Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Aaron Levie, co-founder and chief executive of Box.net, an online file storage company based in Palo Alto, Calif. He says his experience as a young magician taught him the importance of “capturing people’s imaginations.” To read Bryant’s complete interview and his interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: Talk about the culture of your company.
Levie: Everyone has a start-up mentality still, and we’re small enough where you get the right kind of energy and dedication, so everyone feels really a part of what we’re doing. People are able to question each other about strategies, whether they’re in marketing, engineering or product.
We try to keep it fairly low on hierarchy. Everyone is encouraged to be entrepreneurial and people tend to be extremely passionate, but it’s not about taking credit or being arrogant about what we’re doing.
We’ve been able to do away with just a lot of the corporate kind of things that I think slow down organizations and don’t result in productive behavior, and instead we’ve been able to get a lot of people focused on really having a good time, which helps us stay fast and innovative. And I think that ultimately is the only reason that people even want to go to work or want to stay in business — to have a good time while collaborating to accomplish a big vision.
Bryant: So what are some specifics?
Levie: We had our first ever “hackathon” at Box a few months ago. The engineering team pulled an all-nighter, from 8 p.m. until noon the next day, on projects outside their daily job description. We then had a judging panel at lunch, and the entire company got to watch the engineers present some amazing new features. It was fun and people goofed off but it was also really inspiring, and I think it brought the whole group together.
Bryant: What were some important leadership lessons for you?
Levie: In middle school, I did magic shows. It actually applies to what I’m doing now because it’s all about getting in front of people and telling a story, something that people buy into that is hopefully entertaining. It’s all about capturing people’s imaginations and getting them excited about what’s possible.
Bryant: What about as a C.E.O.?
Levie:I think a big jump was to managing or helping the managers of the people doing most of the hands-on work on projects — being one degree away from the action and figuring out and understanding what that means in terms of leadership.
Bryant: And what does that mean?
Levie: As much as I would love to be involved in every single decision that gets made in the organization, not only is that not scalable, it’s also not leveraging or capitalizing on the amazing experience of the people that we have on the team. It’s really hard to let the details go. Every sort of decision is really interesting. So you come up with a big goal, and hopefully everyone comes together to figure out how to accomplish it.
Bryant: Talk more about that process.
Levie: I’ve made some mistakes in terms of getting involved at the wrong level of the problem or the wrong time. I’ll think I’m speeding things up by saying, “Oh, let’s just solve it that way,” but then it turns out I’m slowing things down because I’m breaking a healthy system that’s emerging.
Bryant: Let’s talk about hiring.
Levie: One thing that’s really important is understanding what they’ve done in their career. Just walk me through how you got to where you are today. What are the factors that led to specific decisions — that can give you a level of insight into behavior and how they make decisions. One thing that I’m asking now is to talk about a project or job — “What could you have done differently to do that bigger or get more revenue or execute better?” You see if they can look back on their decisions and find out where they could have improved.
Energy and persistence are the two most important factors, in addition to just having a clean résumé where there’s nothing crazy going on. In a business like ours, we have to be super, super competitive, and we have to be able to get people who are going to be persistent and relentless and have a level of energy that gets them through challenging things.
Curiosity is another big thing and a way to identify who’s going to be energetic and have the right attitude. Sometimes the best people are the ones who are very curious about our business model, how we’re going to grow. They actually care a lot about us as a company; that’s actually been a pretty good way to find people who are going to be really dedicated to the business.
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To read several of Bryant’s more recent interviews of other executives, please click here.