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Learning to Lead, Part 1: Run Toward Your Future

Smart strategies for succeeding in a leadership role from LinkedIn executive David Cohen.

eternalcreative / Getty Images
eternalcreative / Getty Images

Talent abounds. If you are in a corporate setting like me, there are plenty of dedicated, intelligent and capable professionals all around. These individuals have career options — choices between where to work and what to do professionally. It is a blessing, truly. At the same time, in this fast-paced race, we need time to evaluate where this journey is headed.

For many, the goal is leadership, a decision-making role with a level of responsibility that affects a business unit, department or the whole company. Perhaps it is in a large organization, a small business, a bustling household or a startup. Wherever that place may be, the path to great leadership starts from deep within oneself, not simply a physical or even an intellectual place.

I wanted to get a closer look into the thought process of consistently upright leadership, so I sat down with David Cohen, Vice President of North America, Talent Solutions at LinkedIn. He is responsible for the largest region within LinkedIn’s biggest business and has been at the company since its early days. In a three-part series, we will set out to capture his background and past experiences that have led to his leadership style today. In Part I, David shared with me the discipline that was instilled in him early on, the importance of seeking out the right work atmosphere and how to determine professional purpose one step at a time.

“It started with high school swimming,” he began. “When all you really want to do is hang out with your friends, probably sleep, and avoid practice, I was hitting the water at 6 a.m. in the middle of winter in Chicago. Imagine this — swim season starts in November and goes until about February. Those are the coldest, darkest months in Chicago. Your head hits the water at 6 a.m. and then you go to class after that. Then, it’s back in the pool for another two hours after class ends. You literally don’t see the sun Monday through Friday for four months. The point is this: If you can find a way to train yourself to handle a work ethic — say, when you’re 14 through 18 years old, then you’re probably going to understand how to maintain a disciplined existence in the future. We see it in athletes, students and young adults who hold down rigorous jobs early on. Those formative years were instrumental in developing my discipline.”

What appeals to me most about this concept is that a variety of activities can help us shape a disciplined existence — a challenging responsibility or a personal interest where we fully dedicate ourselves. We talk about grit quite often in the workplace, but we do not discuss the development of this desired skill. No matter where you work today, consider the type of preparation that might expand your sense of discipline and then run towards it with intention.

Meditation has been my swimming pool, so to speak. It is an opportunity to go inside myself and seek peace. I don’t use meditation to clear my mind, but instead to recharge. In fact, I developed the knowledge and a disciplined approach to meditation as an adult (grown folks, there’s still hope!). It slowly became a source of internal harmony and continually opens up a colorful range of possibilities in my mind. What started out as an occasional exercise, turned into a more-than-daily method to energize and center myself. I invest time in growing in the practice of meditation and teaching others. Most importantly, I am very disciplined with meditation — I start my mornings with it because it focuses my entire day, social life and work. I can relate to the way David described the cold days of his youth in a Chicago swimming pool; not always wanting to do it, but needing to do it.

David went on to share that this was not the only way he learned to work. Like many professionals today, after years of plodding along, he wanted to make a career change. David left consulting for business school, but after business school, he ended up back in consulting during a down economy. It was a time when few companies were willing to take risks on career-changers. “I remember getting pulled into the head of Human Resources’ office. He looked at me and he goes, ‘David, it doesn’t seem like you really want to be here.’ And, I remember saying to myself, ‘Is it that obvious?’ I thought I was doing a pretty good job of hiding the fact that I was basically biding my time trying to figure out what to do next. But clearly, I was giving off enough signs that I really didn’t want to be there. It was a good reminder that if you love what you’re doing, working hard is a very natural thing. And, if you don’t like what you’re doing then it’s going to be obvious, to someone else, and eventually to yourself. You’re going to be running away instead of running towards where you should be.”

David’s point reminds me of something Jeff Weiner shared on Oprah about compassionate leadership. Paraphrasing, he said that sometimes, the way you can show compassion if an employee is unhappy is to release them. I never considered that before – it always seemed that making it work would be the most compassionate thing, but then of course, you both end up stuck.  

“When you belong to a company rated as a great place to work, like LinkedIn, and you realize you are dissatisfied, it’s common to think, ‘It must be me. I’m just going to work harder because everyone seems to love it here.’ And the truth is that not every company, even the greatest companies in the world, are made for everyone. The reality is, you may just be in the wrong environment,” David explains. But this is a lot easier said than done. Many people struggle to move towards work that motivates them.

