Through my career, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of exceptional leaders in the private sector, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and in the public sector, including Ted Mitchell, Former CEO of Newschools Venture Fund. My father, Leonard, was a dedicated, hardworking city manager and county administrator.
In my own professional life, I have shifted my focus from a career in venture capital to supporting CEOs and Presidents of what we call Evergreen businesses—private, purpose-driven companies designed and run to grow and scale for 100 years or more. I believe these are the most important, yet most underappreciated, businesses in our society today. These Evergreens include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Edward Jones, SAS Institute, Radio Flyer, In-N-Out Burger, SRC Holdings, and Mars & Co—to name a few of the larger, more well-known companies.
Through my work with Evergreens, I have learned so much more about leadership. Specifically, my work with CEOs and Presidents of Evergreen companies has illustrated the power of People First management, defined by a philosophy of mentorship and collaboration.
Evergreen leaders embrace a People First view of employee relationships at every level. This approach is often reflected in the classic inverted pyramid management diagram, which reverses the traditional hierarchical management structure by placing front-line employees who are having the direct experiences with customers or suppliers at the top. In this model, the CEO operates to support the executive team, the executive team to support management, and the management to support those customer-facing employees who are so vital to delivering on one’s purpose.
At each level, the objective of management is to provide coaching and support to those who report to you. The overriding philosophy behind this approach is the shared understanding among employees and leadership that no one is perfect and no one has all the answers. Within these organizations, it’s normal to have coaching, open conversations, and brainstorming around how to improve those who report to you—and to receive similar feedback from them.
Evergreen leaders accept failure within their Evergreen organizations as long as failure is accompanied by integrity and lessons are learned. These leaders know that without a tolerance for failure with integrity, there would be little innovation, little risk-taking, and little chance of surviving 100 years. Without this space for trying new things and learning through error, employees would plod along doing exactly what they are told and staying well within the lines until the company loses touch with the changing needs of customers—and eventually loses those customers to a competitor or a new entrant to the marketplace.
How powerful would it be to have a similar People First approach and acceptance of failure with integrity in an academic setting? What if teachers, on the front lines of service to students and families, were supported by principals, who would, in turn, be supported by the superintendent and administrative colleagues? What if teachers welcomed the principal into the classroom as an ally and a coach, rather than often fearing the moment when the principal might enter the room? And what if the principal had a similar open, mentoring relationship with the superintendent? What if this regular coaching and these transparent discussions about failure and perseverance between teachers and managers at all levels were viewed by parents as a tremendous sign of strength, rather than as a negative?
The majority of the companies I work with are purpose-driven, and I see the parallels between these Evergreen companies and school systems because of that shared belief of the people in both types of organizations that they should make a difference, innovate, grow and contribute positively to society. I hope that the lessons learned from leaders in one sector can be applied to the other, and that school leaders can consider a People-first approach, can encourage failure when it leads to learning, and can operate under the belief that when we support each other, we all benefit.
About Dave Whorton
Dave Whorton is an entrepreneur, business leader, education reformer, and investor. At the age of sixteen, Dave began working at Hewlett Packard. From the manufacturing workers that he sat beside, Dave learned about the remarkable founders of HP and their HP Way. Later in life Dave came to learn that too few companies lived by similar values. Dave founded four companies including Good Technology and Drugstore.com. He also worked for three venture capital firms, KPCB, TPG, and Interwest. In his capacity as an investor, he worked with many successful companies, including Google, Amazon, Successfactors and Autotrader. Dave also helped develop the business plan and recruit the leadership team for Newschools Venture Fund. He served on its board for 17 years. Dave founded Tugboat Ventures in 2005, an innovative entity with the objective of helping entrepreneurs bring their dreams to life through a long-term commitment to promising enterprises.