This interview with Brent Frei,executive chairman and co-founder ofSmartsheet.com, a provider of online project management software, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?
A. I grew up on a wheat, barley and beef cattle farm in Idaho. Probably more than most kids, I had an opportunity to do big things early on. When I was 6 years old, my dad needed to get a tractor and a pickup home from five miles away. He put me in the pickup, put it in first gear, and I drove it home with my 5-year-old sister in the passenger seat. He drove the tractor behind us.
I did real work from a young age on the farm. It was fascinating, and it was fun. We were fixing machines, cutting down trees and everything else. It was like a boy’s playground.
How big was the farm?
It was 800 acres. That was a little bit below the threshold for break-even, but Dad kept it going just through sheer willpower. When I started my first company, he and Mom put money in because I couldn’t get anybody to finance it. Fast-forward five years, and the $13,000 they put in was worth $3 million. Now Dad farms about 3,000 acres.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
Everyone likes working for my dad, and it’s pretty obvious why. He always takes the hardest job. He’s always down there working with you, so you never have to figure it out for yourself. You see how it’s done the right way. And he just gave you the sense that you can get it done no matter how hard it is. I felt incredibly important.
Other early leadership lessons?
I played football in high school and at Dartmouth. I’ll never forget a game we were playing at Columbia. I was on defense and trying to put pressure on the quarterback, but the linemen were practically tackling me, and the refs weren’t doing anything about it.
But the coach was riding me, and I told him my valid excuse: “They’re holding and they’re not calling it.” And he said to me, “Well, then we’re going to lose.” It was the way he said it. We ultimately won the game, but the lesson was that there’s a valid excuse for every failure, but the question is, How do you overcome those valid excuses? Ever since, I’ve said to people I’m working with, “There may be a reason why we’re not going to be successful, but how are we going to overcome that?”
What did you do coming out of college?
I studied mechanical engineering. I didn’t have a clear path on where I was going, but I ended up working for Motorola for about 18 months in Florida. I was working on their first flip phone. It was really interesting, but it was my first experience in a big company, and it was pretty frustrating, because people were often promoted based on seniority rather than merit. I believe so firmly in meritocracy, and that you get what you earn. You shouldn’t be penalized because you have less time or experience than others. That drove me crazy.
Was it an easy transition for you to start managing people for the first time?
It was very easy, mostly because I didn’t feel like I had to be in charge. It was much more of a player-coach role. There are a lot of really successful ways to be a leader, but the only way I know how to do it is to be part of the team. You get people on board, convince them about the right thing to do, get lots of input and ultimately drive to our goal.
I hate managing. But if we hire right, there’s no managing; it’s just leading. And there’s a big difference between leading and managing. Leadership is: “We’ve got a problem, everybody. We’re all smart people. Let’s figure out how we’re going to solve it. Let’s divvy up the pieces and let’s go do them.”
Another C.E.O. I interviewed likes to ask job candidates, “What is your natural strength?” How would you answer that?
One of them is that I can see a lot of moving parts, and I can tell you what the conclusion is going to be. The other one is that I can relate to almost any person. I don’t know how I do it, but I can get a lot of different personalities that may otherwise not work together to work together. And it has enabled us to take really excellent people that wouldn’t normally mesh well and create a really good team.
How do you hire?
I look for people who are bright and have a high “get-it” factor. That means they’re quick studies, so if I’m talking about something really complex, they’ll say, “Got it.”
I also find that the best people are consistent in every aspect of their life. They have the same level of intensity with their family and sports and other hobbies that they do at work. So you can understand their characteristics at work by looking at their other areas of life.
I’m also looking for people who are mentally athletic and agile. I will usually pick a person with aptitude and attitude over experience any day.
In terms of questions, I’ll often ask people to characterize themselves, and to tell me what motivates them. Then I’ll ask, “What would your enemies say about you?” If they say they don’t have any enemies, I’ll say: “Let’s pretend you do. What would they say?”
I’m sure a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs seek you out for advice. What do you tell them?
I often say to them, “Don’t do it unless you really mean it.” If you’re not willing to eat rice and beans, and to get your wife and kids to eat rice and beans, don’t bother, because somewhere along the way, it’s going to be that hard. You have to have that mentality. Otherwise, it can be really difficult.