Q: You were C.E.O. at SuccessFactors, a cloud-based software company. What rules of the road did you set for culture there?
A: One of the rules was about email — no blind copying. And if someone emailed me complaining about a colleague, I would add the person they were complaining about to the email string and say something like, “Hi, Kim, it looks like Carl has something to talk to you about. I really look forward to you guys meeting and figuring this one out.” That sends a powerful message.
An Interview with Lars Dalgaard by Adam Bryant - New York Times
Q. Were you in leadership roles or doing entrepreneurial things when you were younger?
A. To a degree. I’m from Denmark originally, but I spent a few years living in England as a teenager. I remember when I was 13, and we were putting on a Christmas show at school. We had to convince people in the neighborhood to come.
A buddy of mine and I had these huge boxes of programs for the show, and we started knocking on people’s doors. Soon after, I walked over to my friend and asked, “Where are we going to get new ones?” His box was full and mine was empty. I had convinced all these people to come to the show. I definitely knew there was something going on in terms of my ability to engage people.
Tell me about your parents.
My mom has this gigantic passion and really deep belief in the magic of human beings. I’ve taken it from her and just exploded it. That’s my biggest value. I just believe that there really is goodness in every human being, and there’s magic, to the point that I’m sometimes naïve about it. But the value of rewarding people and trusting people has come back to me in my life in a karmic way that’s gigantic.
I learned so many things from my dad, but in particular he taught me about ethics and that there is no easy way to get to your goal. You’ve got to be like Lambeau Field in Green Bay and build for bad weather. That’s basically the only way to achieve any type of success.
But you often see with some companies, particularly start-ups, that they’re telling themselves and others a bit of a story, and not being honest about what the real issues are. Instead of taking all that energy and focusing on the core outcomes, they’re just glazing over it and hoping it will be O.K. There is no such thing as a quick fix.
Plus, if the people at the top of companies think they’re controlling the message, they’re not. Everybody in the company knows what’s going on, and they typically know it before management does.
And what about your college years?
I went to college in Denmark, but I ran four businesses on the side.
I created an education course on weekends, six weeks before the college’s big exam, which a lot of students were failing. My program was very hard, like boot camp, but I was able to charge so much that I could pay the best teachers enough to get them to teach the course. It was an insane model.
The dean was angry with me and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Who’s got the problem? People aren’t passing your tests and graduating. So if you fix the school, there won’t be any demand for my product.” I was unapologetic about it.
What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
The biggest thing in my life is really daring to be human, and that’s the approach I take to the working world. We could all be so much more human, but we don’t allow ourselves to do it. I think it’s because we’ve been brought up thinking that when you’re in a business role, if you show any emotion, then that’s the opposite of being tough.
The funny thing is that you’re actually a stronger leader and more trustworthy if you’re able to be vulnerable and you’re able to show your real personality. It’s a trust multiplier, and people really will want to work for you and be on a mission together with you.
You were C.E.O. at SuccessFactors, a cloud-based software company. What rules of the road did you set for culture there?
One of the rules was about email — no blind copying. And if someone emailed me complaining about a colleague, I would add the person they were complaining about to the email string and say something like, “Hi, Kim, it looks like Carl has something to talk to you about. I really look forward to you guys meeting and figuring this one out.” That sends a powerful message.
It goes back to daring to be human and talking to people face to face about problems. When you look someone in the eye, you’re not going to be that rude. It’s just impossible. The funny thing is when it becomes routine in your life, it becomes the most rewarding part. In fact, I seek it out, because there’s where I can make the biggest contribution. If you can get organizational silos to talk to each other, then you can have power in your organization.
How do you hire?
One question I ask about 10 minutes into the interview, after we’ve created some trust, is “What did you learn from your mom?” It’s an incredibly powerful question. And then I’ll ask them about their father.
Not that anyone should go first, but is there a reason you start with mothers?
I don’t know. I think it’s because it will give me more of an insight into the person’s emotions. Basically I’m testing them to see, “How human are you ready to be with me?”
I also like to ask people about the mistakes they’ve made. You think their answers will be so rehearsed, but I remember one person who said, “Well, that’s a funny thing. I’ve never made any mistakes.” Up until that point, I was thinking, I can’t wait to hire him. Then I wondered how I could get out of the interview without being rude.
What advice do you give to new college grads?
If you’re not truly committed to what you’re doing, whatever it is, don’t even begin. Because you basically won’t be able to make it through and you will be in a world of pain and misery.
Are you going to have the courage to go after whatever you’re doing and be legendary, or are you going to just sort of tell yourself stories and excuses about why you couldn’t get there?
This interview with Lars Dalgaard, general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.