My guest today is Jen Grant, the CEO of Turbo Systems, a Silicon Valley startup that enables businesses to easily build custom applications that can be rapidly and seamlessly deployed to any user. Jen and I met at Business School. In fact, she was my first friend at Wharton. After Business School, Jen was a marketer at Google, and then led and grew the marketing teams at two very successful Valley companies, Box and Looker. I’m excited to have her on the show today to talk about her leadership journey.
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So I’m here with Jen Grant, the CEO of Turbo Systems, and my business school classmate at Wharton, and most importantly, my Fellow Follies cast. In fact, Jen was the director of Wharton Follies. And it was the highlight of my two years at business school. So I am so excited to be talking with you today.
Well, this is so much fun. Cool. Awesome.
So Jen, you know, one of the things that I’d love to ask people about is, you know, learning a little bit more about when they really started understanding leadership or that they could be in a position where they could influence people and maybe in the future lead… so I’m curious if you have any examples from your childhood? When there was a time that you recall that you were able to influence somebody to take action?
Now, that’s a great question. So the thing that popped into my head was this just crazy experience in middle school. So I mean, obviously in middle school we’re all awkward and worried about our friends and somehow I got a bee in my bonnet to run for the activities director, which was a position Student Council. I had to write a speech and I got up in front of the class and I don’t know what I thought back then I can’t remember how did I come up with this idea, but I wore like scuba gear and a big hat, like a big Fiesta hat, and I had written a rap song. And so I made the entire audience. Clap the beat of the rap. So I kind of got it was like, got out there and was just gonna go for it. And just got everyone to sort of clap the beat and then did this rap which of course, you know, I can’t remember it at all now… about how, you know, I was so much fun and I was going to be a creative activities director. Oh, I know that feeling of like, in middle school no less, of getting everyone in the audience to clap in for me was, you know, it was exhilarating. It was, it was fun. And of course, as you know, I have done theater and you know, been up there, but with that, you know, you have your lines that someone else wrote that you just memorized and you practice it 100 times. And this is something that I’d practiced in my room a couple of times. And then just came out there and did it. And so it a was kind of an interesting moment of like, wow, you know, you can really get people into it and even in middle school, and you know, when nothing is cool. And I got everybody to clap for me. So it was just kind of a fun experience to think back on it.
Yeah, very cool. That’s fantastic.
Did you get elected?
Yeah, I actually ran for junior class president. I just moved to my high school in Hawaii. And I put this poster up, you know, you do your campaign posters. And this is the era of Garfield the cat. And I drew this and so I was running against the incumbent and I put up a poster and I had a picture of Garfield that I drawn. I was very proud of it, wearing a stinky diaper, and it said, it’s time for a change. And I got to go talk to the principal about that one. I felt really bad, actually after like, Oh, yeah, now I see her that wasn’t the best choice of content.
So in your career who were some of your role models for leadership?
So one of the earlier portions of my career was after I got out of business school, I was at Google for a while. And I got very lucky in that. My manager was this doesn’t always happen in a large company like Google, my manager was the same woman for all for five years that I was there. And in fact, we kind of moved together a couple of times. And I think the the thing that I got from her that was that was so helpful was she was always so calm. And so when I, when I came out of business school, I was all full of spit and vinegar and ready to fight the world. And, yeah, this is what we’re gonna do and you’re wrong. And I remember sitting in a meeting and and I was a part of the Google Books Team where everything was very heightened because the Authors Guild and the publishers, they were suing us for copyright infringement, which, of course, we deeply and still, I believe 11 years later did win the court case that it wasn’t fair use. But that, of course, makes everyone heightened in like, ‘Oh, we need to get our message out there. We need to do this right.’ And so there was a constant sort of state of stress. And she came to a couple of our meetings, and I just watched her calm the room down. And it was almost hard to see what exactly she did, but everyone was ‘I have this idea and I have that idea.’ And my instinct would be like, ‘well, that’s a dumb idea. Why would you ever do that?’ So that was perhaps not a good choice. And so I watched as she would say, ‘oh, okay, I can see how you got there. That’s an interesting idea. You know, we need to think about that in terms of all of the other ideas and plans we’re putting together but we’re definitely going to take that into consideration…’ And all of a sudden, I realized, like, ‘oh, everyone just needs to be heard.’ They don’t necessarily need me to do everything that they’re saying. They just want to be heard and they want to be acknowledged. And it was such a calming impact, because then everyone felt like, okay, we’re all listening to each other now and my ideas are being taken into consideration. And at the end of the day, nobody cares whether you do exactly what they said they just want to be heard. And I think that was a pretty big turning point in my ability to to be a little less… excitable, driven, you know, my way and I’m right and realizing like at the end of the day, what matters is that people feel heard and that all the ideas get out there. And that, you know, people kind of stay calm and you keep the stress down and you end up with a better outcome at the end of the day, and I forgot to say her name. Her name was Michelle Vedana. She was wonderful. She was my manager the whole time I was at Google. And she was one of the early Google people. I think after Google she was like, I think I’m just gonna go buy an island somewhere. And I’m gonna hang with my family. There was a number of people that I worked with in the early days, who had been at Google for, you know, pre IPO three years before the IPO and stuff like that, and none of them work anymore. They were wonderful, wonderful people.
