Companies Hiring, Executive Feature

Rise & Grind: How Zoom CEO Eric Yuan Outworked The Competition to Become #1

We do not spend that much time on which company [you] worked with before or where you say you graduated from. We really focus on self-motivation and self-learning.In the age of AI, “working smarter, not harder,” and the 4-hour work week, Eric S. Yuan is an outlier. Instead of developing the latest productivity hack or simply riding the wave of Zoom Video Communications’ $145 million funding, Yuan is working harder. And that’s a good thing in his eyes.

For the Chinese immigrant turned CEO working hard has been a hallmark of his journey, coming to the U.S. after applying for a visa a whopping nine times. (He says he was willing to apply 20 or 30 times if needed.) Arriving in the States unable to speak English but able to write code, Yuan set his sites on Silicon Valley with just the seed of an idea for a tool that would allow him to see and speak to his then long-distance girlfriend. 20 years of hard work later — along with language classes and VP positions at WebEx then Cisco — Yuan’s now wife and three children can dial him up during the workday to video chat on Zoom.

“Working hard, that’s the only thing I know better than my competitor,” says Yuan. “There are so many more smart people than me here in Silicon Valley, but … if my competitors say, ‘I work eight hours a day,’ then I can work 10 hours. If you don’t need sleep, I also do not need sleep. Hard work is in my DNA.”

It is this unwavering dedication to Zoom’s success, employees and customers that has earned him the top spot on Glassdoor’s annual Employees’ Choice Awards, honoring the Top CEOs in 2018 across North America and parts of Europe. Beating out the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff, Yuan may be able to teach some of these legacy companies and leaders a thing or two.

Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson caught up with Yuan via Zoom, of course, to talk about the honor, hiring for potential versus experience and being the one person in tech who has found the perfect balance between hard work and happiness.

Glassdoor: Congratulations on the #1 Top CEOs win. What does it mean to you to know that your employees have rated you so highly?

Eric Yuan: Actually, this is our employees’ achievement because this is about our company; it’s not just my company. We just had an all-hands meeting this morning, and employees asked all kinds of questions. They are free to ask any question because we believe it will help us improve. The reason we do this is because we all want to understand what an employee is thinking, [and] how we can improve. It’s very similar to Glassdoor and your company vision. I have a place to let employees share their voice and that’s really important.

Glassdoor: One of a CEO’s primary responsibilities is to hire amazing executives. What attributes do you look for in today’s top talent?

Eric Yuan: From when we first started in 2011 until now, our hiring philosophies have remained the same. Overall, we focus on two things and ask this question: Does this candidate have a self-learning mentality and self-motivated attitude? We do not spend that much time on which company [you] worked with before or where you say you graduated from. We really focus on self-motivation and self-learning. If any candidate has those two [qualities], plus can fit well into our culture, even if they do not have technical skills, we still want to hire them. With those two traits, we think we can use them and train them. That strategy works quite well. Take the sales team for example: We found some of the top sales reps we hired didn’t have any sales background to sell video conferencing service before.

Glassdoor: Given this award, you’ve built an amazing culture, but how do you assess whether someone is the right fit?

Eric Yuan: I was a vice president at Cisco before I left to build Zoom. So, I remember the first day, when I showed up in my small office, just me by myself. And I asked myself a question: “What kind of company do I want to work for?” The number one thing I wanted to say, and I want our employees to say, is that they are happy. I need to make sure I’m happy, and that my employees are happy. Asking myself that question, I realized if I’m not happy, my kids, my family will be impacted. Our employees will also be impacted. So that’s why our company culture is to deliver happiness. It’s personal to our company’s values. We’re going to care about each other, really focus on delivering happiness to each other. Ultimately, as a company, we deliver happiness to our customers.

Glassdoor: So happiness and that desire to make others happy is core to being a culture fit at Zoom.

Eric Yuan: When we have hired the new employees, they must care about other employees, care about the community, care about the customer, care about the company, care about teammates and also care about themselves. In a way, our own company value is just one word, care. So five things really matter: care about the community, customer, company, teammates, as well as ourselves.

