Leadership is More Than a Memo

I just read Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. It was both eye-opening and cringe-worthy. The book explores the role of gender in the tech industry – at startups and venture capital firms – and the interaction between men and women in the two. While Silicon Valley has grown to have global influence, in many ways the cultural leadership from the venture community has dramatically shrunk in the last decade. Chasing deal flow has resulted in many VCs leading the race to the bottom in startup ethical behavior.

Among other things the book reminded me how important leadership is in setting startup culture – both consciously and implicitly.

Here was the day I got that lesson.


With the reckless and naïve abandon of founders who had no clue what they were about to tackle, we had just started Ardent, a supercomputer company. Ben Wegbreit, the VP of Engineering (one of my mentors and then co-founder of Epiphany), broke his foot skiing just as the company started. So every day Ben hobbled into our very small office nattily dressed in his suit but wearing sneakers over his cast. (Yes, in the dim past of Silicon Valley the execs really wore suits.)

At first the company just consisted of the founders, but Ben soon started to hire his engineering team. Since this was the pre-Hoodie era, they interviewed in various types of then engineering attire – most with jeans, some with khakis, etc. (And back then they were all men.) But as each engineer was hired and started work I began to notice that after a few days they started to wear suits… wait for it… with sneakers. Obviously, this was a pretty bizarre fashion statement – and no one had sent out a memo announcing this as the engineering dress code. After six weeks of furious staffing and recruiting Ben had a team of 10 or so engineers and I have vivid memories of all of them trying to look like Ben.

Yet Ben was oblivious to the suit-and-sneaker clone army he had created.

With my now decades of hindsight, I realize I should have just let the engineers know that Ben had broken his foot and there was no attempt at sartorial innovation. But I remember just being mesmerized by this lesson in implicit leadership unfolding before me.

I knew that the cast was going to come off, and Ben would show up one day wearing regular shoes. What I didn’t know was what would happen to the engineering dress code then– would they all then adopt suits and shoes? Drop the suits all together? Keep their suit and sneaker style?

And how long would the change in engineering dress take? The next day?  A week?

And then it happened. Ben showed up wearing a suit and … shoes.

I’m sure engineering productivity took a big hit that week as cognitive dissonance set in.  Some of the engineers literally went home at lunch and changed – some into shoes, some dropping the whole suit.  Most started wearing regular shoes the next day, and by the second day no one was wearing sneakers.

Decades later Mark Zuckerberg would run the experiment at scale.

Lessons Learned

  • Culture gets set both explicitly with rules and implicitly by example
  • The bro culture of the Valley is a failure of leadership – by VC’s who should know better and CEO’s who need to be taught
  • Ironically, it would take a Los Angeles VC, Mark Suster at Upfront Ventures and the Inclusion Clause to lead the change in venture capital culture

11 Responses

  1. Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins (Genesis) set the tone for sneakers and suits in the UK for many a year. When I forgot my shoes and had to wear trainers with my suit at a family wedding I got the ‘trendy’ comments and guess what happened at the next wedding!

    In the creative industries a suit means a no brainer / lack of creativity. I once got hired because I was the only business rep who approached a company because ‘I looked like a designer’.

    Cognitive dissonance and shoe selection has a long history over here in the UK 😉

  2. Company Culture means exactly everything. I used to personally buy and sell stocks following only corp culture; not being a professional. I decided to do this by default, since I had no faith in the complex financials or canned Q calls. I’m sure my performance against peers was tops.

    I also read Brotopia. While I found it interesting, I also thought (duh!) —without offense to any one gender, ethnicity …— such tribalism is natural (frats, schools, country clubs…). I think embracing high diversity should be considered a wise business choice. Avoiding such collections by a leader provides competitive advantage. Such a VC or Founder could whip-ass over the black t-shirt guys, especially during foul weather.

    Phin W Stubbs


  3. Interesting insight,Steve.

  4. Steve – not able to comment on the sneaker set – although have had a full dose of odd dress, rare personalities and behaviors over several decades in High-Tech. On a different note – one of my sons brought up a video from the Science Channel titled: Silicon Valley: The Untold Story – and there you were. You have now migrated from an Industry Sage to a celebrity!

  5. Steve,

    There’s a classic video illustrating this exact phenomena:

  6. This is a great story, which seems to be more about FOLLOWSHIP than LEADERSHIP. When we don’t bring what’s great about ourselves to work, and instead try to conform, that will affect productivity, and certainly innovation. The “dress code” example here is a humorous example of an insidious process in many organizations that not only promotes conformity, but also mediocrity.

  7. “Leadership by example.” It can enable a good corporate culture or allow a bad one to run rampant.

  8. That’s is an amazing story how leadership by example works.

  9. Great read, thanks for sharing!

  10. Just like with parenting (“children won’t do what you ask them to do, they will do what they see you do”), it is the same with leadership (“employees won’t do what you ask them to do, they will do what they see you do”)…

  11. Great story.

    Thanks for sharing.


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