Hiring a Great Leadership Team with Abe Kleinfeld at GridGain

As you grow, every founder begins to think about creating an executive leadership team. You may be able to promote within, which is usually a good idea when you have the talent ready to step up to be strong leaders. For many growing companies, they have to look outside their current employees. Today we look at hiring a great leadership team. Our guest is Abe Kleinfeld, CEO at GridGain. Inc Magazine ranked GridGain #558 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list. GridGain provides software and services for big data systems. Abe and I talk about hiring a great leadership team. We look the why this is so important. We also look at the common mistakes in this journey. Join this conversation to learn more about hiring a great leadership team.

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Target Audience: Abe Kleinfeld is a CEO at GridGain. GridGain is revolutionizing real-time data access and processing by offering an in-memory computing platform built on Apache Ignite. GridGain solutions are used by global enterprises in financial services, software, e-commerce, retail, online business services, healthcare, telecom, transportation, and other major sectors, and many more…

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Abe Kleinfeld
We’ve built technology that’s so important. And then we’ve executed at a very high level, to make sure that we can have the type of reputation and the type of ability to support these kinds of customers. And they can trust us to run their businesses on our software. That’s pretty impressive. That’s actually much more impressive. And having grown as fast as we did, where have you raised, you know, a bunch of money.

Gene Hammett [0:26]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host, my name is Gene Hammett. And I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow? What do you think about your leadership team? Are they completely engaged with the strategies that are going on? Are they inside of conflict on a continuous basis, and you just can’t seem to get them to work together and get beyond their issues? Are you looking for ways to optimize your executive leadership team? Well, we’re gonna talk about some of those elements today. But we’re really talking about how do you hire a great leadership team? And how do you hire people that have experience that is right for your business? What are the key elements of that, and we have a very special guest today, he is a bit Kleinfeld, he is the CEO of GridGain. He’s been CEO for about six years, they’ve grown really fast. They’ve been on the Inc last three years in a row. But not only they’ve been growing fast. They were in the top 200 for two years. And they just made about number four. Sorry, 558 in 2019. So really excited about this interview and sharing with you because we talked about what does it take to hire a great leadership team? What are the key elements? What are the things that get in the way? How do you structure your executive team meetings, and what is important, and what’s not important inside those meetings, we look at, you know, one of the key questions that you can do as a CEO to determine what’s really going on, is to look at things with fresh eyes. We talked about this fresh eyes question inside today’s interview. So make sure you keep tuned in all the way through, if you hadn’t had a chance to download the three mistakes that you commonly make in creating a high-performance team and Team A players, even though this recession, you need them more than ever, you can go to that free training at genehammett.com/training, where you will get those three mistakes, how to fix them, and the really important elements for you, as a leader to continue to evolve, just go to genehammett.com/training. And here’s the interview Abe.

Gene Hammett [2:43]
Hey Abe, how are you?

Abe Kleinfeld [2:45]
I’m doing great, thank you.

Gene Hammett [2:47]
Well, excited to have you here at Growth Think Tank, where we’re going to talk about the leadership and culture that makes companies grow fast. You are the CEO of GridGain, tell us about the market you’re in.

Abe Kleinfeld [2:59]
GridGain is the commercial company behind an open-source project called Apache ignite, and Apache ignite software was written by GridGain over a period of about a decade. It’s very technical. But it’s very important in today’s world, essentially what Apache ignite is. And what GridGain does, is it’s an in-memory computing platform, which is a layer of software that slides in between applications and databases. And it essentially does two things. It delivers incredible speed to those applications and virtually unlimited scale. So it turns out the speed and scale are the two most important things in internet-facing technology. So all these big SAS solutions that you see out there, all of these online banking systems, all of these, you know, big retailers that have to suddenly support millions of users coming onto their site. You can’t really do those kinds of things without in-memory computing distributed in-memory computing. And very simply, the way it works is that when you move your data from a disk drive into the memory of the computer, you can access the data between 5000 and a million times faster. And if you distribute the work, not just the data, but the actual compute across lots and lots of servers, commodity servers, you can maintain that speed regardless of how much scale you need, regardless of how many users how many devices connect, regardless of how big the application gets, you can maintain that speed.

