If he ever writes a book about his leadership philosophy, DocuSign CEO Dan Springer has a title in mind: SEW Your Way to Success.
Springer, also president at DocuSign (DOCU), uses three criteria to size up potential leaders: skills, ego and work ethic. He refers to them as SEW.
He assigns SEW scores by assessing an individual on a one-to-five scale in each of the three categories. From there, he takes the “S” score, divides it by “E” and raises it to the power of the “W” score.
To illustrate, he computes his own score.
“I start with skills or smarts,” he told Investor’s Business Daily. “If Bill Gates is a five and one is weak, I’m about a four. If five is having a huge ego and one is focusing only on the organization’s success, I’m down to a two. I was a four earlier in my career.”
In terms of how hard he works, he gives himself a four with five as a workaholic. So his SEW score is 16 (four divided by two equals two. Taking that to the fourth power equals 16).
He favors this formula because if the ego score gets too high, it drowns out the other two elements. Tamping down your ego lifts your score and increases your effectiveness as a leader.
“Ego is the place where you have a huge opportunity to impact the organization,” said Springer, who became DocuSign’s CEO in January 2017. “It’s at the heart of things you can control.”
Springer, 57, joined DocuSign, a San Francisco-based company that lets organizations manage electronic agreements, after leading Responsys for a decade. Oracle (ORCL) acquired Responsys, a SaaS (software as a service) company, for roughly $1.5 billion in 2014.
Deliver Results Like The DocuSign CEO
Springer’s success at DocuSign is head-turning.
Shares of DocuSign are up 500% from their closing price on their first day of trading in April 2018. The S&P 500 is up just 47% in that time. And the company is on pace to post $1.4 billion in revenue in the latest fiscal year ended in January, up more than 270% in just four years. Meanwhile, DocuSign is expected to make an adjusted profit of $149.8 million, or 74 cents a share, in the fiscal year. DocuSign lost money when Springer started.
Close ties with employees help. To take the pulse of the company’s more than 5,000 employees, DocuSign conducts an annual survey. The most recent one generated nearly a 90% response rate, Springer says.
To save time as he reads the comments, Springer uses software that tracks keywords and phrases. He pays special attention to issues that arise more than once and often follows up with respondents to gather more input.
Simplify What Matters Most To Provide Clarity Of Mission
For Springer, leadership requires reducing complexities into simple concepts. He says that setting “clarity of mission” for employees removes uncertainty about why their job matters.
At quarterly all-hands meetings, Springer helps staffers align their daily work responsibilities with broader corporate goals: customer success, employee success and innovation.
“I have a score card and I tell everyone, ‘If you don’t understand how your work aligns with these goals, ask your manager,’ ” Springer said. “Our financial goals will be fine if we achieve these other goals.”
Support Employees Amid Hardship
Springer believes employees succeed when the CEO stands by them during trying times. So he looks for ways to make each employee “a little more successful,” he says.
When a conflict between a customer and a service representative escalated, Springer stepped in. He spoke to both parties. The service rep insisted the customer was being unreasonable and the customer expressed dissatisfaction with the employee.
“I tried to engage the customer but the customer continued to harass our employee,” Springer recalled. “So I fired the customer. All that matters is that the employee feels supported.”
Deliver Bad News With Compassion
The best leaders convey empathy, Springer says. They feel for others and communicate with sensitivity, especially when delivering bad news.
Soon after joining a tech firm as its CEO in 2000, Springer decided to lay off about 30 employees. That evening, four of them came into his office.
“It was 6 or 7 at night and I was alone,” he said. “I thought maybe they were going to beat the crap out of me. But they told me how badly they felt for me. They could see how difficult it was for me” to announce the layoffs.
Keep A Check On Authority
Springer is also hesitant to assert his authority unnecessarily. Apple‘s (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs impatiently brushed aside employees’ presentations so that they skipped right to what he deemed most important.
Springer takes a different tack.
He asks people to submit their slides the night before their presentation. That enables him to wrap his mind around what they’re going to discuss.
Before they begin, he’ll say, “I’ve read your slide deck. I’m happy to share with you my thoughts and observations. Or you can go through your presentation as planned. We can do it any way you want.”
“They always reply, ‘OK, why don’t we start with your questions,'” Springer said. But he lets them choose how they’d like to proceed.
DocuSign CEO: Stay Open To Feedback
For Springer, there’s no one-size-fits-all model to lead. By identifying your natural leadership style, you can harness it fully.
He recalls former General Electric (GE) Jack Welch as an admired leader in the 1980s. But he rejects the command-and-control approach that Welch favored.
“He was drive, drive, drive,” Springer said. “I’d suck at being Jack Welch. I’m not that guy. I have more humility than Jack Welch. So you have to lean on your strengths.”
Maggie Wilderotter, DocuSign’s chairman, has worked with Springer for about four years. She says that one of his strengths is his eagerness to listen and learn.
“I’ve seen him with his (senior executive) leaders, with front line employees, with customers,” she said. “He asks good questions and he’s very open to feedback. And his style is emulated” across the organization. It has created a culture of earnest inquiry.
Refine Your Style
As continual learners, top leaders keep refining how they do their job. They welcome constructive guidance and take it to heart.
Wilderotter recalls when DocuSign went public in 2018, the board pushed Springer to modify his strategic thinking — to focus more on long-term rather than short-term planning.
“I encouraged him to present things to us that are more long-term in orientation, three to five years out,” she said. “He didn’t fight it. He came up with a way to do that and engage his leaders to do that.”
DocuSign CEO Springer’s Keys:
- CEO of DocuSign, which lets organizations manage electronic agreements.
- Overcame: Temptation to fit the mold of celebrated leaders such as GE’s Jack Welch by forging his own authentic leadership style.
- Lesson: Keep your ego in check and score yourself as a leader so you get the best from those around you. “I’d suck at being Jack Welch. I’m not that guy.”
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