This morning, 2U’s Co-Founder and CEO Chip Paucek spoke alongside Netflix Chief Product Officer and 2U Board Member Greg Peters in a fireside chat during the virtual Collision from Home conference, hosted by Web Summit.
Collision from Home is one of the world’s biggest tech conferences, which is virtually gathering 30,000+ attendees—including technology CEOs, entrepreneurs, global cultural figures, business leaders, policymakers, and more. During the first day of this virtual event, Chip and Greg convened for a fireside chat to discuss “high-quality experiences in times of high demand.” Together, they explored how technology transformed entertainment and now education, how to navigate times of change as a leader without sacrificing business velocity and innovation, and more.
I walked away from this fireside chat feeling inspired to share my pocketful of key insights and thoughtful advice from Chip and Greg with leaders of all kinds, whether they be current, former, or aspiring (such as I). No matter where you fall on the totem pole, I hope you share both my enthusiasm and motivation to transform these takeaways into tangible “to-dos” in your everyday work to grow into an exceptional leader—starting now.
1) Facing failure and skeptics are prerequisites for innovation.
Overcoming the fear of failure at work can feel like an endless or exhausting feat. This sense of fear can especially creep up when leaders are practicing out-of-the-box thinking and zealously pursuing decisions or initiatives that their teams haven’t experienced before. But both Chip and Greg agree that it’s the growing acceptance of failure—especially in the face of skeptics–that is key to how leaders should approach innovation.
“Being innovative inevitably means coming up with an idea where there are 20 reasons why [it] is not going to work,” Greg shared. While a leader can easily come up with 100 ideas, he says that 99/100 of those ideas often aren’t ones they can or should activate. To properly mature an idea—and overcome those 20 challenges they will inevitably face each time—he believes leaders should pair eagerness with discipline in their decision making by embracing openness while keeping a tight lens on their innovative efforts.
Of course, the more leaders embrace a willingness to innovate, the more likely they are to face skepticism. That’s why one of 2U’s guiding principles is “don’t let the skeptic win.” Rather than viewing the critiques of naysayers as “voices of doom,” Chip says this guiding principle reminds both leaders and the company-at-large to harness skepticism as fuel for their mission-driven fires, inspiring them to proactively and productively fight for the “yes” in everything they do. After all, enlightening the naysayers of today may ultimately help illuminate the nonbelievers of tomorrow.
2) Find your focus and prioritizations.
Leaders are often hungry to achieve anything and everything they set their minds to accomplish. Though it is important to maintain a relentless drive–which is crucial to weather unexpected events and inevitable failures—Chip and Greg both believe this isn’t the most effective way to run teams and grow businesses. It puts leaders at risk of diversifying or scaling their products too quickly.
“Maintain a core focus and understand that you can’t do everything you want to do at all times,” Chip said. “Focus is one of the most underappreciated aspects of being a leader.”
As a starting point for what to focus on, Greg advised that leaders hone in on what makes them unique or differentially capable. Remaining laser-focused on an area in which they flourish, as opposed to tackling a lengthy laundry list of things beyond their scope, during the beginning stages of leadership can help individuals remain one step ahead. By shifting and spotlighting attention to the right place at the right time–with an acute sense of the emerging trends, realities, and opportunities that surround them—leaders can drive a healthy pace of innovation, productivity, and growth at their companies.
Chip and Greg also spoke to the importance of prioritization, using the relevant topic of resilient workplace culture as an example. They expressed how crucial it is that leaders prioritize constructing their companies’ cultures around strong values to build a sense of identity and resiliency. By creating a culture that is intentional and purposeful, leaders can lay the groundwork for their companies to withstand the ups and downs and twists and turns they are destined to face—including broader and unforeseen external disruptions, such as COVID-19.
For 2U and Netflix, the existing attention and investment they had made in their company cultures—which included debating fine details of how they articulate culture and put it into practice—is what allowed both companies to seamlessly transition to work remotely during this pandemic without sacrificing the quality of their services and offerings.
3) Stop micromanaging and demote the authority.
This mantra is core to both Chip and Greg’s leadership philosophies. As leaders grow their teams, rise through the ranks, and continue to evolve over time, micromanaging will soon be unsustainable, as the time they spend at work will increasingly be dedicated to examining the “bigger picture” and less on executing day-to-day tasks. This inherently means that leaders must “demote their authority,” or distribute ownership, to the trusted leaders beneath them.
In their chat, Chip and Greg both emphasized the importance of demoting the authority to give leaders the ability to “bruise their shins,” now and again by allowing them to claim ownership, think big, and take risks. Greg in particular believes that if any and all decisions have to rise up through the hierarchy and get made by senior leaders such as himself, that is stalling the company in its ability to innovate, make progress, and consider diverse opinions.
“Mistakes will happen—you have to embrace that as a reality of this modality,” he said. “If you’re not seeing the ‘bruised shins,’ you’re not investing aggressively enough in developing leadership capacity in your organization.”
By granting the leaders of their teams the freedom to fall, Chip and Greg trust that, with the right amount of guidance, support, and experience, they will view this as the freedom to fly.
I am very grateful to Collision from Home for the rare opportunity to harness the collective knowledge of two frontline leaders in education technology and entertainment. From here, I plan to find ways to proactively implement Chip and Greg’s leadership philosophies into my everyday work at 2U with the intention to gain greater self-knowledge and self-confidence as a leader. I hope these insights help further liberate the leader inside each and every one of you, too.
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