The Self-Erasing CEO, Brian McAndrews, on Pushing Decision-Making Closer to the Customer & Making the Most Mistakes

As part of our brown-bag lunch program on management best practices, the legendary Brian McAndrews visited Redfin Friday. Brian took aQuantive through the highs and lows, leading the company out of the dot-com bust and building it into the juggernaut that sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6 billion. His talk on how to manage folks was another tour de force.

Brian has worked with and for all sorts of leaders in his career which, in addition to his time at aQuantive, has included stints at General Mills, Capital Cities/ABC, Disney and Microsoft. His advice is based on the great bosses he’s worked for and the bad bosses, and from his own experience as a CEO. As he laid out seven best practices, we did our best to keep up with what he said. Below is not a transcript – no one at Redfin is a stenographer, and I don’t take much time to clean these notes up later — but some of the useful bits and pieces of what he said, in as close to his own voice as we could get:

Set clear objectives, hold people accountable and get out of the way: if I had to sum up my management philosophy, this would be it. You want objectives to be aggressive but achievable. Push decision-making down and out in the organization, essentially closer to the customer. At aQuantive, we tried to empower people in sales and support. That means you have to have the right incentives, the right objectives and parameters. But within that framework, the more you can push P&L responsibility out, the better. This will help you attract and retain the best people. Do you want to be the only leader in your company? No…

One of the fundamental responsibilities that a manager has is building a team. Who is on their team is their call. That’s the most important decision a manager makes. I interviewed candidates for managers who reported to me, but this was only to give input and of course to help in recruiting the candidate. I once met a candidate who one of my direct reports wanted to hire who didn’t really do it for me. He hired the candidate anyway, and about six months later he fired that person. We hurt ourselves over that six months, but the manager who hired him also hired five or six good people too. That not’s a terrible batting average. I used to tell my own board, “If you don’t like the team I’m hiring, then fire me.” I held that manager to the same standard.BrianM

Micromanagement does not scale. Founders can be micromanagers. Sometimes micromanagement comes from a vision, sometimes it comes from a manager just being insecure. Micromanagement results in the loss of talented executives. Do you want people working for you who just take direction? Or do you want people who are going to lead, who are going to push back? We all know of some visionary founder or “celebrity CEO” who may have a reputation for micromanagent and so we ask: what about him? Doesn’t he prove you wrong? My answer is “no.” First of all, if the company is truly successful, my bet is their micromanagement is seriously overrated. Or if not, they are an extreme exception — and they’ll be in deep trouble when that person leaves since the people below him or her have not been trained to lead themselves. To support the “exception” point, look at lists of the top companies: best-run companies, best-managed companies, best places to work. The vast majority of these companies – if not all of them – are not led by these “celebrity CEOs” with micromanagement tendencies. In fact, the best companies to work for are led by CEOs you couldn’t name.

The way to get job security isn’t to own every decision, but to hire smart people. The board may say, wow, this person is better than you are. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. I often tell people who work for me: “The more you tell me, the less I will bother you.” Tell me what’s going on in our one-on-ones and I’ll stay out of your hair.

Micromanagement is a virus: the time and energy wasted by people down in the organization modeling that behavior is huge. When I have to present to a micromanager, I’m expected to know everything just as he would, which is a waste of time. As CEO at aQuantive, I was once asked at a board meeting what I thought of an executive’s presentation, and I said you already heard what I think. That executive knew more about the topic than I did, and he represented my point of view. Maybe the Board wanted me to have some special insight, but my insight was hiring him.

It is far more important to be respected than liked: act with integrity, be honest and transparent, treat people with respect and dignity. Being direct and honest often can mean delivering difficult news, news that people don’t want to hear. Some people don’t get that. A senior HR person I worked with viewed his job as what might be called a union leader, to lobby for whatever the employees wanted. Yes, your job is to represent employee needs to management, but it’s also to represent management to the employees.

Some decisions employees won’t like. My standard was: “Could I be ok with a decision that showed up in the New York Times, could I defend it?” For example, a compensation decision: could I defend to this manager why I was paying his or her peer more than her based on their performance. Of course in a public company, the New York Times rule comes true, as many executives’ compensation is public.

