Having been a serial entrepreneur and CEO (Agile Software, Ooyala, Red Pepper, HotChalk, SkillsVillage, plus others) and having learned the leadership ropes early building PeopleSoft and SAP, I came off the sidelines last year to lead Zenefits, once the fastest-growing SaaS company in history (10,000 customers in 2.5 years). Zenefits infamously grew too quickly, had compliance issues, and a culture problem. But it also had (and has) tremendous potential. Seventeen months later, we’ve built a new leadership team, re-set our values and culture, changed our business model and aligned our resources to power that model. Once the darling of Silicon Valley, we are now yet again poised to be one of the fastest-growing companies in the HR space — but this time growing in a more measured and purposeful way.
I jumped back into the game because, well, frankly growing a company and leading a team is one of the most rewarding things I have ever been a part of and it is the ultimate learning experience. I have always been drawn to the challenge of it, the competitive aspect, and the allure of being a part of something bigger and nobler. I’ve learned after a couple decades of doing it that this is my passion, and I am grateful to be practicing my craft at such a high potential company with such a stellar team at this stage of my career. I don’t take this opportunity for granted, because it is a precious thing to be entrusted with a leadership role. Many depend on me, and I on them. Trust is at the core of everything. As such, I take great care in leading, mentoring, growing and challenging the 500 people here by, as Stephen Covey says, “…communicating their value and worth so clearly that they begin to see it in themselves.” And, because we are in the tech industry, headquartered in Silicon Valley, I need them to know that the “ultimate growth hack” isn’t a shortcut. Instead, it is to embrace the grind, relish the work, and trust that if you do, the results will be there.
Don’t get me wrong, when I talk about embracing the grind, I’m not talking about some old school, hierarchical ethos related to “…when the going gets tough”. I mean quite the opposite. We need to run our business efficiently, and we are implicit adopters of technology and process to inform our decisions with data. Building the right foundation, the right team, the right strategy, the right products and services and continually testing and adjusting all the pieces to stay in front of the market and our customers’ needs is painstakingly hard work. It can be a grind at times. But it is in the grind — at times uncomfortable — that you learn, become exposed to new people, new ideas, new inspiration, and new problem-solving. The grind lays the foundation upon which you build teamwork, the collective notion of “in it together” ownership toward a shared goal that leads to breakthrough thinking and innovation, often accomplishing far more than you had originally dared to or dreamed.
An example of how “the grind” pays off comes from a different kind of “hack.” Like a lot of tech companies, at Zenefits we host regular company-wide hackathons. The goal? Free up small teams to work within small time frames and set loose their creative, collaborative thinking for big impact. We have no rules. We only encourage people to connect across departments and geographies to bring a diverse perspective to an idea directly related to our business. Our most recent hackathon had 14 teams across the US, Canada and India weigh in with a collection of new product solutions or enhancements for our customers as well as better efficiency tools for ourselves. The teams were not just a group of engineers. We had cross-functional teams representing sales, service, legal, marketing, customer service, engineering, and R&D. Mini companies within our company.
We don’t cloister a select group of people in a lab. We don’t give everyone 30% of their time to “ideate” on their own. We suggest they connect their perspectives and we turn them loose. Oh yeah, and we fed and watered them well. And the results — in just three business days — were stunning: eight product ideas for customers, a solution to make it easier for our partners to win with us and four new ways to make us more efficient at what we do.
Best of all, we had a forum to help our team explore and build on their own individual and collective sense of value and customer knowledge and sense of purpose. The result? We are funding three of these “hacks” which will be adopted in to our platform and way of working.
Embrace the grind, connect the potential of your people to your business and recognize the best growth hack of all. It’s often hard, but it gets real results.
Jay is Chairman & CEO at Zenefits. He brings more than 20 years of experience in leading both public and private technology companies. Previously, Jay served as CEO of Ooyala, and Agile Software. Before that, Jay was a senior executive at both PeopleSoft and SAP. Jay is a member of the Global Leadership Council at the Lucas Graduate School and College of Business at San Jose State University.