In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.
From the moment he wakes up, Mike Steib has a blueprint of his day planned out. Daily meetings, interviews, employee check-ins, even time to just think — Steib has every minute marked on his calendar. As the CEO of media company XO Group, Steib’s job keeps him pretty busy.
XO Group is a multimedia company that creates content to help couples navigate life’s biggest moments, such as marriage, children and home buying. Working with family brands such as The Knot, The Nest, The Bump and more, the company has an audience of more than 20 million readers monthly. And with more than 700 employees worldwide in offices in New York, Austin, Omaha, Neb., Norwalk, Conn. and Guangzhou, China, it’s safe to say Steib knows a thing or two about leadership.
Even before joining XO Group in 2013, Steib already had extensive experience leading companies around the world. In 2011, he served as the CEO of Vente-Privee USA, and from 2007 to 2011, he worked in various leadership positions at Google. Yet, however many leadership roles he’s held, he’s approached each differently.
“In every step of your career you have to learn some new skill,” he says. “And you have to un-learn something that you were good at before you took on that new job.”
Throughout his 15-plus years as a leader, Steib has picked up some tricks along the way. So what are the secrets to his success? Sleep, exercise and a tightly-packed schedule. Right out of bed, Steib jots down his goals for the day and creates a schedule that aligns with them. He also makes sure he has some time to think, seek inspiration, test out new products and walk around the office to catch up with employees.
From scheduling to goal setting to office setup, we chatted with Steib to learn more about what’s helped him become a successful leader at a global organization.
On the most important leadership traits:
“The first is attracting and hiring really great people. The second is being a good coach to those people and helping them solve problems. And the third is holding those people accountable to successful outcomes.”
On leadership style:
“I’m very direct. I trust the people I work with and I believe that they trust me. We get right to the point to try to solve the problems and tackle opportunities. I’m always available — I stand at a desk right next to the walkway, there are no office doors or anything. I put my cell phone in the footer of every email that goes out in the company so anyone can always reach me. And we have a culture and a policy of coming to me when you need me.”
On habits that help him lead:
“I’m very focused on healthy habits to start my day. I get a good night’s sleep, I wake up early, I exercise and I plan the things that I want to achieve for the day. I have tightly arranged and laid out my calendar to maximize my productivity.
“If you wanted to underline one thing I cannot emphasize enough — leadership requires energy and focus and discipline. You can only have it with good habits and they start with getting a decent night’s sleep and exercising.”
“When you become a leader it’s usually because you’re a good problem-solver and you’re good at getting things done. And the more senior you become as a leader, the more problems there are that you could solve, and the more things there are that you could do.
“So it is choosing where to apply your energies to get the best results for the business. It was Peter Drucker who said, ‘Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.’ The idea is it’s key to a leader to do the right things.”
On the toughest business decision:
“I think for any leader, the hardest action is always to make people changes with people who you personally really like. But at some point, they may not be the right fit for that role, that strategy or that challenge.”
On the most important traits in a new hire:
“First and foremost, someone has to be honorable and a good person. Secondly, they have to be effective in their role, a problem-solver and good at working with people.
“Lastly, they must be coachable. Any good professional is in a constant state of personal evolution. And on occasion you’ll meet someone who’s smart, capable and effective but lacking in self-awareness, stubborn or otherwise hard to coach. And then, in my experience, they never ever succeed.”
On recognizing employees:
“One of our core values at the company is that we focus on outcomes over output. It’s a success to have done something that works well and brings value to your users and your customers. And we systematically recognize people who have great outcomes in the company — we get the whole company together twice a quarter and at one of those meetings do a formal recognition.”
“Once a year for each of our offices, we have a nice get-together event, and about every week we do a small happy hour event. We just did a two-day hackathon last week, which is really fun and cross-functional, and a great opportunity for the team to work together and to scratch that creative itch we all have.”
On unique office rituals:
“I teach a 12-part seminar at the company on life planning, productivity and working effectively with other people. It’s important to me that people who work here are in a constant state of personal development.”
On managing meetings:
“Rigorously and vigorously. Every meeting will have a clear agenda that’s been published in advance with topics and owners of each of those topics.
“We always start meetings exactly five minutes late and we end them exactly five minutes early. We start five minutes late because it gives folks a chance to transfer from one meeting to another. You need create a little bit of cushion for folks to get out of there.”
“I schedule every minute of my day in my calendar. I plan my three goals for the day and I ensure that my calendar lines up to that.
“As a CEO, there aren’t very many tasks that you’re responsible for as an individual contributor — generally your actions are being done through other people. So meeting with these people, setting expectations and helping them achieve those outcomes.
“The other things that I partition in my week are specific times to think, seek inspiration, use other products that I’m fond of, re-seek inspiration and read about the work of others. I schedule time to walk around the office and see people. These are the kinds of things that, if your schedule is really busy and you don’t create room for them, then they don’t happen.”
On working from home:
“From when I get to the office to the end of the day is pretty highly scheduled. And from the time I get home until my kids go to bed, I put my phone away [and] give my full attention to my kids. Once they go to sleep, I get highly focused again on the work outcomes that I want to have for that night.
“And because my wife might be watching TV or the kids might still be making noise upstairs, I put on a pair of noise-reducing headphones — I bought those headphones they sell at the gun range — so I can’t hear anything, and I go into my silent cocoon and bang out 100 emails or finish an analysis or something I was working on.”
On office setup:
“We have an open office environment and I sit right at the corner so that the most people walk by my desk. I have a standing desk because it’s good for you and it quite literally keeps you on your toes.”
On a strong company culture:
“For us, it’s always doing the right thing, acting ethically, being kind to our teammates. We have a phrase that we use which is ‘ask why five times.’ It’s always going deep on a topic and making sure you understand it.
“A core value at our company is engaging in productive conflict, like ensuring that everyone in the room has a voice and that we don’t shy away from the opportunity to disagree so that we can get to the best answer.”
On cultural mistakes:
“Anytime I’ve seen any leader make a cultural mistake it’s hiring someone who has an impressive resume but isn’t right for [their] culture. If you make culture compromises when you hire then you have compromised your culture.”
On his biggest cultural win:
“We are a company where people are playing to win. We are working hard and pushing to do really big things for our users and our customers. And at the same time everyone here is really nice to each other. I’ve seen a lot of companies where people are nice but not effective, and a lot of companies where people are productive but not nice. And here we have both.”
On his role model:
“George Washington had an amazing feel for the men who worked for him, and was highly respected by them. He had the strategic acumen and the courage to know when to retreat and when to attack as a military leader. He was purpose-driven and courageous. He was given the most prestigious and powerful position in the country — the president — and voluntarily stepped down because he thought it would be better for the country to not have one person be leader for more than two terms. He was selfless, brave and effective.”
On his favorite leadership book:
“Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an amazing book written by a man who is a psychologist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He writes about how to find meaning in anything, and how your purpose can drive you.”
On where most leaders go wrong:
“When I have made mistakes, it has been any time I didn’t make a decision quickly enough related to having the right people in the right jobs.”