David broke it down for me further. “One of my mentors said to me, ‘When you join a company, there are three things that you must look for. You must choose the right company, choose the right role, and do both of those things at the right time. And you can’t get one out of three, or even two out of three right. You have to get all three right.’ And the tricky part? Sometimes you don’t really know whether you have checked all three boxes until you’re there.”

Early in his career, David knew he aspired for leadership, but hadn’t quite figured out where or doing what. While in business school, an entrepreneurial finance professor named Steve Rogers said to the class:

If you ever want to lead a company. If you ever want to be in a key leadership role or CEO. At some point, you’re going to have to be in sales. You’ve got to understand how sales people think. You have to understand their motivations. You have to understand their challenges and the pressure they’re under. Companies depend very heavily on sales. And it’s different.

David remembered this advice. He decided he would work a couple years in sales and maybe even manage a sales team. A decade later he is still in love with sales and customer relationships. “At that time, I was thinking about how to build some basic skills that my portfolio lacked. In my mind, this was just going to be a stop and I was going to check a box. Instead, what I ended up learning was, there is so much depth to this business. So much depth to the field of sales and an application of other things I never knew I enjoyed doing. There’s so much to learn and you really get a broader, upon broader, education over the course of time. And that’s what has taken place for me.”

What I learned from David is the importance of building a base of skills. It’s not always certain that we will graduate from school and land our dream job, immediately applying our best skills. The fact of the matter is: we don’t always know what our best skills are from the onset or have them perfectly honed. So, instead of chasing a title, a specific company or even a dollar amount, we should iteratively test ourselves, developing a path towards a purposeful career. Through that process, we ideally discover what those “best” skills are and then pour into that triple-threat environment that David’s mentor outlined.

Exploring this more, David wrote an article back in 2014 called, “How WIDE is your pyramid?” which dives into deliberately building your professional base of skills. As he puts it, “The wider the base of skills, the higher you can build your pyramid.” He went on to share, “Think about the way that a pyramid is constructed. The height is determined by the width of the base. If you have a narrow base, you can’t build a very tall pyramid. Consider your career aspiration. As you’re standing at the summit of your proverbial pyramid, the best thing that you can do, especially with the first half of your career, is build the base as wide as possible. Go attack the experiences and learn as much as you can about whatever different fields that you need to learn. Run toward that challenge. It won’t always be easy, but nearly always worth it. The height of that pyramid will naturally build itself towards whatever peak is determined by the base you’ve established.”

I like this – it is great advice for new professionals muddled about how to find their purpose and where to put their energy, but also because it validates the worthiness of experiences. The end goal is important, but without the experiences, we lack authentic direction and consistent motivation. This also eases the pressure so many aspirational leaders feel today about reaching that summit. Still, I had to know, did David determine his career and end-goal first in his own journey?

“Yes,” he replied, “and it was totally wrong. I have to laugh when I look back on what I thought I wanted to do. Let’s see, I wanted to make a million dollars by the time I was 30. I wanted to be a CEO of a company when I was 40. Oh, and, I wanted to be retired and be really rich sometime after that. Of course, I’ve completely done a 180° because of what I previously described. Now, I think that my career, and my life hopefully, is just a long, experiential, learning exercise. And, you know, I have a hard time thinking about retirement these days. It’s my 10-year anniversary at LinkedIn and I’m still running to work every morning. I get out of bed and I think about how much we need to accomplish and how interesting the market is that we’re operating in right now. I think about what a wonderful company that I’m fortunate to be a part of. I work with a great leadership team and a great CEO who also works for another great CEO at Microsoft. And, it’s really just … I feel very blessed. That’s probably a big part of why I work the way I work.”

David continues to explain to me that it is valuable to start out with a goal and determine what you want to do, but then chase after the experience leading to it, allowing yourself to redefine the narrative along the way. If leadership is in you, you’ll find your path and see the value in every step of the journey. You must establish a disciplined existence in a certain arena of life, seek out the right professional environment and fashion dynamic skills to help build the base of your pyramid beneath the ultimate objective. Remember, be kind and flexible with yourself. Extend gratitude. Show up for yourself and others. You may just discover your dream leadership role along the way.

I set out to create content that assists professionals in understanding the mindset of leaders and how we can grow our careers as a result of it. I’d like to continue diving into leadership values, customer intimacy and professional development. What would you like to learn next?

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