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Why Small & Medium Size Businesses Can’t Afford Workers Who Are Afraid of Failure

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April 2014
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This interview with Yorgen Edholm, chief executive of Accellion, a developer of software for mobile file sharing, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

 

Q. Any lessons from early in your life?

A. I remember being quite frustrated early on when people were doing the wrong thing. We had a big extended family and if people were working on house projects — like putting in wall-to-wall carpet — I might notice that they weren’t making holes for the radiators or were doing things the wrong way. Because I was only about 8 years old, nobody would listen to me. I remember being really frustrated.

I learned that if you asked questions the right way, you could frequently get people’s attention, because everybody wanted to preach and tell you what to do. So I’d ask them how they cut holes in the carpet for the radiators and then they would figure out that they were doing it wrong.

That was helpful for me later when I started work. Sweden is less hierarchical, and because of the tax system, there’s not much advantage to being promoted. So a lot of people are happier to be individual contributors. When I was in my 20s, I was managing engineers who were over 40. They didn’t think I was in charge, so I fell back on my training as a kid — I just asked questions.

They decided they were going to explain to me how things work, and by asking the right questions, I could frequently get them to the place I wanted them to be, and we were very successful. The funny thing was that it took them years to discover that I actually knew what I was doing.

Q. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do for your career?

A. I played the violin for many years. It was a pretty full-time commitment. I came here in 1980 to study with Ivan Galamian, the head teacher at Juilliard. For a quarter-century or more, he was the teacher to go to.

In those days, I was totally immersed in the violin and in figuring out computers. I worked as a management consultant. I practiced six hours a day, seven days a week, and I worked long hours, too. I just worked and played violin. I would go in to the office on Saturday and Sunday to work and practice because I could make noise there without anybody complaining. I was trying to be a soloist, but that’s a bit of a crapshoot, and I eventually gave up the violin. It would have meant traveling 200 days a year and not being able to have a family.

Q. What are some lessons you’ve learned over the years about building a corporate culture?

A. Everything has been trial and error. But my sense is that companies that operate from an engineering perspective are different than other kinds of companies because there is less of a hierarchy. With engineers, there’s much more of an understanding that the best idea could come from anybody. It doesn’t have to be that the top guy is the smartest guy.

I’ve always wanted to make the company flatter and more flexible, with less of a chain of command, so that the person who has the most passion or valuable perspective about something could assert himself or herself a little bit more.

Sometimes when companies have a problem, there is a temptation to throw more people at it. But that kind of linear mind-set can kill a high-tech company very quickly. In that kind of situation, my impulse is to take some people off the project and unleash the best ones.

You can’t have people who are afraid of making mistakes. In high-tech, there are no templates. And when you have no templates, you can’t think that with the right time and resources, you’ll have a 95 percent chance of success. We can’t have people who approach problems by thinking, “If I can’t guarantee success, it’s going to hurt me.”

The idea is not to celebrate mistakes, but to be somewhat tolerant of them. Whenever something unexpected happens in a big company, that’s not a good thing. But when something unexpected happens in a small company, that’s important information that possibly should lead to a course correction.

Q. How do you hire? What questions do you ask?

A. The best indicator I’ve seen is how passionate someone is. When people are passionate enough, they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum going. When people are focused too much on whether something is just a good career move, they can easily get distracted by other things.

One approach I use is to look for something in the résumé that looks a bit funky. You look for a particularly interesting move, and then you say something a little bit off-putting about it. The person can’t be rehearsed in that situation; they have to wing it. I like some roughness there because it feels more honest. Basically, someone has to explain why they did something that wasn’t the obvious thing to do. I’m looking for some kind of guts, some kind of passion in there.

I also like people who are impressively cerebral — say, a senior person who likes to figure out the essence of things, like what made their teams work. I’m looking for a high level of mental maturity.

Q. What career advice do you give to college students?

A. I get a lot of questions about, “Should I take this course, or should I take that course?” They want to know, “If I take this course, will I get a good job?” I sometimes find that there’s nothing that really sets them on fire. You can’t be really good at something unless you have a passion for it. I see lots of kids who are totally brilliant at getting to a goal, but they don’t know why they’re going to the goal. They are good at zeroing in on the “right” thing to do, rather than pursuing something from within.

So I always say to them, “Don’t try to worry about what looks good and what may be good.” First of all, these things change all the time. So go for something that you love, because you will probably be very good at it. Whenever I can find someone who has a kind of internal drive — they know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and it can be for crazy reasons, but it works for them — then it’s a very easy hire. They tend to be fantastic team players.

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