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Episode 24: Interview with Hiten Shah, Founder of KISSmetrics, CrazyEgg, FYI and Product Habits

As the founder of multiple successful SaaS companies, Hiten shares the pitfalls of being too nice as a leader.

Every few weeks as part of The Heartbeat, I asks one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect about their biggest leadership lesson learned. This week, I interviewed Amir Salihefendić is the founder and CEO of Doist.

Hiten Shah is the founder of numerous successful SaaS companies, including KISSmetricsCrazyEggand now FYI and Product Habits. In our interview, he shares the pitfalls of being too nice as a leader and the importance of the word “outcome.” (And yes, he is in his car while filming this!)

Claire: I’m Claire Lew and I’m the CEO of Know Your Company and I am super excited to have with me today Hiten Shah, who many of you I’m sure are familiar of. Hiten is an amazing entrepreneur who’s founded a lot of software company, whether he was the founder of CrazyEgg or KISSmetrics, and is now working on two different startups and products. One is Product Habitsand then the other is FYI.

Hiten and I, we met, I think, a few years ago, maybe at a conference. I’ve always been a real big fan of your work and excited to ask you this one question about leadership.

Hiten: Yeah, I think we met at MicroConf, if I’m not mistaken.

Claire: I think you’re right, too. Yep. I think it was a couple of years ago in Vegas.

Hiten: Yeah. I’m excited to answer the question and I don’t know what it is yet.

Claire: And I love, also, that you’re calling from a car. You are the first person I’ve interviewed to be calling from a car. Which you clarified, though, you are not driving.

Hiten: I am happy to take that claim. No, not yet.

Claire: Here’s the question. What’s one thing you wish you would’ve learned earlier as a leader?

Hiten: Oh wow. What’s one thing I wish I would’ve learned earlier….

This question’s interesting because, I think when you ask it, I can have a recency bias and say, “Oh. One thing I’m dealing with now that I wish I had known earlier.” But I don’t think that that would be appropriate. So I’m gonna need a couple seconds to think ’cause it’s a good question.

I’ve been I guess doing this for a really long time, and I think I’m not very good at it, to be honest. So I would say that I’m just looking to get better all the time at being a leader, whatever that means.

I think that the one thing that I feel I wish I would’ve understood and knew previously, much earlier, and I wish someone would’ve told me or even if they did maybe I wouldn’t have listened. But I think the big thing is as a leader, as a person who’s responsible for other people — so that’s what I would call a leader in some capacity, just to give it a definition. In the past, I was so very focused on being a nice person, and I recently, and this is another recency bias but I think this was really important for me.

I shouldn’t be necessarily interested in being a nice person and looking to be nice to everyone that works on the team. And I don’t mean that I would be mean, because you would think that’s the opposite. But I want to be objective. I want to be accurate. I want to be honest. And I think a lot of times, and especially this applies to founders I’ve met, they’re nice people, and that prevents them from being honest. That’s the aspect I’m constantly putting myself in check. Am I just being nice? Or am I actually being honest?

Claire: Yes.

Hiten: And there’s a nice way to be honest. But, I think when we think about honesty and being nice, I don’t think they’re related. I think that they aren’t instantly you’re like, “Oh you could be honest and nice.” I think a lot of people believe that if you’re gonna be direct and you’re gonna be objective and work with people and give them feedback and talk about mistakes and problems and how to get better. It’s hard to be nice and honest at the same time.

Claire: Absolutely, no totally.

Hiten: To be honest about it, and I think there’s a big difference between being nice and being honest. Going forward, one of my goals for myself is to not worry about being nice, but be more focused on being honest first in a nice way.

Claire: When did you realize this, Hiten? So, did you get burned by a situation? Is this a pattern that you sort of accumulated over time? Do you feel like there were some sort of big wake up calls where you were like “Whoa, maybe if I focused more on being honest versus nice, we wouldn’t be in this situation” or “I would’ve let this person go earlier” et cetera, et cetera?

Hiten: I think I’ve made that mistake too many times of not letting somebody go earlier and it’s because I wasn’t willing to be honest with them. Instead, we would, you know, people would have discussions about them when they weren’t in the room. We’re a remote team but it’s still the same analogy. And once that happens more than a couple times — a handful is too much, and it usually happens a lot more – there’s something you need to do, and usually what that means is you need to go talk to that person.

Claire: Yes.

