Leading Through the Haze

Stepping into a CEO gig is one thing, but when your predecessor dies… there’s no playbook for that.

Few leaders of US$2 billion companies could openly – and honestly – declare their job “a role I never wanted”. But that was exactly the case for Zander Lurie, who obligingly stepped in after Dave Goldberg, the 47-year-old CEO of SurveyMonkey tragically died while on vacation in Mexico in May 2015.

“He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Zander of Dave, the much-loved husband of Sheryl Sandberg and who, in five years, grew SurveyMonkey from having a dozen to more than 500 employees. “He inspired me to live a purpose-driven life. Everything he did, he did with great passion and great interest and he never wasted time on things that didn’t matter. He just didn’t let days fall off the calendar without making them count.”

Zander and Dave met in 2000 and grew to become close friends. He was actually in Mexico with Dave, Sheryl and their kids when he died. It was also Zander, a member of the SurveyMonkey board, who broke the news to company employees.

“I sent an email on Saturday May 2nd, about 12 hours after he passed away. I called a number of folks from the management team from Mexico, it was early in the morning and told them the news,” recalls Zander quietly. “We told everybody that our friend Dave Goldberg passed away suddenly, tragically, we didn’t talk about how or where. [We said] ‘We empathise, I’m sure this is going to be shocking information and we will communicate more’.”

By Sunday, Zander had flown home and brought the board of directors and management team together in the office. On Monday, there was an all-hands meeting at 9am where grief counsellors were made available and staff were told they were free to go home if they preferred.“You just want to remind people that we’re people first and this is just shocking news and there’s no sugar coating or trying to make anything nice,” says Zander.

Outside the company walls, offers of help poured in from Dave’s many friends in Silicon Valley and beyond. On that first day, Donald Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post shared his mother’s experience of becoming suddenly president of the newspaper when her husband and Donald’s father, committed suicide in 1963.

“We just had a super important, meaningful day,” says Zander, choking back tears. “I remember one of our lawyers had a little monkey, a stuffed animal, and this little sign on it that just said ‘hugs given here’ and that kind of got me.”

The shades were drawn halfway at Dave’s favourite meeting room. After a few days they were raised and a vase of white flowers was placed in the centre of the table. And despite their own personal anguish, the company’s leaders began to look for a new CEO through the haze of the grief.

“The board wanted to put the very best person in that CEO job that we could and we were making decisions before Dave had even been buried.” Within a week, Zander, who was still GoPro’s senior vice president of entertainment, was asked to step in as temporary executive chairman.

Aside from being “a shoulder to cry on”, he was there to help continue those all too important business functions – closing acquisitions, signing recruits, reassuring customers and supporting the senior management team. Though his priority was clear.

“First and foremost, it’s to hug your core. And your core is that team that makes stuff happen every day,” says Zander who made a habit of walking the halls and also brought in tech community leaders, including friends at GoPro, LinkedIn and Twitter, to mentor individuals on 20-plus management team.

“I think about one of the first phone calls I got from Zander after it happened,” says Tony Ward, SurveyMonkey’s managing director of Australia and New Zealand. “He was super transparent and he said, ‘My job is to keep the band together’. Because in a business like this, it’s all about the people; the asset that you have is what’s in people’s heads.”

So how much did grief affect employees beyond those first few days?“Nobody had to take months off to mourn Dave’s passing. People felt most supported in and around each other,” shares Zander. Considering SurveyMonkey staff have access to unlimited personal leave ordinarily, that’s quite a testament.

“People don’t stay in a state of pain for very long. It’s a very unnatural human condition to be in a really raw state of pain… You definitely have your private moments where it’s still quite painful,” he says. “There’s not a lot of moping around in the building and there’s not a lot of tears.”

“People were not interested in mourning,” says Bennett Porter, vice president of marketing communications. “They wanted to get back to work and make him proud. So what you saw was people pushing code and then sending an internal note about it: ‘We just updated the building system and this is something Dave would’ve been proud of’.”

That one email from an engineer was the start of #makedaveproud, a mantra that staff and friends used (and continue to use) not only at work but also to showcase their personal accomplishments as varied as climbing a mountain or being home by 5.30pm every day to spend time with family.

“The last thing that he would have wanted is for people to stop,” says Tony.

