Learning from Jeff Weiner
Last month, my friend Jeff Weiner stepped down as CEO of LinkedIn after 11 amazing years. In his final all-hands meeting as CEO, I and many other LinkedIn team members spoke about what Jeff has meant to us, and the important lessons we have learned from him over those years. I want to share some of the key things I learned from our long partnership, both because I think they’ll be valuable to a broader audience, but also because they are a fitting tribute to an amazing leader and friend.
My Blitzscaling co-author and friend Chris Yeh helped me record a Greymatter podcast episode where I share some of the great memories and learnings from working with Jeff. You can listen to that here:
The following essay is a condensed version of that conversation:
How did Jeff become CEO at LinkedIn?
I met Jeff through one of my other partners at Greylock, James Slavet, who had worked for him at Yahoo. James said he was one of the best executives he’d ever seen, and told me, “You will really love Jeff Weiner.” When you get that kind of reference from someone that you think is amazing themselves, as is the case with James, you should track that person carefully. So I met Jeff at a dinner organized by Adam Lashinsky, and a few weeks later, we met for a late lunch and talked for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Jeff asked me to address his team at Yahoo. Jeff was responsible for the Yahoo Network and many of the company’s consumer-facing properties. I gave a critique of Yahoo’s products and strategy, and explained all the things that I thought Yahoo should do differently.
Jeff’s reaction was perfect and telling — he was intellectually curious rather than defensive. He showed an intensity of curiosity and learning, especially towards being what I call an infinite learner. And, he wanted his people to talk and interact more than he did, which reflects Jeff’s focus on leading the team, as well as being a part of the team. After that, we started regularly grabbing dinners. When he later left Yahoo, he joined Greylock as an EIR.
Jeff is driven, strategic, and smart. So, naturally when Jeff left Yahoo, he had a plan for his next play. I had to convince him that LinkedIn was a better plan than his original plan. In initial conversations, Jeff thought he might contribute better as a board member and give me advice. In reply, I argued, “No, I really think you should stop paying attention to this other thing and work on LinkedIn full time.”
Important to making any key hire is to really invest the time. Even though Jeff and I already knew each other, we had not worked together. To assess and establish that we’d form a good partnership, I felt we needed to spend a lot of time discussing how we’d work together, what we thought were our (and each other’s) strengths and weaknesses, mistakes we’d made and what we’d learned, and what we’d do differently. If you added it up, it was about 30 hours of conversations. Some of these were deliberately difficult conversations, like “What were some of the things you really screwed up?” The questions went both ways, because we were looking to build a partnership.
And then, even though I knew Jeff already and even though I spent a great 30 hours talking with Jeff, I also dug into a set of other references. Why? One important reason: the way a person interacts with you might be very different from how they interact with other people.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury to do everything that I did with Jeff, but that is the aspirational goal. The end result of those discussions: Jeff joined. Jeff is one of the spectacular tech CEOs, and in his storybook run, he took LinkedIn from 400 employees to a global leader with over 16,000 employees. Jeff was the architect of all of that.
What kinds of things did you learn from Jeff?
I learned a lot by observing Jeff. If I ever had to do it again, I’d do a much better job thanks to what I learned from him. Not only is he an infinite learner, but he’s also an explicit learner, someone who shares his knowledge and teaches others. Part of the joy of working with Jeff that he’s constantly teaching, saying why he’s doing what he’s doing, and what he’s thinking about as he makes those decisions. The following are just a few of those key lessons.
Jeff says that you build trust through consistency over time. I completely agree with this, and would add that another key way to build trust is navigating conflict together. When we see that we can handle conflict together, we know that if we run into conflict again, we can raise it easily, navigate it, and use any crises we run into to become better partners, to become better learners, and to become more trusting of each other.
Until Covid struck, Jeff and I still had monthly dinners, where we would make sure we were aligned on the mission and the impact that LinkedIn has on the world. This let us think about the macro strategy environment, whereas we would use meetings during the week for tactics and solving specific problems.
Another key lesson is that superstars are not all the same. Everyone has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. People have different superpowers. One of Jeff’s superpowers is creating a culture of compassionate management AND performance. Embedding individual performance metrics in team performance metrics is a central part of how Jeff operates, but he also concerns himself with setting a cultural drumbeat and making everyone feel part of the team. One of the things Jeff said that stuck in my mind was that by the time that you’re getting bored of yourself saying a message, your organization is just beginning to hear it. It’s like a version of my maxim, “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released too late.” This maxim is to show you the point of speed: where your barometer is potentially set well if the speed makes you uncomfortable. In parallel, Jeff’s maxim is that you’re only beginning to be heard by the organization once you are bored by the thing you’re saying over and over — so don’t stop! You have to override your own instincts for the good of the mission. (If you’d like to learn more about how Jeff practices compassionate management and sets a cultural drumbeat, you can tune into his episode on my podcast Masters of Scale.)