Glassdoor: When you interview candidates, what do you look for?

Eric Yuan: The first question I ask is “What book have you read recently?” If she says, “Oh, I’m so busy, I haven’t I read any book in almost a year,” I would say, “Ah, sorry.” However, some candidates say, “Yes, I’ve just read a new book XYZ and some very interesting parts of it were XYZ.” This is an indicator to me that they are always learning, that they have made that a priority. Plus, we have a policy where we reimburse any books employees buy for themselves and for their family members.

We do not spend that much time on which company [you] worked with before or where you say you graduated from. We really focus on self-motivation and self-learning.

Glassdoor: That’s a great perk.

Eric Yuan: We reimburse because we promote self-learning. The best way to learn something is to read a book. So this is the first question I ask. I’ll also ask about self-motivation. I would ask, “In your career, quite often your manager might have a different opinion than you? How do you come out of that?” I want to understand if they have been in a situation where they have struggled and how they have taken a step back to understand what happened, how they learned and how they recovered from the issue. That’s self-motivation.

If I’m hiring a manager, I’ll ask them, “How do you spend your eight hours in the workday?” If some managers, especially from some other big legacy company mention, “I spend half of the time motivating our employees to do this and to do that.” I will say, “No.” Ideally, you build a company culture environment where all employees are self-motivated, because we all adults, right? If you need somebody to motivate you, I think that’s something that is not sustainable.

Lastly, informally I like to understand a candidate’s story for how they arrived in their current career.  For example, who helped shape their success and made a contribution to how they approach work. Does their story resonate with gratitude as that is a key character quality I look for in employees?  Ideally, any achievement expressed isn’t about “I” but “we”. Appreciation is something I look for in candidates.

Glassdoor: Your being interested in a candidate’s life experience is notable. In researching your background, I was impressed by your story. Can you share a bit about how your early life inspired the creation of Zoom?

Eric Yuan: When I was a freshman in college in China, my girlfriend lived far away. I could only see her twice a year and it was really hard. At that time I was thinking, “What if there was a device, that I could just flip on and see her, talk to her, like we’re both in the same room.” It was more of a daydream. But later on when I built the solution, I was able to connect the dots and say, “Wow, that’s interesting.” By the way, now that girlfriend is my wife.

Glassdoor: Then, you came to America after applying for a Visa nine times over the course of two years. That’s persistence. How has being a Chinese immigrant shaped who you are?

Eric Yuan: First of all, for any immigrant, you’re very hungry and you work very hard. This is something in you and in your human nature as an immigrant. When I came to America, I did not even speak English but I knew I could write software code. I knew I had to work hard, so I did. Also, I’m very paranoid. I say to myself, “I have to work harder.” Working hard, that’s the only thing I know better than my competitor. There are so many more smart people than me here in Silicon Valley, but I know I can achieve a little bit more. If my competitors say, “I work eight hours a day,” then I can work 10 hours. If you don’t need sleep, I also do not need sleep. Hard work is in my DNA.

Glassdoor: That must be inspiring for your employees as well.

Eric Yuan: Silicon Valley is the best place to learn. It’s a very open culture with lots of people from diverse backgrounds. Quite often if you need help, you can talk with others — even if they do not know you, they want to help you. This is an open culture with people from all over the world. It’s a community of people trying to fix the problems of the world. I’m always learning a lot. The fact that Silicon Valley is very open and helpful…

Glassdoor: It’s the perfect combination.

Eric Yuan: Absolutely. I have learned that as long as you keep working hard, you will get there someday. When I was applying for my visa, I was prepared to apply 20 times, 30 times. Luckily, I got it before I had to apply the tenth time.

Glassdoor: That hard work has paid off with you becoming #1 Top CEO and Zoom having a 4.9 out of 5 company rating and an impressive 96% Recommend to a Friend rating.

