Sad fact: Some of the most profound moments of my life have happened on United Airlines red eye flights.
While I may have a love-hate (or rather hate-hate) relationship with the incessant yet “unexpected” flight delays, increasingly tiny legroom in Economy “Plus,” and “No-Go” in-flight WiFi, the sheer exhaustion of overnight flights forces my brain into a contemplative state.
Credit: Paramount Pictures
And I’ve done a ton of red eyes. I don’t count because the number would be too brutal, but it’s definitely several hundred.
As I’m leaning on the cold window of seat 9F trying to sleep, I end up in a recurring loop of thoughts:
- Envy and anxiety about the friend’s company that just got bought for a ton of money, or about the college classmate who seems to be “killing it.”
- Longing to have been at the school event for my kids and to trade FaceTime for the real thing.
- Wonder at the billions of stars that beckon from the window of my window seat.
I only know myself really… but I like to think—or perhaps hope—in a shared-pain-sort-of-way that we all have those moments: the WTF-AM-I-DOING-WITH-MY-LIFE moments. The IS-IT-ALL-WORTH-IT refrains in the cacophony of the day.
And some of this brings me back to earlier moments in my life… My dad showing me the cover of Time Magazine in 1984 with Bill Gates on it as a wunderkind…
Credit: Time Magazine
...A famous VC telling me after my first two startups failed that I better “watch out or people will think you’re a serial failure…” The feeling of pride after selling my last company and regret for what more it could have become if we went for it a little bit longer.
As the leader of a company, I think about this issue in both the first person singular (what am I doing?) as well as the first person plural (what are we doing?). I feel a responsibility to perhaps not answer the question, but at least ask it on behalf of many others: What’s the point of it all?
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Welcome to the Matrix
As with all of life, nothing that I’m saying is new. Scores of Harvard Business Review articles and Cliffnote-friendly business books have articulated the importance of defining a “Purpose” for a company.
And yet… so much of business can feel aimless and empty. For sure, they tell us to focus on the bottom line—or the top line—or some line, I guess. It’s all about shareholder value. Pray to Adam Smith every night and your company’s soul will be redeemed the morning you ring the bell on Wall Street.
Credit: Wall Street Journal
Companies certainly have gotten smarter. They know how to talk the talk. They hire the consultants and do the offsites. The values are written in really nice fonts in really pretty colors in really expensive frames. The purpose statement or mission statement or vision statement is stated with marketing flair.
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And yet… so many people work at so many companies and don’t believe any of it. They are cynical about work—and for good reasons. They’ve had their hearts broken. Speeches unfulfilled. Promises unmet.
Employees are told to act "businesslike" at work. Emotions should be left at the door—unless that emotion is greed. The biggest barrier to your success is your feelings. Act with more poise. Show more gravitas. Don’t let them see you sweat. Show any sign of vulnerability and people will pounce on it. The only thing that matters is the company. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there—no room for little puppies. And seriously, it’s not personal—it’s just business.
Credit: Paramount Pictures
Sometimes it feels like Shakespeare was writing about the corporate world in Macbeth:
“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
Don’t get me wrong, some leaders are the embodiment of Purpose. When you’re trying to save humanity by flying rockets and cars into space to one day colonize new worlds, it’s maybe alright for feelings to take a back seat.
But if your first name isn’t Elon, how do you find meaning in it all? If your job, like mine, is doing something that you think is important but isn’t quite in the category of “the future of human existence,” how do you justify it to yourself and your team? Enterprise software can certainly be a good business, but can it feel good too?
Lost In My Mind
I guess I'm doomed to dwell on this a lot because my real heroes aren’t in the business world at all: Plato. Socrates. Descartes. Newton. Godel. Marie Curie. Einstein. Heisenberg. Vera Rubin. Planck. And now Hawking. The scientists and thinkers whose whole lives were a quest for meaning.
In case you don’t know, while by day I may roam the world preaching Customer Success and SaaS best practices, my nighttime mind wanders—reading about quantum mechanics, philosophy, metaphysics, consciousness, and the meaning of reality and time.
