Expert Interview Series: Ray Zinn of Tough Things First About How to Lead Your Startup To Success

Ray Zinn is the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley, having founded Micrel Semiconductor and having led it through 36 profitable years. We had the opportunity to speak with Ray about how entrepreneurs and company leaders should create an effective culture and manage employees well in order to achieve business success.

Why did you decide to write Tough Things First? Why did you choose that title?

Here in Silicon Valley, many start-ups vanish. Most do so because the founder lacks either the discipline or leadership skills necessary to survive for that critical first three years. That is the entire goal of Tough Things First. I want to give green entrepreneurs my 37 years of experience from start-up to enterprise. Seeing how a successful company needs a focused leader will help them past the big challenges they will face.

Part of this is the discipline behind doing the tough things and doing them first. Many people and companies fail because of the all-too-typical syndrome of avoiding the big, complicated, and unpleasant tasks. But doing the tough things first sets the stage for everyone involved to succeed and to do so quickly. As I like to say, if you start your day by eating the ugly frog first, the rest of the day is a breeze.

Finish this sentence: "At Micrel, the primary reason we have had the best employee retention rate in our industry is..."

...we created a home.

People live with worry and fear. But home is where they find family, comfort, and protection. We treated employees like family and created an environment where common worries in other companies did not exist.

Part of Micrel’s documented corporate culture was respecting the dignity of every person. Yes, this meant employees, but it also meant customers, vendors, and members of the local community. They all matter. When you have a culture like Micrel’s - one that treats people with kindness and respect - working anywhere else becomes painful.

One example (which some people find quaint) is that we had a no-swearing policy. Common as vulgarity may be, it does cheapen one’s life, especially when it is caustic. It diminishes one’s dignity. So we banned it. There is a cute story in Tough Things First about a senior executive I had to train not to swear by taking a buck from him every time he did. That he handed me a wad of singles due to an accidental outburst remains one of my fondest memories.

What advice might you give to the budding entrepreneur whose company has grown to the point where he or she now has to hire, train, and manage employees for the first time in his or her career?

Get your culture right first, and mold your policies and procedures (P&Ps) to the culture.

People live within rules. A culture has rules of acceptable behavior. When people know and accept those rules of behavior, they do the right thing without guidance or hand-holding almost every time. If you do not have this defined culture and if you do not communicate it, people will work within their own personal rules - and those vary greatly between people.

What's your general approach to dealing with dysfunctional employees?

Don’t hire them is the first step. During the interview process, there are several red flags to watch for, all of which indicate they either won’t fit within the culture or they don’t have the company’s interest – and that of their co-workers – at heart. But once in a while, an employee goes sour. Odds are there is something going on in his or her life that is impacting their work. Their performance is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

This is where having a family-like company helps. People will seek help from family, or at least be honest about their difficulties if asked. This allows managers to discover the true nature of the problem and then help the employee. We once had an employee who ran into a major marital and child support problem. It could have damaged him in many ways. But he was open about it, and we found ways of him working remotely (back when this was innovative) so he could be close to his children and work through his life issues.

How can the CEO of a large company have an impact on the day-to-day engagement levels of his or her employees?

A great deal of the CEO’s job is communicating – the vision, the mission, the culture, and the status of the company. With so many employees, this means he must communicate effectively through his managers and regularly via company-wide meetings.

All this communication is useless if the CEO is not trusted. He or she must set the example of abiding by all company policies, for a leader who cannot follow their own rules is not trustworthy. They also must come across as caring and fair, and of course the best way to do that is to actually care and be fair. Add to all this being transparent. If you hired smart people, they’ll be smart enough to see through any deception, and that will kill their trust.

As the company grows, it is important to visit the various divisions regularly. There are hundreds of jokes about forgotten soldiers in far-flung outposts who are surprised to learn the war ended years before. Don’t let your regional sales office in Smalltown feel that way.

Lastly, show praise at every chance. No act is too small not to take notice. People thrive on their work being acknowledged, and a CEO noting their good work – either as individuals or as teams – is very impactful.

What's the worst thing that a CEO can do if he or she wants to improve company morale or employee engagement?

Simply to be seen as non-believable or non-truthful. A CEO is a leader above all else. Nobody follows a leader who is dishonest or even perceived as such. Nobody gets enthusiastic about a corporate mission that on the surface appears impossible, or if the stated goals don’t match the perceived outcomes. A CEO who is inauthentic dampens morale company-wide.

What do you foresee for the future of entrepreneurship? What traits and qualities must an entrepreneur have to succeed?

In the near term, the sad focus on revenue growth, instead of profitability, is a bad trend. This isn’t only a problem in Silicon Valley – venture capitalists have made it a pandemic. Enduring companies are better than bottle rocket companies; but currently, startup CEOs are not being taught how to create companies that outlast themselves.

To succeed for the long haul, entrepreneurs need the following traits. Some are more important than others, but they are all important:

  • Passion: without it, things sputter and die.
  • Courage: they must believe they can succeed.
  • Honesty: nothing kills relations – with employees, vendors, customers – faster than dishonesty.
  • Integrity: short-cuts are short-circuits; so always do the right thing.
  • Respect for others: nobody works alone, so treat everyone as if your success depends on them (because it does).
  • Humility: egos destroy, and an entrepreneur with an inflated ego destroys himself.
  • Strong work ethic: you cannot expect your employees to work hard if you don’t.
  • Willingness: to do whatever it takes
  • Discipline: to do the Tough Things First.  

Need a hand in engaging your employees? Contact hubEngage today to see how we can help.


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