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Reflections on Matthew Szulik and closing the ‘executive gap’

Almost exactly two years ago I left Red Hat to start what would become New Kind. I’d been there for four and a half years. It was wonderful and challenging; one of the great adventures of my life.There are several reasons it was so rewarding:

+ I was working on meaningful work. We were proving that there were new ways to compete while doing ‘good.’ And I could wholeheartedly support the work of the open source movement.

+ I worked with wonderful creative people. The team I was asked to lead was dynamic and passionate, and like me, fairly new to the corporate world. What they lacked in experience was easily surpassed by their determination, commitment to success and willingness to try new things. In some cases we just didn’t know any better. In the face of formidable challenges, they kicked ass over and over again. They never gave up. What they taught me about loyalty and perseverance, they’ll never know.

And then there were the many young, highly creative and talented engineers I met and engaged with—amazing people who took to design thinking with the same passion I have.

+ I was part of a small group competing against the best and brightest minds—not to mention toughest competitors—in the world. When you’re going toe-to-toe with the likes of Microsoft, Sun, Novell and Oracle (and the resources at their command) you better bring your ‘A’ game every day.

But, I suppose, the greatest gift to me was the opportunity to work with the CEO of Red Hat, Matthew Szulik. It was the promise of working with Matthew that lead me to leave my comfortable, if boring, partnership at a local firm to join Red Hat. It was bumpy at times; I knew it would be. But it was always exciting.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot. Just recently Matthew stepped down from his role as Chairman of Red Hat. I won’t go on about Matthew, he wouldn’t like that. But I thought about him as I read a recent blog post from my friend Jeffrey Phillips at OVO Innovation.

Jeff writes:

…any CEO or senior executive who wants more innovation should get out of the corner office and go meet with people three, four and five levels down from them, face to face, person to person, to see just how much capability and insight is waiting to be unleashed. Yes, the processes and products that drive today’s revenue have to be run effectively, but believe me these organizations are much more nimble, and much more adaptable, than many executives believe. And the people in those roles have plenty of insights and ideas if we’ll simply unleash them.

This gap between the wants and needs of the executive team, and the capabilities and energy of the “rank and file” means that many executives aren’t doing a good job of maximizing the value of the firm. In fact, while they’ve optimized the easy stuff, they’ve left all the really valuable stuff on the table. This gap is one that can be quickly and easily closed. All the executives need to see is the capability, the nimbleness and the insights that their teams have, and be willing to recognize that the organization is capable of change, and in fact is often ready to change.  Eventually the question will be more about the nimbleness of the executives, because once the innovators are freed up and sponsored, it might be difficult to get the firm to slow down.

Jeff nails it. And it makes me smile when I think about what he’s written here and compare it to my corporate experience. There was no gap between Matthew Szulik and anyone working at Red Hat. He knew just about every employee in the company and routinely walked through the hallways and into cubicles unannounced—we called them ‘drive-bys’—where he pushed and prodded for change and new ideas on a daily basis. It didn’t matter if you were a senior executive or an intern—no one was spared. Because Matthew knew that conformity to the status quo is a sure way to kill innovation and great ideas can come from anywhere.

Matthew believed in the people of Red Hat and pushed them to continually challenge the status quo. In fact, there were complaints that Matthew would never let a ‘status quo’ take root. I believe that’s true. He wasn’t always a walk in the park. But what a ride.

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