“We have an open-door policy. By creating that type of culture, people feel free to speak up constantly,” says Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, a leading clean energy services company, of what makes a successful and productive workforce. In the following interview, Rive discusses – among other things – why having a transparent culture is critical to his company’s success.
When you started SolarCity six years ago, the company was made up of only two people. Now it has over 2600 employees. What elements of your culture have stayed strong throughout? The key thing about our culture that has helped us in growing the company is the fact that everyone is passionate about the mission. We all understand the importance to transform our dirty energy infrastructure to clean infrastructure, something we know is a 50- or 100-year mission. You can’t transform this massive infrastructure overnight. The employees at this company are passionate about solving this problem. When things like Hurricane Sandy or other bad weather conditions occur, or when things like air pollution cause health problems like asthma—all these things hurt people. The people here want to do so something about it and feel good about the work they do. At the end of the day, there’s something to show for their work. They can actually point to something, and say, “I’ve done that. I’m making an individual difference.” They care about that.
How do you keep your employees engaged? We treat our employees very well. It’s a family approach, a team approach. Both myself and my brother, the other founder, Peter, are sports fanatics, so we participate in a lot of team sports. The team culture is important. At our top values, we are teammates. Every employee gets stock options in the company. We do our best to treat everyone with respect. In return, they treat the company with respect. That effort has helped the growth. We also highly encourage our team to bring friends into the company.
You’ve had tremendous growth over the last few years. What advice would you share with other executives who are leading rapid growth? They’re the same lessons you read in textbooks, and the reason for that is because they’re true. Communicate as much as possible. Be as transparent as possible. In our culture, we try to allow people to ask any questions they wish. We have an open-door policy. There are no closed doors. By creating that type of culture, people feel free to speak up constantly.
How are you addressing the skills gap for talent in your industry? How do you overcome that gap? It’s hard. When you’re essentially doubling your headcount almost every year, you need to have good path for promoting within. But when you start promoting within, the individuals taking on more senior roles don’t always have the experience needed. At the phase that we’re in now, we’re going to have to put more effort into leadership training. Leadership training will be a focus for 2013 and 2014. People are getting promoted fairly quickly because of the fantastic work they’re doing, but we need more management training to round out their skillsets.
Beyond your entrepreneurial spirit, what soft skills do you believe are most important to your success? First and foremost, I try very hard to treat everyone with respect. Good teamwork starts with mutual respect. I think it’s important to listen—a good idea can come from anywhere and there can’t be pride of ownership on a team. Success ultimately comes from focusing on the right results. I empower people to do their work. If they are struggling to get the work done for any reason, I get involved. Striking the balance among empowering, supporting and actively managing is a key to success.
What is the best professional advice that you’ve ever received? Follow your gut. That applies to many things. If your gut says, “This person is not the right person to hire,” but everybody else says, “No, no, this person has it,” follow your gut. In other words, trust your instinct. Another piece of advice I try to follow is “enjoy the ups.” We all work so hard that, in any given year, there are times when you’ve hit significant milestones. But you may hit the significant milestone on Wednesday, but you’re too busy thinking about the hole you have to dig yourself out of on Thursday. If you always only think about the challenges ahead—because there will always be challenges ahead—and you don’t enjoy the moments of your success, you’ll just make yourself depressed. So enjoy the ups in life. Take a moment, and enjoy the ups.
What do you think makes a good leader—or what makes a good leader to you? I think the strongest leaders are the ones who lead by example. I think it’s hard on employees when their leaders say to them, “Work hard” or “Follow these values,” but then the leaders don’t work hard themselves or follow those values themselves. Leaders need to hold themselves to the same principles as they do their employees. So lead by example.