What George Costanza taught me about leadership
Like many Gen X-ers, George Costanza tops my list of fictional anti-heroes. One of my favorite Costanza moments occurs in a famous "Seinfeld" episode when Jerry astutely points out that since every instinct of George is fundamentally misguided, then doing the direct opposite would put him on a path to success.
I think about this scene often in the context of my own career and how I've advanced in the absence of strong role models along the way. This wasn’t by design. Either I was working at startups with equally blind, young leaders, or I was the leader myself: the blind leading the blind.
In fact, during the most formidable years of my career, the people above and around me in so-called "mentorship" positions tended to show me what not to do, rather than modeling what I should be doing as a young leader. So, I adopted the Costanza method, with my leadership style taking shape as a counter to my own experiences with mentors.
Here are the top three leadership lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Shared values are greater than the cult of personality
TheGlobe.com was one of the first social media companies in the mid-'90s to go public, with a big part of Wall Street’s swooning due to the founders’ cult of personality. I joined the company in 1998 and had a front seat to the action as general manager (which, in a surreal twist of fate, chronicled the drama on National Geographic’s “Valley of the Boom” TV show earlier this year).
The fast-paced and chaotic culture of The Globe was initially exciting, but it had a precipitous fall due to a confluence of reasons—most notably, rampant employee disengagement that inhibited it from successfully pivoting in a highly chaotic environment. (After all, teams will only buy in when they see a higher purpose of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.) Moreover, acquirers discount businesses that are perceived to be overly dependent on founders.
So, when I was scaling 360i six years later, I was committed to leading with mission, vision and values—not personality. This was a rather unique view in the advertising world at the time, where the greatest firms all seemed to center around iconic founders and partners.
At 360i, I was eager to share the stage with my leadership team so there wouldn’t just be a singular voice at the top. The idea was to elevate different people with different perspectives and backgrounds, all united towards the same mission, vision and values. This not only drove our business growth but it also helped maximize our sale value (we were acquired by Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising company, in 2010).
Meritocracy trumps friendship
After my stint at The Globe, I joined high-flying dot-com company Net2Phone, which was one of the world’s first VoIP providers. The company grew so fast and its leadership was so insular that candidates seemed to be hired based on whoever had the fewest degrees of separation from the founding team. The company soon became a tangled web of friends and family, with no screening put in place for diversity, let alone competence.
When I arrived on my first day in early 2000, I’d bet 80 percent of the organization knew each other from personal backgrounds before becoming coworkers. This meant that when it came time for crucial conversations like performance reviews or promotions, the personal clouded the professional, making it near-impossible for meritocracy to reign supreme.
Not surprisingly, this led to inexplicable promotions and obvious failures.
This experience ensured I took an opposite approach to hiring at my future companies. I evangelized formal hiring processes to source and hire the best candidates, mandated real-time, bi-directional feedback and, most importantly, put into place an explicit strategy to promote and root out the best people to create a culture of meritocracy.
Although this created countless instances where we had to encourage friends and early employees that it was in everyone's interests for them to move on gracefully, it ensured that we constantly had a diverse team with the best possible candidate aligned to every role.
Candor builds trust
After one of those many failures from nepotist choices of leadership at Net2Phone led AT&T to lose almost $1 billion in value when it sold its controlling stake in 2001, I was tasked with executing a $100 million turnaround for one of the core businesses and recapitalizing with a public offering. Step one was taking a hatchet to the poisonous culture and instituting a culture of candor, which was polarizing to many, but was absolutely necessary to put an end to the political jockeying and palace intrigue and start having crucial conversations to get the company healthy.
I’ve applied these lessons to all of my subsequent leadership roles, whether it was instituting town hall meetings to host transparent and difficult conversations or creating non-hierarchical feedback loops to ensure management was hearing the unfiltered truth from the employee base. Countless articles have been written about the correlation between candor and high performance organizations, yet opacity continues to be prevalent at many companies.
While I learned from the errors of my bosses, I did so while making many mistakes of my own. Among other things, it took me too long to realize that being a leader is more about inspiring people to believe in why we are doing things than it is directing what to do and how to do it. These unnecessary hardships in my formative years have driven me to invest in mentorship personally as well as a critical leadership framework ever since. A leader is only as strong as his or her ability to scale beyond his or herself.
Looking back over the last 25 years, what brings me the most fulfillment is not the recognition or financial rewards, but rather watching the continued success of those I’ve mentored grow into their best versions of themselves. It’s the gift that keeps giving. If nothing else, I've learned you don't need to have a mentor to be a mentor.