Ben Chestnut (C.E.O. of MailChimp,) in “The Corner Office”

chestnutAdam 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 Ben Chestnut, C.E.O. of MailChimp, an email marketing service. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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What were your early years like?

I grew up in a small town near Atlanta called Hephzibah. It’s right outside of a military base, and my father was a military man at Fort Gordon. He met my mother during the Vietnam War in Thailand, so I’m half Thai, half white. That probably has had the biggest influence on my life.

How so?

Growing up in the rural South, I was always just out of place. I didn’t quite fit in with the white kids, didn’t quite fit in with the Asian kids. But I was always the leader of the misfits. The people who were always out of place in school just gravitated to me for some reason. I think it was because I could bridge different worlds and connect people.

Tell me more about your parents.

My mother was always running some kind of business, including a salon in our kitchen. She was also a neighborhood nanny. So I helped her sweep the hair, empty ashtrays and babysit all the random kids in the neighborhood. And I was always running some kind of a business out on the playground myself.

My father used to trade stories with his friends about his days in Vietnam, and I remember hiding under the table, listening to them. And my father’s stories were always about playing the hand you’re dealt.

He would talk about being given a soldier he did not want, somebody who was a little unpredictable. My dad had a reputation of taking weirdos and turning them into useful soldiers. He would tell stories about a guy who was a leader in the Hell’s Angels, was drafted into the Army and was very trigger-happy. Everyone was scared to have him on their team.

My father had to take this guy, and he told him, you’ve got to put your gun on safety when we march because you could accidentally kill your fellow soldiers. The guy just refused. So my father made him walk in the front. He was always adapting.

He was part of the 67th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, and their motto was “Rapid, flexible, reliable.” So I grew up with that slogan all over the house. It’s just burned in my head.

What were your early career plans?

I started studying physics, but then transferred to industrial design. Just before I graduated, I applied to be a web designer at Cox newspapers. Halfway through the interview, I realized the résumé had gone to the wrong person. I was talking to the head of the marketing group, and the job was to be a banner-ad designer, not a website designer.

I really needed a job, and I found out it paid $3,000 more than the web design job. I said, “I’ll take it.” It wasn’t my passion, but I figured I’d learn to love it. And it was a great learning experience. By the end of my job, I had designed about 2,000 banner ads, and I learned exactly how to design something that would influence a consumer to click. That ended up being a very useful skill for me.

What are some leadership lessons?

Never sacrifice momentum. I might know a better path, but if we’ve got a lot of momentum, if everyone’s united and they’re marching together and the path is O.K., just go with the flow. I may eventually nudge them down a new path, but never stop the troops midmarch.

Did you go through the exercise of defining your company’s values?

I asked all of our managers and senior managers to help me out with them, and we came up with three: creativity, humility and independence. The one that caused the most concern was the last one, independence.

It’s a hard thing for a manager to talk about independence when their job is to manage a team. But I don’t care if it’s hard. It’s a complicated concept, but you’re not going to be creative unless you’re recognized for your individuality.

In a team setting, we may be all working together to accomplish a goal, but if somebody has a concern, they need to be brave enough to stand up and say it. And other team members need to be humble enough to recognize this individual. If they have a creative idea, recognize them. We need fearlessness, because creativity leads to innovation.

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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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