It’s much easier to find our leadership style if we have examples to engage with in a detailed way. I recently picked up Frank Slootman’s book Amp It Up: Leading for Hypergrowth by Raising Expectations, Increasing Urgency, and Elevating Intensity because I wanted to learn more about how he operates. Tldr; loved the book and found it an in-depth and fascinating look at a guy who operates in a way I never could.
Who is Frank Slootman?
Frank Slootman is a serial CEO who has consistently delivered massive business outcomes in the enterprise software space. He was CEO of enterprise data storage startup Data Domain and grew it to a $2.4 billion acquisition. After that, he led ServiceNow, growing it from $93 million in 2011 to $1.4 billion in 2016 to IPO. He is now the CEO of Snowflake, which was the biggest IPO of 2020.
In addition to delivering results, he’s notable for known for creating some of the most intense work environments out there, teams that drive drive hard and throw work-life balance out the window. He’s also come under fire in the past for comments about prioritizing merit over diversity.
Frank is not a nice guy
If I had to describe Frank’s leadership style, I would say blunt, demanding, and results-oriented. This shows up in the book itself, which is slim and spare on filler content. It is not an autobiography capturing the glory of his previous wins but rather an operating manual on how he runs teams. It’s clear throughout the book that he’s not focused on being liked but on achieving the mission.
One area that really exemplifies this is his talent management approach.
Topgrade your talent
Frank advocates for “topgrading,” a strategy developed by hiring expert Brad Smart. Topgrading is the process of systematically upgrading talent in key roles. Rather than doing what most companies do and replacing people as they begin to fail at their roles, Frank replaces people when it’s known there are higher caliber people available. In this way, your team’s talent bar is constantly being upgraded.
Hire drivers, not passengers, and get the wrong people off the bus
“If you don’t act quickly to get the wrong people off the bus, you have no prayer of changing the overall trajectory. We often believe, naively, that we can coach struggling teammates to a better place. And sometimes we can, but those cases are rarer than we imagine. At a struggling company, you need to change things fast, which can only happen by switching out the people whose skills no longer fit the mission or perhaps never really did in the first place.”
Frank defines two categories of people: drivers, who have ownership and a strong satisfaction from making things happen, and passengers, who are carried along by the company’s momentum but don’t take strong positions to improve outcomes. He advocates for ruthlessness in getting passengers out of the company as quickly as possible.
Solving for the revolving door of talent
Topgrading and kicking people off the bus are controversial ideas. Most leaders would blanch at the idea of firing loyal people to topgrade talent. Or proactively firing people who are performing in their roles, but not exemplifying an appropriately go-getter attitude. I would be the first to admit that I’d struggle with putting this into action because I care a lot about the people around me. Not to mention the business implications. What about the cycles it takes to hire new people? What if you get a bad reputation? What if you don’t have the brand to attract great talent and this is the best you’re able to get?
The lesson I took away is that this type of strong, contrarian position takes special qualities and self-awareness to work. Fundamentally, you must have a thick skin and deep conviction. Frank’s special sauce is that he’s acting in alignment with his temperament and beliefs. Judging from the leadership conversations I’ve had in my exec coaching work, this is something that doesn’t feel natural to many. In addition to this, you must have the strong self-awareness that firing quickly means you must build the skill to hire quickly. Frank builds in three strategies to offset the talent drain:
- Hire for aptitude over experience. Frank learned quickly that it can be difficult for a struggling company to hire people with a lot of experience. Furthermore, optimizing for experienced hires often results in people who lack hunger and drive. He prioritizes aptitude (hunger, curiosity, career-frustration) over experience in filling roles.
- Set the bar high and make expectations clear. By giving clear expectations and feedback, Frank solves for the risk that people will live in fear of being fired. High performers have security with clear feedback.
- Make hiring everyone’s job. Managers throughout the company are expected to leverage their networks to hire great talent. That way, there’s always someone waiting in the wings when a role is open.
If he had taken the stance of firing quickly without putting these other practices in place, it would have failed catastrophically as unfilled roles languished and created bigger workloads for others. It snowballs after that, as the mounting workload creates a further reluctance to fire. However, if everything works as it should, Frank’s ability to create an organization that both hires and fires quickly becomes a superpower.
I would not give anyone reading this book the advice to adopt Frank’s operating manual and try to run with it. Frank himself even writes in the book, “There are many different paths to superior outcomes in business. You will have to find your own path, one that suits your temperament, disposition, and natural aptitudes. Therefore, don’t try to copy or emulate other leaders–including me.”
Frank is passionate about fighting mediocrity, relentless focus, and high performance, and he’s willing to engage in the conflict necessary to make it happen. The rest of his management approach falls out accordingly. In other words, he’s operating in complete alignment with his values.
One of the most common conversations I have in executive coaching is discussions about underperforming team members, and how and where you draw the line in supporting them vs. firing them. Does this mean that you’re going to fail because you aren’t hardcore about firing fast like Frank? No, not at all. Frank is just one leadership style among many and there are so many paths to success. Whatever your approach is, it should be aligned with your values and play to your strengths.