Abe Kleinfeld [4:31]
It’s how Facebook is built is how Google is built, except that they built it with their own proprietary technology. And we’ve commercialized technology like that, to make it available to any corporation to use. So as corporations start to move towards digital business models, where they now have customer-facing applications coming into their systems. And that’s how they’re there, they’re creating revenue now. You need to be able to have very fast engaging applications that can scale To the number of customers that you have. And so technology like ours has become critically important. And it’s really the basis upon which all computing will be done over the next 1015 years.

Gene Hammett [5:13]
But maybe you have taken us down the Technology Roadmap, we’re gonna back up a little bit and go look at the culture and leadership, I know, you’ve got some really strong thoughts around this, you’ve been around for a while through many companies, taking some of the public. You’ve been a GridGain for about six years, and you’ve had three years consecutively on the Inc list, which is impressive, by all measures. But what is something else that you’re really proud of other than the fast growth of your company?

Abe Kleinfeld [5:41]
I’m proud of the customers that we’ve signed, and our ability to continue to grow with that kind of customer base, you know, our customers are some of the biggest corporations in the world, we’re a little company, we’ve got about 110 employees. And our customers are some of the biggest customers companies in the world. You know, American Express runs a merchant payment system on grid game, the largest bank in Russia and Eastern Europe called Burbach. Does, you know, their entire banking system is built on grid game. Companies like ups and American Airlines do their logistics planning GridGain. So huge corporations are highly reliant on mission-critical applications and a little company like us. So we’ve built technology that’s so important. And then we’ve executed at a very high level, to make sure that we can have the type of reputation and the type of ability to support these kinds of customers. And they can trust us to run their businesses on our software. That’s pretty impressive. That’s actually much more impressive than having grown as fast as we did. Where have you raised, you know, a bunch of money?

Gene Hammett [6:54]
Love the fact that you’re proud of the customers and the work you’re doing. I know, to get there, it takes the right leadership team in alignment. And I want to talk about that. What are the core elements you look for in the right leadership team?

Abe Kleinfeld [7:08]
What I look for most of all, is experience. I really believe that experienced leadership, even in small companies is critically important. small companies are really a bad place to learn how to do your job. Big companies have the resources and, and the ability and actually organizations that can train you and bring you along and HR and all those kind of things. So that’s really the best place if you’re young. And you want to you know, develop skills, and you want to develop leadership skills. Actually, big companies are the best place to learn that small companies are the best place to bring those skills, and actually put them to a test. And, and so I’m a big believer in hiring people who have already learned how to do a lot of these things, who are experienced, who learned how to do a lot of what they learn how to do in big companies, and then tested it out in one or two small companies before I like to hire them. Because that means that they’ve already made all the mistakes. They already know what it’s like to scale down from a big company to a small one. And they’re now ready to do everything better this time. So no other for me, that’s what I believe is the ideal candidate for especially an executive position in a company in a small company.

Gene Hammett [8:24]
I want to ask you about, this whole concept of team alignment. I’ve got some theories around team alignment a lot of people may be not agreed with, but I think there’s a vision for Team alignment that they have that rowboat or the crew boat, where everyone’s pulling together. But I feel like that’s not necessarily what we do as teams, because everyone has their own individual jobs, they break up into these pieces, and they have to do it. It’s more like a baseball team or a football team than it is that crew boat. What are your thoughts on team alignment?

Abe Kleinfeld [8:53]
I think it’s critically important. I think you’re absolutely right, that everybody’s got their own job. But if everybody’s taking the company in a different direction, that’s not aligned, and doing it. And if you hire really talented people who are very capable, the last thing you want is for them to, you know, apply that talent in opposite directions, right? Because that just stretches the company in ways that it wasn’t designed to be stretched. So I’m a big believer in executive alignment. And you know, I don’t really, I don’t really work that hard at it. I just make sure that I’m disciplined about it. So like for example, you know, every Monday morning, we have an executive staff meeting, no more than once a week we do it once a week, we have an executive staff meeting, and everybody comes prepared, and everybody talks about what they did last week and what they’re going to do this week. And we end the meeting is two hours long. Each section that each person covers is maybe 15 minutes, but we leave a lot of time to discuss things, a lot of time to discuss things and I’m a big believer in allowing that time. discussion to happen, I won’t step in and squash it.

