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Lessons from Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff & Steve Jobs on Building Great Companies

A Silicon Valley tech executive and Venture investor who worked for Larry Ellison for 11 years commencing 1983, Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff co-founder of Salesforce distills the founder’s key to their growth and success: The ability to identify, select and recruit exceptionally talented and capable management leaders. Here’s how its done. Early in my […]

A Silicon Valley tech executive and Venture investor who worked for Larry Ellison for 11 years commencing 1983, Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff co-founder of Salesforce distills the founder’s key to their growth and success: The ability to identify, select and recruit exceptionally talented and capable management leaders. Here’s how its done.

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work closely alongside three extraordinarily gifted CEOs:  Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff and Steve Jobs.  Though each were very different in their respective approaches and leadership style, they all had several characteristics in common.  They each recognized that “nothing happened until someone sold something” and, that Sales was the central part of building a successful organization.

Sales is the foremost, critical aspect of business today and every employee must feel as though they are an important component of the business, and an intimate part of its culture.

Back in 2013 Oracle Team USA clinched victory to capture America’s Cup trophy in a miraculous rally that will go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks by any sports team in any series. As Oracle Team USA berthed their winning boat, owner Larry Ellison jumped on board and told his crew, “Hey guys, you just won America’s Cup!”

“It’s really about the team, man,” Oracle Team USA’s Captain exclaimed, ”On your own, you’re nothing. But when you’ve got a team like this around you, they can make you look great. It’s a fantastic team.”

There’s an absolute, direct correlation between today’s most successful Silicon Valley start-up companies and their competitive spirit, drive and culture. At their core exists the fundamental trait inherent in a Founder/CEO’s ability to hire world class team players.  Here are ten lessons learned while working with Larry Ellison, co-founder, then CEO & Chairman of Oracle and owner of Oracle Team USA. It’s not surprising that his top executive team also went on to build meteoric, successful businesses as entrepreneurial start-up CEOs.  Many of whom evolved through customer-centric sales leadership positions.

Jeff Walker, former SVP and CFO of Oracle developed the original hiring model for key executives and went on to found Tenfold and take it public (Nasdaq:TENF), Tom Siebel, founder, CEO & Chairman of Siebel Systems, Craig Conway, former CEO of Peoplesoft, Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com co-founder, now co-CEO & Chairman, Bernard Liautaud, co-founder, CEO of Business Objects (SAP), Evan Goldberg, founder of NetSuite, Pete Cittadini, CEO of Actuate and Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL (acquired by Sun Microsystems (Oracle) for $1B).

No matter how great an executive leader has been at another company, he or she may not be the right candidate for yours.

At the end of the day, you should seek a key executive hire that can best communicate effectively with the Founder/CEO. When a newly hired key executive speaks a different business or industry language, the relationship is failed long before it ever starts.  The two won’t be able to communicate effectively, nor understand each other, nor will anyone else in the company.

These successful CEOs each shared some very similar approaches to Ellison and Benioff’s hiring beliefs and process, some of which are outlined here:

Set the Position profile requirements of who is needed: At the early stages of a start-up the founder/CEO needs to fully understand who, when and why they’re needed for a particular leadership role.  As an example for hiring the head of sales:  It’s tempting to hire a big name Chief Revenue Officer/SVP Sales when what’s really needed is a qualified, execution-capable Sales “Rain Maker”, only to have that person fail in their revenue objectives after 12-18 months.  Generally, after spending all their time focused on hiring a worldwide sales organization of 25+ sales professionals before bailing out. It takes a painful toll on capital for a set of skills that is completely mismatched for the start-ups time cycle and need.

