LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner: How Compassion Builds Better Companies

2018=05-16-Jeff Weiner

The following was adapted from the graduation speech given this week by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner at Wharton’s graduation ceremony. A version has also appeared on LinkedIn.

By virtue of my role at LinkedIn, I get the chance to speak with students and interns starting their careers, just like you. One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is what advice would I give my 22-year-old self?

The advice I would give my 22-year old self is to be compassionate.

I wasn’t very compassionate when I was your age. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t particularly compassionate until the latter stage of my career. And if it weren’t for learning the meaning and value of compassion, it’s likely I wouldn’t be on this stage today. So that’s what I’d like to talk to you about. The importance of being compassionate, and how it can change your career path, your company, and your life.

When I was 30 years old I came across a book called The Art of Happiness. It’s about the teachings of the Dalai Lama. That’s how I first learned the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling what another living thing feels. Compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.

Though most people in western society typically use the two words interchangeably, there’s a fundamental difference. The Dalai Lama explains it this way: Picture yourself walking along a mountainous trail. You come across a person being crushed by a boulder on their chest. The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that that person is in pain and doing everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is empathy plus action.

“Managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team, it’s a better way to build a company.”

That was a pretty profound realization for me, so much so that that book has remained a fixture on my nightstand ever since. It was my introduction to the meaning of compassion. However, it wouldn’t be until several years later that I had the opportunity to put it into practice. In 2001, with the encouragement of my then boss and mentor, Terry Semel, I moved to Silicon Valley and became an executive at Yahoo. A journalist once described my management style at Yahoo as “wielding his fierce intelligence as a blunt instrument.” At least the first part was flattering.

Though I wasn’t a yeller, I was pretty intense. If I saw something in a presentation that didn’t make sense, I could barrage the team with questions. I’d listen with the intent to reply, and not seek to understand. I expected other people to do things the way I did and grew frustrated when they didn’t. Over time, I realized how unproductive this approach was. Rather than inspire and lift people up, it was a good way to shut people down.

Aspiring to Compassion

So I decided to change. I vowed that as long as I’d be responsible for managing other people, I would aspire to manage compassionately. That meant pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.

I’ve now been practicing this approach for well over a decade. And I can tell you with absolute conviction that managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team, it’s a better way to build a company. I’ll give you three examples based on my experience at LinkedIn.

The first example is how Reid Hoffman transitioned me into the company. Reid is not only the visionary founder of LinkedIn, he’s one of the most thoughtful people I know. In 2008, when I joined, we had agreed I’d start as interim president to preserve our options. The night before I began, I called Reid, and asked, “So how is this going to work? You still have the title of CEO, I’m going to be interim president. Which decisions should I make and which decisions will you make?”

He said, “That’s easy, it’s your ball. You run with it.” I was like, “What?” He said, “Yeah. I just went through this with the previous CEO and want to avoid making the same mistakes.”

But Reid went further than establishing clear lines of authority. For the first 10 or so weeks I was at LinkedIn, Reid was out of the office for at least eight of them. He scheduled conferences and travel because he understood that as the founder of the company, if he were still around, people would reflexively go to him for decisions, instead of me. So he removed himself from the situation altogether until I could build that connective tissue myself. Talk about managing compassionately. I hope all of you meet someone equally invested in your success. It will make all the difference.

That’s the first example. The second example is less a story than it is an observation.

Missing Trust

The long-term value of a company is based on the speed and quality of its decision-making. It’s hard to make better decisions faster when people on the team lack trust in one another and are constantly questioning each other’s motivations. In an environment like that, you’ll spend most of your time navigating corporate politics, rather than focusing on the task at hand. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun.

“Create the right culture, and you create a competitive advantage.”

The flip side is developing a culture with a compassionate ethos. That’s what our leadership team has tried to do at LinkedIn; create a culture where people take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, and not assume nefarious intention; build trust; and align around a shared mission. After nearly 10 years, I still celebrate the fact we can make important decisions in minutes or hours that some companies debate for months. Create the right culture, and you create a competitive advantage.

The third example, is about how compassion has become essential in the realization of LinkedIn’s vision to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. Recently, we launched a product that allows members to apply to a job by asking someone in their network to provide a referral. Had you done a case study on the product, you likely would have said it had all the hallmarks of a winning strategy: It was differentiated, delivered on an essential consumer need, and moved the needle in terms of results. However, that evaluation would have been incomplete.

