Photo: Conversation on leadership with CommonBond founder David Klein and Taza Chocolate founder Alex Whitmore at General Assembly, Boston
When I graduated from HBS in 2010, I started down the common path of becoming a management consultant, but I knew I wanted to become an entrepreneur down the road. I believed that experiences in one setting could translate into the other and, moreover, these varied experiences could make me a stronger leader overall.
In the spirit of graduation season, just as many of you in the Class of 2014 set out on diverse career paths, I sat down with a startup founder with 10 years of corporate work experience to uncover lessons in leadership. David Klein is founder and CEO of CommonBond and shared with me what he’s learned in morphing from corporateer to entrepreneur.
C: You spent five years before Wharton at American Express, and you were at McKinsey before that. What lessons or skills from corporate life have you found useful when starting and managing a company?
D: The first lesson is one I’ve taken from McKinsey: how to structure a problem. One of my favorite quotes of all time is “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.” That’s so true and that’s one of the things you learn in consulting. Cut through all the noise to get to the essence of a problem. Simplify the complex to see the root of a problem clearly and then you can solve it. If you’re leading a business, you’re often handed seemingly overwhelming problems. Learning how to break them into smaller, manageable pieces and address each piece is highly valuable.
The second is from AmEx: it’s all about execution. Plain and simple, it’s the ability to get stuff done, to drive results and to show results consistently. The key here is mental fortitude to face and overcome resistance. Grit, hustle, and persistence are your friends here.
C: How can MBAs in particular, especially from a place like HBS, leverage their business school experience to bring more to the table as leaders?
D: The most transformative learning I did in business school was personal, not professional. It just so happens that my personal growth fueled my professional growth. Business school gave me an opportunity to get to know myself better, which helped me uncover my values and motivations, which has made me a better decision-maker.
C: Another important aspect of leadership is team management. What should a business leader look for in hires, across functional areas?
D: At CommonBond we look for four things that I think are applicable to pretty much all functional roles. First, strategic acumen. Do you have the business judgment to make the right call? Second, executional quotient. Can you get stuff done, well, fast, consistently? Third, commitment. Do you have the passion, the drive, the energy to maintain an undying commitment to what you do? And fourth, are you a good person? If the answer to these four questions is yes, then you’re going to land a great hire — and be one yourself.
C: In its first summer as an operating company, CommonBond hired as many MBA interns as full-time team members – and this year, you’re hiring seven more. What kind of value do you see in MBAs as talented future leaders?
D: I love MBAs. And I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. I’m saying that because MBAs are phenomenal self-managers. They also understand and appreciate processes such that they will implement systems where they don’t currently exist to run a more efficient business. MBAs seem naturally predisposed to creating order and helping drive efficiency. Any startup could use that.