Hiten: And I think that there’s a level of toxic culture that develops when you don’t do that that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.

Claire: Yes. Yes.

Hiten: So, I spent so much time making people on the team feel like I’m nice, just like I would make somebody who I’m advising or a friend or anybody who’s more of an acquaintance or what have you, and then I should be nice. Yeah, there’s really nothing at stake there in those relationships in that way. And the funny thing for me is I was way more honest with those people than I tended to be with people on my team. Because if you ask around about me, when I give advice to people not on my team, I’m very honest with them because I want to do what’s best for them. I don’t have more than a meeting or two usually and I’m trying be helpful and being honest is the best way to be helpful to them.

While on the team, these are long-term relationships, most of the ones I have- or they should be, or they want to or are going to be if we’ve done our job right in hiring people and having them join the team. And I feel like honesty is way more important in those situations. I don’t want to be perceived as a nice person necessarily — I’d rather be perceived as someone who is very honest and direct and wants to help people get better through that.

Claire: Absolutely.

Hiten: And I personally struggle with it. I’m not sure how that relates to anybody else and their experience necessarily, but your question was a good one.

Claire: Yeah, yeah. Well, to that point, so this is something that has come up a lot in leaders that we talk to and we work with. We run this online leadership community called The Watercooler where we have over almost 1,000 leaders talking and chatting about their different problems and concerns and one of the things that people bring up a lot of the times is, “Claire, I have trouble giving feedback” or “Eeryone knows me as the nice guy, so how do I go from being the nice guy to being the honest person?”

And when I used to do consulting work, prior to running Know Your Company, one of the biggest trends that I would find in organizations and teams was what I called a “culture of nice” and how do you kill a culture of nice? So it’s even when the entire team starts to embody this whole like, “Oh, good job. Smiley face. Pat each other on the back” and then like “Hmm, do we bring up this mistake? How do we talk about things openly if all we do all day is sort of like, smile and nod our heads and agree with each other all the time?”

So to your question of “Are other people facing this?” – absolutely. My question always is, “Why?” So why is it so hard for people, ‘cause I like being nice, trust me. I’m a pretty smiley person, I like to think I’m a kind person. I know what you’re talking about, Hiten.

So why is it so hard for us people who self-identify as “nice people” to realize that maybe that’s not always the most productive path or that it’s possible to be both nice and honest. And I’ll throw something out there just to sort of poke at both of us here, which is: Is it because we want to be liked? Is it because we care a lot about what people think about us and just want to be liked by people we have worked with for a long time? What’s going on here? Versus say, outsiders, like we don’t really care if they like us or not, but like our team, we kind of really want them to like us. Is that it? I don’t know.

Hiten: Well, if people like you, they want to be around you. Sio f people like you, they want to stay in your company.

I think there’s a basic human nature of “I have to deal with this person all the time. It should be a pleasant experience for every time.”

Claire: Yes.

Hiten: Now, you can apply that to your partnership, your life partnership, or if you’re married, your marriage, whatever have you, because yeah, that should be pleasant to each other. I think that’s important. I think it’s important to get through conflict. A lot of people call some of these relationships at work- whether it’s co-founders or other things “marriages” and I’ve come to terms with that it’s not the same. And the reason I think that it’s not the same and the reason I went from nice to more focused on being honest, which takes time to develop, I think, is that in a business, because we’re talking about a business here, there’s outcomes. There’s outcomes, there’s things we’re looking to accomplish. So our basis isn’t “we have a family” or “there’s two of us and we’re partners and like that’s just how it is” — this is outcomes.

There’s a third factor. It’s not just about me and you, or me and the team, or us as a team, if we’re a team there’s outcomes. So if you think about if we’re being nice, we might forget the outcome because we’re just being nice to each other.

Claire: Absolutely

Hiten: So, to me, the outcome changes construct relationship and we tend to treat our relationships at work the same as our personal relationships, if we’re nice people or want to be perceived as nice when, truthfully, we have outcomes we want to reach and every single individual on the team is responsible for things.

If you’re not honest with them about their responsibilities and expectations and things like that, I think you end up in a place where you’re gonna reach those outcomes that you want for the business. Which is good for everyone!

Claire: I completely agree. Amen.

Hiten: So it’s kind of messed up to be nice and not honest and then not get to your outcome, right?

