You Don't Have To Be An Asshole To Succeed

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider.

I run a program for people who sit on boards, helping them explore both “what they need to know” -- the external factors disrupting our world -- and “who they need to be” -- how we need to show up as leaders if we want to thrive in a world of continual and dramatic change.

That second bit forces us to get serious about what’s important to us. Maybe it’s less about who we need to be and more about who we want to be. Who we choose to be.

Our challenge to the directors who participate is for them to be more intentional about their strategic choices. Our premise is not to get everyone thinking the same way; it’s to make sure people are thinking about these things at all.

In order to get to that intentionality, we have to dig into the assumptions we make about what we should be doing and what we should be trying to achieve. Today, we spent a bit of time looking at some highly financially successful people: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. We asked whether the ends justify the means: Whether, if you have a grand vision, it doesn’t really matter how you treat people along the way.



Someone made the comment that tech billionaires are “spiky” -- that all of them are known for being assholes and incredibly difficult to work with. He wondered whether it was a prerequisite to creating an extraordinary company.

I can see why he might think this. Years ago, an entrepreneur CEO I knew justified some pretty spiky behavior by saying that Steve Jobs was an asshole too, so…

But I feel pretty confident we’d be confusing causality with correlation. At any rate, it’s not true for every tech billionaire, and not every big tech company treats people like crap.

Take Xero, a New Zealand-based accounting software company with an $8 billion market cap. Last week a woman named Lauren Burton went viral for her story about working there: “Xero hired me at 33 weeks pregnant. Paid my salary for 6 months while I navigated motherhood for the first time. Sent meals, support and my manager and team checked in frequently. With no other agenda than wanting to know how my new family was getting on… Xero knows the value in hiring the right people, and that their investment in me will be paid back in the work I will do.”

Or Atlassian, an Australian tech firm with a $47 billion market cap. Atlassian is renowned for its work culture, with the Great Place to Work Institute recently naming them 23rd top company in the world, and 95% of employees saying it’s a great place to work. And now founder Mike Cannon-Brookes is focusing his wealth on addressing climate change. He bought 11% of utility company AGL -- one of Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters -- with the intention of accelerating AGL’s transition away from coal and achieving net-zero emissions about a decade earlier than current targets.

These companies will find it cheaper to attract candidates, and cheaper to hire and retain them. With lower staff turnover, they’ll have greater institutional knowledge and more momentum as they innovate.

Are Xero founder Rod Drury and Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes saints? Surely not. They are humans, and will have their up days and their down days like everyone. But they have intentionally built companies people want to work at -- and been hugely rewarded financially as a result.

As we see with Bezos, Zuckerberg and Musk, it’s possible to be massively financially successful even with a reputation for being an asshole. But being an asshole is a choice. And, as Drury and Cannon-Brookes demonstrate, it’s far from the only choice available.

1 comment about "You Don't Have To Be An Asshole To Succeed".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, April 10, 2023 at 5:35 p.m.

    Thank you Kaila for highlighting two 'down-under' large businesses that 'do the right thing'.   I just wish we had more Atlassian's and Xero's.

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