Tim Sanders, CEO of Net Minds
Originally published: 11.01.14 by Terry Tanker
1. What is the best part of being Tim Sanders?
The freedom to explore my creative side and bring it to work every single day, and to increase my productivity. Creative lifestyle is what I enjoy the most.
2. Were you able to be creative at prior jobs?
Yes. As chief solutions officer at Yahoo!, my job was loosely structured around the character "The Wolf" from the movie Pulp Fiction. I was often dispatched on a moment's notice to solve high-stakes probles. Depending on share price, the company was worth $50-80 billion. News cycles could greatly impact that value and creatively solving potential problems was critical.
3. How were you able to use your creativity?
I was expected to come up with something appropriate for the situation. Dealing with governments, sales or partner relationships is where I invested my time. I had the authority to write a check, make a personnel change, buy a company or do whatever the situation warranted. Often it was a creative solution.
4. How did you deal with the pressure?
I enjoyed it, but the travel was difficult. I traveled more than 300 days a year and time became a premium. I had yet to figure out how to be a creative thinker on a plane.
5. Lot's of seat time?
Too much. On the plane, I was an information consumer, an email farmer or sleeping.
6. Why is it so important to have someone like that?
If you have a company that is growing exceptionally fast, not just revenue — I mean expanding into new countries, literally empire building — complications ensue. Then you need someone who understands the difference between urgent and important. Many companies need a person like this.
7. How about the NFL?
Absolutely. My old boss, Mark Cuban, would think the same thing. He's been predicting these NFL problems for a while. IBM had a position for decades called Director of Critical Situations, and this person was usually a combination of social scientist meets a very experienced manager.
8. Shouldn't the CEO be a part of the problem-solving team?
Yes. But you need someone who can address specific issues. Increasingly reproductive thinking can't keep up with the complexity of our business life. Often, CEOs recognize a previous problem, and pull an off-the-shelf solution to solve that problem and reproduce success. Reproductive thinking is what we try to teach our sales force.
9. What's the other way?
Creative thinking. It's one's ability to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the situation. So, the ability to have nothing on the shelf to deal with the current problem, and to literally make it up and make it work. That's a new skill set. That's what a lot of companies really need to put in place.
10. Is there a stigma around being creative in business?
The idea of creative thinking terrifies most business owners. Many think creative thinking means employees are scheming and trying to put them out of business. You can't have a company where creative thinking is encouraged and the CEO is the bottleneck.
11. How do owners develop creative thinking?
Trust. I'll give you an example. The reason I got chosen for the job at Yahoo! by our founder Gerry Yang, was because he recognized I had the trust and respect across company lines. He put me in that unique position. Gerry and those managers were willing to let go. That's hard, but important to do.
12. What was one of the biggest lessons you learned from Mark Cuban?
Mark is and was an incredible thinker; very smart. A little bit ahead of his time but still able to cash in. What impressed me the most is how much he read, not just on ecommerce or worldwide web, but everything adjacent to it because he understood how complicated business is.
13. Have you adopted that method of learning?
It started slowly, then I started to mutate his strategy. It's not just about going deep, it's about learning adjacently so you can begin to connect all the dots around the bigger picture. As I began to read more I began to succeed more in establishing trust, winning customers and ultimately selling more stuff.
14. How do you transition learning into leading?
Learners become leaders, and the great leaders become teachers — it's a cycle. The more I'd go out and share what I'd been learning on my own, the more feedback I got.
15. How do you establish trust across the company?
That's one of the greatest challenges for all of us. Not just getting people to trust the leaders, we've been talking about that for 30 years. It's about how we can learn to trust our followers; that's something that is difficult for the business owners and managers of today.
16. What's the key to getting goals accomplished with big personalities?
More often than not, I find there is a huge gap between wanting to do something and being willing to do what it takes. Those I've worked with didn't just talk about goals, they prepared for it.
17. How do you eliminate the Peter Principle?
Let's say your sales superstar has a residential light commercial focus and concentrates on accounts south of the city. Expanding the territory or giving them commercial accounts that have larger opportunities. Put them in a more competitive situation — then let them run.
18. So, instead of a leadership role, you give them a bigger challenge?
Even the most selfish of top performers love a harder challenge that has big rewards. Often, when they want you to promote them to management, what they really mean is "I've finished with this level of the game, give me something harder where I can earn more points."
19. What is the best way to work on your weak areas?
Awareness. The number one way to address a weakness is to be aware it exists and what kind of impact it's making on other people.
20. Are the best leaders the ones who can always help others improve their performance?
The best leaders define reality and then give hope. That's Napoleon's definition of the leaders role. They define reality in the best and worst of time. They also can give hope in the best and worst of times. As a result, they maintain a sense of spirit amongst their charges, and at the same time trust.