Ask Me Anythings
August 30, 2021

Former right hand to Jeff Bezos, Erich Schmidt & Marissa Meyer - Ann Hiatt, Author of 'Bet on Yourself'

Ann Hiatt is a Silicon Valley veteran who received her initial business training during 15 years as the Executive Business Partner to Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and Chief-of-Staff to Eric Schmidt (CEO and Executive Chairman at Google/Alphabet).Her very first job was at 16 when she worked at a startup in Redmond, Washington called MusicWare - back when no one knew what a startup was. Growing up in Seattle during the original dotcom boom, surrounded by companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, was a master class in innovation and it changed the course of her life.Ann now consults with executives and companies across the globe to reverse engineer their moonshot goals and get results by applying the lessons of innovation, ambition, growth at scale and forward-thinking leadership she learned at Amazon and Google. Aside from this, Ann is committed to democratizing the internet and bringing underrepresented voices to the forefront.Ann is a sought-after international speaker, angel investor and sits on several boards in the UK. Ann has recently relocated from Silicon Valley to Europe and brings with her a unique perspective on what it takes to succeed in business today.

How does the appetite for B2C startups vary between US and Europe, specifically in the EdTech space?

I see an international trend generally in both the US and Europe moving to B2C. And EdTech is really hot right now. I see a lot of companies popping up and investors really moving in. It sounds like you're on a great path!

How do top executives prioritise their tasks as they often juggle across a number of different teams/products. Do they try to keep days to a specific theme?

There are several best practices here - and it's really an evolving art for us all, right? Yes, I think time-blocking is really effective where you protect larger chunks of time for similarly themed work. Like Senior Strategy meetings on Monday mornings, 1:1s with direct reports on Tuesday afternoons, etc. But what most people forget to do is protect uninterrupted time for thought work, reflection and inspiration. Don't overbook your calendar!

I also think it's essential to have someone tasked with helping you prioritize and reprioritze. Having an outside check-and-balance partner can be really helpful whether it's a Chief of Staff, deputy or co-founder.

I have weeks when I slip into the whack-a-mole system of just tackling whatever is at the top of my inbox (like this week) and not pausing to prioritize and use my time accordingly. But when I do it work is not only more efficient but I feel less drained and find more joy in my work. I'm a work in progress!

How did working for a start-up at such a young age influence the course of your career?

Working at a startup at 16 was the greatest gift ever because I had absolutely NO idea how to do any part of my job. That was an advantage because I couldn't hide behind doing only the tasks I knew how to do well. Because there weren't any I had no choice but to get comfortable making a lot of mistakes, pivoting fast and not being afraid of failure. I learned that it was not only OK but an essential skill at a startup. And I saw that even my co-founders were also learning as they went. That prepared me for the MUCH higher stakes projects I took on at Amazon after University.

What would you say are the main differences you've noticed between European startups and Silicon Valley startups? And Are there any main tips you'd give Irish startups selling in to the US?!

The biggest differences I see are that European startups think globally from Day 1 and US don't have that which I think has both advantages (EU thinks about scale, cultural expectations, languages much earlier) and disadvantages (EU has higher burden for launch than serving a single language/country market) I also see a big difference in funding and risk tolerances with investors. EU investors tend to invest on the smaller scale and expect higher proof of concept than US investors - but I see this starting to change. As they say, everything in the States is bigger!

What do you think differentiated Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt from other up and coming founders at the time. And I have to ask, what was it like to work for them?

There are a few things that differentiated them. If I had to pick just one it would be their demand for feedback. They not only tolerated but demanded their execs (and really ALL employees) to push back on their ideas - especially the favorite ones. They praised those who could poke holes in their ideas and rewarded challenging their own status quo. Not many people can do this with the intensity and frequency that they did and continue to do today.

Working for them was amazing and the best business school I could ever have dreamed up. They demanded a lot of me and pulled me outside of my comfort zone every single day. They gave me projects far outside my job description and doubled down when new talents were discovered. That was a great gift. But it was tough too. Long nights, thin margins for error, relentless pace... I loved it!

Which was your favourite ‘Bet on Yourself’ podcast to record?

Oh that's a tough one! Some favorite episodes have been with Sal Khan (Khan Academy), Kerim Derhali (Invstr), Christina Sass, Panni Morshedi (Beauty Pie)... OK all of them! They each were chosen because of their different expertise, background and impact. They all have inspired new take aways for me!

Any tips on refining your mission/vision?

So glad you asked this question! I have CEO consulting clients all over the world and they tend to come to me when they start to scale and stuff starts to break - which is always accompanied with big success. Every single time we go back to their mission and values to create a compass for adjusting to scale. Every time. It's worth putting in a lot of time to be sure yours are right. A good test is if you could give them to a brand new employee and ask them to solve mission critical problems with only those as a guide, could they make the decisions you would make when. you're not in the room? A good example of effective mission/vision/values are the Amazon Leadership Principles. I still have them memorized (17 years later) because of how often we referenced them on a daily basis.

