blind spot imageWhat can a startup CEO learn from a Fortune 500 CEO? Typically not much,- unless that Fortune company was once a startup and the CEO still thinks and operates like a startup. In a short interview with the New York Times, Francisco D’Souza (Frank), CEO of Cognizant (Fortune 2013 rank #352) shared a few lessons that will resonate with startup CEOs that are growing their companies. To put his advice in context, Frank became CEO of Cognizant in 2007, at a relatively young age (38) for a company of that size, although he co-founded it in 1994. And I worked at Cognizant as the head of global corporate marketing during 2006-2008; so, I can attest to the entrepreneurial spirit inside Cognizant.

Personal Blind Spots and Personal Comfort Zones

Here are some excerpts I liked from the interview, because they apply to the startup world, starting with this question: “What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned during your career?”
The lesson I learned is that when you have to evolve that quickly as a person, you need to be aware of two things. One is personal blind spots and the other is personal comfort zones. Those two things can be real gotchas. It’s very hard to see your blind spots, by definition, and it’s very easy to fall into comfort zones, because people like patterns and a sense of familiarity. I’ve tried consciously to say, “What are the tools I can use to identify these blind spots and push through comfort zones?” And I always tell myself that if I wake up in the morning and feel comfortable, I’m probably not pushing myself hard enough.
As a startup CEO, as your company grows, you gradually start to know less and less about everything that’s going on inside your company, but you still need to know what you need to know in order to avoid the blind spots, including your own weaknesses. How did Frank work on these two gotchas? He continues.

Talk to Your Peers

One is just talking to other leaders. The conversations with them help me because they are, in a sense, a mirror — I can assess what I think they’re doing well, and where I think their blind spots are. It’s easier to see someone else’s blind spots than it is to see your own, of course, and you can use that to reflect on what your own blind spots are.

Working with a Coach

I also learned a lot from the people who work for me. Before I took over as C.E.O. in 2007, the board gave me the benefit of some time. I worked with a coach for a while, and he talked to about 20 people who worked for me, above me and around me, and to my board. It was difficult feedback, but very enlightening. That helped me identify a couple of my blind spots.

Be Careful while Giving Feedback

There was a lot of feedback from my team that people had confidence in my ability, but they also said that when I criticize something they’ve done, the weight of that is very pronounced and significant. It made me understand that the weight of my words was a lot heavier than I gave myself credit for, and it led me to be much more thoughtful and measured in how I give feedback.
In his book Startup CEO (see my reviewMatt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path also acknowledges the importance of working with a coach and being part of a CEO peer group. These are two no-brainer activities for any startup CEO who is scaling their company. There is an art to giving feedback such that it doesn’t come down like a ton of bricks on an employee who thinks they have been doing a good job, especially if it’s given outside of the right context. Ben Horowitz said it well in his Product CEO Paradox post, as one of the points of advice: Formalize and attend product reviews. If teams know that they should expect a regular review where you will check the consistency with the vision, the quality of the design, the progress against their integration goals, etc., it will feel much less disempowering than if you change their direction in the hallway. There are other lessons from Frank about company culture, decentralization, empowerment, and employee passion. Here’s the link to the full interview in the New York Times, Francisco D’Souza of Cognizant, on Finding Company Heroes.]]>