Red Hat's CEO: How to Scale Engagement as Business Grows

Jul 13, 2015
9 Min Read

At Red Hat, the CEO and other leaders openly admit to mistakes, encourage passionate debate and urge employees to run with their ideas. All of this leads to greater employee engagement and profits – a strategy any growing company can use.

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of RedHat, says that if he could give himself advice when he left Delta Air Lines 10 years ago to head up the largest open source software company in the world, it would be this: “When you’re leading high-energy, very capable people, leaders need to think of their role as creating context for others to be successful, rather than directly driving performance.”

In other words, butt out and let people do what they do best – but help them understand why the jobs they do matter.

“You have to work hard to connect the meaning of what people do every day to the mission of the company,” he says.

For example, when Whitehurst was COO with Delta, he was charged with leading the company out of bankruptcy and restoring confidence. He began immediately by ensuring workers understood what they could do to help them save the company and their jobs: Going from last place to first place in on-time arrivals.

“That was something they understood, something they could control,” he says.

Whitehurst, who is known for his transparent leadership, says that he believes one of the biggest issues when companies are trying to keep employees engaged when growing the business is believing that engagement is about happiness.

“Being happy has nothing to do with it. You must make sure people understand how their work fits into the strategy. Then, of course, they’re more likely to be happy,” he says.

At the same time, as companies grow and hire more workers, they still have to focus on ensuring every employee understands how his or her job has an impact on quality, cost and even customer satisfaction. Without that constant connection from leadership, employees won’t have the willingness or confidence to be innovative or collaborative.

Of course, some may argue that an open source software company has a unique environment with its focus on transparency and collaboration from inside and out. Trusting outsiders to add value? Believing that employees won’t share secrets with competitors? What about non-compete agreements? Will valuable employees be poached by competitors and take valuable information with them?

Whitehurst has heard those concerns before, but argues that it’s better to “manage to 90% of those who are doing the right thing,” rather than “spending time trying to deal with a few bad actors.”

“I think managers often feel like they’re police,” he says. “But the bad apples generally rise to the top and they leave one way or the other.”

What is left when those “bad apples” depart are loyal workers who feel passionate about what they’re doing, and there is no greater driver of collaboration and innovation. Any company hoping to scale successfully must understand that employee engagement is a critical element that cannot be delegated to a back burner.

In fact, passion runs so high within Red Hat that reports have Whitehurst and others yelling – and even swearing – when they’re discussing various issues. That doesn’t bother Whitehurst, and he says it’s just proof about how much everyone cares about the work. Loud discussions, he says, never focus on the individual, but on the work.

“You need to show emotion. Forget management 1.0 that said people are rational and unemotional beings. Tapping into emotion can be a powerful motivator,” he says.

While the company does follow some traditional organizational “lines and boxes,” it tries to rely on it as little as possible, he says.

“So many people believe order brings good ideas,” he says. “You’ve got managers who just don’t want the hassle of trying to engage people. But we know that if people don’t agree, then execution is horrible.”

In his book, “The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance,” Whitehurst offers other suggestions on how to ensure your organization stays fast, resilient and competitive as it grows:

  • Walk it and talk it. If you want workers to be passionate about the work, then you must show the way. By using words such as “love,” “hate,” “excited” or “upset,” you verbalize your own passions and spark others to do the same. Be assessable and answer questions – even admit mistakes out loud when you make them. As you scale up and hire new talent, ask interviewees about things they’re passionate about.
  • Be inclusive. Be open about your own weaknesses and ask the team to help you address them. You want people to respect you not just because of the title you hold, but because you admit you’re not perfect and rely on their help. By including others (one or two thought leaders is enough)  when you’re mulling over a decision, they won’t think you’re incompetent or indecisive, but will feel flattered.
  • Communicate. For many companies, having employees in remote locations is often a fact of life. At Red Hat, Whitehurst says the more than 7,300 employees worldwide stay connected around the world by using various methods such as wikis and blogs in addition to using emails to announce general information or memo lists that invite discussion or debate. The company also uses instant messaging, Etherpad and video conferencing. Whitehurst’s email address is available to workers and he actively solicits their input.
  • Release early, release often. Leaders may panic at the thought of letting an employee or team just run with an idea without months of meetings, data, analysis and more meetings. But Whitehurst says if you let people make smaller changes – nothing that will sink a company if it fails – then you’re not only driving collaboration but engagement. It’s a way for a company to release changes early and often. Big change may be hard for a growing company, but smaller changes are easier – and can eventually add up to big change, he says.

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