A lot of what looks like genius from a distance turns out to be careful craftsmanship when you get up close. That’s true in high-visibility, public-performance fields like sports, music and literature. Champions fuel their rise to the top with great habits and smart strategies for getting better.
How about the world of business? A handful of executives are freakishly good at spotting the next big trends and capitalizing on them. It’s easy to profess that this must be magic at work — some sort of gift from the gods that the rest of us can’t match. But what if, once again, the genius is mostly in the details?
Over the past two months, I’ve been studying one of the California tech sector’s most respected leaders, Workday Inc. co-chief executive Aneel Bhusri. My immediate purpose was to research this new feature in Forbes magazine, The article analyzes Workday’s rise from a two-person startup to an enterprise software company with a $13 billion stock market value. It also illuminates a powerful working alliance between the 47-year-old Bhusri and his cofounder, 72-year-old Dave Duffield.
Bhusri gets credit for a lot of Workday’s prescient decisions: basing the business in the Internet cloud, making a fast push into mobile, targeting giant global customers even when the company itself was tiny, and so on. Watching this CEO in action, I was struck by his ability to sweep up huge amounts of information — and to synthesize everything into simple maxims that help Workday chart its course. So in the course of my research, I jotted down clues that might lead to transferable lessons about how this particular boss sharpens his insights.
Here are five simple habits that stand out:
1. Get out of the office. Bhusri mingles a lot with start-up entrepreneurs, thanks to his second career as a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners. That keeps him in touch with disruptive thinking. He says he also learns a lot from other Greylock partners, particularly ones who are associated with consumer-Internet companies. Workday has been unusually aggressive adopting user-friendly, colorful interfaces for its software. That’s not an easy decision to make if you’re only talking to enterprise software experts; it’s stone-cold simple if you’re plugged into the design thinking of sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
2. Hire people who will surprise you. Workday had global ambitions, right from the start. So in its first six months, it widened its hiring horizons beyond Northern California’s big pool of software engineers. Early recruits from Germany, Brazil and other non-U.S. locations helped make sure that the company’s bedrock design ideas could work well around the world, not just in the United States. Bhusri and mobile chief Joe Korngiebel reaffirmed that principle a second time when they were looking for engineers who could develop powerful iPad versions of the company’s software. Some key hires were 22-year-olds straight out of college, on the belief that these "digital natives" could see iPad-only solutions faster and more boldly than their older counterparts who had spent years working on desktop designs.
3. Err (at first) on the side of enthusiasm. Pitch an idea to Bhusri, colleagues say, and you’re likely to be greeted with: "Wow! That’s really awesome!" Don’t let the praise go to your head. Upon later reflection, Bhusri and his leadership team may decide that this new idea isn’t so feasible after all. But at least at the beginning, Bhusri is eager to see the best in each new concept. That enthusiasm helps draw out a richer run of fresh thinking. It’s better to prune back those ideas later, instead of leaving front-line employees so fearful of being criticized that they never want to tell the boss anything that he or she isn’t expecting.
4. Battle-test your ideas with customers. Which new ideas are so well-developed that they should come to market within months? Which ones need a few years to mature? That’s a hard call for most visionaries to make, and the penalties for living too far in the future can be severe. Customers can’t always tell you what new products to build, Bhusri says. But they can be invaluable in helping you align your product roll-outs with what the market is ready to use.
5. Read widely – but target a few areas for systematic focus. Ask Bhusri what he’s been reading lately, and he needs to hit "scroll down" on his Kindle app quite a few times before he’s done answering. He’s constantly hunting for leadership insights, sampling offerings from football coaches, the military, U.S. history and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio. ("I read that twice.") Another favorite is "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing." And lately, he’s been tackling the Affordable Care Act, one chapter at a time. It’s no one’s idea of a page-turner, but Bhusri sees ways that Workday can do more to help customers be in step with that huge U.S. health-care law, so he’s willing to keep slogging through it. The takeaway lesson here isn’t so much the individual titles that any CEO chooses, but instead the discipline to read deeply as a way of getting up to speed in new domains that matter.
(Photo credit: Sergey Gadurakhmanov via Flickr Creative Commons