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February 23, 2022

Snowflake chairman and CEO Frank Slootman on leadership and the war against mediocrity

“Leading for unprecedented growth means declaring war on mediocrity, breaking the status quo, and making conflicted choices daily, all with a relentless focus on the mission,” says Frank Slootman, chairman and CEO of Snowflake, one of the leading data platforms built from scratch for the cloud.

As CEO of three highly successful Silicon Valley companies, Frank has shown time and again that the keys to accelerating performance are aligning your employees around what matters and then executing with urgency and relentless intensity. Committed to sharing the lessons he’s learned, Frank recently authored a new best-selling book, Amp It Up, outlining his unique and inspiring leadership philosophies. In a recent ICONIQ Ideas: Growth conversation with ICONIQ partner Matthew Jacobson, Frank shared how he keeps his competitive fire stoked, why execution is critical for driving clearer strategy, and how to transform an organization for maximum growth and scale.

Balancing operational execution and strategy

In order to build an enduring business, Frank suggests the need to discern and strike a balance between strategy and operational execution. While many organizations might over-index on continuously refining the strategic narrative, viewing it as a “high-minded, intellectually stimulating subject,” Frank believes it is important to remain steadfastly committed and laser-focused on prioritizing execution and getting one’s hands dirty. Without realizing it, operators may unknowingly over-rotate on strategy or second-guess that strategy too frequently and overlook the simple truth that the crux of many issues are usually operational in nature.

Adaptability and calibration in the face of mistakes

As leaders continue to grapple with decisions and live by their consequences, Frank suggests that those who “fail fast”, to quote Scott McNealy, are able to more quickly recognize, remediate and rapidly course correct towards a potentially more viable path. The concept is one that permeates many successful organizations today, especially with the backdrop of a high trust environment, free of politics.

During our dynamic conversation, Frank shared examples around the challenge of being intellectually honest about failure and mistakes, particularly rampant within high camaraderie sales organizations where confronting a lack of performance is usually a highly sensitive topic. Frank encourages leaders to remain objective in systematically understanding and addressing underperformance, often through confrontation. Confrontation is tough, but “as a CEO, confrontation is part of your bailiwick”! If someone is uncomfortable with that, he thinks they might want to question their fit for the CEO role.

As these values become instilled within the organizational architecture of Snowflake, executives and managers now regularly perform active “calibration” group sessions where they share personal evaluations of important areas and seek feedback from their peer groups outside of their direct chain of command. This practice effectively allows for enhanced organizational clarity and congruence through collective reflections on critical topics.

Instilling a sense of urgency and velocity

Over the years, Snowflake has become a talent magnet attracting those who desire a culture of high energy. While the organization has grown to nearly 4,000 employees today amidst an increasingly remote environment, it remains highly nimble and scrappy as “there is no rule of physics that says everything needs to go to crap when you hit a certain scale”. It is up to the leadership to say, “we are not going to let that happen”. He believes leaders have enormous opportunities to set the pace, marshal their energy to “amp it up”, raise standards and build urgency every interaction and every day.

As humans naturally default towards a glacial pace, Frank suggests that leaders have the responsibility to rid organizations of inertia and mediocrity. While there are many ingredients required to instill this collective sense of urgency, one important pillar is breaking down silos and going direct. Frank himself prefers to operate on the firing line and not through layers to get constant signal and pulse.

Breaking down silos and going direct

In Amp It Up, Frank suggests that lack of collaborative execution hampers many organizations as silos enforce rigid power structures and encourage power hoarding, creating politically uncomfortable environments. Fortunately, there is a panacea in the form of “going direct”.

Snowflake operates in a highly horizontal manner, encouraging employees to function as one big team instead of a series of competing smaller teams and identifying ways to address problems collaboratively where they exist in ways that transcend organizational lines. Each employee is empowered to communicate with any other employee regardless of rank or title. Even as CEO, Frank is “not a command-and-control leader contrary to popular belief” and remains highly facilitative in encouraging employees to collectively reach creative solutions instead of simply dictating every step of the way.

Customer success as a collective endeavor

The culture of collaboration across silos is most obvious when viewed from the lens of a critical business objective: customer success. Despite the recent rise of dedicated customer success departments as a distinct part of modern organizational fabric, Frank decisively transformed it into a shared responsibility across every corner of Snowflake, obviating the need to structure this as a distinct function. In essence, Snowflake’s true north and mission in serving its customers permeates the organization, creating aligned incentives across all functions which has generated a world-class customer experience that manifests itself very measurably.