Leadership

'Are you out of your mind?' Four CEOs who shocked their friends — but made it anyway

Brian A Jackson | Getty Images

Would you get engaged to someone after knowing them for less than a week? Chinese real estate billionaire Zhang Xin said, "Sure, why not?" when her now husband Pan Shiyi proposed — only four days after they met.

Her friends were astonished.

"I had spent 15 years outside of China, in Hong Kong (and) in England, and worked for Wall Street. And I really had this strong desire to come back (to China). And here is a man who I met, I was attracted to, but who had never spent any time outside of China," Zhang told CNBC's "The Brave Ones."

Pan Shiyi, chairman of SOHO China, and wife Zhang Xin, the company's CEO at a news conference in Hong Kong in August 2016
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pan Shiyi, chairman of SOHO China, and wife Zhang Xin, the company's CEO at a news conference in Hong Kong in August 2016

"We fell in love, and four days later he said: 'I think you should be my wife.' And I was, like: 'Oh, this is interesting. And sure, why not?' So we decided to get married."

"I remember when I told my friends, everyone was like: 'Are you out of your mind? Like, you're going to get married with a guy you just met four days ago? And with a guy who has never stepped out of China for a day? Are you sure this is going to work?' And I was telling people: 'Yes, I'm sure that's going to work.'"

Zhang and Pan founded the company that would become one of Beijing's largest real estate developers, Soho China, in 1995. But the course of true love did not run smoothly, with the couple considering a separation after their different approaches caused arguments.

Zhang stepped down from the business for a time, but after a while they found a way of working together, with her focusing on design and him on sales. She's now CEO of Sho China and together, the couple is worth upwards of $3 billion.

Crazy business ideas

Zhang isn't the only CEO to have taken the plunge on instinct. Michael Dubin took a different kind of risk when he set up subscription razor business Dollar Shave Club back in 2011: He knew nothing at all about the business of shaving but was convinced his idea would work.

"I think that he probably had a number of relatively hair-brained ideas that he was talking to me about in the same era," Dubin's friend Ben Jacobsen told CNBC's "The Brave Ones."

Unilever bought subscription shaving company Dollar Shave Club in 2016
Unilever
Unilever bought subscription shaving company Dollar Shave Club in 2016

"There were a hell of a lot more people that told him that this was a foolish idea, that he should quit, that he shouldn't waste his time or money," Jacobsen said. "He has no expertise in the razor business, which at the beginning was absolutely true. But he really trusted his instincts."

Dubin thought he was onto something with his razors-by-mail company. He removed the two frustrations people have: their cost and the literal barriers, as blades are often locked in cabinets in U.S. drugstores. It meant going up against shaving giant Gillette, but Dubin was determined.

Michael Dubin, founder of Dollar Shave Club.
CNBC
Michael Dubin, founder of Dollar Shave Club.

"Entrepreneurs are in some ways immune to the notion of risk. I often liken entrepreneurship to an incurable disease, or it's an affliction that certain people have. Because when you have an idea for a business, no one's going talk you out of it," Dubin told CNBC.

That attitude helped Dubin amass 3.2 million subscribers, turn over $200 million in 2016, and go on to sell Dollar Shave Club to Unilever for $1 billion.

I quit

Betting big on something that might not work is a theme for these CEOs. Google X founder Sebastian Thrun surprised his colleagues when he unexpectedly quit his lucrative role to start an education company.

"I was head of Google X. I could be running possibly the coolest lab on the planet. My name was in the news at least three times a week for something. And here I am, giving up 97 percent of my salary. Google paid quite well," Thrun said.

"Joining a little start-up company for a small fraction of (the) income (to) go after education — I can tell you, many of my colleagues were puzzled."

Sebastian Thrun led Stanford Racing Team to victory in a driverless car race in the Mojave Desert, California, in 2005
Kim Kulish | Getty Images
Sebastian Thrun led Stanford Racing Team to victory in a driverless car race in the Mojave Desert, California, in 2005

Thrun caught the eye of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page when he won a driverless car race in California in 2005. They hired him to run secret lab Google X. But when Thrun watched a TED talk by online education entrepreneur Salman Khan in 2011, he was inspired: what if he could teach thousands of others to build self-driving cars via online video?

"It occurred to me I could be at Google and build a self-driving car or I can teach 10,000 students how to build self-driving cars. And then I serve humanity so much better," he said. So he set up Udacity, an online education company that now has 4 million registered users taking tech training courses in collaboration with the likes of Google, Amazon and IBM.

Culture clash

Businessman Bill McDermott also shocked colleagues with his career choice when he left his job at Siebel Systems (now part of Gartner) in 2002 to run German software company SAP's North America division.

With his energetic leadership style at odds with the engineering-focused environment at SAP, McDermott's previous boss and former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy questioned whether the two could ever be a good match.

Nile Rodgers with SAP CEO Bill McDermott at a gala in New York City in 2015
Shahar Azran | Getty Images
Nile Rodgers with SAP CEO Bill McDermott at a gala in New York City in 2015

"You couldn't have picked someone that would've been more, somewhat shocking from a style (point of view) … I mean, Bill is kind of an 'out-there' kind of guy," she said.

"We all wanted him to be wildly successful. But I've got to tell you, we were all saying: 'Could this possibly work?'"

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, McDermott acknowledged the cultural differences: "German sales and management styles did not always translate in America, and the reverse was also true. Americans tend to get excited easily and are very emotive and energetic … With a German audience, I need to be more fact-based up front."

McDermott's respect for those differences worked: when he got promoted to CEO of SAP in 2013, he became the first American to lead the company in its 45-year history.

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.