Abe Kleinfeld [10:04]
There’s a lot of squabbling and arguing, very often it gets pretty furious. But it’s important because that’s how you get aligned. And then we cut it off starts at 10 am. And then at noon, it stops. And we do it again the following week, and then once a quarter, we do it for a full day. And that’s basically for me, that is the exact right amount of alignment. And if you try to do too much of it, it becomes wasteful and not really helpful. Because eventually, people do have to develop their own relationships with each other. But just that little bit once a week, is enough to keep everybody kind of aligned with where we’re going, what we’re doing, you get to repeat the most important things that you know, you want people to remember, because as you know, as a coach, if you don’t repeat something at least six times, it doesn’t get remembered. You have to make sure that you remind everybody what the priorities are. And as you also know, nobody can remember more than four or five priorities. If you got 26 priorities, nobody remembers them. So you know, that two hour period is usually exactly the right amount of time per week.

Commercial [11:15]
And we were just talking about team alignment, I want to make sure you understand what I see as team alignment. And you may want to think about that rowboat that we have in there or the crew boat if you will, where everyone is pulling the oars together. But it really is a little bit different. There’s a team involved. Each one has their own role. It plays a team, they have their own talents, you want to make sure they are moving in the right direction, you got to have a rhythm for this. But one of the key things that get in the way is not really understanding where you are, from an employee experience where the team is, you want to make sure you’re assessing that on a continuous basis, we’ve got some tools that allow you to do that. If you want to check those out, make sure you go to genehammett.com you can find some training that will help you with your team alignment. There are some mistakes that will help you along that if you want to go directly to it just go to genehammett.com/training and back to Abe.

Gene Hammett [12:11]
Hey Abe, you know what’s counterintuitive about the way you structure that meeting? Because I know we’ve all been through these executive meetings, the people listening in today do this probably once a week as well. What have you found from a counterintuitive perspective that actually works for you?

Abe Kleinfeld [12:25]
Well, you know, the thing is that not everybody always gets along. And there’s a tendency to want to get people to get along. And I don’t really encourage it that much. I don’t have a problem with people. And this is I guess it’s counterintuitive, I don’t have a problem with people not getting along. I have a Pete, I have a problem with people not respecting each other. So I always demand that people be respectful. But I actually encourage discussion. I encourage, you know, people want to hear what people’s opinions are. I want to understand why they have those opinions. Are they data-driven? Or are they just opinions? And I think it’s from that people actually get to know each other. It’s they don’t get to know each other from getting along, they get to know each other from actually arguing and actually fighting it out. And, and coming to conclusions. And sometimes, you know, I do have to stop the conversation and kind of calm things down. I don’t I actually encourage that, that kind of conversation, I encourage it, because that’s how people I think really get to know each other and really get to work.

Commercial [13:39]
Hold on for a second, Abe just said something really intelligent, you want to encourage the opinions of others. At some point in time as a leader or founder of an organization, you may not want the opinions, because maybe it’s a distraction for the business. But as the company grows and scales, you want to make sure people feel involved and connected to the mission, you want to actually encourage them to have opinions. You want to encourage them to make decisions. And you want to empower them to really own their work. And when you have that kind of leadership, you were no longer you know, cracking the whip or leading by fear you’re leading through a very collaborative element. And innovation is possible because the sum of the parts is greater than the individuals. When you think about creating a team, your job is to encourage the opinion of others and really realize that anyone could have a great idea. And in fact, those on the frontlines could have better ideas than those sitting in the ivory towers. Back to the interview with Abe.

Gene Hammett [14:37]
Well, I think that healthy conflict to a degree is very important because you don’t want the Yes Men and women in your organization and probably just doesn’t help you. You’ve had it. I’m sure you’ve had people that kiss your backside, as they say, when you think about your job as a leader, letting them work it out for themselves up That’s, that’s, that’s the preferred method, you don’t want to have to jump in, you want them to be able to, to be adults about this and find the right solution forward, is that fair to say?

Abe Kleinfeld [15:09]
Yep. And I really look for that, you know, that kind of, you know, fully formed adult, you know, in executives, before I hire them, I really spend a lot of time talking to them, and usually not about work, I just want to know about them, I want to know how they think I want to know what they do, I want to know what interests them. I try to put them on a spot during interviews to you know, you know, to understand how they react to uncomfortable situations, all of that is very important when you’re hiring them, because you don’t want people to become I don’t really, I’m not a big fan of people getting really, truly emotional, and losing it. I don’t like that. I like if people are getting up, if people aren’t getting to that point, they’re not really executive material in my, in my opinion, if you’re losing it, and you start screaming and yelling, or you walk out of the room, and you can’t really have a conversation, even a difficult one, and come to a conclusion, you’re not really an executive. So that’s why that’s another reason why I think experience really helps. Because experienced people rarely fall into that trap.

