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Dream Big, Go Big (part 2)

Yesterday, I shared highlights from a fantastic panel discussion entitled “Dream Big, Go Big,” recently hosted at Gigster’s San Francisco headquarters. Our panel of industry veterans included:

  • Jennifer Bowcock, a top communications executive for Dolby, Apple and AT&T
  • Michelle De Bella, the VP of finance strategy at Lyft
  • Shawn Layden, former chairman of PlayStation studios for Sony
  • Christina Liu, the chief accounting officer at Zendesk
  • Brandon Maslan, an advisor and executive coach at Advancing Women Executives who also served as the panel moderator

Today we pick up part 2 by looking at three more themes that emerged as we explored the idea of how to dream big in today’s business climate and then turn those dreams into reality.

Theme 4: Get Used to Discomfort

When Christina Liu joined Zendesk six and a half years ago, the company was focused on closing a new round of funding in advance of going public sometime within the next couple of years. At the time, Zendesk numbered about 300 employees with $35 million in revenue. 

Fast-forward to the present and the company is approaching $1 billion revenue run rate and can count 3,500 employees worldwide. What Liu learned as she climbed the ranks to the C-suite was the importance of keeping her eyes on a “north star” while embracing what she described as the “uncomfortable.”

“In my experience,” she said, “the biggest thing preventing me from dreaming big was myself. “It was a fear of failure, a fear of being wrong, fearing to ask a question in a meeting because I didn’t want to look stupid and the fear of making bold decisions because other people would be asking questions. I didn’t want to be proven wrong in the future.”

Ultimately, Liu overcame her inner doubts and – to use a more recently popular phrase – just decided to lean in.

“You need to recognize that mistakes are great opportunities for you to build on and benefit from the resilience that comes out of that,” Liu said. She said a key was to embrace the idea that it was okay to make mistakes. She began to embrace them as opportunities to grow and improve as a leader.

“I think we all have to realize what we stand for and what the core values each of us prioritize and then see whether that aligns with the company culture and ask whether it will allow you to be authentic,” she said. “I think each one of us will have our own alignment with the big dream which will make you uncomfortable because it’s big. But you take small steps. It is about execution. They can seem far away but break it down into milestones. Think of the milestone that you can measure yourself against so that you know whether you’re getting closer to the dream or not and just breaking it down into something that you can execute.”

Theme 5: Just Say Yes

Layden also offered a few career tips borne out of working 32 years for the same company. During that long tenure, he held 14 different jobs that led to postings in San Francisco, Tokyo and London. And Layden said, he wound up in so many postings because he simply learned to say the magic word, “yes.”

“Be confident in yourself that there really aren’t many people in the world smarter than you,” he said. “You’re all here because of your drive, your ambition, your own degrees of skills in certain areas, but there are very few people in the world who are smarter than you. So if someone comes to you and says, Hey, would you do this thing for me? It’s like that quote from the John Wick movie, “I will serve. I will be of service.” 

In fact, Layden interviewed for just one job at Sony. That was in 1987. The rest of the time others found him.  

“Over time, people would come up and say, `Hey, here’s this thing over there. Would you go take care of that?’ So, for example, after three years working for PlayStation in Tokyo I was asked, out of the blue, if I would move to the UK, where we had just acquired a large publisher. So now we have to integrate its many studios into the Sony studio structure, and would I go and facilitate that? I hadn’t done this before, either, but one must be ready to say, ‘Sure, I can try that.’

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Layden came the day he was waiting at a Liverpool train station when he got an overseas phone call from Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.’s then-CEO, Kaz Hirai. (Hirai would later go on to become CEO of the entire Sony Group).

“I had been in London doing game development and Kaz goes, “Hey Shawn, how long have you been in London? About eight or nine years? We think you should come back to Japan to be president of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan” (the domestic sales and marketing arm for the PlayStation).

When Layden started laughing, his CEO asked what was so funny?

“I said, `Kaz, be straight with me. How bad is it that you think bringing the American game developer from London back to Japan to run domestic sales and marketing is a good idea?’ I’ll give Kaz credit because he came straight back and said you couldn’t make it any worse.” So there, you’ve got ultimate carte blanche. The CEO said, I couldn’t make it any worse. You can’t fail. The floor is right there. And so, I went.”

Layden, who had never done sales, marketing, or customer service, was a fast study and learned the basics. It was a gamble, but it paid off.

“I was able to be reasonably successful. So again, be of service. Help other people out. Be part of the team, but you can be a team of many in different places. If you’re seen as someone who can be helpful, who can be useful, who can bring in new knowledge and skill, then people will come to you all the time. And just have the courage to say yes.”

Something similar happened to Maslan when he received a phone call from Meiko Takayama, the founder of Advancing Women Executives, who asked him to become the organization’s executive coach.

“I said to her, `You know, the company’s called Advancing Women Executives and you have met me, right?  I’m not sure that you want this to be the [organization’s] face.’ But she said, `No, you are the person who I’ve talked with who had the most passion and feel for what we do.’”

For Maslan, the anecdote underscored the importance of authentic leadership in pursuit of doing something – anything – big. But he said it’s one of the hardest things to do and yet the most vital skill anyone will ever learn. 

“And the reason we don’t do it is because when you do it well, some people like you. When you do it great, some people love you. But when you do it perfectly, people will hate you. And we are not willing to be hated. We are not willing to push beyond that envelope to say to the person who wants to stay stuck, `We’re going to move forward’ because they’ll hate you for it. If you’re willing to risk being hated, you can accomplish transformation in your industry. I think that idea of staying true to a core value or a mission is so integral to every great company that I know that gets to $1 billion and that stands for something.”

Theme 6: Make Values Matter

Bowcock recently finished a day’s worth of interviews with a company she had considered joining. But something gave her pause. During the course of the day, she asked 5 different executives – including the CEO – to define the company’s mission. She received 5 different explanations. 

If a company is going to tackle big things, she noted, each team needs to know the company’s core values. If it can’t meet that basic prerequisite, it’s hard to be great.

“You should know what your core values are and how to define them consistently. You want to have that job applicant get the same answer five times that day because once you’re consistent, then you can all work toward the same goal. As an example, I love what Nike has done. They say everybody’s an athlete regardless of who you look like, what your size is, or where you’re from. And now that they have that North Star in mind, the team can actually activate on what that looks like.”

Dreaming big is also about knowing what part you can play in that journey, added DeBella. 

“Whether that’s for yourself or for the company. Write down those two or three things that either are fundamentally so important to you about how you want to work and how you want to live or things you create where you feel like you are your best self. If you don’t know what that value proposition is for you as a person, you’re not going to be able to go to those companies and figure out if their North Star is pointing in the same direction as yours. So, go home and figure it out.”

A big “thank you” again to our panelists for your inspiration and wisdom. Let’s go innovate!

Judy Kopa
Judy builds effective financial and operational capabilities to enable business expansion and financial growth. As a business unit CFO at Cisco AppDynamics, VP Finance for SAP’s SuccessFactors Division, and CFO at Savvion, Judy drove significant growth in both revenue and profit at global enterprises and startups.

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