Are Your Leaders Scalable?

January 8, 2008

Over the last two years, SoftLayer has grown from nothing to over 10,000 servers and by the end of this year could surpass 30,000 servers if growth continues on its current track. A key component in managing this growth is finding leaders with the ability to scale as the company grows. More often than not, entrepreneurs are good at starting businesses but not good at growing them. In that vein, if you are the leader of a startup, what traits does your management team needs to have if one is to build the biggest, baddest and most valuable company in an industry?

Battle wounds: We all have read the stories about Bill Gates quitting Harvard to start Microsoft, Michael Dell selling servers out of his dorm room, and Larry and Sergey leaving Stanford to start Google. It is very rare that someone can come out of college and start something that becomes the dominant player in an industry. The majority are an amalgamation of our experiences of years of operating any one of a number of businesses. Look for the managers with some scars. Even the aforementioned entrepreneurs are pretty much battle tested by now.

Visionary: As fast as SoftLayer is growing, we better have a pretty good vision of where we are going so we don't run this Porsche off a cliff and into an abyss. We have seen many potential customer IT managers come to us in a panic upon their sudden realization that no more servers can be added to their datacenter because of inadequate planning for power and cooling. And I am not just picking on IT; this applies to the finance function as well. As the CFO, I have to have a vision for what my organization is going to look like all along the way, from the startup phase to an IPO, merger or acquisition or whatever other path this journey takes us.

Communication skills: Today's CFO must be more technically proficient than his predecessors; however, this does not negate for the financial or any other executive to be able to communicate not only with company staff, but customers, vendors, bankers and shareholders as well. As discussed in other blogs, the internet has given all of us the ability to communicate in so many different ways than in the past. The challenge of any manager is to figure out which method of communication is the most effective in a given situation to get the job done and keep the organization moving forward.

Je ne sais quoi: It's a French phrase we as Americans have used over the years to refer to a certain quality someone has that cannot be explained. A good manager has to have this “Presence”. While the internet and email and all forms electronic communication have made the world smaller, to have an impact a leader still needs to be out communicating, listening and understanding to keep the team on the right track. The leader who sits in his office all day can review a lot of data but needs to get out to find what is really going on inside a company. The “Ivory Tower” manager is doomed to failure in today's fast paced business environment.

Rock in times of adversity: For all of us who have participated in startups (and I have done four now), there are going to be tough times. You can count on that. How you react in those situations sends a message about your ability to lead to your staff. As a leader, you have to be the go-to person in tough times. Are you prepared to handle the adversity?

The team: Much like a professional hockey team (I would use football but my son plays hockey and this is my blog), you can't do it all alone. From the general manager on down, the owner/president of a team has to have the ability to attract top notch staff to who he can delegate the work of moving the organization toward the ultimate prize in hockey, The Stanley Cup. If he can't and tries to keeps all the work for himself, he will find himself on the outside looking in.

Do we have the team to scale? So far it appears that we do. Are we going to have to add additional leadership along the way for us to achieve our goals? Absolutely. We have just added a Chief Strategy Officer to the executive management team.

We continue to be confident our management team can provide the leadership needed to grow SoftLayer into an industry leader.

Are you as confident in your team?

- Mike Jones (Who?)