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Lessons From Dave Goldberg: An Open Letter To Aspiring CEOs And Young Entrepreneurs

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Dave Goldberg was a fantastic leader and his untimely passing was tough for those of us who worked for him at SurveyMonkey.

He was not only a great boss, which many can confirm, but he also was a visionary on a new, better way to build a high tech business.

A lot of young entrepreneurs think a CEO should be like Steve Jobs and try to emulate him. In my opinion, you would be much better served emulating Dave. He was the type of leader we need in high tech and one you rarely see.

Here’s what I learned watching Dave.

Respecting Your Workforce

When I interviewed at SurveyMonkey almost five years ago, I was struck by the fact that no one had offices, including the CEO. Now SurveyMonkey is almost 10 times its former size with a new fancy office in downtown Palo Alto, but the same philosophy holds true.

I’m not arguing for or against open seating plans; that’s something other people can hash out. The point is, our office layout is one small indicator that Dave wanted to build a team that was open, transparent, and based on solving problems together. He wasn’t interested in building a class hierarchy.

It still shows as part of our office culture today, where we are focused on solving problems. Sure we have managers, directors and VPs like any other company our size, but our culture centers on the belief that good ideas can come from anywhere, and if there is a problem to solve, it’s about getting it done rather than assigning blame. It’s a culture of cooperation and collaboration, and Dave established that mentality early on in our company’s development.

Silicon Valley and corporate America would be a better place if more people led their companies like Dave.

Dave was a busy executive but had time to listen to people’s ideas, concerns and criticisms. When you disagreed with Dave, he was smart and talented enough to almost always be on the right side of that argument. But beyond being right, he understood the value of hearing all sides of an argument.

When I disagreed with him, Dave would actively listen to my argument, ask questions to make sure he fully understood what I was saying, and make me feel heard. If he ultimately disagreed with me, he would take a considerable amount of time making sure I understood his perspective, highlighting the underlying facts and explaining how the decision was derived. For Dave, decisions were based on data, not personality or pecking order.

Lessons for Upcoming CEOs:

  • Treat all employees with fairness and respect. You’ll have better leaders and employees if you standardize your perks for everyone. Save the executive washrooms for the bankers.
  • Have an open transparent environment that is open to alternative opinions. You’ll get more ideas and feedback, make better decisions and have a workforce that believes in what they are doing.

Embrace Diversity and Work/Life Balance

Dave’s wife, Sheryl Sandberg, is famous for her position on gender equality, and Dave built SurveyMonkey around those same principles. There are more female executives here than any other place I’ve worked and a large percentage of managers and directors throughout the organization are women. We’re proud of the gender ratio of our engineering staff, which is substantially above the average for companies our size.

On the engineering side, for the code we write and the platform we continue to build, we want to make sure our technology stack has a long shelf life. Dave felt the same way about our workforce, building a team that is focused on teamwork and cooperation, providing a workplace that is flexible for people with families and interests outside of work, and making sure to provide opportunities for growth.

Dave believed strongly in promoting from within and giving people a chance to grow. He rooted for people to succeed and always gave them opportunities to grow. He knew that passion and aptitude can be better than experience. It keeps your culture intact, your employees engaged, and your turnover amazingly low.

Lessons for Upcoming CEOs:

  • It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there is a lot of talent in Silicon Valley that isn’t under 25, white, and male. It also turns out that there are plenty of other people who want to learn and be mentored by an experienced team that is diverse.
  • Healthy, well-rested employees produce more at a higher level of quality, stay with their company longer, and are more likely to recruit other high functioning colleagues.
  • Give your team the ability to grow. Take a chance on them and root for them to succeed. Hold them to a high standard but assume the best.

Share the Wealth

Dave also believed strongly in giving employees equity and ownership in SurveyMonkey. Not only did he think it was highly motivational, but was a matter of fairness for employees. Behind the scenes, during new investments and recaps, he worked tirelessly on behalf of employees to limit dilution and to make sure employees were getting treated well. He didn’t do things like that because he had to or even that the average employee would really even know – he did it because it was fair and right.

Dave had high standards and wanted a team that was productive. We have an obligation to our customers and investors to build great products and provide great support. Teamwork and collaboration are part of our core values but if someone does not have the skills to do their job, it’s not fair to that person or their colleagues to have to carry that burden. The pact Dave had with his team was that you work hard and work smart, and when the company succeeds, you deserve to enjoy part of that success.

Lessons for Upcoming CEOs:

  • The difference between treating employee equity well versus poorly is far outweighed by the benefits of having a motivated workforce.
  • Treat your employees like consumables and you’ll have employees for 12-18 months. Treat them like partners and you can have a lifetime of talented people follow you wherever you go.

Being True to Who You Are

Most of the media coverage about Dave mentions his wife, Sheryl Sandberg. She clearly is a fantastic leader and spokesperson for gender diversity and women, and deserves the international recognition she receives for her efforts. Dave, by his own accord and before they ever became a couple, was a successful entrepreneur, CEO, and investor. Most strong personalities would bristle at the perception of being overshadowed and might balk as being introduced (as he often was) as “Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey and Husband of Sheryl Sandberg”.

Amid the sadness, there is a part of me that is very angry about Dave’s passing. I’m mad that Dave’s kids don’t have their father and Sheryl doesn’t have her husband. I’m mad our company’s leader is no longer here and, selfishly, I’m mad that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I could have learning from him.

Dave took that phrase the way someone might take the phrase “CEO and Professional Race Car Driver.” “Not only am I a great CEO and leader, but I’m also a badass race car driver.” Dave was clearly in love with his wife and very proud of her, and it showed. She was part of his life story and part of who he was. Being a leader isn’t about taking credit or soaking up the limelight; it’s about living a genuine life, solving problems for your team and your company, and being proud of the people you surround yourself with.

Lessons to Upcoming CEOs:

  • Use personal pronouns as a sign of devotion, when taking responsibility, and when ordering a sandwich: not when taking credit for your company’s good works.
  • Live your life as genuinely as you can. Sincerity is a better leadership trait than swagger.

In Closing

Amid the sadness, there is a part of me that is very angry about Dave’s passing. I’m mad that Dave’s kids don’t have their father and Sheryl doesn’t have her husband. I’m mad our company’s leader is no longer here and, selfishly, I’m mad that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I could have learning from him. I’m also mad more people, especially future leaders, didn’t get to know him or experience his unique style of leadership. Silicon Valley and corporate America would be a better place if more people led their companies like Dave.

Dave’s style was that it wasn’t about Dave the person. It was about living and managing by a set of ideals. It was about being fair, being thoughtful, expecting the best in people, and letting them be successful. There aren’t many people that could be like Dave; he was so smart, driven, kind and principled all at the same time. But I can guarantee you, if more people emulated Dave, the world would be a better place.