“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next.
This month, we spoke with Linda Tong, newly appointed COO of no-code website platform Webflow and Board Member at Prezi. Linda’s focus on innovative execution and design-led leadership has driven incredible growth and empowered companies across industries and sectors. She was previously General Manager at AppDynamics (acquired by Cisco), VP of Product and Innovation for the National Football League, COO of Nextbit Systems, Chief Product Officer at Tapjoy, and a Product Marketing Manager at Google where she helped launch Google Chrome and Android.
Tell us a bit about your journey from building the product to running the business, and how your functional expertise enables you as a leader?
LINDA: I have always found joy in creating products that people love, and it made product management a natural path for me. The practice, to me, has always been about understanding what value we want to deliver, for whom, and how to balance making decisions across a varied set of constraints (resources, time, quality, scope). There’s no perfect answer, but the problem solving involved in arriving at a decision is what makes me enjoy product so much – I love finding ways to align teams to execute on a vision to deliver value to an end user. Working on products that I am personally passionate about has just been the icing on the cake. As my career evolved, however, I found myself moving further away from actually building product to leading teams of people who built product, and then ultimately teams of people running a business. The experience as a product person still remains however – whether I’m building a product or running a business, it comes down to bringing teams together to execute on a vision while balancing multiple constraints. The only difference for me now is that instead of my product being a set of features or a body of code, my product is the business.
You’ve crossed the divide between hot startups and legacy enterprises a few times, what are some of the skills required to make those leaps successfully? What’s one key thing that each can learn from the other?
LINDA: I won’t lie, making those leaps has been deeply uncomfortable and probably not a recommended path by any means unless you like ambiguity as much as I do. To switch modes like that and be successful requires patience, willingness to live in uncertainty, and an ability to learn quickly. Each time I jumped, I found myself feeling deeply inadequate and realizing that I needed to learn completely new domains, systems, tools, practices, and more. My advantage in these situations has been my ability to stay curious and learn from my experiences. When you have as many varied experiences as I do, you ultimately develop this library on the many ways to solve problems. As I approach problems in any role, I marry the context of the role with any relevant historical experience and that usually allows me to provide a unique perspective in every room I’m in. What I have found being in both startups and large enterprises is that when you bring in diverse perspectives (whether it’s diversity of race, geo, socio-economic background, age, experiences, or more) the sorts of results you can get are always better than when you lack diversity in the room. We often discount background experience as a source of thought diversity, but to me, it’s been one of my key advantages.
How has the COO role changed since you first assumed the position about a decade ago?
LINDA: The COO role, to me, has never really been that clear. There has been plenty of literature on the many ‘kinds’ of COO’s out there, and today the role is still incredibly (if not more) ambiguous. When I first stepped into the role many years ago, there was probably more alignment with the ‘executor’ role, one in which a COO led most G&A operations, and drove a focus on execution oriented operations for a business. Today, I feel lines are more blurry and see significantly more variance in COO’s and the roles they play. More, now than ever, I see different COO’s with varied backgrounds whose roles are simply defined by the business’s needs.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about how to manage people?
LINDA: The best advice I was ever given about management was to never have my standard approach to management, but rather, to manage the individual. Every person is different and great managers don’t expect each person to work well within some standard system. Instead, great managers learn the individual and figure out how best to meet the individual where they are. If the ultimate goal is to help an individual meet their potential, what better way to unlock it by understanding them deeply.
You recently joined the board of video presentation collaboration software company Prezi. What do you wish someone had told you before taking your first board position?
LINDA: Similar to my experience of diving into wildly different companies, jumping into wildly different roles comes with a whole new learning curve. For board roles, the knowledge on how to be a great board member is not as common, so you really have to hunt for it. I wish I had spent more time talking to folks about their board experiences, how they prepare, what relevant job experience helps them, and how they individually add value as a board member. With a board role, you have less regular time with the board and management team you’re working with, so fewer cycles to ramp and learn – which makes the ability to ramp quickly all the more important.
How have you made a mark in your industry? What’s something you’ve done that’s perhaps counterintuitive in your field – broken any rules with interesting results?
LINDA: When I think of my ‘field’ I still think of myself personally as a product person (who’s current product is a business). One of the things that I think makes me different as a product person and as a leader is my propensity to make big bets and drive focus. I truly believe less is more and as a product person and leader, I have driven programs across my past few companies to simplify through cutting vs. adding. When most people ask about new features, new programs, new products, new anything, I mostly ask about less. What can we cut, where do we simplify, how do we do less. From cutting a large percent of the features in the NFL app when I was running product there, to generating a program (project assassin) at my last company to cut features, processes, and more, to now focusing the team I’m leading, I would love to say the mark I’m leaving is one of simplification and focus. Instead of coming up with new things to do, I’m simply removing the noise and focusing our teams.
Describe one pivotal moment in your career that was truly defining for you in one way or another – an opportunity that changed your life or a moment where you recognized defeat and changed course.
LINDA: Early on in my career, I found myself and the product I was leading at the verge of being decimated. We had built a product that fully relied on the support of an ecosystem we were built on and that ecosystem could simply turn us off if they so decided. The fateful day came where we were given notice that we would be cut off from this ecosystem and faced a pretty terrifying reality that our business could disappear quickly. Our backs were up against the wall, and I remember seeing resumes printed out in our shared company printer that week. We all faced this moment of fight or flight and in that moment, I sat down with a small team to problem solve and find alternative paths for our business. Within a few weeks we had identified a path forward and built a prototype. We ultimately pivoted our product line to ensure the sustainability of our business going forward and it worked. What mattered most for me in that moment was knowing how I would act whenever my back was up against the wall and that has given me strength throughout my career whenever faced with hard situations.