Got Leadership Mojo? What I learned from one of the greats

What do OKTA, Veeva, and the company that would eventually become Workday have in common?

If you were to say that founding members of each of these $20+ billion dollar companies all worked for Baer Tierkel at PeopleSoft, you would be right. I was fortunate to be part of this team, the AKTT (Ass-Kicking-Tools-Team), where I also met Brian Sparling and Chris Heller who both co-founded companies with me. 

This past weekend, Baer succumbed to pancreatic cancer at a far too young age.  Working for him on his team literally changed my life and I use the skills I learned and his leadership techniques every day.  It isn’t a coincidence that so many of Baer’s team members went on to become successful entrepreneurs and I wanted to share what we all learned from him.

Culture of Success

When you worked on Baer's team, you knew you were part of something special.  This came from the culture that he established.  We were the Ass Kicking Tools Team.  His management team was the ToolHeads.  Each release had a theme (Elvis for release 6, James Bond for release 7), and he found innovative ways to celebrate those themes (T-Shirts, Easter eggs, splash screens). 

As the technology development organization, we were responsible for setting and executing the technology vision of the company and needed to lead accordingly.  We believed we were the best of the best, which meant that we didn't want to let our teammates or our organization's reputation down.

Relentless passion was another critical part of the culture Baer established. Passion was encouraged and rewarded.  We were passionate about our teams, our products, our ideas, and our deliverables.  Passion brings with it a fair number of disagreements and arguments.  However, those arguments were viewed as an important part of the process as long as the arguments were done in a respectful manner.  I remember several situations where Baer and I would have an argument -- and would have the same argument a week later swapping our positions after considering the other person's point of view.

Ownership

Baer also established an ownership model within his organization.  Before he took over the Tools development organization, developers were pulled into (and off of) projects on an as needed basis.  In the ownership model Baer created, each person on the team had something that he / she owned in the product or process.  Employees were the CEOs of the area that they owned.

I believe that this drove so many of my peers and I to become entrepreneurs.  By owning an area (authentication, ad-hoc query, unicode), you became heavily invested in its success.  In order for this to work, a supervisor needs to give his / her employee the freedom to make decisions -- including those that could be mistakes.  This changes the dynamic from being a boss to being a mentor / coach and letting the employee take responsibility for the good or the bad outcomes.  

Management Style

Finally, I wanted to talk about Baer's management style.  Much of this feeds from both of the topics that I previously discussed.  In order to trust your employees to give them ownership of key areas of responsibility, you have to recognize that your people are the key to your organization's success. This manifested itself in a number of ways.

  • He never took credit for the accomplishments of members of his team, helping ensure that they received recognition for their successes.  As the leader of the AKTT, the team's successes would reflect positively on him.
  • He hired and mentored with a vision toward acquiring and retaining the best of the best.  This meant that often positions wouldn't be filled if the right person couldn't be found.  There were no "B" players on the team.
  • He would set high level goals, but never micro-manage his employees.  If he had a concern, he would ask questions to make sure that people were thinking things through.  I remember one situation where he felt I was setting up a new employee to fail on a gnarly issue critical to an upcoming release.  He asked me one question, I let him know why I made that decision, and he trusted my choice.  The question and process of explaining it helped me formalize my decision making process (and had I missed something, I would have been comfortable changing my mind).
  • He was relentless about protecting his team and his team members.  If somebody was setting a member of his team up to fail or was encroaching on their area of ownership, he would become Grizzly Baer.  We always knew he had our back and heaven help anybody who stood in our way.

Baer will be missed

I will always remember my time working with Baer and the amazing AKTT team as one of the best times in my life.  We were leaders at PeopleSoft during its most successful phase in its evolution and we each felt that our contributions had a material impact on the success of the company we loved.

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