Frank Slootman may be one of the most effective tech CEOs of all time. He has written several books about his no-nonsense operating style, from growing Data Domain from tiny startup to billion dollar acquisition in the early aughts, to now leading Snowflake which had the largest software IPO ever in 2020. It’s no secret among my friends how much I admire Frank’s approach; in fact, some have started referring to me as “Sklootman” – a comical nod to our similar names.
Frank’s most recent book, Amp It Up, tells the story of his career and offers a plethora of guidance for anyone who is operating a growing business today. You can buy the book here, and below are my top takeaways and quotes.
1. Clearly define a priority
“Priority should ideally only be used as a singular word. The moment you have many priorities, you actually have none.”
As with much of what Frank writes, it’s so simple, yet rarely executed well. We cannot prioritize when everything is a priority. This plagues so many organizations, from chasing the random whim of the CEO to overreacting to market news and quickly pivoting a strategy. The best run companies have a very small amount of clear priorities, and ruthlessly focus on executing them well, pushing everything else aside.
2. Eliminate vagueness
“Vagueness causes confusion, but clarity of thought and purpose is a huge advantage in business. Good leadership requires a never-ending process of boiling things down to their essentials. Spell out what you mean! If priorities are not clearly understood at the top, how distorted will they be down the line?”
As a team grows, good communication becomes among the most important traits of a leader. I saw this first hand as we grew Crystal — what was in my head was not necessarily in the heads of our customer success managers or product designers. I needed to constantly over-communicate and simplify messaging down to its essence to ensure everyone was on the same page. Often, the team won’t raise their hands and say “this is confusing” — they’ll just move forward, lacking the full context needed to be effective in their roles.
3. Apply pressure and set a rigorous pace
“Leaders set the pace. People sometimes ask to get back to me in a week, and I ask, why not tomorrow or the next day? Start compressing cycle times. We can move so much quicker if we just change the mindset… Apply pressure. Be impatient. Patience may be a virtue, but in business it can signal a lack of leadership. Nobody wants to swim in glue or struggle to get things done.”
Frank often points out how much “slack in the line” there is on most teams. People will not default to move at the pace they are truly capable of, and as a result, many organizations are far less efficient than they could be. It’s important to tread the line between optimizing efficiency and triggering burnout on the team. We can do so by avoiding unnecessary deadlines that lack business value, and instead instilling a cultural value of bias towards quick action.
4. Act quickly to 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… Younger me was too timid when confronting these situations. I learned over time that I was too slow in pulling the trigger, as were many of my colleagues. Then I started moving faster to replace people who were badly suited for their roles. And often not even catastrophically bad, just worse than the caliber of people we knew we could hire to replace them.”
Speaking for younger entrepreneurs and operators, this is often the most challenging aspect of our jobs. It takes experience and practice to gain the confidence to quickly part ways with poor performing teammates. Most of us want to save face, avoid conflict, prevent turmoil on the team — so we wait. We hold back on feedback, or we over-coach, and hope that things will improve. Frank’s decades of experience are correct — most often, if your gut says you have the wrong person on the bus, you need to quickly make a change. Not doing so is a disservice to everyone else on the team, and to the underperforming person as well, since they might be more effective at a different company in a different role.
5. Align incentives with compensation
“Where alignment matters further is in incentive compensation. We pay everybody the same way on our executive team, and we have a very select, focused set of metrics that we pay bonuses on. Our sales exec does not get paid on a commission plan if the rest of us aren’t. Everybody knows what we are aiming for.”
Organizations break down into unproductive fiefdoms, rife with politics, when each functional leader is incentivized to take different actions. The old adage “people do what you pay them to do” rings true — effective teams need incentive alignment, driven by their compensation. At Crystal, I implemented Frank’s feedback by basing every member of the leadership team’s variable compensation on the same metric: % ARR growth.