A final thing that Jeff’s a master of is staying in touch with the pulse of the business. He constructed a set of dashboards, which bubble the metrics of the whole organization through him, giving him incredible insights. For example, about six months into his time as CEO, he got up at five in the morning to review the numbers and saw something he didn’t understand. So he called the product lead and said, “There’s something wrong with your product.” The product lead was surprised and asked, “What do you mean?” Jeff said, “There’s something wrong. This number doesn’t cohere with all the other numbers. And the only reason this would happen is because there’s something wrong with your product.” The product team investigated, and it turned out that the email notification engine had quit and wasn’t sending out email notifications, and the error was reflected in that specific number Jeff questioned. The point here is not micromanagement, which Jeff does not do. Rather, the point of the dashboards was to provide a comprehensive view that everyone could see, architect your work processes with those dashboards, and develop the kind of fine awareness that lets you see when a number is just wrong.
Why do you call Jeff a co-founder of LinkedIn, even though he joined when the company was already five years old?
I think it was Jack Dorsey that first came up with the concept of multiple founding moments. I thought that was very smart, so I thought about it and developed it further. The reason a company has multiple founding moments is because ultimately companies succeed and thrive when they are being driven by someone who has a missionary passion for what the company should grow into, and what impact it should have on the world.
When a company no longer has active co-founders, the professional managers running it will focus on business metrics — EBITDA, revenue, CAC, LTV — business-oriented MBA stuff. The problem is that over time, this approach tends to overlook the true long-term opportunities and threats. When I invest in founders, I’m investing without knowing what the exact return on capital will be. I don’t know the exact amount something might add to our bottom line, but I do know that the right thing for a vibrant, healthy company, its customers, and its employees is to have the right product or service for its market.
The mistake people frequently make in recruiting CEOs rather than later-stage co-founders is that they focus on bringing in the best corporate athlete, rather than hiring someone where the company’s mission was an integral part of their life story. A co-founder thinks, “I want this company to last for decades, or even centuries, and for the impact it has on the world to be a major part of the story of how I made the world a better place.” This is so important that I wrote an essay on how to hire a CEO as a later-stage co-founder. To achieve these lofty goals, the great companies have to reinvent themselves over and over, and that takes a founder, not a manager. When Gil Amelio ran Apple, he built a strategy around delivering DSUV — an awkward acronym for “distinctly superior user value”. The result was an uninspiring motto that called for Apple to create a confusingly broad product line in an attempt to serve every market. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple to replace Amelio, he threw all that out and focused instead on making things that were insanely great, an inspiring goal that allowed Apple to focus on a narrow and clear set of products, starting Apple’s remarkable comeback. Amelio had been a successful CEO before joining Apple, but at that critical moment, the company needed a founder, not a conventional CEO.
Jeff’s dedication to LinkedIn’s mission is what made him a co-founder. Not only did he have the ability to drive the company forward, but the company mission was a core part of how he wanted to make meaning and make the world a better place. This showed up in how Jeff recruited people to LinkedIn. His pitch wasn’t, “Come work for me.” It was, “Come work together *with* me on this mission.”
I actually surprised Jeff when I first called him a co-founder. I think we were on a press call, and I said it without really thinking about it. The term was the best way to reflect what Jeff was actually doing, which was creating a company with amazing culture and performance. He didn’t become a co-founder because I said so, he did so because of the things he did every day.
How did Jeff influence your books, The Alliance and Blitzscaling?
When I wrote The Alliance with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, one of our core goals was to explain how to recruit, manage, and retain great employees in a world where almost no one spends their entire career at a single company. We focused on the concept of a Tour of Duty — an alliance between company or manager and employee that laid out a specific, finite mission to accomplish, which would transform the business and accelerate the employee’s career.
When we shared a rough draft of the book with Jeff, he pushed back. “I think your arguments are right,” he said, “But I think you’re overlooking the important role played by a core of employees who truly believe that the company represents their life’s work. That kind of core brings many benefits, from carrying a strong culture, to being able to discuss and debate decisions faster thanks to the “shorthand” built from many years of working together.” The irony isn’t lost on me that Jeff, whom I brought into the company many years after its incorporation, was reminding me about the importance of foundational employees! But as usual, Jeff was right, so we added the concept of a “foundational” tour of duty, and it strengthened the book.