Gene Hammett [16:17]
I want to take us to another little path conversation around leadership, you’ve worked at a number of companies taking some of the public before, you’ve come in from VCs selecting you as the new CEO, you typically don’t come in when things are going great. So you get to come in and kind of assess what’s really going on who’s really not able to get the work done. Tell us a little bit about some of those experiences that you had to face without giving us you know, the gory details and names. We don’t need that stuff. But what have you learned from that process?

Abe Kleinfeld [16:51]
The problems are usually huge, right? They’re usually huge problems you walk in, the only reason someone’s gonna hire a new CEO is that something is badly wrong. And what I find is, the bigger the problem, the easier it is to fix. Because it’s usually very obvious you walk in, and it’s like, super obvious what the problem is. And, and so assessing what the problem is, is usually pretty straightforward. You know, like, I walked into one company that was just really struggling, they had, they were signing customers. But they couldn’t really describe what the product was.

Abe Kleinfeld [17:28]
The product was really when I walked in, I realized very quickly that the product was really two products, those two things, it was a very small company, I was just getting started. And small companies can’t do two things, small companies can only do one thing. And so it was a simple fix, we got rid of one of those two things, we just stopped doing it. And we focused on one thing. And suddenly, we had success. And it was easy to pick which one because one was competing against huge corporations that already had a huge market share. And the other one was a new technology that was an up and coming market space. And there we could actually emerge as a leader. So it was simple. It was really super, super simple to make that decision. But the company couldn’t make that decision on its own until somebody came in from the outside and just looked at it saw the obvious and changed it. So what I find that to be more the case than less the case, in companies that are having a very, very serious problem.

Gene Hammett [18:29]
There’s a huge advantage to coming into difficult situations with fresh eyes. their emotions are not connected to the way it’s always been done. You get to look at things from completely different perspectives. Because of all the experience, you bring to it. I used to be a consultant. And we would go get pulled into really huge corporations. Within three days of being there. We were looking at each other because why did they continue to do this. And you get to do that, and actually, be able to actually change things. as a consultant, I couldn’t change things. As a coach, I get it, I get a chance to do that, that that real outside perspective. When you think about coming in that first moment, you have like a process you go through when you look at problems so that you can analyze them quickly and determine how you’re gonna move forward.

Abe Kleinfeld [19:18]
The first thing I do usually focuses on talking to the sales organization. If there’s a sales organization, you want to know what’s going on in the company, you talk to a sales organization because the sales guys are the ones that are suffering the result of anything that’s going wrong. They can’t sell a product because it doesn’t work. They can’t sell a product because it doesn’t they don’t have any materials. They can’t sell a product because it’s priced wrong. They can’t sell the product because you know they’re competing against companies they’ll never be able to win against they can’t sell. There’s you if you really want to know what’s going wrong. Talk to the sales organization. Every night, everything that I do, everything will be will become obvious, usually within by the second salesperson you pretty much know what’s going on?

Gene Hammett [20:01]
Well, when you think about your journey as a leader, you’ve probably been through some things. And now you’ve been through some mistakes, ups, and downs. What is one of those defining moments where you had to really change the way you believe about yourself or leadership?

Abe Kleinfeld [20:16]
Yeah, I mean, honestly, I’ve, I’ve made every mistake, I’ve hired too fast. I’ve hired the wrong people. I built, you know, products with poor quality, that didn’t work as promised, I raised too much money and burned through it. You know, I’ve made every single mistake, there’s, I can’t think of any mistake I haven’t made. And that’s probably why I should probably be a coach now. But the, but you know, every one of those mistakes, stays with me, right? Every one of those changes me. And now when I look at companies, and I walk into a company, I just kind of take through all those things in my head. Because, you know, I’m a big believer, and you only learn from your mistakes. I can’t, I can’t even you know, I can’t even talk about my successes. Because to me, it’s like, oh, you know, I, yeah, I was lucky, I had a success. But that’s behind me.