Shortly after launching, Meg Garlinghouse, our head of social impact, and someone deeply committed to our vision and values, asked what effect the new feature would have on the most underserved segments of our membership — people who didn’t go to a four-year university, who don’t have the right relationships, but who do have the skills to excel in the role. It was exactly the right question to ask.

Career Advice

Through working with organizations like Year Up and the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula, I’ve had the privilege to meet young adults who are in that position. They’re intelligent, resilient and committed to improving their lives and the lives of others. They have qualities forged by overcoming a lifetime of adversity that many of us couldn’t begin to fathom. Having hired people like that and watched them flourish, it’s become clear they don’t need handouts, they just need a hand — like all of us have needed at some point in our careers.

So we developed a Career Advice feature which lets people without experience or established networks get help from those privileged enough to have both. In just a few short months since launch, nearly one million mentors have volunteered on LinkedIn.

As the pace of innovation and technology continues to accelerate, it’s more important than ever that we think through the unintended consequences of our actions and not just remain fixated on maximizing shareholder value. As future business leaders, keep in mind, it’s not just about what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s about how you’re trying to accomplish it. We need to increasingly put ourselves in the shoes of those on the receiving end of new technologies — and those who might never benefit from them.

Everything I’ve discussed thus far is about compassion in the context of work. I’d now like to shift gears and talk about how essential it is to practice compassion at home. A few years ago, I was walking to my car after a long day at the office and despite being exhausted, I was reflecting on how satisfying the day had been. However, on this particular night, the satisfaction would prove fleeting. As I opened my car door and started thinking about getting home to my wife and our two daughters, it hit me: For as hard as I worked to be compassionate at the office, I was not always as compassionate with my family.

By the time I got home on some nights, I’d be so spent that after putting the girls to bed, I had little left to give. So when my wife, who was also tired and had had a busy day, wanted to connect, or talk about important stuff, I would reflexively say it had been a long day, I was exhausted, and could we talk about it some other time. In other words, I was doing the exact opposite of being compassionate with the one person who mattered most.

My wife, Lisette, is the bedrock of our home and has built the foundation upon which my work exists. She’s taught me the importance of love, and kindness, and gratitude. My team at Yahoo used to joke that there was a pre-Lisette and post-Lisette version of me. They strongly preferred the latter.

Common Mistake

Suffice it to say, I couldn’t do what I do without her.

I was making a far too common mistake: Taking the people we’re closest to for granted by assuming they’re the ones we don’t need to make an effort with. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s taken me a long time to realize what makes me happy: Simply put, it’s looking forward to going to work in the morning, and looking forward to coming home at night. The only way I can do this is by practicing compassion in both facets of my life, and not taking anything or anyone for granted.

These are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned with regard to compassion. In some ways, they feel more relevant than ever. One of the defining issues of our time will be socio-economic stratification, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. It’s already hovering at historic highs and threatens to get even worse as new technologies potentially displace millions of people from their jobs. When people lose access to economic opportunity, they become disenfranchised and that can have serious consequences on society.

“It’s not just about the what, it’s also about the how.”

As if that wasn’t challenging enough, we’re also facing the rise of tribalism. It’s human nature to gravitate towards people that look and sound like we do. That sense of belonging helps keep us safe and feel protected. But there’s a dark downside. All these tribes spend too much time thinking about themselves, their own self-interests and their own belief models. Technology facilitates the divide by making it easier than ever to connect to those who reinforce our own worldview. It’s a vicious cycle: We don’t spend enough time thinking about other tribes, which drives us even further apart.

But we can reverse these trends. By breaking free of our own tribes, even if only for a moment, and seeing things through the lens of people unlike ourselves, we can begin to close the gaps, whether they be socio-economic, racial, gender, political or otherwise.

Class of 2018, you are graduating during a time when seemingly anything is possible. Once the stuff of science fiction, AI is increasingly part of our daily lives. We’re on the threshold of medical breakthroughs that could eliminate global disease. Some are attempting to colonize Mars, while others are seeking to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. And in true Wharton fashion, one alum is attempting to do both simultaneously.

Regardless of how you decide to change the world, remember, it’s not just about the what, it’s also about the how. So I’d like to close by giving you the same advice I’d give my 22 year-old self: Be compassionate. We’ll all be better off because of it.

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