Corner Office: David Sacks
Fostering a Culture of Dissent
By ADAM BRYANT
Published: July 16, 2011
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. In his new book, "The Corner Office" (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. Excerpt »
Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
A. I’d say probably the most formative experiences came when I was at PayPal because it was this three-year experience going from zero to a $1.5 billion company. At the time we sold the company we had about at least 700 employees. I think about 500 were reporting to me.
One of the things that Peter Thiel, our C.E.O. at PayPal, did extremely well was just to focus on the few things that were the most important issues at that time, and make sure we got those right. And he was a very good delegator. So that was a great lesson. But at the same time, I saw that some very small product decisions had a disproportionate impact on the business. And you just can’t always delegate those things. You have to be willing to get involved and make sure that the work gets done properly.
And so I say that my own style would be like some sort of balance or synthesis of that, where I try to focus on the biggest-picture issues, but at the same time some aspects are so important that I have to get involved at a pretty detailed level.
Q. What else in terms of leadership?
A. I have an open door policy. Anyone can walk into my office and start talking to me. I also walk around the office and just start talking to people about what they’re working on. I’m not trying to micromanage what they’re doing, but I am trying to find out what they’re working on and talk to them about it.
Anybody can ask me questions and debate me. You could be a new employee and you can start getting into a debate with me about something. The start-up culture is very democratic in general. I think you need that in order to attract good people. You’ve really got to create a company culture that people want to work at. And so you try to give them a voice, give them a sense that they influence the direction of the company, and try to avoid unnecessary process and hierarchy — things that might frustrate employees.
Q. A lot of people say they have an open-door policy, but they don’t really mean it.
A. I think you’ve got to create a culture in which dissent is valued. And there’s probably a lot of ways to set that tone. Certainly you can tell if you’ve got a culture of dissent when you walk into a company. People can figure out very quickly whether dissent is encouraged or whether it’s actually something that’s not welcome.
A. It’s a red flag to me if there’s just too much consensus and not enough dissent. I feel like in any human community there’s always dissent because people just disagree. Anytime there doesn’t appear to be dissent, it means that the corporate culture has just shifted way too much toward consensus. That means the leadership just doesn’t welcome dissent enough.
Q. So how do you create a culture of dissent?
A. You’ve got to constantly ask your reports whether they think we’re on the right track, whether the strategy you’ve laid out is right, what they think about the strategy, where things aren’t going well. You’ve really got to dig into that.
We let employees voice their opinions about everything. There’s no sense that, O.K., I am an engineer, therefore I can’t voice my opinion about what’s happening in customer service or sales or vice versa. We try to create clear ownership so everyone owns an area. But that doesn’t mean that people from other parts of the company can’t voice their opinion about something that’s happening there. And it may not just be about a dissenting opinion. It may just be to provide more information. It doesn’t have to be, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” It’s more like, “Here’s a bunch of things I’m learning over here — are you guys taking this into account?”
Q. It’s very easy, though, for people to get their back up and say, in so many words, get out of my sandbox.
A. And that’s why you have to have clear ownership. One of the ways political cultures develop is when it’s not clear enough who owns which areas, and so you need to get lots of people on board to do something. That’s not true at our company. One reason people can feel comfortable about dissent here is because their own responsibilities are clear.