Bluescape CEO On What Many Silicon Valley Leaders Get Wrong About Management

As far back as 1985, Bluescape chief Peter Jackson has been able to call himself a CEO. He admits though, back then, he didn’t nearly know enough about the job and what it entailed.

“I think it’s probably through the trials and tribulations of those 30+ years and having to go back to school a bit too, I started to learn it’s a tough job to be a CEO and there’s a composition of tools you need to have on an organic basis to be decent at it.”

These days, it’s fair to say Jackson knows a little bit more about the job. Throughout the years, he has founded and led several startup tech companies to acquisition and IPO exits. His latest move was joining San Carlos, California-based Bluescape in October 2017, a company which makes virtual workspace technology. The company was founded on the idea that companies were running out of wall space and whiteboard space to collaborate on new projects. Its software offers workspace collaboration capabilities on a touchscreen that can be presented virtually on a wall.

The company has seen significant growth in the past year as CEOs have been pressured to enact digital transformation initiatives. “When I took the job two years ago, it was very risky for me because I didn’t see the cost of hardware coming down yet and I didn’t see the innovation leaders pushing towards it. And literally in the last 12 months, we’ve gone from a cute little company to a fast-growing company because we are now a part of the future of Dell, the future of [cell phone] carriers and 5G, the future of a Ford manufacturing company.”

Chief Executive chatted with Jackson about recruiting tech talent in a tight labor market, the idea of the modern elder in Silicon Valley leadership, and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.

How does Bluescape stand out when it comes to recruiting tech talent in Silicon Valley?

I sort of felt when I got here that our ability to recruit talent was almost impossible. We weren’t growing. People look at equity as wallpaper if they don’t see a growth path. And so you sort of stagnate…not just on vision but on productivity. You’re fighting to get head counts and you’re not getting the ones who have the experience in the particular areas you need. That was real tough. Those talented people can pick and choose where they want to go and know that they’re going to get a public offer from an Uber, Slack or wherever. They’re saying, ‘I came in two years ago so I could buy my two-bedroom condo for $1.7 million.’ It’s a rat race for sure and it’s a tough market to get a talent. It’s tough on the people too—they’re making $100 grand, they’re living on the edge, and they are spending 2-3 hours per day in traffic.

It’s a really tough environment. I think the shift for us…a lot of it has to do with faith and trust and who the senior management [can bring on]. It’s your Rolodex in a sense. One of my first hires I got was bringing over a guy who I had hired out of college 20 years ago who was working at Tanium, which was a great company.  He just said, ‘I just want to go fight the battle with you. Whatever the financial differences are after taxes doesn’t matter. It’s more about my heart as long as it’s within reason.’ He came in and then two other people came in. And then on the engineering side, I hired the guy who built flash for Adobe. He was looking at a number of different things in the interview process and we just sort of hit it off. He’s a great guy and I really needed somebody like that. He literally has brought in about 35 people that had worked for him at Adobe or BlackBerry.

And we opened an office in Waterloo, Ontario and added a dozen and a half people up there. We expanded more into Vancouver. We had a bunch of local Bay Area people came on board.

I’d love to hear from you on this idea of the “modern elder” in Silicon Valley companies. You’ve led a lot of companies and been a CEO for several companies. A lot of leaders in Silicon Valley seem to follow the Steve Jobs model—if you created the company, you should be the CEO and put no one else in charge. But it seems like after your experiences, you believe that just because someone founded a company doesn’t mean they are fit to lead it. I’d love your thoughts.

I came from a different background than most leaders when I came into the real world. My natural instincts were about listening, communicating and trying to figure out what people were feeling, whether they were telling me or not. You may lose your point of view, don’t take it personally, but it was really valuable that I heard it. I took that approach.

And in the early days, I was a weak CEO in many respects. I was CEO for three years in the 80s as a compassionate person and tried to make people be what they could never be. I didn’t take the initiative to guide them either out of the business into something that they be more functional. I think I was really failing. In 1988 or ’89, I got into the Stanford Executives Summer Program…took a month off and went down there with some high-powered executives. All of us came to the same conclusion that we missed in gauging the Myers Briggs look at things. You can’t force somebody to be what they’re not. Also, take a good look at your organization instead of looking at the people, look at the functions and who you need. As a leader, I had to become less compassionate and I had to be a lot more functional.

That shift in my life is what I see all day long in the valley today. The same shift is not applying. And it isn’t that the guys are either being too compassionate, they just don’t understand what it takes to be a great leader. We criticize Facebook, we criticize Uber, we criticize all of these companies. These guys became CEOs like I did. I came up with a good idea and I became CEO. Are they improving themselves? No. Most of them isolate themselves and see the role of CEO as, ‘I’m most powerful person because they came up with the idea.’ That has all kinds of negative effects to customers, partners, employees, and those tend to become trained rats.

What are Bluescape’s biggest challenges—what keeps you up at night?

When you start to get into a growth mode in the valley or with a technology company, you normally can  go out and get large sums of investors to come in during what they call late stage. A lot of the “let’s go spend it, hire people, do whatever,” 20% of it is a waste. Sometimes more. But I’m still being frugal. I have a huge budget, but I’m not throwing it at this spike that we’re going through. I’m part of this manufacturing company who’s the investor and I’m being super cautious about the spend when I probably should be putting the pedal to the metal more. So that’s one thing that keeps me up at night.

The fear factor that there’s a big company in Redmond [Washington] that wants to be in this space and is fighting for the conference room. It’s sort of seems to be a two-horse race at this point. They have a trillion-dollar market cap. They’re obviously in multiple businesses and all that stuff. Trying to stay one step ahead of them and their footprint and trying to work with them because I need their content and all of that is another thing that keeps me up at night.

I feel confident about the technology and its patents and its position in the space. It’s more a functional waking up at two or three in the morning and saying, “How am I going to screw this up?” Thinking about the things I can do to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

Read more: What’s Missing in Silicon Valley Models for Digital Transformation Programs

Gabriel Perna: Gabriel Perna is the digital editor at Chief Executive Group, overseeing content on chiefexecutive.net and boardmember.com. Previously, he was at Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna