David Rosenblatt, chief executive of 1stdibs, an online marketplace for high-end goods, says that if a company’s executive team shows unity and respect, “their behaviour will be mirrored by everybody.”
Were you in leadership roles early on?
I was president of my class and co-president of my debating society in high school. But leadership was never my goal. I studied liberal arts, and majored in East Asian studies in college. My father was in Foreign Service roles, and I always assumed I would end up in the Foreign Service. After I graduated, I lived in Asia for a few years.
My first real work experience after school was in investment banking. I learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t a world I wanted to be a part of. What I love about the Internet is the ability to create or change an industry as opposed to simply participate in one that already exists.
Tell me more about your parents.
My father had a lot of work in the Pacific. I travelled quite a bit with him, which kind of stoked my interest in Asia in particular. He’s a lawyer by training and he’s very much a linear thinker. My mother’s a psychotherapist, author and teacher, and she’s much more of an intuitive and empathetic thinker. Leadership is about people, so having that sensitivity is important.
There’s a story about my mother that had a big impact on me. When I was a kid growing up in Washington, I used to take the same bus home every day. One day, my mother happened to take the bus with me, and the place we were going to was between two stops. She walked up to the bus driver and said, “Excuse me, but would it be possible to stop the bus in between these two stops so we can get out?” The bus driver agreed to do it, and probably two-thirds of the other people on the bus got out.
I just remember thinking that all these people are taking the bus every single day of their lives, and two-thirds of them really wanted to get off at a spot other than the bus stops. Yet it took someone to ask the bus driver a question to do something different, and many people benefited from it. That story has always stuck in my mind as an example of the importance of not taking things as a given.
Other important lessons you’ve learned over your career?
When I was first promoted to CEO, the hardest thing to figure out was, how do I spend my time? On any given day, a CEO could do almost anything or nothing, and it would likely have little or no impact on the company, at least in the short term. So I had to develop a set of rules to figure out how to manage my time.
I learned Rule No. 1 from Irv Grousbeck, who teaches an entrepreneurship class at Stanford Business School. And that is, very simply, “You can hire people to do everything but hire people.” Rule No. 2 that I think about every day is, “Only do the things that only I can do.” So if it’s someone else’s job to do it, I try not to do it. If I find myself doing too many of those things that are actually someone else’s job, then it relates back to Rule No. 1 — I probably don’t have the right person in that role.
But just like anyone in any role, it’s important to understand, where is my comparative advantage? What am I better at than almost anyone else? To the extent that there is something you’re better at than most other people, you should do it, and then you should just make sure that your team complements you. The hard thing for many CEOs, because this job requires a certain level of confidence, is to figure out what you’re not good at and acknowledge that, and then hire to offset your own limitations.
What else about your leadership approach?
I try to invest quite a bit of time in developing chemistry and sense of team among my direct reports. Generally my feeling is that companies are like families, in the sense that if the parents get along, then it’s likely that the rest of the family will be relatively harmonious. But if the parents don’t get along, it’s highly likely that there’s going to be conflict in the rest of the family that, to some degree, mirrors the conflict between the parents.
And if the executive team is talented and unified in their approach, treats each other with respect and communicates openly, their behaviour will be mirrored by everybody in the company.
How do you hire? What questions do you ask?
My approach is pretty straightforward. I like to ask people to walk me through their lives from the time they were young through the present. I pay particular attention to transitions, because I think that says a lot about people’s values and judgment, and the basis on which they make decisions.
Why did you pick this school instead of that school? Why was this the right first job? Why did you take two years off? When you left that company, what choices did you have, and why did you pick Door No. 1 instead of Door No. 4?
I find that if you listen to the narrative of people’s lives, you get a better sense of them as people and as professionals than any other approach I’ve taken. It can also uncover whether there might be problems. People are creatures of habit, and they tend to repeat patterns, even in different contexts. Do they have a pattern of job-hopping? That is a particularly deadly characteristic, in my point of view.
It’s OK — in fact, it’s a positive — to make mistakes in judgment at some point in your life. But did the person understand it? Did they take the time to figure it out? Did they then repeat it? It’s not really what they did that is important to me. It’s how they reached those decisions.
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