Why are hiring mistakes made?  Well, if you assume that all historical sales growth numbers and all industry experiences are equal, such as hiring someone with a history of driving 200% growth from a different sales channel environment, website sales, distributors, reseller/corporate partners, direct sales organization, etc.  Avoid a mistake by hiring someone with the same or similar environment success that you need them to perform.  There is a huge difference in hiring someone from a Google, PayPal, eBay, cisco, Square, Salesforce, Tesla where they stepped into a large sales team and administered it with diplomatic organizational finesse (managing managers) versus someone who can scale an existing sales organization, Avant, Honest Co, Lyft, Nauto, NextDoor, Palantir, Uptake, Wish to the next level versus someone who is capable of generating the initial sales and customer traction from zero, ala: Bird, Robinhood, Ripple, Smyte, UBeam, Zapier.  These are three completely different capabilities and completely different profiles.  These are very different battle ground stages where a soldier’s execution of field skill set & bravery, a lieutenants’ optimizing tactics & decisive leadership and a General’s overall insights, strategy and vision are needed.

You need to understand the realities and requirements of the particular position to insure that what the applicant knows mirrors your situation. And, that starts by understanding the true needs of your prospects, customers and business fully before your recruitment starts.  A good question to ask yourself is, what stage of growth am I truly in, and, is my market strategy accurate?

Once you’re comfortable with this, you should set attainable performance targets so that you can measure organizational and team performance of the position.  Then, consider those candidates who have the same belief system as yours.  Take a look at Salesforce.com’s Ohana culture for inspiration.

Seek intelligent, driven people: These are the “type-A” overachievers with an inbred “fear of failure” personality. You are clearly looking to hire people far more capable than yourself, people who are driven by something to prove to themselves and their peers. “A” players hire “A” players, and “B” players hire “C” players. You spot these prospects through asking deep questions about their roles, their company’s mission, and how they sought to fulfill their company’s vision. Ask “how” they accomplished their results. Look for strategic thinkers seeking to improve their employer’s systems, processes and results. Ask what they actually accomplished while in their roles. Look for details accurately articulated, team-oriented descriptions, versus the “I did it by myself” syndrome.  Ask about who and how they hired and developed their teams. Look for people striving to continually improve themselves and their personal reach. Look for those utilizing innovative resources, while providing credit to their subordinates and other colleagues. Always hire talented people with great DNA who are incredibly bright, passionate, very hungry and very ambitious.  The genius of Steve Jobs’ hiring philosophy: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Seek evangelistic “believers”: These are people who believe in your belief, your mission, your industry, your products and services. They “see” and “get” the full value proposition to customers. Of course, you need to establish that key accomplishments, appropriate education, and relevant industry experience are a good fit for the position, but, a genuine burning passion for your company’s solution offering far outweighs lesser irrelevant duties. Ask your candidate to describe your company and its products to you. You’ll get a quick sense of how well your candidate prepared for your meeting and how likely he or she will prepare for critical company/customer meetings. Well placed passion is a key ingredient for a long term successful hire. As Marc Benioff says: “the secret to successful hiring is this: look for the people who want to change the world.”  These hires can have an outsized impact on your organization, integrating a positive influence into every part of the organization. These great hires can direct and manage an operating plan while and bringing a network of experienced and execution capable team players who follow them from their previous company.

Hire ethical, high integrity players: Ask situational ethical behavioral questions pertaining to such sensitive topics as personal integrity, revenue recognition, customer side letters, sexual harassment, customer promises, hiring preferences, etc. This is well worth taking some time to fully explore with every prospective new leadership hire. Not only do you shift through the marginally ethical, but you also send a clear message of your company’s ethics expectations. Seek out candidates who are employed by highly ethical and successful companies. They’ll bring that same sense of ethical behavior to your company. Quality In-Quality Out.

Check References: You learn so much about a company, its management style, processes, and the prospective candidate’s actual work ethic via good reference checking. A good way to verify a candidate’s credentials is to ask for organizational functions and responsibilities, and who held them within the candidate’s last position during the initial interview. Take accurate notes of names and titles mentioned. These will generally not be the same names provided as referents. If the candidate deserves serious consideration, first ask for a list of references so that you have permission to check references in general, then, pursue those individuals who worked closely with your candidate to verify actual work responsibilities, work style, leadership skills, communication skills, performance, etc. If you locate a peer within the organization ask about the company’s compensation scheme, salary, bonus, incentives, stock options, etc. This will give you a good sense of what a comparable level professional at the same company earns versus what you may have been told during the interview. If there’s a significant discrepancy, ask your candidate “why”. Look for tell tale signs of exaggerations and “embellishment”.