Claire: No, absolutely. I think your point about a lot of folks in start-ups or business or leaders conflating family relationships or personal relationships with business relationships, I’ve always thought that was actually a mess. I hate it when founders talk about how, “Oh, my team is my family!” It’s like, “Really, though? Because the purpose of your family is not to accomplish this goal to create a better outcome in the world or create impact or create revenue or whatever your goals are. Like your family doesn’t have business goals, your team does.” And the whole point of an organization is to actually accomplish something. It’s not actually about just making sure everyone feels good, because if everyone feels good then you’re actually not accomplishing anything.

It’s actually even why I hate the buzzword “employee engagement” ’cause it’s this idea that everyone just needs to be engaged. It’s like, “Yeah, when people feel good about their work then they’re going to do better work.” But are they gonna feel like that all the time? No. And is it- should the focus be on just having people feel good without any concern about if the actual goals are being accomplished? No. And so I think you’re absolutely right. It’s almost this over-reliance on thinking that everyone just needs to feel good and that’s what gonna- and that’s sort of the outcome, when obviously there’s very different outcomes.

So, question for you, then, Hiten. Last thing here before you go. For perspective founders or current founders and leaders who are watching this and who have been nodding their heads going, “Yes, Hiten, I’m with you. I’m the nice gal- or I’m the nice guy- in the organization” and it sounds like you’re working on this- what advice to you have for them? Is there anything you’re sort of consciously thinking about or doing or talking to folks about just to make sure you are more honest than you are nice?

Hiten: I think one of the most powerful tools is the ability to reflect and do the equivalent of a postmortem in as many areas in your business as possible. And that’s almost sterile, tactical tip, but to me those reflections, those postmortems, those “How did we actually do? We did that, what happened? How did we do? Can we get better? How can we get better?”

All of those things are super important in being able to ask and asking people, ’cause they won’t really tell you ’cause it’s a form of feedback. And feedback is the breakfast of champions, I would say, but it’s also one of the hardest things to get out of people.

So repeatedly asking for it, repeatedly to find a way to get it on specific things, like just the other day, I asked a team member, “Hey, you’re really good at process improvements. You’ve joined the team in the last month and a half and I would like you to almost be that cop. Like, ‘Hey, we’re screwing up here’ or like tell us where we can do better on process.”

One of the things that I’m working on, process is what’s required because we’re going from an early stage to a more scale-able, repeatable execution. And this person was brought in mostly because he’s very good at that, but if I don’t ask him- the team doesn’t ask him — he’s not gonna mention it. It almost needs to get annoying to the point where I’m asking him and annoying him and I’m always at it like, “Hey we can do this better. Oh, this isn’t right, right?” Things like that. So, that’s another aspect of what I mean, because that’s almost a reflection. It’s like, “Help us reflect on something we suck at today. You’re good at it. You’re great at it.” So whoever’s great at something, make them be the cop, so to speak.

I think the third one is this word “outcome” is not used enough, in my opinion. And outcome isn’t just about your business, it’s also like, if you wanna be nice to somebody, if you wanna be honestly nice, talk about what their outcomes are. “What’re you looking to accomplish for the business? What’re you looking to accomplish for yourself? And how can I and the business help you get there?”

And sometimes people don’t know what that is when you ask them, “How can I help you get what you want in life?”

Claire: Exactly.

Hiten: Because you’re working here to get what you want in life. You’re not just working here to work here and accomplish what we want to work on as a team. There’s something you want in your life and I don’t really care what it is in the sense of not telling me, or it being private, or whatever. Tell me and I can help you get it. And that’s an outcome, too.

Claire: Yes, absolutely.

Hiten: Then you’re being honest.

Claire: Yes.Absolutely. There’s this book called The Fifth Discipline that talks about this and the word that the author, Peter Senge, uses to describe it is, he uses “vision.” So, that picture of a better place, like “if everything goes well, this is where we wanna be.” It’s vision and then the team obviously has a vision for where they want to be. You’ve got your current reality and your vision, but everyone also has a personal vision, and the role of the leader is to actually take those personal visions and somehow align it to that bigger vision. But you’ve gotta know what those personal visions are. You’ve gotta know what the personal outcomes that people desire.

Hiten: Yeah.

Claire: I’m so in line with that, Hiten, and appreciate so much all your insights. I know all those watching — at least folks who consider themselves nice — can relate and have found your thoughts helpful. Thanks so much.

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.