Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Caren of Turnitin. Chris joined Turnitin in 2009 as Chief Executive Officer. He led the transition of Turnitin from a company focused on plagiarism prevention to one that provides solutions that promote academic integrity, streamline grading and feedback, and improve outcomes across educational levels and content areas. Chris previously worked for Microsoft Corporation as GM of Microsoft Business Solutions. Although his career has focused on software businesses, he comes from a family of scientists and educators. He holds an MBA with distinction from Kellogg Business School and a bachelor of science in engineering from Stanford University.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
As CEO, I am able to make a significant shift in the education landscape. In the case of Turnitin, we inspire educators to be better at teaching and we give them the tools to become better teachers and mentors. Being able to see this dramatic large-scale shift is really only possible when you’re lucky enough to be in this position.
In just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I have to be able to see the entire picture of how a change in structure or staffing or product development supports the larger goals of the company. An executive has to learn to focus on big goals. For Turnitin, our focus is on teaching so I have to be able to separate myself from the minutiae to keep the entire company working toward the goal of advancing teaching and learning.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
It is immensely rewarding to see individuals succeed and stretch their boundaries and to see teams form, collaborate and achieve. But I also really value family life, so being able to make decisions that support people being with their families and supporting that growth gives me great satisfaction.
In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
People who have scalable leadership often make successful executives — that is, people who actively want to grow, want to learn and seek out responsibility. Whereas people who know a great deal about one thing and one thing only may struggle. Good executives understand the company’s diverse goals and functions and can survive and thrive and lead in any of them.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes. First, that’s what our company is about. We exist at the core of education, empowering teachers and assisting students. When our partners are better, the world is better. And that shows up in our work, as a place of cultural transformation where people become a lot more ambitious about what the company can accomplish and are consequently hyper-motivated to excel and achieve not just for the company but for themselves.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- The importance of first building the right leadership team. Don’t try to do too much yourself, and don’t settle for the team you inherit. Hire people with shared motivation and drive and make sure that each leader has the runway to grow into a role 2–3x the current scale. Hire a team with diversity in thinking styles, a willingness to admit errors (AKA no egos), and a desire to grow and be open to feedback from their peers.
- Start working on culture day one. Culture change is challenging: it’s hard work and takes time…often years. Get started on culture right away because it’s an ongoing process. The best and fastest way to shift the culture from my experience is to bring in new people that fit the model, and aggressively coach the opposite type of person up or out.
- Don’t lose sight of the market. Especially as a high growth CEO, it’s easy to let your calendar and your time become very focused on internal issues. Resist the urge to let the internal overwhelm your calendar and sub-optimize your focus. It’s critical to remain in touch with market trends and not lose sight of how your company is situated. I reserve large blocks of time every week to look outside of the company.
- Bring your family in from the start. The better your partner and your family know your company and your team, the more they can share in the successes and setbacks. Having my family get to know the company and my day to day has helped me feel less stretched between my job and my family. It has also helped them understand when I have to lean into to work for periods.
- Don’t spread yourself and your decision making too thin. I try to shortlist the few most important areas of impact I can have each day, and focus 80+% of my time on making very high-quality decisions. Consciously separate the things that you can control and can’t control (even the important things out of your reach), and focus your energy relentlessly.