Regarding Amazon was the development of AWS always seen as the end goal once the suite had been built for Amazons retail sites or did the business just gradually understand that they could develop AWS into a SaaS offering?

I'm not an expert on this because this really started to take off right when I left Amazon in 2005. But what I do know is that it seemed to be adopted overnight by some of the most impactful startsups of the time. I remember Eric Schmidt commenting on this when I joined Google in 2006 about how suddenly all of the companies he was investing in (via his VC Innovation Endeavors) were suddenly built on that platform. It came out of no where! I give full credit to Andy Jassy and his amazing team for that blitzscaling strategy!

Did you see any similarities in how Jeff, Eric and Marissa went about building teams and hiring people? For example, was there any specific personality traits, core competencies etc that they all seemed to look for in people?

Hiring was an area where they all had very exacting standards. Jeff's S-Team members were all with him for a decade plus. Eric hires for depth of intelligence with a bit of quirk. Marissa hires early stage, innovative thinkers and carefully crafts them into dominant leaders within just a few years. They all hire slow and fire first. They do not hire anyone who isn't a "hell yes!" hire. If it's in any way lukewarm they move on. I think the quality people of the team you build is the single largest indicator of future success - even above strategy. (Happy to debate that but I firmly believe that to be true).

I was wondering if you had any advice for beginning ones career, specifically if you would advise prioritising the role or the company you join when evaluating jobs.

Love this question! I would look for 3 things. Seek out 1- a company and/or industry of disruption (which is taking a new approach and/or using tech in a new application), 2- would you be working for a manager you want to become like (not just that you like) and 3- What specifically will you learn in that role? Have detailed things in mind that you want to develop expertise in and ask specifically how/if you would be exposed to learning and developing that. These three things have made ALL the difference in my career. Titles don't matter. I want to be on a team, learning as much as possible in an evolving field working for a manager who will train me to be the type of leader I want to become.

Slow and steady or all in?

I'd have to know more. But my gut reaction is all in! I'll cheat and say that I think you actually need to do both. Be fully committed but take a small steps with lots of pivots approach.

What do you believe to be an effective way to keep a startup team motivated given this remote work landscape we live in right now.

This is so hard. I've seen several things be really important. 1- leadership needs to over-communicate! You think they hear you the first time, but when they are trying to learn and implement alone they need constant guidance, feedback and reminders. 2- Evaluate your culture. Culture is actually how you get things done - what do you reward, celebrate and incentivize? 3- Leadership needs to be even more visibly accessible. One tip here is to have open office hours where anyone at all in the company can pop in for a 5 minute chat or quick questions (to replicate those impromptu hallway conversations). This way you hear the questions and feedback that would never justify asking for 30 min of your calendar and keeps you connected to all levels of the company. It works wonders!

What is the biggest mistake that founders make when it comes to hiring staff. And what advice would you give to start-ups to retain staff who are being offered bigger salaries elsewhere?

It's always tempting but a mistake to just hire fast to fill the seats as you're growing. I know things are moving fast but don't be tempted to hire fast and then have to deal with bigger problems down the line. It's a huge waste of time and resources. Jeff Bezos told me (while trying to hire my replacement) that his rule is to only hire people you have to hold back, not push forward. Have only people who share your vision are so passionate about your mission  that you'll have to spend more of your time directing their enthusiasm than pulling it out of them. This is how you create a culture of innovation and passion.

The second thing is to have early conversations with employees who you do not see being able to uplevel their skills at the pace that the company is growing. Help them feel valued, invested in and on-board with the fact that there is likely a day coming when someone will be hired above them (despite your loyalty to them). If you do this LONG before the hard decisions need to be made you'll both be on the same page and make the transitions much easier. This is a very hard one for most founders. But it will save you so much stress and time in the longterm.

How have the executives you've worked with balanced ambition and growth against their well being to prevent burn out?

One best practice is that they all do their own form of thinking retreats where they step away from the day to day and prioritize thought work. Jeff Bezos did this for 1 week every quarter in a boring hotel room where he cleared his mind (zero TV, reading, phones, nothing!) and then filled blank notebooks with unfiltered thoughts and ideas. Eric Schmidt did what we called Listening Tours where we would go to Google global offices adn have Town Halls with all levels of employees to hear their ideas, frustrations and feedback. Then we would go out into the community and listen to experts of all fields to see what common threads were bought up and then draft ways we could solve these issues. This is how we stayed innovative and pivoted early. Not enough execs give themselves permission to prioirtize thinking and vision. You can even do this in smaller chunks like protecting 1 hour a day to do whatever fills up your energy and inspiration (a morning hike, podcasts, playing with the dog, going to a new museum). It can be anything that inspires you, fills you with joy and brings in new stimulus.

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