Abe Kleinfeld [21:15]
Now, what have I done for you know, what have I done today? So I’m pretty tough on myself. But the mistakes, they stay with me. And, and so usually, I just take through my mistakes. And that’s, and that’s, it becomes very, very quick to analyze a company, and what needs to be done, just from the experiences that I’ve had, I can recognize things that I screwed up on happening in companies. And I can step in before they happen again. And so. So it’s been really, there’s not one that stands out, really, probably the most important one. I don’t know that it’s the one that stands out the most. But probably the most important one that I found is that companies very often start hiring salespeople before they know how to sell their product. GridGain was actually a very good example of that, when I walked into grid game, no zero revenue. But we had a sales organization that was costing us a million dollars a month. Wow. And you know, what, the first question I asked is, why do we have a sales organization? Then

Abe Kleinfeld [22:27]
Then the second question was, I went to actually talk to the sales organization to see what was wrong. But what I’ve discovered was that nobody knew how to sell the product because nobody knew what the product was, the company hadn’t really defined what the product was. And so what we did is we basically, I convinced the VP of sales, who himself was a very good salesperson, I convinced him to become the VP to remain the VP of sales, but he was a sales organization by himself. And I said, Your job is to go out, let’s get rid of the sales organization, let’s cut out all this cost. Let’s have you be the sole salesperson, you go out and sell the first customer, and then repeat it a dozen times, let’s close 10 to 12 customers. And once we understand what we’re selling, who we’re competing against, what the value proposition is, how much we can charge for this. And we can repeat this over and over again.

Abe Kleinfeld [23:24]
Now we have a training program for a sales organization that we can hire. Right? So so that was, that’s probably the most important thing that I would recommend to people that I learned the hard way. That really is a very valuable thing to do. A lot of companies, especially young executives, who have a very, very good startup with a very promising product, have raised a lot of money. And the first thing they do is hire a sales organization. When they haven’t, they don’t really know what the sales process is. They don’t really know what the value proposition is, they can guess. But they don’t know, the only way to know is to actually sell the product, find customers to buy it, and then do it multiple times until you start seeing a pattern. Right. So that’s that, to me is probably the most important thing that you can possibly do. Out of all the mistakes I’ve made, that’s the one that really I think is the most important in terms of not repeating.

Commercial [24:24]
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Gene Hammett [24:44]
Well, I want to give us one last question before we wrap it up here because we’ve been almost 20 minutes. And I want to ask you this. You know, as a leader, you have to go through different stages of growth. You’ve gotten to over 100 employees, probably many times A lot of people get stuck in the day to day not letting go of that. And they really want to be more strategic or visionary. How do you truly let go of those things so that you become the visionary the company needs?

Abe Kleinfeld [25:15]
Well, you know, again, that comes from experience my, my first in my, my first management job, not my first CEO job, but my first management job I was very hands-on, and I was, you know, a micromanager. But, you know, I started, I started reading books. So I couldn’t afford a coach, sorry, Gene. But I started reading books, and there were management books. And you know, Andy Grove from Intel, and the guy, I forget his name Howard, something that ran ITT way back in the 50s. And you just start reading these management books. And what you realize very quickly, is that these guys are not really, they don’t really do a whole lot. They depend on others to do everything, and they hold those people accountable.

Abe Kleinfeld [26:02]
So very early in my career, I realized that it’s not about you managing, it’s about just kind of directing, coordinating. And the key is to hire really good people who know more about the job than you do. And you never ever have to worry about them trying to take your job because nobody wants your job. Nobody wants to be the CEO, they say might say they do but when they actually see what a CEO, their responsibility to see, you know, carries the lawsuits, the board meetings, and all of that. Nobody wants your job. So the best thing you can do is hire really smart people who are so much more experienced than you are at that function. And just let them do it. Just let them do it.

Gene Hammett [26:47]
Hey, thank you for being here on the podcast, sharing your journey and wisdom with us.

Abe Kleinfeld [26:52]
Yeah, thank you, the player.

Gene Hammett [26:55]
Another fantastic interview here. I love bringing in some more experienced leaders that are in the trenches, they have a variety of experience that you can actually pull from, you can determine how you’re going to move forward as a leader just by listening in to some of these challenges that they’ve overcome. You know that as a leader, you have to continuously evolve. My job is to help you do that. If you ever think about you’re in the defining moments of your own leadership, you’re facing a big challenge and you need a breakthrough. Make sure you reach out to me I’d love to get to know who you are and what’s going on. Just give me an email gene@genehammett.com for we can talk and connect. I’m not trying to sell you I just want to serve you. Make sure that you give me an email, gene@genehammett.com you think about leadership and culture and think of Growth Think Tank. As always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

 

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