Foregoing a corner office creates a more collaborative, innovative workplace.
5 min read
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The role of CEO has too long been associated with the corner office; a large, private space with a walnut desk says "chief executive" almost as much as the title itself. When I founded Netskope in 2012, I knew what being a CEO meant for the company and culture I wanted to build, and I can tell you it had nothing to do with a corner office (in fact the opposite).
When I think about the role of CEO — or any leader for that matter — one of the first qualities that comes to mind is positive and far-reaching influence. Great CEOs don't simply tell their teams what to do — they build a great team of leaders who embody the culture of collaboration, innovation and transparency, showing them the way and explaining how they'll get there. Influencing and helping those around you to achieve their best requires being in the midst of those you lead. And that's very hard to do when you're shut up in an office.
That's why I decided to always sit with my team from when we were just starting our growth to 500-plus people we have now. Sitting at a desk in the middle of the office ensures my influence can extend to the whole team, that I'm tuned in to the company, anyone can approach me and share thoughts, and I can learn from everyone in an easy, informal and transparent way.
Sitting among my fellow team members reflects my leadership philosophy, but it also provides several key benefits that every business leader should consider.
1. You're approachable to team members at all levels.
Getting rid of a door removes the physical barrier to connecting with others. I can't tell you how many times I've had people walk up and ask if I have a second to chat, and those conversations have resulted in a business decision or a new personal connection.
While chiefs at Facebook and Google are known for designing seating charts that bring the most critical teams, e.g. engineering, closest to them, I prefer to fill desks across from me with new hires. I'm sure it's unnerving for employees on Day One, but by the end of their first month these folks have had an accelerated course in the culture that makes Netskope what it is.
2. Flexibility and collaboration are built into the workplace.
CEOs are notoriously difficult to reach. I had an office at a former company, and it took a lot of effort to have an open dialogue with folks.
By bringing people closer together, the support team can more easily tap into customer success wins. The chief scientist is connected to the marketing team. The engineers are talking to operations — the list goes on. That's not to say everyone is chatting constantly. We have conference rooms, headphones and other tactics for getting in the zone. In an open office like ours, good etiquette around communication is essential to creating an environment that does not hinder productivity.
3. You can participate in the business at all levels.
Everyone from Reed Hastings to leaders at Citigroup and Hubspot are ditching offices for desks on the floor to create more opportunities for collaboration. Since CEOs are often required to sign off on finished projects and ideas, there's less opportunity to collaborate with the team in the trenches. Sitting among the team gives me insight into the challenges the team faces on a daily basis and provides an opportunity to dive into some core processes across product, culture and operations.
A few years ago, I overheard our team discussing how frustrating it was when prior employers would block cloud services without providing any feedback as to why they'd been blocked. I realized that there was an opportunity to create a better end user experience for our customers and this prompted a brainstorm that involved product management, marketing and engineering. Later that year we introduced a feature called "user coaching" to guide end users when they are violating a security policy. When I consider how quickly we were able to come up with this approach and get it into the product, I know that our open floor plan played a significant role.
4. You're closer to the culture.
Eighty-seven percent of CEOs believe a company's financial performance is tied to empathy. The fastest way to gain perspective on how your employees feel about working at your company is sitting beside them. I recently overheard a heated conversation about the catered lunch. Because I was there, we were able to quickly hire a new catering service that people were happier with. I wonder how quickly we would have made the change if I'd been in an office, isolated from daily chatter. While issues like these will get solved eventually, involving the CEO and other leaders makes things happen faster. This is critical, given businesses succeed or fail based on their culture.
Running a business isn't always intuitive. You need many perspectives to keep innovation and growth at the heart of it all. For a CEO — or any senior business leader — being connected to the people you work with is a major factor in the success of your company. Break down barriers to speaking with you, make yourself as available as you can, spitball ideas with teams and keep an eye on the culture. Your business will be better for it, no corner office required.