At RootsTech I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with FamilySearch outgoing CEO, Jay Verkler, and with incoming CEO, Dennis Brimhall. I asked each the same set of questions. The similarities and differences in their responses make interesting reading. I’ll present the interview, a couple of questions at a time, throughout this week. Click to see all the articles in this series.
The Insider: What's the hardest thing about leading an organization as large as FamilySearch?
Dennis: One of the hardest things is we're keeping up with technology that changes so rapidly. You just feel like you've got it fixed and solved and all of a sudden you've got a new place you need to take it. Many people who’re in this genealogical area don't have to worry about preservation. They simply get it somehow and they enter it into their software programs and once they've got it there that's fine. But we also have the issue of preservation, which is a huge part of what we do. Making sure that we're attending to that at the same time that we're enabling the patron to find their ancestors, that's the broader task, the broader issue than just connecting the ancestors together.
The other thing is it’s a worldwide effort. You know we have 4600 family history centers all over the world. Just in your mind you hear about that and figuring out how to make it work is something I'm trying to grasp right now. I'm so new I'm still trying to get my brain around what it means to have that number of volunteers and that number of places all marching in the right direction.
Jay: It's inertia. Inertia's your friend and inertia's your foe. If you get inertia aligned and moving towards your target it's awesome. Things work and there are benefits and so forth. And when the organization isn't aligned for what your goal is and the inertia is elsewhere, that becomes probably the most difficult thing in getting a large organization working.
The other thing that's tricky about this particular organization is championing and helping innovation come from different parts of the organization, especially when people lock onto their individual “this is what I want to do” role. I feel like we've made great progress in that area, but it’s always a challenge in an organization like ours.
One of the other things that's challenging about an organization like FamilySearch is because we don't take a competitive position with really anybody. Well, sure we'll take a competitive position with evil, or something moral, but we don't take a competitive position with other companies. So often in a corporate environment, that competition creates urgency, but at FamilySearch we have to be motivated by not just competitive urgency, because that's not the key motivator, we really want to be motivated by how quickly the work needs to happen, where are the opportunities. We have to be opportunity motivated, not competition motived. That's a different motivational factor.
Insider: How would you describe your leadership style?
Dennis: I think I may have mentioned before that I can't do the job of anybody. And if I can't do it then what I need is to empower them to do it and then stay out of their way. I think my leadership style is really to empower people. Now you can't empower them unless you've made it very clear why you exist. You have to be very, very clear that this is our mission; this is what we're trying to accomplish. Once people understand your goal and what you're trying to accomplish, most people, if you leave them alone, they'll get there. I can't write code, I'm not a licensed genealogist, but we have a lot of people that do and are. I think I make sure that they understand exactly why we exist and then I stay out of their way.
Jay: Probably the thing I would say the most about my leadership style is that it's variable. It's variable depending on the task at hand, what I think needs to happen, the organization, and the people. And I think that it's important to be variable.
Let me give you a quick example of where that sort of thinking came from. Back when I was at Oracle, so this is 1992/1993, I was being recruited by a bunch of different companies who would essentially give me—now I was in a reasonably large organization then—give me the same job in their organization. The organization might grow, it might even double in size, but the type of job would roughly be the same thing in three years and five years. I realized at Oracle that changing hats is far more difficult than just running a large organization. Starting a small organization that grows rapidly, so you're three people and then 20 people and then 50 people and then 200 people and then five- and then a thousand and so forth—that is much more difficult than taking an organization from 500 to 900. And so I actually left a large organization and started [a small one] with three people, literally 3 people, and we shipped a product, a whole product, within 9 months, which inside Oracle had never been done. It was ten people within two months and so on, but it meant it grew to build a business just very rapidly.
That was much more difficult and challenging and fun. So for my style I certainly have got to switch roles. There was a time here when I needed to be an engineering V.P. and a CEO. That was really hard. Those two jobs are really hard and I tried to broadcast to everybody that I was going to drop a whole bunch of balls, especially on the CEO side because we had to get the product working and shipping, for the whole org depended on it. That was tough. It was a good change in style; I became very focused when I became engineering V.P. and I was drilling through all kinds of things. I became known as the micromanager for a while there because of the drilling to deliver. I would say that that was probably not my style right now or when I left the organization at all because the organization developed in a way that that was an inappropriate style. So I've tried to match style with the org. Not everyone would agree with my choices there, but that's how I think about leadership style.
Wednesday: A cool past. A grandiose future.