Leadership

3 lessons to learn beyond the boardroom to be a more effective executive

The Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California.
Noah Berger | Reuters
The Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California.

Building a strong company in Silicon Valley keeps getting tougher by the day. Competition is brutal across the entire tech landscape as long-standing barriers of entry continue to fall. It seems as if every recent business school graduate's plan is to launch a startup that will be the next "Uber of" its industry.

This ultra-competitive landscape can be overwhelming, turning even the most efficient and balanced of CEOs into something I call an "executive inmate." These mostly newer CEOs in the Valley tend to chain themselves to their desks when faced with a new existential threat, hoping that the long hours in the office will somehow ease their anxiety and make the competition go away.

If my 18 years running a tech company has taught me anything, it's that a self-imposed "office exile" is never a good idea for a CEO. Ever. Tech startups need to grow but that simply won't happen unless the CEO grows with it.

Here are three key lessons I learned by leaving the office and stepping outside my routine.

Think globally

You've got to get out and see the world. CEOs who lock themselves away in their offices tend to forget that there is a world beyond their problems.

For example, I just got back from an eye-opening trip to India with my family. The country has seen some incredible technological and economic growth over the past decade, presenting great investment opportunities. While all that is true, I noticed that the same old issues relating to infrastructure, logistics and communication continue to plague the country as it did in the past.

I wouldn't have known this critical piece of information about India if I hadn't experienced it. Indeed, I believe the reason a lot of tech companies fail when expanding internationally is because they built their product to work well in Silicon Valley and not in Calcutta.

That's why it's important to leave the office and to put a global lens on every problem you're trying to solve and every product you are looking to sell.

Get physical

Getting out of the office for some fresh air can make a real difference in your mindset. Sports are not only great for your health, but they can also teach you how to be successful in business.

My sport of choice is squash, which is great for focusing the mind and working up a sweat. It took me a long time to realize that beating my opponent was based on how well I focused on my own strategy and how I executed my own plays. Worrying about what my opponent was doing all the time caused me to trip up.

Comparing your company to competitors is healthy, but don't let it dictate how you run your business. Instead, focus on executing your own game and your competitors will follow in your footsteps.

Be social

After a few years working in an industry, it's easy to get caught in an echo chamber. You figure you know everything there is to know about your product and you've met everyone worth meeting. You stop going out and start coasting on your experience, hoping that it will carry you over the threshold.

That's not how the world works anymore, if it ever did. If you aren't out there constantly taking the temperature of your market, you risk it going cold on you.

My company, ON24, made a big strategic business shift a few years ago from a full-service webcasting provider to a self-service engagement driven, webinar marketing platform. Given how big this reset was for the company, I decided to hit the road and talk to customers to see how they felt about it.

True, I could have called them, but that just isn't the same as showing up in person. You really get a feel for what your customers want, see their body language and connect with them on a whole different level by sitting down over a drink or a meal.

I got valuable feedback from our customers, which I wouldn't have received if I hadn't left the office. I figured out that with a dedicated support team, our customers would thrive and have the freedom to leverage our technology in ways we never would have thought of ourselves. Learning that saving us a lot of time, money and trouble. The whole experience taught me that no matter how smart of a board I have, the best feedback comes from a customer.

A CEO's job isn't just to maintain the status quo — we need to constantly be listening, learning and challenging ourselves with experiences outside the boardroom to lead our companies in the right direction.

Sharat Sharan is the CEO and co-founder of ON24, the leading webinar marketing company that helps companies engage customers at scale and deliver meaningful data and analytics on that experience. Sharan was formerly Vice President and General Manager of Hearst New Media and Technology and Vice President of the Hearst New Media Group.