6. Avoid a “wait and see” posture
“If you have a sales force that’s stuck in the mud, don’t just complain about the staff’s failure to hit your targets and timeline. Ask lots of questions to figure out what’s wrong. Then take bold steps to mitigate the problem as soon as you understand it. You can’t simply take a “wait and see” posture while hoping the metrics will improve. You have to aggressively manage nonperformance, cut headcount if appropriate, or add headcount wherever you have the highest probability of converting sales potential to sales yield.”
When something isn’t working, as leaders we are sometimes too slow to act, or devolve into aimless complaints without deeply investigating “why.” Frank is referencing startup sales teams, which are a crucial component of a growth engine, and also notoriously difficult to get right. Inevitably, the sales team will get stuck, either with inability to build qualified pipeline, low conversion rate to closed opportunity, or a myriad of other issues. Frank’s point is to not just leave things as-is for very long, because it’s not likely to fix itself.
7. Be cautious with transactional employment
“There is a school of thought that employees should negotiate hard at every turn to maximize their long-term earnings. I personally never did that, and I didn’t need to. I didn’t want to have a relationship with my employers that felt purely transactional.”
During late 2020 through 2021, the business world saw the phenomenon of “the great resignation” — i.e. large numbers of people quitting jobs and looking for greener pastures elsewhere, often lured by perhaps too good to be true compensation. The default mode many people take is to frequently switch roles, each time leveling up for higher compensation, or gathering other offers to push a current employer for an off-cycle raise. As Frank notes, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but one may get better results by focusing more on the long term value they can deliver, going above and beyond, graciously accepting increased responsibility and then proving oneself before seeking a compensation adjustment.
8. Avoid distractions
“A great mission helps prevent distractions that dilute everyone’s focus. In every company I’ve ever encountered, distractions are a huge threat. They often become a major source of self-defeating behavior… Continually narrowing the mission aperture is key because companies have a natural tendency to lose focus over time. It’s incredibly easy for managers to react to every headline that crosses their email inbox, Slack, or social media feeds. If you turn your time and attention to the latest shiny object, regardless of how little it has to do with your mission, you are on the path to trouble.”
Every company is bombarded with potential distractions and shiny objects, whether literally in an office, virtually on Slack, or strategically with potential acquisitions, expansions, new hires and product lines. Narrowing our focus to push aside everything that is not in alignment with our priority and mission is a hallmark of great execution. It’s also exceptionally difficult to do, because those shiny objections are, well, shiny. It takes discipline to say “no” and stick to the execution plan. I wrote an article about a similar topic to this point a couple of years ago.
9. Value execution above all
“Strategy can’t really be mastered until you know how to execute well. That’s why execution must be your first priority as a leader. Worrying about your organization’s strategy before your team is good at executing is pointless. Execution is hard, and great execution is scarce—which makes it another great source of competitive advantage.”
Frank is an operational and execution-focused leader (which being similar, is perhaps why I respect his mentality). Boards and leadership teams can sit around a table all day debating strategy. However, what often matters is the quality and consistency with which the team executes. Great execution comes from strong internal communication, alignment on objectives, transparency on progress, and accountability for results.
10. Build a culture that attracts and repels
“If you succeed in building and protecting a strong culture, it will simultaneously attract people who admire the culture while repelling those who find it distasteful. That’s an intentional feature, not a bug.”
Dharmesh Shah and the team at HubSpot created a now famous slide deck, the HubSpot culture code, that outlined their intentional approach to defining 5 cultural attributes. In one slide, Dharmesh writes, “we hire, reward, and release people based on the five attributes.” Let’s be clear on what he is saying — HubSpot chooses who to promote and who to let go based on alignment with culture. This is similar to the point Frank makes in the quote above — if an organization lives their cultural values, the right people will want to be in, and the wrong people will opt out. It’s when an organization has a poorly defined or poorly followed culture code that you end up with a team of people with misaligned values, rowing in opposite directions.
In writing this article, I limited myself to 10 quotes, but I wrote down perhaps 30+ as I read Amp It Up. I would highly recommend the book for any leader, and as always, take Frank’s approach, apply your values/spin, and make it your own.