Joe Hurd is a global technology executive, public company board director, startup adviser, as well as a husband, and father of three. In this interview we learn from this influential thought leader how the function of business leader has changed during the Covid era, how leaders can empower the new generation of leaders, and what companies and governments can do to ensure a sustainable equality and diversity. Be sure to follow Joe Hurd on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Julia Smith: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your hopes, and what gets you up every morning.
Joe Hurd: Personally, the honest answer is Ellis, our 4-year-old and the light of our lives. He is the reason why I work (and will likely be working until I’m 80, since we had him rather late in life). Nature’s little alarm clock, that one.
Professionally, I’m motivated by three things: personal growth, operational success, and helping others. Most of my daily activities can be classified as either growing, building or advising. Growth is a non-negotiable core value for me: I need to be learning constantly – from the CEOs at our portfolio companies, from my colleagues, from entrepreneurs with good ideas. My elderly neighbors where I grew up in a Boston suburb used to have a pot-bellied wood stove in their basement, and sometimes my mind feels like that wood stove—constantly needing logs to keep the fire burning. In my operational role, I’m building a platform at SOSV, an early-stage venture fund, to provide a strategy/business development/sales platform to our portfolio companies. Many of our founders are highly technical and I partner with them on their go-to-market strategy. I have the best job in the world – I get to work with 20-30 innovative companies each year and leverage my 20 years of experience to help founders become CEOs. I also enjoy advising CEOs, whether at publicly traded companies such as GoCompare.com, where I am a NED, or at pre-seed startups such as Options MD or Plain Sight. I’m lucky to mentor 4 pretty talented African-American first-time CEOs, where I get to take everything that I have learned and leverage my contacts to help them succeed.
I try to walk or run 10-12,000 steps each day for my health. It’s one of the first things I do daily, rain or shine, and I try not to miss it. I use that hourlong block of time of unstructured time in the morning to do things like think through a problem, organize my day, listen to a podcast, give career advice to a university student, talk a founder through a difficult situation, discuss market trends with a colleague, or simply appreciate my surroundings.
I have a lot of hopes: I hope to be able to provide options for my children. I hope to be a good husband and grow old with my wife. I hope to add value to the people and companies with whom I interact. I hope that I can return to public service at some point in the future. I hope that my country will not implode before I have the chance to do so. Those ambitions – family, work, country (and milk for Ellis) – are what I think about as I put my slippers on each morning.
JS: You have a fantastic track record of creating, leading and transforming businesses who call on you. Post pandemic, how has your function changed?
JH: Really good question. I wish the United States was “post-pandemic,” but unfortunately we are still in the fight. I don’t think my basic function has changed – companies and CEOs still need advice and having an external sounding board is more important now than ever. I think that COVID-19 has slightly changed the scope of the advice that I provide, and the manner in which I provide it. In terms of scope, we are back to basics with many companies. Just like the ABCs of triaging a patient – airway, breathing, circulation – I’m focusing on the fundamentals: cash flow, cash burn, and core product. If anything, we are now stepping up the cadence on product/market fit – big corporates don’t really have the time or inclination to test out new ideas right now, and although remote work has facilitated 1:1 access to execs at many companies, pushing for cross-function consensus has become more difficult. That’s the downside of not being able to get everyone in a room right now. So I’m advising companies to keep it simple and focus on what you are good at. In terms of manner, I’m leveraging my EQ and soft skills now more than ever. Everyone I speak with is fighting a silent battle, whether it is concerns over their health, their family’s health, their children’s schooling, their company’s success, their employees . . . I assume that everyone I come into contact with is on a personal journey of some sort and make an extra effort to check in and connect on a personal note rather than just jumping into business. There is nothing like a pandemic to remind everyone of their shared humanity.
JS: As a successful thought and business leader, how do you inspire the new generation of leaders?
JH: A student from HBS, Brian Hollins, started The Takeoff Institute this summer to help black college students who lost their internships due to COVID-19. I advised Jarrett Boyd, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, on a research project about black Fortune 100 board directors, and served as an unofficial mentor to about a dozen other students in the program.
