcomes your company is able to deliver. As you scale, there will be many forces that push you to be less deliberate on this. Resist those forces."
--Javier Ferreira, co-CEO of Scopely, the mobile gaming startup that has grown to nearly $1 billion in annual revenue
4. On Retaining Your Troops ...
Right now, Ragy Thomas of Sprinklr probably has browser windows open to several communication platforms: Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, SMS, and, yes, email. You could say that he's highly approachable. Makes sense for a founder and CEO whose business it is to help companies including Nike, McDonald's, and Samsung manage their social media presence and customer relations. But that constant contact extends to employees, too, which is part of his approach to not just hiring great people, but also keeping them. Here are his other top tips for retaining employees:
- Hire right: "Most companies look for experience, and as I learned the hard way, it's equally or more important to find out whether your values and styles are aligned. We are looking for people who make their bed and then walk around it to be certain it's done properly."
- Check in regularly: "Every quarter, the leadership has a conversation with every person on their team. The first question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you at Sprinklr? If you get even a 9 or an 8, there's a second question: What are the top three things that the manager could do to get you closer to a 10?"
- Agree on what's expected: "We have self-declared learning goals for every person. They have to ask: What are the three things I want to learn this quarter? By ruthlessly prioritizing and keeping it simple, we have a core framework that allows us to uniquely scale."
5. On Staying Open to Feedback ...
"Create as many channels as possible to hear insights and feedback from your customers, ensuring that everyone in the company has the chance to hear it and engage directly with this community. Many of our most successful product features have come from feedback provided directly by hosts."
--Andre Haddad, CEO of peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace Turo
6. On Defining Your Mission ...
"Find a purpose that's larger than you. When you can figure that out and articulate it, constantly keep it as your North Star. It's amazing what happens to the caliber of people you recruit, the nature of investors and board members you will attract, the kind of partners and customers who will want to align with you. The impossible becomes possible."
--KR Sridhar, founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, maker of energy-efficient fuel-cell technology
7. On Staging a Turnaround ...
Jonathan Johnson became CEO of Overstock in August 2019, after nearly two decades with the e-commerce giant. At that point, the least of Overstock's worries was its controversial founding chief, who was stepping down after issuing "deep state" conspiracy theories. "We were losing money; we were shrinking; we were unfocused," says Johnson. "We had 27 quote-unquote key initiatives, which is like having no key initiatives. We spent a lot of time narrowing our focus." It worked: Overstock was perfectly positioned when the pandemic lockdown sent e-commerce-- especially home furnishings--soaring. Here are Johnson's three turnaround tips:
- Let people do their jobs: At Overstock, "we want to grow market share, and everyone is saying, 'OK, within my realm of responsibility, here's what I think I can do to grow market share.' And they work on it, frankly, without being told what to do. When you're able to control what you do, I think you're a lot happier at work."
- Don't sugarcoat bad news: "When I did my first companywide standup as a CEO, someone asked me: 'Are we going to get bonuses at the end of the year?' I said, 'I know the answer you would like to hear is yes, but the truthful answer is no--we're not performing in a place where we get bonuses.' And while people didn't necessarily like that answer, they knew it was a true answer. Then, in 2020, our business doubled, and we paid a larger bonus than the company's ever paid."
- Get comfortable with criticism: "The risk is that CEOs get too many of what I call paid friends, who tell them all their bad ideas are good ideas because they want to stay on the payroll."
8. On Leading at Scale ...
Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of digital health platform Everly Health, has led her team as it's ballooned from 60 people in Austin to more than 600 in four cities in less than two years. Oh, and the company's now valued at $2.9 billion. To scale her leadership game along with her team, she relies on these three tactics:
- Submit to performance reviews: Every year, Cheek solicits a 360-degree evaluation of her efforts as CEO from the board of directors, her direct reports, and key other stakeholders in the company: "I work for the team and for the business."
- Congratulate your team's wins: In an effort to "programmatically do something that used to happen naturally," Cheek says she collects weekly nominations from her executive team of people she should personally reach out and deliver encouragement to.
- Never stop learning: "You have to rewrite your own role every six months as your own skill gaps or experience gaps become apparent. You have to be OK saying, 'This is something new for me. Whom am I going to talk to, or what do I need to read, or what role do I need to fill on my team?'"
9. On Defining Your Purpose in All Things ...
"Be incredibly clear on the jobs to be done for each role, with a healthy bias for outcomes versus effort."
--Joey Zwillinger, co-founder and co-CEO of Allbirds, the eco-conscious sneaker brand, which filed to go public in August
10. On Never Stopping to Innovate ...
"Complacency will kill you. You have to figure out how to move and continue to do what you've got to do to grow." To wit: Goldin doubled down on Hint's direct-to-consumer business during the pandemic, growing the overall business 50 percent over the past year.
--Kara Goldin, CEO and founder at flavored-water brand Hint
11. On Knowing When to Act ...
"Take calculated risks. The times when you're most challenged often turn into the opportunities"
--Dun & Bradstreet CEO Anthony Jabbour, who took the data and analytics company public in July 2020, as companies of all sizes were dialing back their growth ambitions
12. On Hiring Leaders ...
Gregg Coccari, CEO of the online-education giant Udemy, believes you simply cannot lead a successful company without other great leaders on the team. Here are the qualities he prizes most:
- Look for resilience: "I'm not necessarily looking for experience in a specific industry, but for someone with experience handling tough situations. A good leader should always want to understand and hear how they can develop."
- Don't underestimate a sense of humor: "I want leaders who take their roles seriously, but I also want people who can bring a positive attitude to any situation, especially when things get bumpy. Being able to laugh at yourself helps everyone get through challenges, especially in today's uncertain world."
- Filter for constant students: "Everyone wants the opportunity to continue to learn and grow. I expect leaders to cultivate skills in employees, and that's a trait I look for when hiring."
13. On Staying the Course ...
Shawn Nelson made the first Lovesac beanbag chair in his parents' basement in 1995. He launched his company three years later and, over the course of two-plus decades, has seen it transform into one of the fastest-growing furniture retailers in the U.S. Here are his three strategies for perseverance:
- Don't be ruled by fear: "I try to battle that and allow optimism to dictate my decision making."
- Delegate: "If I've hired good people, then I trust that they'll make good decisions."
- Keep it real: "I try to have at least a little bit of a connection with everybody so we can feel like we're building this Lovesac family."