Trust Your Intuitions: You can discern so much by looking directly into a candidate’s eyes and facial expressions as he or she describes their roles, accomplishments, failures, performances and organizational interactions. As you consider and assess candidates with the appropriate and relevant strengths, consider their specific experience, operating and management style, ability to executive and emotional intelligence. Act on your intuitions.

Be Decisive: Once you’ve identified your top choice don’t procrastinate. Set a plan for completing the hire with dates, position expectations, compensation discussion, board member preview of stock options to be offered, scheduled meetings with other key company management and an expected start date. Once you’ve determined that you have the right candidate lined up, make the hire a time sensitive priority. Be clear and specific in communicating your expectations and performance requirements.

Compare the candidate’s credentials against your own management team: Take another look at your current teams’ experience and pedigree. Make sure that you are augmenting your team with superstar additions; people that they will respect, admire, and say to themselves, -“we were able to attract her/him here- wow!“ Great moral booster.

Don’t assume the Candidate will accept: Spend time on presenting the position offer personally. If possible, invite the candidate and spouse for a dinner outing. Nothing demonstrates the genuineness and importance you share in the candidate’s future than spending some social time outside the office setting. Nothing emboldens and bonds a candidate more that sharing their stature within the industry in front of their spouse at such an outing. Follow up personally and get a verbal offer acceptance, then, follow-up again before the candidate’s actual start date. If the candidate is looking to resign and then come over, consider inviting him/her over for a strategic company review meeting before they actually start employment as a way of gaining deeper involvement and commitment. Use all the resources available at your disposal to land your ideal candidate, including your CRO, MD, CHRO, CTO, CIO, CISO, CFO, Board of Directors, company advisors, etc.

Integrate and transition the new hire: Once your candidate joins, invest time in detailing your vision, the company’s mission, expectations, how the company actually operates, the executive functions and roles, how the company communicates with its managers, resources available, etc. Check in once or twice during the orientation period to insure that all is going smoothly while building trust. A critical dimension to team moral and sustainability. If your new hire happens to be a “trainee”, place them in a telesales role whenever possible—an excellent training ground. As they learn your customer’s needs and mature into the business, these hires reduce the company’s risks further up the organizational ladder and tend to become your best “promotables”.  Over communicate your expectations, the organizations troubles, and the tools available to know what to expect and how to address issues within the organization.  Always manage via complete transparency.  You’ll never regret saying: Let me be honest, this is a tough and difficult job. We’re a small dedicated team with little available resources while working long hours. Are you up for the challenge? If you don’t, it will always come back to haunt you.

Seek referrals from your best hires: Once you’ve hired your superstar ask for recommendations of other potential employees. The newly hired executive will always point to the top 2% achievers within their previous employers. It’s a highly effective vetting process to recommend someone you already know. Superstars know at least six other high achievers, and no one wants to recommend someone who’s going to make them look bad. “A” players attract “A” players!

Oracle Corporation has spawned some of the tech industry’s top founders, entrepreneurs and CEOs including Marc Benioff, Tom Siebel, Craig Conway, Jeff Walker, Pete Cittadini, Craig Ramsey, Umang Gupta, Bernard Liautaud, Sohaib Abbasi, Evan Goldberg, Zack Nelson as well as numerous others. Their post-Oracle successes are a tribute to the “house that Larry built.”

The author, Igor Sill, worked directly with Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff, Jeff Walker, Tom Siebel, Bernard Liautaud, Umang Gupta, Evan Goldberg, Marten Mickos (MySQL), Steve Jobs (NeXT/Apple) Samir Arora (NetObjects/IBM) as well as many other CEOs that utilized this hiring model during their respective company’s pre-IPO high growth period.  Igor now consults at Geneva Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley recruitment, investment and M&A venture advisory firm, utilizing some of the same performance metrics and growth processes used by Oracle and Salesforce for its investments in technology startups. (genevavp.com)

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