My heroes lived lives that, for me, were full of Purpose. Heck, in Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis year of 1905, he wrote three of the most important papers in scientific history in just 12 months. At 22 years old, Newton invented what went on to become Calculus. Hawking’s life was so meaningful that it doesn't seem poetic or coincidental he was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo and died on Einstein’s birthday, it's somehow just "right."
And when I look up at the stars, as I do pretty much every clear night, my role in this grand show seems like I’m barely an extra. Maybe we all feel that way sometimes?
Finding My Way
But recently, a lightbulb went off for me. I’ve always believed in the concept of Servant Leadership at work—where the managers are there to serve their teams, as opposed to driving them.
Credit: Saint Joseph's University
At Gainsight, we’ve always—from day one—been extremely values-driven as a company. And our values are a bit… quirky:
- Success for All: Our “bottom line” requires us to drive success for not only shareholders, but also customers, teammates, their families, and our communities around us.
- Golden Rule: Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.
- Shoshin: Cultivate a "Beginner’s Mind."
- Stay Thirsty, My Friends: Have ambition that comes from within.
- Childlike Joy: Bring the kid in you to work every day
So it hit me.
We may not change the world with what we do, in a realistic sense. But we can change the worlds of those around us in terms of Why and How we do the things we do.
At Gainsight, we long for something different in the Why and the How of business. We respect the bottom line and recognize its importance, but we don’t bow down to it as our only master. People are just as important as business—and they aren’t “assets,” as some companies might claim. Not everything has to drive to shareholder value, because you can have multiple goals. Teammates can thrive at work without having to give themselves up in the process.
In fact, we believe society needs this more than ever. With Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Robots, and the like, Homo sapiens are having our own existential crisis. Every screen, selfie, and social network makes us long that much more for a real smile and shared moment.
Credit: Robot Evolution by Intelligent Design
So we finally wrote it down. We decided on the Why that would keep us going long beyond the day-to-day. And that Why is:
To be living proof that you can win in business by being human-first.
“Human-first” means always thinking about people in the decisions you make about business:
- Human-first means realizing that the life and time of the person running your office and that of the person cleaning your office are equally important and valuable.
- Human-first means being radically transparent with your team—even when it feels uncomfortable.
- Human-first means making sure that the company’s schedule and work/collaboration environment are flexible so your team can make the piano recital, friends’ night out, or family trip.
- Human-first means welcoming every teammate like they are the most important person in the company—because they are!
- Human-first means congratulating and celebrating a teammate that is leaving for their next dream job versus treating them like a traitor or trying to make them feel guilty.
- Human-first means thinking about your competition not as evil or bad, but rather as a bunch of people just as good as us trying to live their lives and support their families.
- Human-first means leadership, including CEOs, opening up to their teams and to the world about their brightest dreams and their darkest fears.
Does human-first mean you don’t make tough decisions? Of course not. Human-first companies will do things from time-to-time that don’t feel great. But my test for myself is if I’m causing pain for others in the interest of a “rational” decision, I better be feeling that pain myself many times over—or I’ve lost my humanity. That pain is what will make us always think of people in decision making.
At Gainsight, we feel like we can help a lot of humans—between our customers, our teammates, their families, our shareholders, and our communities. Maybe it’s not all of humanity, but it’s a start.
And if we, like many other companies going down this path, can help other businesses open their eyes to another way to work, that impact can grow even more.
In short, for us, it’s not business—it’s personal.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
And in a recursive sort of way, I think our Purpose nests well in the Purpose of the Customer Success Movement—the Movement that we serve at Gainsight. Customer Success is fundamentally about realizing that your customer is not a transaction or a deal or an opportunity or a lead. Your customer is a bunch of human beings just like you. And just like you, they want to succeed with what they do.
In a way, Customer Success is about bringing humanity back into this technology-driven world.
One of my favorite vacation activities is to stare at the ocean. I can do it for hours. Something about waves just feels magical. And yet, when you think about it, waves are nothing more than water being pulled by energy (from the moon, mostly).
And like waves, companies are nothing more than the people inside them, motivated by energy. And if we all do it right, our people—and our companies—will be unstoppable.
Einstein said it well:
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
Here’s to the things that truly count in business.