Chris and I also put a lot of the lessons I learned from Jeff into my most recent book Blitzscaling. Blitzscaling is all about achieving enduring leadership in a winner-take most market by prioritizing speed over efficiency in the face of uncertainty. The interesting thing is that Jeff did such an amazing job of building dashboards and monitoring LinkedIn’s business that we were able to remove much of the uncertainty from the equation. To the outside world, it looked like we were blitzscaling, but inside the company, we were actually “fastscaling,” which is what we call prioritizing speed over efficiency, but within a low-uncertainty environment. So even though Jeff wasn’t technically blitzscaling, we were able to draw on his lessons to explain the ins and outs of rapid scale, such as how you should go from a single office to a global company with many offices throughout the world.
Once LinkedIn was public, one of the things I learned from Jeff was how to keep the business innovative. Jeff decided to allocate 70% of the company’s energy to the core business, 20% to adjacent businesses, and 10% to true venture bets. One of those bets, which blitzscaled successfully, was LinkedIn’s publishing platform. A number of team members including Ryan Roslansky (who just took over as CEO) realized that LinkedIn could be a platform where leaders and executives could practice thought leadership for a business audience. They pitched Jeff on it, and he told them to run with it, to great success. Of course, Jeff refused to take any credit. One of Jeff’s many great characteristics as a CEO is that he tries to co-own any failures, while trying to downplay the credit he deserves for successes. His leadership goal isn’t glory for him, but glory for the team.
What will Jeff be doing now?
One of Jeff’s most important final acts of leadership as CEO was passing the torch to Ryan Roslansky. Another great lesson I learned from Jeff was the importance of having multiple succession plans for every executive — one for an immediate emergency successor, one for a year down the road, and one for the long-term. Ryan was Jeff’s long-term succession plan. He was Jeff’s first hire after arriving at LinkedIn, and had worked for him at Yahoo for five years before that, so they have a very strong and lasting alliance. More importantly however, choosing Ryan reflected a strategic choice about what truly drives LinkedIn’s business. While engineering, marketing, sales, operations, and finance are all critical, for a consumer software business like LinkedIn, the most important strategic driver is nearly always product. Ryan was and is an amazing product leader for LinkedIn.
In my first conversation with Ryan after he learned he would be succeeding Jeff, it took less than a minute before I thought again to myself, “This is why Ryan is the right CEO.” Ryan basically said, there’s no way I’m going to be a better Jeff. If I try to do what Jeff would have done, with no differences, I will, by definition, do it worse than Jeff would have. I need to take the great things that Jeff has done here, and then add in new and different things. Ryan is a classic infinite learner, so we spent that conversation discussing both the macro situation and some specific strategies he had in mind.
For Jeff’s final all-hands meeting as CEO, Ryan Roslansky asked to run the meeting. What Jeff didn’t realize was that the entire meeting was planned out as a tribute. We had new employee onboarding — also partially focused on appreciation of Jeff. If you read this LinkedIn post from Jeff, you’d know that his favorite karaoke song is Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, members of the team from all around the world recorded a group performance — singing and instruments — of “Sweet Caroline,” with footage of Jeff mixed in. They called it #ThankYouJeff.
That’s when Jeff started crying. I started tearing up too, because it was such a testament to the culture that he built. It was far more personal and emotional than some recounting of revenue growth or user count. And Jeff’s reaction demonstrated both his style of leadership and deep connection with the team.
Then, Ryan, myself, our CFO Steve Sordello, and eight other executives shared a transformational moment we’d experienced and learned from Jeff. For my part, I shared some of the thoughts that I’ve shared in this essay, notably why Jeff was truly a co-founder of LinkedIn.
Now that he has passed the torch to Ryan, Jeff is replacing me as Executive Chairman. He will focus on helping Ryan and the rest of the company’s leadership team manifest LinkedIn’s vision of creating economic opportunity for *every* member of the global workforce, and the belief that equal talent should have equal access to opportunity. It’s very obvious that as a society, we have some serious issues with living up to our ideals of fairness to all. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. And if we’re going to implement such solutions at LinkedIn, we will need strong support from the top. Jeff will be taking over my old chairman’s office and I’ll find another office nearby so that Ryan, Jeff, and I can continue to work together for many years to come to accomplish our shared mission for LinkedIn.