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     “There are a bunch of aggressive, ivy-league educated, high IQ people working in Bentonville whose careers are going nowhere because they never learned how to connect with other people.” ­­­— Lee Scott, (now former) CEO of Walmart, circa 2008.

During my short tenure at Cisco, I attended a leadership offsite where Lee Scott was the featured speaker. I certainly knew of Walmart but had never heard of Lee Scott before this meeting. He humbly delivered a powerful hour-long speech on leadership ­­­— without notes or slides, as he paced the stage, hands in pockets. While I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak, I’ve never come away more impressed with how the delivery matched the content.

What struck me the most? That authenticity and humility lead to trust. Trust leads to approachability and open communications. And after listening to Lee for just an hour, he felt familiar and approachable.

Honest and fallible.

Lee definitely knew how to be authentic. For others, this may not come so easily.

At the core, coaching authenticity is complicated ­— some might say impossible. Telling someone to be authentic sounds pretty low calorie. Especially to a founder plowing through a list of product and operational goals. But it’s important. An approachable and authentic CEO is essential to fostering a high-performance, open communications culture.

About the clearest discussion I’ve seen on authenticity is a paragraph in Jack Welch’s book, “Winning”:

     “A person cannot make hard decisions, hold unpopular positions, or stand tall for what he believes unless he knows who he is and feels comfortable in his own skin. I am talking about self-confidence and conviction. These traits make a leader bold and decisive, which is absolutely critical in times where you must act quickly, often without complete information. Just as important, authenticity makes a leader likeable, for lack of a better word. Their realness comes across in the way they communicate and reach people on emotional level. Their words move them; their message touches something inside. When I was at GE, we would occasionally encounter a very successful executive who just could not be promoted to the next level. In the early days, we would struggle with our reasoning. The person demonstrated the right values and made the numbers, but usually his people did not connect with him. What was wrong? Finally, we figured out that these people always had a certain phoniness about them. They pretended to be something they were not ­­­— more in control, more upbeat, more savvy than they really were. They didn’t sweat. They didn’t cry. They squirmed in their own skin, playing a role of their own inventing. A leader in times of crisis can’t have an iota of fakeness in him. He has to know himself­­ ­— and like himself ­­­— so that he can be straight with the world, energize followers, and lead with the authority born of authenticity.”

He absolutely nails it.

The quote clearly illuminates the issue, though stops short of giving practical advice. I am often asked by founders and CEOs how to be more approachable or make a personal connection. And of course, while being authentic means something different to everyone — here are a few ways one could start:

Get self-aware. As I mentioned in a previous post (Treating the Dysfunctional CEO), all leaders need feedback. Having an understanding of how others perceive you — through a solid 360-review process — is the crucial first step towards being real. Learn and accept your foibles and faults. Poke fun and work on them out in the open. “I’ll try to keep this short, I know I can be long winded…” etc.

Talk about failures. Nothing helps make a leader more approachable than admitting your struggles, screw-ups and behind-the-scenes thinking on hard calls. If the leader makes this a priority, the whole company will be more open and methodical learning from failure. At IronPort, we used to go through exhaustive post-mortems: customer losses, engineering slips, and misplaced strategies.

Show up to socialize. Have a beer bust on Friday afternoons. Take a team to lunch. Drop in on a late-night networked video game war. (As a newbie, I was slaughtered pretty quickly). Especially if you are naturally an introvert, you must go out of your way to socialize with your team.

Embrace “professional intimacy.” I love this phrase. It describes a leader’s willingness to get personal and talk about life at home or their own career struggles. E.g. “My wife once threw my blackberry in the toilet… It’s essential to be able to balance home and work before it blows up.”

Nix multi-task listening. It’s one thing to ask someone what they are working on and another to really tune in, give them your full attention and ask follow up questions. I constantly see bad behavior with executives checking their watch or texts, or looking over a shoulder to see who else is in the room. That’s just phony crap.

Loosen up! This is really about speaking to others as though you really trust them with your thoughts vs. reverting to canned responses or the “company line.” Leaders that can explore the poles of an issue, in their own words and off the cuff with employees will gain real trust. This is especially true during all hands/company meetings.

Get good at speaking. As a CEO, if you are a nervous public speaker, you need to practice. Find a coach, do some videotaping and/or try Toastmasters. The goal is to have a marathoner’s heartbeat when speaking to a crowd so as to be natural and comfortable.

