5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became The CEO of Red Hat

01/06/2018 07:26 pm ET

I’ve learned it’s better to give context, not orders. Leaders today need to act more like catalysts than dictators or generals. A leader’s job is not about conjuring up brilliant strategies and making people work harder. What they need to do is create the context for your associates so they can do their best work. Everyone wants a sense that their work is making a difference. People thirst for context—we want to know the “whats” and the “whys” of our company’s direction—and we want to be part of making it successful. A leader’s goal is to get people to believe in your organization’s mission and then create the right structures that empower your people to achieve what someone used to think was impossible.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat, the world's leading provider of open source software solutions. Since joining in 2008, Red Hat has been named by Forbes as one of the World's Most Innovative Companies, named to Fortune’s inaugural Future 50 list, added to the S&P 500, and designated as one of the best places to work by Glassdoor. Former chief operating officer (COO) at Delta Air Lines and partner at The Boston Consulting Group, Jim has a BA in economics and computer science from Rice University, and a MBA from Harvard University. He is the author of “The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory"?

Jim: I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. My mom was a nurse and my dad was a physician. I would say that I was somewhat of a geek growing up. I was always drawn to computers, which led me to pursue a computer science degree as an undergrad at Rice University. I have since spent much of my professional career devoted to studying businesses. As a partner with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I worked for a total of 12 years (with a two-year stint attending Harvard Business School in between), I saw the inner-workings of literally thousands of companies. My job was simple: identify and solve problems. I was there to help companies recognize their limitations and figure out ways to overcome them. Similarly, when I joined Delta Air Lines, first as acting treasurer on 9/11 and then later promoted to chief operating officer, I was “problem solver in chief”, and took the lead role in Delta’s restructuring after bankruptcy. I learned a lot over my six years at Delta and time at BCG. But the techniques I learned, the traditional beliefs I held around management and how people were taught to run companies and lead organizations, all of those were to be challenged when I entered the world of Red Hat and open source. Red Hat has shown me that there is a better and more open way to run a business.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Jim: I’ll never forget the first day I came to visit Red Hat. A few days earlier, I had received a call from a recruiter who wanted to know if I would be interested in interviewing for the position of CEO. While I didn’t know Red Hat well at that time, I knew enough about the massive potential for open source software. I was intrigued. After telling the recruiter I was interested in the interview, he asked if I would mind flying to Red Hat’s headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. on a Sunday. “On a Sunday,” I thought, “that’s strange.” But, I was headed up to New York on Monday anyway, so I figured I could stop on the way up. I agreed to the interview. Once I arrived at the Raleigh airport, I hailed a cab at the airport and was dropped off in front of the Red Hat building, which was located on the campus of North Carolina State University at the time. It was 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. There was no one in sight. The lights inside the building were off, and, after a check, I found the doors were locked. I began to wonder if this was some kind of prank. As I turned to get back in the cab, I realized the driver had left. It also started raining and I didn’t have an umbrella. I figured I could start walking to find another cab when Matthew Szulik, who was then Red Hat’s chairman and CEO, rolled up in his car. “Hi there,” he said. “Want to go grab some coffee?” While I was still unsure about what was happening, I knew I could use some coffee. When we finally found a place that was open, grabbed a booth and began to chat, it wasn’t a traditional interview. We talked about me, my career, open source, and Red Hat. Matthew was great at getting me excited about what was happening at Red Hat. Later in the conversation, he mentioned he wanted me to meet Michael Cunningham, the company’s general counsel. He suggested that I grab an early lunch with him. I agreed. But as we started to get up to leave, Matthew realized he didn’t have his wallet. “Oops,” he said. “I don’t have any money. Do you?” Fortunately, I had some cash on me, so I paid for our coffees. Then, the same thing happened again. After eating lunch with Michael, we were told the restaurant’s credit card machine was broken and we’d need to pay cash. Michael admitted he didn’t have any money, so I paid for lunch as well. Michael also needed to borrow cash to buy enough gas to drive me back to the airport. I really wondered whether I was interviewing or the victim of some kind of scam! What I learned from that experience was that working for Red Hat wasn’t going to be about having red carpets rolled out for you, or really anyone for that matter. Matthew and Michael wanted to get to know me, not try to impress or court me. In the end, it was just coincidental and a little bit funny that they both didn’t have cash.

So what exactly does Red Hat do?

Jim: Red Hat is the world’s largest open source software provider. Open source software is software whose source code is available for modification or enhancement by anyone. Red Hat then assembles those open source components into a package that can easily be bought and implemented by businesses. We provide Linux, middleware, cloud, virtualization, storage, and management solutions. For instance, Linux is the best-known and most-used open source operating system. As an operating system, Linux is software that sits underneath all of the other software on a computer, receiving requests from those programs and relaying these requests to the computer’s hardware. Think of it as the brain telling the computer or software how to function.

Examples of how Red Hat’s work is used:

  • When you are trading on the NYSE, it is running on Red Hat technology, as are the overwhelming majority of the world's largest stock exchanges
  • When you check in for your flight on BA.com (British Airways' website), it is running on Red Hat technology
  • When you are watching DreamWorks Animation movies, those movies are rendered on Red Hat technology
  • The U.S. government uses Red Hat technology for many different things, including powering a new Navy warship

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Jim: Essentially Red Hat was one of the first companies to realize that open source could be a successful business model. Unlike proprietary software companies, we don’t sell products. Our products are available for anyone to use for free. The value we provide is making open source software enterprise ready by providing subscriptions that offer support, security, certifications and services.

