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Art of Leading

“I’m Looking to Build a Championship Team, Not a Team of Champions.”

September 30, 2019

Kim Perell, CEO of Amobee, is a powerhouse leader. I interviewed her years ago for my Corner Office series in The New York Times, and was eager to reconnect with her to discuss how her approach had evolved as her company has grown. She shared smart thoughts on building teams, hiring, and setting a high bar for execution.

Q. How have you evolved as a leader in recent years?

A. Because we’ve done several acquisitions, it’s been a great learning experience of how to continually adapt to the different company cultures, and understanding and appreciating all the differences while also integrating them so there’s a continuous thread through our company. How do we continue to keep the best of the best and create a culture that embodies all of the companies?

Q. How do you do that? Because most integrations generally don’t work.

A. I’m very clear on the values. Because I was an entrepreneur and started my own company, we had values and then, having gone through an acquisition and integrations and then through another acquisition, you really learn what your core values are. For us, the values that need to be consistent across any acquisition are passion, innovation and collaboration.

They should embody any company that we decide to either merge with, integrate with or acquire. They are my personal values, and also what we expect all of the individuals we want on the team. You want to create those clear values so that no matter what country or office you’re in, you’re living by them.

“All-star players aren’t going to work in the current environment.”

The idea is captured in that quote, “I’m looking to build a championship team, not a team of champions.” At the size and scale we’re at, it’s so important to have a championship team. All-star players aren’t going to work in the current environment. We need individuals who want to play together.

Q. You have about 1,000 employees in 21 offices around the world. How do you keep the company operating as one culture when you’re so geographically dispersed?

A. It’s hard. Honestly, it’s what keeps me up at night. The key is continuing to have really great communication across all the offices. We’ve just instituted a new process called “the loop,” which is a live video Q&A every two weeks with three of the executive-team members from around the world. Anyone can call in and anonymously ask questions. Then you can replay it in different offices to accommodate the different time zones.

Q. What else do you do to encourage collaboration across the culture?

A. Every quarter, we have work councils ⁠— with eight to ten people pulled together from different regions and departments ⁠— tied to specific initiatives that we’re focused on in that quarter. That’s helped with the acquisitions because you get to know people who aren’t in your current team. I’m on the call every two weeks to track progress, so it’s really driving collaboration on a global scale.

Q. Hiring team players is obviously key to your approach. How do you make sure they are team players?

A. Part of it is asking what they like most about their current job. If it’s working by themselves, that’s probably not a good sign. I’ll ask about how they interact with other departments across the organization, understanding what they like best about working cross-functionally and what they don’t like.

    “When did you raise your hand and take on a project outside of your current scope?”

I also will ask for an example of a time that they took initiative. When did you raise your hand and take on a project outside of your current scope? I don’t want someone who just wants to do a job. I want someone who wants to innovate or have impact to change the company.

Q. What would you tell new hires about what it’s like to work for you?

A. I like to be informed. I tell people all the time that I love information. So if you tell me what you did, that raises your visibility with me, and starts a conversation where I want to learn more. Too often, when you hire someone, there’s not a lot of transparency into what’s happening. I want to know what you’re thinking about.

Q. What are your pet peeves?

A. Mine is a lack of attention to detail. I like an executive summary, but I want to make sure you know all the details about anything that you’re talking about. If you have an idea, great, but I want to make sure you’ve done all of your research because I’m probably going to double-check it.

Q. What about meetings or PowerPoint presentations?

A. The details matter there, too. The way you do anything is the way you do everything, and if you’re not meticulous on everything you do, that means you’re going to be sloppy somewhere else. I have zero tolerance for that.

    “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

I’ll even tell people after a meeting if they forgot to the put the page number on a particular slide. I believe everyone’s trying to do a great job, but I think they need the feedback to remind them to be really professional. Bring your best self to work. I notice everything. It’s very frustrating, I’m sure.

Q. As you spend more time on boards and assessing other CEOs, what is the most important X factor in leadership for you?

A. Passion. The CEO is going to go through some pain, so are they going to be able to handle it? It’s not easy. It’s lonely and it’s hard and there’s a lot of pressure, so your passion has to be able to overcome everything else. It’s just the ability to keep going long after everybody else would give up. That’s maybe the difference between a manager and a leader. And to be a CEO, you need people to follow you.

Q. What is your best advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

A. Get a real job.

Q. That’s not an answer I hear very often.

A. You have to get some on-the-job training. The first eight hours goes to your day job, and the next eight hours goes to whatever you want to build. I really believe that having some foundation, if you’re just graduating, of practical experience in how the world actually works is really valuable.

It’s not forever, but it will give you a network, experience, and an income so you can do your side hustle. It gives you a foundation, which is really important to use as a springboard to start your own company. So that’s my advice. If you want to be entrepreneur, get a job.

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