Wow, that’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing that, you know, as long as people understand what you’re doing as a leader, you know, even if they disagree, I think that as long as there’s the understanding that communication, it’s easier to move forward, than, you know, if they have no idea how you’re making the decisions that you’re making.
So you joined turbo systems. You know, it feels like forever ago, but I think it was just this year. Wasn’t it in 2020?
Yes. I joined it. Like right before the pandemic hit, correct. Yeah. I joined the last week in February. We had just moved into a new office in Campbell. We’re in the Pruner building, which is this gorgeous building. We were in that office for eight days.
We have never been back.
And I had brought plants. They’re all dead, I’m sure.
Yeah, so it’s been wild to be able to, to basically join a company, and then, the world, everything changes. Yeah, we’re now you know, virtual and, you know, how are we going to sell and is this good for our customers or bad for our customers? How are they doing? It’s been a wild ride, crazy and fun. I work with a wonderful group of people. So it couldn’t be better with as far as the people that I’m going through it with, but it’s definitely an amazing experience.
I bet. So I mean, pre-pandemic, when you were coming in as a new CEO, and I mean, you’ve run huge marketing teams with Box and Looker, but this is your first time as a CEO.
So what was your top priority coming in?
Yeah. There’s this great book, and it’s called The First 90 Days, and it’s a very old book. And you may have actually recommended it to me like 10 years ago, and I still have it. And I went back to that because, you know, it’s a little bit like a tried and true method. What are the things that I need to do when I go in? I think it was all this wonderful reminder of the first thing you need to do is… listen and learn. And you know, if you’ve been in a larger organization, you’ve seen how you hire someone from the outside, they come blazing in, and in every meeting they point out the 18 things that you’re doing wrong. Then everybody’s frustrated because it’s like, well, you weren’t here to understand the context of why we did it that way in the first place. Because we only had $10 and five people and so of course, we did it this way. It’s so important to not do that, not just sort of throw up all your knowledge on the people that have been there and have worked hard and you know, have done their best and instead to step back and say, ‘okay, you know, what’s happening, what’s working, what do you think should be my top priority? What worries you at night?’
That was a lot of the sort of reminders that I got from the first 90 days book was that I needed to have a learning plan, which I ended up making notes to myself and sort of came in saying, ‘Okay, I need to obviously meet all the employees here, see how they’re thinking… I need to listen in to sales calls. You know, how do they hear the story that we’re telling? And do they get it and then meet customer and ask them? What was your experience? And what could we do better? And how can we make the product better? How can we make the sales process better? You know, what were the things that you loved or hated.’ And that was really where I started. And of course, at a startup, it’s incredibly accelerated. So you know, if it was a much larger company, it would have taken me much longer to do it. But you know, it was every week I had a new goal like, ‘Okay, this week, I’m going to talk to as many customers as I can and really get a sense for what our what our customers feelings are around Turbo.’ And then once I had done that, which was probably about two or three weeks in, we’re a small startup, there are obviously going to be things that need to adjust and change. So to then start feeding back to the team: ‘Here’s what I’m hearing. Here are the things that I want to adjust.’ But do it in a way that doesn’t make them feel that I was criticizing them or, you know, oh, it doesn’t make sense… Why did you do it that way… then instead saying like, it makes so much sense.
Tune in to the episode to hear so much more leadership wisdom from Jen Grant.