Silicon Valley Secrets to Success: 9 Traits of the Most Innovative Executives in the World

Silicon Valley Innovation

Written by Mo Kasti

I recently had the privilege of participating in the inaugural group of the Goldsmith Thompson Growth Leadership Accelerator Silicon Valley Experience which is a part of the Marshall Goldsmith’s MG100 Pay it Forward initiative.

Our group met with more than a dozen CEOs of various unicorn companies like Intel, Google DocuSign, and Pinterest. After few days alongside some of our country’s most brilliant minds, I noted several common characteristics among these influential, innovative and all-around inspiring CEOs.

I believe the following 9 traits are crucial to building an innovative company and culture. All these leaders are:

  1. Optimistic – According to Forbes, the greatest CEOs in the world “are able to toe the line and remain curious and grounded simultaneously. They are extremely aware of the pieces on the chessboard, and how certain moves will affect the position of the company, but they are also willing to consider solutions others might deem unconventional.” Optimism is intrinsically linked to risk, and most successful founders and executives we met are willing to take risks in the name of innovation.
  1. Ready to embrace failure – “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough,” has been the moto of James Quincey , the CEO of Coca-Cola Co. Most of the leaders we encountered would agree. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the world, says his company’s growth and innovation are built on its failures. “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments,” he explained shortly after Amazon bought Whole Foods. “And if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.” Google X has an annual celebration of Failure, DIA @X. It is a true celebration where teams decorate a float, reflect in public about the lessons learned and put their project down to rest in peace. What a great way to embrace failures and encourage experimentation. 

3. Forward-thinking – Leaders we met did not get “stuck in the past”. Their mindset is: It does not matter what happened in the past, what did or didn’t work. Instead, they think “how can I change and transform the future without being shackled down to the past.” How do I have a car drive itself? How do I have a machine learn on its own. How do I have a kid print their own 3D toys?

4. Willing to challenge the status quo – Most of the young leaders we met were disruptors who reject tradition and are always looking for a different, better way to solve a problem. Everything is fair game.

5. Able to align purpose, passion and performance – Most of the companies we visited shared a high degree of employee engagement thanks to the contagiousness of the leadership’s passion. Loyalty to the company’s purpose, values, and mission was palpable – from the front desk clerk to the CEO. “If you look through the right lens, every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day.” – Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). Keith Krach, Chairman of DocuSign, a document signing company used by millions of people, shared with us how he makes the connection between working on DocuSign and world peace. His alignment to changing the world looks like this: “When people use DocuSign, we facilitate agreements and commerce globally. When people transact together, economic prosperity occurs, which leads to stability and eventually to world peace!!” Brilliant.

6. Exponential thinkers – Harvard Business Review defines the exponential thinking mindset as the ability to focus on making something different, versus the incremental mindset of making something better. Incremental is satisfied with 10%. Exponential is out for 10X. This exponential thinking is exemplified by one of Google’s Values that says: “Great just isn’t good enough. We see being great at something as a starting point, not an end point.”

  1. Agile – Strategy is like water, it is agile to the terrain it finds itself into (Sun Tzu the Art of War.) In Silicon Valley, there is a sense that everything is exponential including the speed of change. When you are operating in an exponentially changing and ambiguous climate, what separates the winners from the losers is organizational and leadership agility and innovation. The early bird gets the worm! We define agility as the capacity of leaders and their teams to spot, seize, create and leverage opportunities in a rapid-changing terrain.  There are many research institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that show that agile leaders and organizations grow revenue 37% faster and generate 30% higher profits than less-agile competitors.

8. Fanatic about the customer experience – This is perhaps the standout trait of the list as all of the executives we encountered were 110% committed to creating a compelling customer-centric experience. We experienced this at Pinterest where everyone in the company is focused on customer and user experience. It is even the #1 value at Google: Focus on the user and all else will follow.

9. Humble – Far from the stereotypical bullish personality most people associate with corporate big shots, the executives we encountered (many of them billionaires) did not brag about their success. They were modest, good listeners, generous with their time, and happy to share their experiences. They were inspiring!

Special thanks again to Mark and Bonita Thompson for their generosity in making this visit a reality and for everyone that was involved in planning such a great event.