And finally: embrace different views.  Encourage employees to challenge your decisions and approach. Let everyone know that you are not perfect, you don’t always have the best answer, and sometimes they have better answers.  In some cases, you will get good ideas too. You are obviously the decision maker but embracing different views will improve openness. (Thanks to Yoram at Maxta for this suggestion!)

I leave you with two examples:

Alec Baldwin’s parody of a GE exec on “30 Rock” comes to mind. Yet for all that’s been said, good and bad, about GE…the company does actually have an enduring, high-performing culture for a reason.

And secondly, from what I understand, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, is the embodiment of an authentic leader. He would fly around and hold informal meetings with groups of employees that would yield all kinds of new innovations.

It’s leaders like Herb and the execs at GE, whom employees actually trust – that inspire ideas, pushback, and foster tremendous loyalty.

I have so much respect for people who fought online criminals for eBay and PayPal. There hasn’t been a set of websites more highly targeted by cybercriminals and fraudsters.  The founders of Silver Tail, Mike Eynon and Laura Mather, were colleagues on the anti-fraud team at eBay/PayPal for three years and had a front row seat to the newest attack techniques and the most beguiling exploits. It stands to reason that the team pioneering security and anti-fraud techniques at the tip of the spear would come up with a breakthrough technology. This was the genesis of Silver Tail.

After testing with customers, it was clear that Mike and Laura were on to something special but desperately needed help to scale. The product needed many refinements and it was clear that they should bring in a seasoned executive to help them with sales, marketing, and building a team. Enter Tim Eades as their new CEO and partner. Tim had been a longtime sales and marketing executive at IBM and a CEO at Everyone.net. His aggressive, take-no-prisoners competitiveness, indomitable work ethic, and remarkable ability to enroll customers and recruits made him the perfect fit.

When Andreessen Horowitz first started looking at Silver Tail, they had just been named to the Gartner Magic Quadrant (MQ) as the furthest out on the “Visionary” or “X” axis. This MQ position fairly reflected the stage of the company and the founders’ technical breakthrough.

Source: Gartner (February 2011)

On the “Y” axis however, which measures “Execution,” Silver Tail was still in its infancy. They had a total of 15 customers using the product, with only a few paying, and the rest in beta. That said, customers were not on the fence with how they felt about it: “We’ve never seen anything like it!” and “They are charging too little…”

So, they had a proven technology and a few rabidly fanatical customers. At this point, the company’s future was going to revolve around it executing flawlessly to win the market. And they did that and more. The team’s accomplishments are exemplified by the most recent (May 2012) Gartner MQ:

Source: Gartner (May 2012)

It’s the story of how the team, driven by Tim, deployed the product, acquired customers, scaled the company, and accelerated into a tornado in merely 18 months:

  • Almost two thirds of the top US banks have deployed the product or are in the process of deploying.
  • A skeleton crew of 12 expanded to a global team of nearly 100, including top notch teams in Federal and European markets.
  • Three new, world-class executives joined the team to lead product and marketing, engineering and finance. Each one built a remarkable team of rock stars.
  • An irreverent, open-communication, and high-performing culture helped attract and retain top talent.
  • Huge success in ecommerce.
  • Customer responsiveness became a true market differentiator as the team overemphasized quality and support. In fact, existing customer referrals are Silver Tail’ s largest source of new leads.
  • The company was cash flow positive in the first half of their 2012 fiscal year.

This “hockey stick” ramp reflects the disruptive nature of Silver Tail’s Web Session Intelligence technology and the rapidly shifting frame of reference currently underway in the security space. Analyzing “snapshots in time” of network traffic and deploying “signatures” is not keeping up with the innovation of hackers and cybercriminals.

Silver Tail’s success in the market did not go unnoticed. We are announcing today that Silver Tail has signed a definitive agreement to be acquired by EMC/RSA. From the very beginning, Tim and the founders had a vision of helping to eliminate fraud and deploying their technology as widely as possible. With EMC’s worldwide presence and resources, they will achieve these goals much faster and integrate into a broader set of security and anti-fraud technologies.

Please join me in congratulating Tim, Laura, Mike and the rest of the incredible Silver Tail team in marrying the ultimate peanut butter-and-chocolate combo: A breakthrough technology innovation with near-flawless execution!

I would also like to thank my partners, Mark Cranney, Jeff Stump and the entire a16z team for all of their extra effort with Silver Tail – it made a meaningful difference…