Matt Glotzbach | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Matt Glotzbach

Background:  

Matt Glotzbach is the CEO of San Francisco–based Quizlet, the largest user-generated consumer learning platform in the United States. Quizlet is used by one in two high school students and one in three college students.

The Mistake:

My mistake was in conflating my company’s need for a corporate vision with a desire for a top-down plan laid out by management.

I spent more than 10 years at Google, which grew to be a very large company, with tens of thousands of employees and a very structured planning process and cadence. Then, in the spring of 2016, I made the transition to a small startup, Quizlet.

As a 30-person company, Quizlet seemed unstructured. It had a much more freewheeling, figure-it-out-as-you-go, casual type of environment.

One of the things there that I discovered early was a real hunger for a more structured plan. People wanted a formalized roadmap with a more cohesive set of goals for the company. They really wanted to see a crystalized vision and a plan they could buy into.

As a result, I brought some tools from my past and introduced objectives and key results. My leadership team and I put together a four-year plan and rolled it out to the company. People seemed to be excited to have that vision and that structure.

However, I noticed the look the face of one individual, a senior engineer on our team for a number of years and a natural leader in the company. This person was not really excited. It just wasn’t the look I had expected to see.

So I pulled him aside later that day and asked him, “What do you think? Do you like the plan?” He said he loved the plan, and it made a lot of sense.

And I said, “Great! Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” He said yes.

Then I asked if he was excited about it. And he said, “Well, yeah,” in a tone that wasn’t so enthusiastic.

And as I probed a little deeper, I understood that he liked this plan and bought into it — but didn’t feel part of it. This was because he was told, “This is what we’re going to do,” as opposed to, “This is what we want to achieve.”

People want to know where the company is headed — but they don’t want to be left out of the planning process.

The Lesson:

People want to know where the company is headed — but they don’t want to be left out of the planning process. I thought the team’s desire for structure, goals and a plan meant people wanted that plan to come from the top down. I realized these are two very different things.

So we moved away from the top-down approach.

The leadership team still sets the overall direction for the company, and we still provide the goals and metrics we’re going to use to measure our success. But now we’re focused on bringing everyone in the company into the process, using a very bottom-up, participatory approach.

We’re empowering everyone on the team to know how we’re going to achieve our goals — how we’re going to make a plan a reality.

We’re empowering the team by saying, “Here’s what success looks like. Now you go figure out how to do this.” As a result, the level of engagement and excitement is off the charts. This is because people really feel like this plan is their own. It’s not something someone has told them to do. Instead, it’s something they’ve devised and really believe in. And as a result, we see people working in a much more engaged fashion.

Matthew Glotzbach is on Twitter: @mglotzbach.

​Photo courtesy of Quizlet

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