Keep Your Ego on a Leash

SAN MATEO (06/05/2000) - Julie Wainwright, CEO of Pets.com in San Francisco, has spent more than 20 years in software, technology, and consumer products.

Fasttrack Executive Managing Editor Kate McLucas caught up with the start-up-savvy leader to ask her some questions about being at the helm in a fast-paced environment.

McLucas: How did you make the transition from traditional company to Internet start-up?

Wainwright: I made my transition so long ago. I was at The Clorox Co., doing well, in my early 20s. It was a really great place to start. It was too risk-averse for me, personally. The time to take risks is early in your career.

You get used to the craziness. You get excited by it, by the possibilities, and fear dissipates. There is no such thing as a secure job. Your learning curve is accelerated in a fast-paced industry. When I did that, I was single and only had myself to take care of. Now I have three dogs and a husband.

McLucas: How would you describe your leadership style?

Wainwright: It is a collaborative, cooperative team style. We really are team-oriented. We don't tolerate bullies. It is about hiring people and putting them together. People have a lot of autonomy and responsibility. My personal style is to embrace that, but I'm also very, very direct. For some people that's scary. But once people get used to it, they tend to like it. The other thing is that when people join the company they say they've never seen a company with such a lack of ego. We try to objectively solve problems, not rest on laurels or past success. We take a lot of pride, but we always assume that things can be done better. People are allowed to make mistakes, but you have to be able to admit you made them and not cover them up.

McLucas: Are there leadership pitfalls that you've had to watch out for?

Wainwright: The key is hiring the senior executives. If you make one bad hire, it affects the entire company. You run the risk of impacting the environment.

In a company that's a top-down company, that person in a senior position can do a lot of damage.

McLucas: How do you measure the success of your leadership style?

Wainwright: Business results, and also having people who've worked with you in the past work with you in the future.

McLucas: What do you look for in leaders within your organization?

Wainwright: The ability to train people and to take on more responsibility. To make decisions based on sound rationale. And team orientation.

McLucas: How do you nurture leaders at Pets.com?

Wainwright: Part of it is by example. Part of it is by giving them more and more opportunities to step up and take the reins. But you can't let them hang themselves. You have to recognize when you've set someone up to fail.

McLucas: Is there a start-up mentality, or can anybody adapt to the fast pace?

Wainwright: There's a start-up mentality. You need to be very comfortable making decisions with limited information very quickly. You need to be comfortable relying on other people. Ego involvement can kill you. If you start believing your own press, it's going to kill you. You have to have someone who's very focused. Certainly talented people in large corporations can do that, but they may not be comfortable in this environment. You have to be comfortable with risk.

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