For example, if you look at our operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we focus on the life-cycle. Open source is a great development model, but it's "release early, release often" style makes implementing it in production difficult as there are too many updates for large organizations to stay ahead of. The value we add is that every few years we freeze the version and commit to supporting that version for ten years. We have a team of engineers that are committed to that release and they are constantly looking for bug fixes and providing security updates, all within the version the customer implemented. That has huge value for enterprises running long-lived applications. We go through this type of process for all of the projects we chose to productize to determine how we add value beyond the source code. 

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Jim: There have been tons of people throughout my life and career that have helped me get to where I am today. Thinking back when I was growing up, my Mom instilled in me the importance of serving others, and giving something your all regardless of the results. My Dad instilled in me the importance of connecting with people and really listening to them to figure out their needs and how to help them. There are literally dozens and dozens of others throughout my time in school, at BCG, Delta, and Red Hat, I could easily name. But if I have to name one particular person, it would have to be General H. Hugh Shelton, who recently retired as our Chairman of the Board after serving on Red Hat’s Board of Directors for 14 years. General Shelton is easily one of the most decorated and accomplished people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet and work with. When I think back over my last 10 years at Red Hat, I’m particularly grateful to the General for all of his guidance and support. I’m positive Red Hat would not be in the position we’re in today without his leadership. And I’m positive I wouldn’t be the CEO I am without his mentoring. He showed me the benefits of keeping calm under pressure, being proactive when solving problems, and the importance of putting integrity at the heart of everything you do. I told our Red Hat associates that most of us are taught to do what we say we’re going to do. I had never met anyone who truly lived those words until I met the General.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Jim: At Red Hat, we have a purpose beyond profit. Our mission is to bring the power of open source to bear on solving the biggest problems we face as a society. To do that we help promote how the principles of open source technology—collaboration, transparency, meritocracy and participation—can be applied beyond the world technology. Some great examples include supporting communities like Open Access to the Arts, which is our collaboration with the Tate Modern in London, and our support for the Open Government and Open Healthcare movements. We are also deeply committed to the success of women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) related fields, which includes our support for CO.LAB, a platform that introduces young girls (ages 11–14) to coding, collaboration and the open source way.

What are your "5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO" and why.

Jim: Before I joined Red Hat, I had the opportunity to attend a prestigious business school, work at a top-tier consulting firm, and lead a large, well-known public company. I thought I knew how to lead and manage. Then I came to Red Hat, and learned there’s a better way.

  1. First, it’s important to go beyond the numbers. I have always been incredibly detail-oriented. When I worked at Delta. I would receive 15-page reports printed in the smallest font you can imagine that would tell me everything from yields per route and flight performance by airport and by fleet. I would go into meetings asking why certain routes were underperforming and I’d call out individuals if their numbers weren’t up to par. My nickname became the “guy with the binders.” I thought this was what it meant to lead. While I still care about numbers, at Red Hat, I spend the majority of my time thinking about our strategic direction and our culture, and talking to customers, rather than on worrying about if things were being done precisely correct. I’ve learned to trust other people to do the right thing and be hands-off enough to allow the people in the organization to self-direct themselves and make their own decisions.
  2. I’ve learned it’s better to give context, not orders. Leaders today need to act more like catalysts than dictators or generals. A leader’s job is not about conjuring up brilliant strategies and making people work harder. What they need to do is create the context for your associates so they can do their best work. Everyone wants a sense that their work is making a difference. People thirst for context—we want to know the “whats” and the “whys” of our company’s direction—and we want to be part of making it successful. A leader’s goal is to get people to believe in your organization’s mission and then create the right structures that empower your people to achieve what someone used to think was impossible.
  3. A leader needs to leverage their soap box. One of the benefits of being a leader is that you have the power to create venues for bringing people together. You have the power to set the agenda for a range of conversations throughout the organization. I call this leveraging your “soap box.” Generally, because of my role, people will take the time to listen to me, and seriously consider what I’ve said. When and how I, as a leader, use those venues can be a powerful way for me to influence the direction of the company as opposed to telling people what to do.
  4. That said, it’s important to be humble. It takes time, effort and a good dose of humility—especially if you’re the CEO—to lead an open organization. If you don’t openly allow and encourage your people to tell you you're wrong, you'll never build an organization that can innovate better than your competitors. People want the opportunity to voice their opinion. They expect to be heard—but not always to be heeded. Even if they don’t like the decision that’s ultimately made, they will have the chance to make peace with it now rather than six months—or six years—down the road. That’s how you remove barriers and quiet the naysayers. Go out and talk to the people with whom you work. You can simply ask a few people in your organization for their thoughts on a decision you are making. They won’t question your competence or decisiveness. Often times they’ll feel flattered you asked for their feedback.
  5. Lastly, you can’t order people to innovate. Every company wants its people to be creative and innovative. But you can’t order or force them to “innovate.” The best a leader can do is to provide context and room for their people to try new things and take chances. Some people will earn more latitude over time. At Red Hat, we have some associates who get 100% of their time to innovate because they’ve proven to be such great innovators.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

Jim: Great question. I’m a big history buff and Red Hat associates will tell you I always love an excuse to talk about the industrial revolution and history of machine tool makers, etc etc. A few years ago, I started listening to a podcast, Hardcore History, with Dan Carlin, and have been hooked ever sense! I imagine it would be fun to talk history with Dan over breakfast or lunch.

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