Working with these students – and the 4 other (younger) black CEOs that I mentor – was mind-blowing. This generation was born during or shortly before the largest terrorist attack on the United States, spent their pre-teen years with the United States in a constant state of war, witnessed both the Great Recession and the election of the first black president before they were 12, and then survived Donald Trump’s election, a pandemic, and the even bigger economic dislocation that followed. Almost every institution that we take for granted has been discredited in some fashion – elected officials, the press, companies, universities – and many of them are not yet 22 years old.
This generation doesn’t need inspiration – they have their own ideas and the drive to be successful. What I try to do is listen, learn, share my advice, and course-correct where necessary. If anything, I am inspired by them. The sad truth is that they are going to be addressing today’s challenges such as climate change, systemic racism, budget deficits, parity in the boardroom, or one of the other myriad problems facing us right now, for decades to come. So best to empower folks now as best you can and get the hell out of the way.
JS: We are now witnessing many examples of profit-driven, apathetic leadership that are now becoming more prominent, in particular the way they actively (or worse, inactively) refuse to empower women and black lives. As a leader, what advice do you have for other leaders to ensure they create change in their companies?
JH: In the wake of the Floyd/Aubrey/Taylor murders, I have witnessed many companies rush to declare their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Addressing the root causes of systemic racism is going to take time, and it will require more than a press release and a donation to charity. The numbers of women and black leaders in the executive ranks and corporate boardrooms is not going to be increased in any meaningful way in the next six months, or even the next six years, and the spotlight will soon be on other issues – that’s just the nature of the media cycle. What I stress to people is that the important work begins when the camera lights switch off. One of the most important tactics in marketing is repetition – people have to hear a concept three or four times, over time, before the message really sinks in.
If a company is truly serious about empowering women and black executives both above and below director level, then the board, the CEO, the entire leadership team and every hiring manager is going to have to sign up to the effort. Getting everyone on board and effecting true culture change will take more than a press release, a blog post, changing your logo for a month, or making a big donation. The topic will have to be discussed at multiple board meetings, executive team meetings, and all hands meetings – and that takes both commitment and time. So the more important question to ask, after the Black Lives Matter / we must do more blog post is published and the check is cashed, is “What Happens Tomorrow?” People are watching.
One idea is to tie the CEO’s compensation to diversity outcomes, and have that CEO cascade the concept down to hiring managers. One of the things that I have learned over the years is that in general people do what they are paid to do. If increasing diversity is a corporate imperative, make it one of the non-financial metrics for executive compensation, and then publicly report on it. I’d like to see more companies follow P&G’s example – they have been a leader in this regard.
Another idea that I have been trying to promote, with limited success, is to use an external third party to hold companies accountable for their actions. I’m not talking about an external law or accounting firm hired by the board to produce a report that nobody reads, but an independent organization who can verify how many people were hired or promoted, or where the corporate donations were actually spent and to what effect, and then stack-rank companies. Why not have a “Glassdoor Best Places to Work”-type seal of approval for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace? What gets measured gets done.
JS: Any book/podcast/audiobook/video recommendations for our community?
JH: Oh wow. There is so much good content out there. Axios has some of the best reporting out there, and I start my day reading Dan Primack’s Pro Rata Newsletter and Mike Allen’s Axios AM Newsletter without fail. This team has been setting the agenda for years. I really like Stratechery by Ben Thompson – it’s one of the few pieces of content I actually pay money for, and Scott Galloway has some great insights in his weekly newsletter, No Mercy/No Malice.
I get a lot of insights from listening to podcasts while I go on those morning walks. Andreessen Horowitz has great podcasts – I really respect what Ben and his team have built over the past decade, and they get some great talent to give the backstory behind their businesses. Masters of Scale by my friend Reid Hoffman and How I Built This With Guy Raz also consistently make me think. I am just starting to get into Lewis Howes’ The School of Greatness. One big downside for me of listening while walking is that I have to send emails or texts to myself to record the good points, so I have more added to my inbox when I start the day. If anyone has a good fix for this, I am all ears.
JS: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Joe.
JH: Thanks for the opportunity.