Jen-Hsun Huang (Nvidia) in “The Corner Office”

Jen-Hsun Huang

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 Jen-Hsun Huang who is president and C.E.O. of Nvidia, a maker of graphics chips in Santa Clara, Calif. He says restaurant work taught him how to deal with chaos.

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

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“I’m prepared for diversity. I waited tables.”

Bryant: What’s it like to work at Nvidia?

Jen-Hsun Huang: Let me tell you about the two elements that are our core values and that I most treasure and that I spent a lot of time nurturing. One is the tolerance to take risks and the ability to learn from failure. This ability to celebrate failure, if you will, needs to be an important part of any company that’s in a rapidly changing world. And the second core value is intellectual honesty — the ability to call a spade a spade, to as quickly as possible recognize that we’ve made a mistake, that we’ve gone the wrong way, and that we learn from it and quickly adjust.

These came about because, when Nvidia was founded, we were the first company of our kind, but we rapidly almost went out of business. It turned out the technology didn’t work at all. We raised all this money. We hired 100 people. We built the technology and it just didn’t work. I learned a lot about leadership during that time.

Bryant: What did you learn?

Jen-Hsun Huang: I learned that it was O.K. for a C.E.O. to say that the strategy didn’t work, that the technology didn’t work, that the product didn’t work, but we’re still going to be great and let me tell you why. I think that’s what’s thrilling about leadership — when you’re holding onto literally the worst possible hand on the planet and you know you’re still going to win. How are you still going to win? Because that’s when the character of the company really comes out.

It was during the time that we really cultivated and developed what I consider to be our core values today. I don’t think you can create culture and develop core values during great times. I think it’s when the company faces adversity of extraordinary proportions, when there’s no reason for the company to survive, when you’re looking at incredible odds — that’s when culture is developed, character is developed.

I think culture is a big word for corporate character. It’s the personality of the company, and now the personality of our company simply says this: If we think something is really worthwhile and we have a great idea, and it’s never been done before but we believe in it, it’s O.K. to take a chance. It’s O.K. to try, and if it doesn’t work, learn from it, adjust and keep failing forward. And if you just fail forward all the time — learn, fail, learn, fail, learn, fail — but every single time you’re making it better and better, before you know it you’re a great company.

Mistakes and failures are kind of the negative space around success, right? And if we could take enough shots at it, we’re going to figure out what success is going to look like.

Bryant: Talk more about the intellectual honesty part of it.

Jen-Hsun Huang: Without intellectual honesty, you can’t have a culture that’s willing to tolerate failure because people cling too much to an idea that likely will be bad or isn’t working and they feel like their reputation is tied up in it. They can’t admit failure. You end up putting too much into a bad idea and then you risk the entire enterprise.

Bryant: What were the most important leadership lessons over the course of your life?

Jen-Hsun Huang: Let me start with what I believe to be good leadership traits that resonate for me. I appreciate people who are authentic. They are just who they are. They don’t dress like a C.E.O. because they think that’s what C.E.O.’s dress like. They don’t talk like a C.E.O. because that’s the way they think C.E.O.’s talk. They don’t conduct their meetings and expect people to treat them like a C.E.O. because that’s the way they think C.E.O.’s are supposed to be treated. They are just who they are.

And I like people who are able to call a spade a spade. If something is right, something’s right. If something’s wrong, something’s wrong. And if something could be better, it could be better. I don’t want to be sold to all the time. And I also believe that you manage with your skills but you have to lead with your heart.

You can’t cause other people to fall in love with the work that you’re doing if you don’t love it yourself. And so I think you can manage for better performance but you can’t manage for greatness. You can’t manage your way into greatness. You’ve got to lead your way into greatness, and so you have to lead with your heart.

Bryant: What about when you were growing up?

Jen-Hsun Huang: When I was in high school, nothing gave me greater joy than computer games. It was part of how I grew up. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the video game era, but I’ve never beaten myself up about mistakes. When I try something and it doesn’t turn out, I go back and try it again.

Most of the time when you’re playing a game, you’re losing. You lose and lose and lose until you beat it. That’s kind of how the game works, right? It’s feedback. And then eventually you beat it.

As it turns out, the most fun parts of a game are when you’re losing. When you finally beat it there’s a moment of euphoria but then it’s over. Maybe it’s because I grew up in that generation, I have the ability to take chances, which leads to the ability to innovate and try new things. Those are important life lessons that came along.

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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 Sunday Business section and on that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.

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