Every CEO I know and have met works hard to plan, implement, set, and drive strategic direction and vision for the company. It comes with the territory with being a good CEO

But only a handful of CEOs will venture beyond the hyperfocus of driving shareholder value to the uncharted terrain of engaging their workforce of human beings with heart, and not as objects in a transaction or as a means to an end (revenues and profit). 

Leading with heart takes a daring and bold kind of executive--a Matt Cain type of executive. Who is Matt Cain, you say? I'll get to that in a minute.

While Cain has yet to garner the same fanfare as other Silicon Valley tech execs, he is a model stalwart for a new breed of executives that sees employees as worthy colleagues in pursuit of the same entrepreneurial goals.

Matt Cain is the CEO of Couchbase, creator of the world's first engagement database that lets users build apps with "NoSQL" databases. Under Cain's leadership, Couchbase has already been placed on the Forbes' 2018 Next Billion-Dollar Startup List, a prestigious list of companies in the U.S. recognized for most likely to hit the billion-dollar mark in the coming years.

So what is the key to Matt Cain's success that sets him apart from his peers? It's going to surprise you, maybe even make you cringe.

Last year, I set out to discover and identify the best and most successful execs that lead their high-performing companies through what I call "love in action"--practical elements of leading through care, connection, inclusion, and belonging that elevate work cultures to another stratosphere.

Matt Cain and Couchbase answered the call. So how does today's leader motivate, inspire, and engage their workforce through "love" without forsaking results and profit? I'll let Cain explain it in his own words. Here are excerpts from my conversation with him last year.  

How does an executive like yourself lead with and model practical love in a way that translates to engaging your employees for business outcomes?

Cain: First off, I love this concept! I do believe love is the ultimate motivator and it will trump all others in terms of effectiveness, impact, and longevity in the end. It's about support, encouragement, tough love, a willingness to communicate disappointment with positive intent and without judgment, a desire to listen with intent, and unconditional support that are all in service for wanting the best for someone. Why wouldn't we aspire to bring that into our workplaces?

What's the starting point?

Cain: As I think about bringing that into the company, it starts with creating an "us" environment. We win as a group and we never lose alone. We are here for one another in, and outside of, the office. To enable this, we work to create an engaging culture through relationships. I create as many opportunities as I can to meet, build rapport, and establish connections with employees, customers, and other key stakeholders. Our team asks what's working, what's not working, where others need help, what could be better about the company and what they would do if they were you. And then...we listen. 

What would you advise other leaders do in order to leverage "love" as a business value that leads to results?   

Cain: Envision the person, people, team, cause, or group that you care most about outside of your business. How do you get the most out of them? How would you show up for them in the moments that matter? Now imagine how can you take that mindset into the work that you do or the company that you founded? How authentic are your leadership and intent in how you communicate from a business standpoint? I'd encourage leaders to over-communicate, connect, establish trust and open the "virtual door" with their employees. Share your vulnerability and failures. Have the courage to connect and be your true self with others. Be transparent. Be visible. Be responsive. 

That said, what's your opinion on why so many leaders fail to demonstrate "leadership love" and caring for employees when the evidence is so clear it leads to high performance and impact?

Cain: Too often, I think people lead in a way they think they should. What have they read? What have they seen? Instead, effective leadership is about acting with authenticity and doing so consistently with your values. Love takes courage and vulnerability. At times, that can lead to significant sadness and disappointment. The combination of not having enough role models for leading this way, and the societal pressure of being perceived as hyper-masculine, strong on the outside but guarded on the inside limits an abundance of this approach.  

Is it that some people just aren't capable?

Cain: I don't think it's a capability issue. Call me an optimist but I think all people are capable of love. Why couldn't all leaders then be capable of this approach? Personally, I think it's about not knowing what to do and less about not being able to do it. It's hard and takes commitment and practice, just like being a spouse, parent, sibling, daughter, uncle, etc. 

Do you see any evidence that a culture of love leads to results?

Cain: We've made a concentrated effort to be transparent and inclusive as a company to drive home our value of teamwork. As a result, last year Couchbase continued to grow headcount and annual revenue. While those are measurable, more important to me, is answering the question: have we positively impacted our employees lives with our approach? If we are successful with that, financial results will follow. 

What would you say is one big mistake you've made as a business leader, and what did you learn? 

Cain: I'm not perfect. Sometimes I don't show up as my full self. I'm too hard on myself, shoulder too much burden personally, and forget that I can't have a positive impact every day if I'm not fully present and engaged because I'm overly concerned on immediate challenges or setbacks. The journey matters.  

What can you say you're most proud of about the culture of Couchbase?

Cain: I'm most proud of the collaboration and shared vision at Couchbase. Everyone at this company prescribes to the belief that we win and lose together, and that teamwork is what drives Couchbase forward and strengthens its position against competitors. Whether it's during all hands, or Rock the Red spirit days, the energy and belief in our company and what we do is palpable. And, while united as a team, we are here for one another.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the growth rate of Couchbase's annual revenue. 

Published on: Jun 6, 2019
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