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 Simon Anderson, chief executive of DreamHost, a Web hosting provider and domain name registrar. He says its policy of shameless honesty at meetings allows hard conversations so that “the elephant is not in the room.” To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Photo credit: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
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Bryant: You became C.E.O. through an unusual process — you were elected in a vote by all the employees. How did that play out?
Anderson: It all started when I got a call from an executive recruiter. I was a chief marketing officer at another firm, and the recruiter said, “You should really look at this company.” It was founded by four undergrads and they’d grown it to about 100 employees, without taking any outside investment. They wanted to bring in an outside C.E.O. to help take the company to the next level.
When they told me I was on the short list of candidates, that’s when they sprung on me that there was going to be an election. At first I was surprised, but I leaned into it and I said: “O.K., no worries. Let’s go ahead.” All of the team members whittled down a list of questions to come up with the top 12 that they wanted to ask each candidate in a town hall setting. I didn’t know what they were ahead of time. One of them was around my attitude toward freedom of speech. Another was about my upbringing in Australia, and how that had shaped my perspective on jobs I’ve had.
Bryant: How did you answer that?
Anderson: Both my parents are teachers, and our family always had holidays together that were very much adventure-type activities. I think I probably spent a third of my life growing up in a tent camping at the beach or in the mountains in Australia and almost being a little bit nomadic. As Australians, we tend to have a broad and a very empathetic perspective on people and different cultures, and that there’s not one set way of doing things. We’re very outward-looking people. That, combined with my experience of traveling and interacting with a lot of people, helped me to have that empathy where you sit. You meet someone, and you don’t judge them. You listen about who they are and what makes them tick.
Bryant: What’s your approach to fostering a culture?
Anderson: What I always say is: “I don’t have an open-door policy. I have an open-mind policy.” An open door suggests that you’re coming to me in my space, whereas an open mind helps you hear things, good or bad, from someone who is an expert.
We’ve also gone through a very democratic process of crystallizing the values that DreamHost has as a company and as a team. For example, everyone has a voice. We also practice shameless honesty, which is a fantastic value used in meetings regularly.
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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 SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com 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 with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. His next book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, will also be published by Times Books (January 2014. To contact him, please click here.