And while this serves as an indicator of employees’ resilience in the face of hardship, there are some, more logistical issues that can’t be hashtagged away in the weeks following a colleagues’ death. Their desk, for example.

“The desk did not turn into sacred ground,” says Bennett adamantly. Over time, Dave’s family came by and cleared his things. “There’s a team that sits there now. What we didn’t want to do was create some sort of tombstone or memorial. We wanted to take what he stood for and the vibrancy that he had and have that live within the walls of the company. “It was for that same reason that three months later, in August 2015, the entire global SurveyMonkey workforce volunteered for other organisations and charities for up to a week to remember and celebrate Dave’s famously generous spirit.

“We didn’t want the last thing we did for Dave [to be] on May 4th to stand up and mourn his loss,” says Bennett. Instead, teams chose their own projects which for one team included cleaning up a gorilla habitat. As beautiful a celebration as it was, it also marked the end of a hellish season. While Tony and Bennett dismiss the attempts tech recruiters made to headhunt their staff during that time (“that’s the nature of the Valley”), it would no doubt have been frustrating. “We share that sentiment,” says Zander with a wry smile. But Zander’s the first one to admit he didn’t know the answer to every issue during that season.

“The thing I used to say to people last summer [was] ‘There’s no playbook for this so if you’re upset with how I’m doing things, please do send me the playbook on that’, but nobody sent that to me. And I hope nobody else has to sit in that job,” he laughs. “I’m not doing that again. That’s a one-time job.”

“That’s definitely a one off,” adds Tony. “I don’t think anyone would ever want to go through anything remotely similar to that ever again.”It’s undoubtedly a situation that would have benefitted from a strong succession plan – a list of potential internal or external candidates the company would be prepared to approach if such an unexpected leadership transition was required.

“Like all good boards, we had discussions about Dave’s successors not just for CEO but for CFO and other positions [before his death]. But it wouldn’t be honest for me to say we had a detailed, quarterly roadmap for those decisions. And maybe that is a learning that other boards could take away in terms of being ready for all kinds of calamities, but the truth is most boards spend time talking on the hard problems of the quarter, of the year,” says Zander, adding that the plan should be fluid, changing and adapting over time. “I think this applies for all key leadership positions. Even when we think about Tony’s job or Bennett’s job, you’re not a great, great leader if you’re not cultivating a team of talented people.”

Now, 10 months on and visiting the APAC office in Sydney it has to be asked, what is Zander’s own succession plan?

“It’s a fair question and the honest answer is we haven’t had a lot of conversation on that, so I think there probably will be a day for that. If the board had to address my succession planning right now, that would be a huge disappointment for all stakeholders,” he laughs. “I hope that doesn’t come to fruition.”

Zander wasn’t Dave’s first successor, former HP exec Bill Veghte was originally selected for the gig last July. He served six months before joining the board in January 2016 and ushering Zanderinto the role.

“Also an odd circumstance,” comments Zander, adding that it’s been a “tumultuous” 10 months and there’s now a sense of urgency in his role. “I didn’t have a four-month listening tour where I could go around the world and just play dumb.”Striving to provide staff and stakeholders with stability and transparency, Zander feels the company has already turned a page in his first eight weeks of 2016. Despite laying off 100 staff to refocus its business services, he says 2016 is set to be SurveyMonkey’s healthiest year – new products are set to launch and revenue is expected to hit north of US$200 million with a mid-thirties margin.

“Bennett talked about some of the things that Dave would have been proud of or some of the things Dave would have done right after he passed away. I no longer feel it’s appropriate to ask that,” says Zander. “Dave was a smart guy and his mind changed and he consumed new information and made crisp decisions on a daily basis. May 2015 was a long time ago so I don’t feel it’s fair to hold that standard for me anymore. It’s also too high of a standard.” So 10 months on, what does his staff want?

“No one is ever going to replace Dave and trying to do that is a mistake. [You] have to be a different person – different strengths, different weaknesses,” says Tony.

“What people are looking for or what people appreciate most is leadership,” says Bennett. “That’s what a CEO is, they’re your main cheerleader, coach, confidant. But ultimately, all of those things wrapped up into a leader. Nobody, including employees, wants to continue to live in Dave’s shadow, as warm and comforting as it is.”


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