That can create some interesting dynamics. At aQuantive we said we had no politics, and certainly we had very little politics. We could be direct and transparent, where people said what they felt in the meeting. In my view, for someone on my executive team, the worst thing you can do is not say anything in a meeting, then come in my office afterwards and tell me what you really thought. When people tried to do that, I’d say, “I don’t want to be a middle-man. Say what you think in the meeting.”

Give employees the right to be wrong: if we’re not making mistakes, we’re not taking enough risks. Just don’t make the same mistake twice. Make a mistake for the right reasons, for a client, for the business. Learn from your mistakes, and teach everyone. There are exceptions: mistakes of integrity are one-strike-and-you’re-out. Otherwise, mistakes can be good. One of my colleagues used to say: “The reason we’re better than other companies is because we’ve made more mistakes than they have.” Encourage a culture of admitting mistakes. No excuses, but explanations are fine. It’s great when a senior leader says in front of her boss that she made a mistake, it’s critical for others to see that, to see that it’s accepted, and not punished. It’s great to ask what might be considered “dumb” questions, and it’s great for other folks to see you ask dumb questions; you should model that behavior as an executive.

No jerks: no matter how smart someone is, if someone can’t get along with others, if somebody treats others badly, they’re out. Sometimes you worry that somebody is too smart to fire, too valuable to fire. That’s never true. The collateral damage that is being done to the morale and effectiveness of the people that “jerk” is interacting with is enormous, even if it is often hidden from his or her direct boss. When you do make the decision to fire someone who is a “jerk”, you often hear that the whole team will quit. That never happens either. Hire slowly, fire quickly. It’s right for the team, it’s right for the company, it’s right for the person leaving.

Have a bias for action: gather the data you reasonably can and make a decision. What people don’t realize is that sometimes doing nothing is a decision. You can get bogged down with consultants, meetings, PowerPoints. You want an organization where it’s always clear who is supposed to make a decision. This lets some people give input and others make the decision rather than having two people both posturing, because they’re vying to make a decision. And always align authority and responsibilty. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have no authority but you’re still accountable, where you can get blamed for something you didn’t do; or conversely, where someone who does make the decisions is not held accountable for them.

As CEO, I always felt the fewer decisions I was making, the better we were doing.

Live or die by your values: most companies have values but they often have too many. Who can remember 13 values? aQuantive only had four values, and everyone knew them. It was hard to pick just four; someone, for example, would say excellence has to be a value, I mean, don’t we want to be excellent? My job as CEO was to pick just four. What other decisions did I have to own? Well certainly picking the team was the most important. Acquisitions were a big part of our strategy. I had to make the final decision on compensation and budgets.

And that was it. What was interesting about Brian is that on the one hand he’s such an indelible figure – tall, with a deep voice uninflected by many doubts – and yet he stood in front of us for an hour trying to do the impossible, erasing himself bit by bit so you could see all the other great leaders at aQuantive more clearly. Many thanks to Brian for coming by, and to Madrona for hooking us up with him. We had a lot of people at Redfin buzzing about it, and already one meeting on Friday night giving someone authority over a problem he’d previously had to helplessly take the blame for — so it was definitely a big hit.

Any comments or questions for Brian, just post ‘em below and we’ll make sure he takes a peek.

(Photo credit: Jeff Louella on Flickr)


  • Kathy

    “Micromanagement does not scale. Founders can be micromanagers….Micromanagement results in the loss of talented executives.” “One of the fundamental responsibilities that a manager has is building a team.”

    Point for point, this presentation describes everything that was wrong with my last company, let’s call them E. E looks great on paper: there are a bunch of hard-working, smart people working there, and the product is solid. But the problems you outline describe exactly why it’s impossible for E to scale, and therefore to succeed. E is managed by three micromanaging founders, who had all worked together at a prior company that was also headed by micromanagers. Two of the founders are “jerks.” Also, it’s definitely not OK to be wrong there.

    E is most definitely bleeding talented executives: They bring in talented, experienced people at VP and Director levels, then don’t allow them to do their jobs. The punish those employees for doing anything slightly differently from how they would do it, reprimand managers for delegating, and micromanage hiring to the extent where they won’t let these VP and Directors do a phone screen without one of the founders reviewing the resume first. The values expressed by the CEO are unrelated to the business, and seem to center on being cool in the green community.

    My question is when you’re unknowingly hired into a situation like the above is there anything you can do to affect change as a non-founder? Or is moving on and watching the ship sink from afar the only option?

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  • Matt Lerner

    What were the four values at aQuantive?