Eric Yuan: We have a long journey ahead. I really didn’t have a specific agenda or goal in my mind for this. I have told our employees, my family and myself as well, “Enjoy this process. Enjoy this journey. Do all we can to see how far we can go.” I celebrate each day, and each week. Along the way, I think about how to make sure all the employees are happy, all of the customers are happy. That’s the most important thing.

Glassdoor: When it comes to Glassdoor, how do you use the platform for recruiting and to keep your finger on the pulse of both company culture and candidate experience?

Eric Yuan:  I really appreciate that Glassdoor is building a greater platform for transparency. You have a place where any employee, whatever they are thinking, can let us know how they are feeling about their job and our company. Actually, we have a similar philosophy here. We keep everything transparent.

Glassdoor: Retention is hugely important these days. How do you lead your teams to retain top talent?

Eric Yuan: I think about how to make sure that the employees look at the big picture of their career path. One thing we really focus on, I told our employees, “If you learn a lot of things, this is a part of your value. No matter where you go, even someday you’ve left Zoom, you have already increased value by yourself. You will bring that value with you. And that’s why you have to enjoy the process. Enjoy working here and keep growing yourself as the company grows.” The best scenario would be for employees to grow themselves as the company grows, that’s what I tell them, because if the company does not grow, it’s hard for employees to grow. If we stop growing as a company, the employees will quit. Both need to grow in parallel.

Glassdoor: When you look back over your past year as CEO, can you share how you have navigated a leadership mistake or challenge? Was there a time when you didn’t perform like you thought you should have, and how did you recover?

Eric Yuan: Every day when I wake up, the first thing I’m thinking about is whether my employees are happy. But sometimes I have some unhappy employees and if that happens I feel like, “Ah, as a CEO I did not do a good job.” I ask myself if we did not set up a policy correctly or communicated to employees what they should do or how a manager could have responded faster. I’m always thinking about how we can build a better, more transparent culture that people can really feel. It’s important that whenever any employee has a problem, that we as leaders do not turn way. We have to share it, the employee has to be heard, otherwise they will suffer. Letting time pass when there are issue is not good for employees, not good for their family as well.

Glassdoor: Now for a few fun ones: What is one book that you think everyone should read? Why?

Eric Yuan: My favorite book is “The Speed of Trust”. The big thing I learned from this book is that especially for start-up companies, speed is everything. You’re competing with the legacy companies and quite often you have to make tough, critical decisions. But how to build a company at full speed at the same time without creating major problems is the challenge. But if trust is already there, it is very easy. If I trust you, I know your intentions are good. Even if you tell me, “Eric, this is a huge mistake. Can you fix that?” I trust you and I can make the fix. That’s why trust is everything.

Another book that is my favorite is “Only the Paranoid Survive.” As I said, I’m very paranoid. I think in any start-up, no matter what, there is no room to say, “We’re okay now.” No, we’ve got to work harder. We need to always be paranoid and ready. Prepare well.

Glassdoor: What motivates you or what is your go-to productivity hack?

Eric Yuan:  I love to spend time with my three kids. They play basketball, dance or play computer games. After I spend enough time with the kids, I feel I am fully recharged. Another hack is that I hate multitasking. Many people like switching back and forth between activities in their meetings or daily routine work, I tend to commit my focus to the only one thing that matters most at any given time.

Glassdoor: What is your #1 job search tip? What is your advice for searching for a job? How should job seekers be thinking about their hunt, given today’s competitive job market?

Eric Yuan: Know your passion and join a company you really want to devote yourself to. Otherwise, don’t. Keep looking.

Glassdoor: What scares you?

Eric Yuan: That’s a good question. I have never been asked about that. What scares me is when either I or our employees do not feel happy but we do not know what’s wrong or how to fix it. If we do not feel happy but do not know why, that’s scary.

Glassdoor: What energizes you?

Eric Yuan: When I wake up in the morning, I always think about three things: What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses, and did I work hard enough yesterday. Then I think about the five aspects of care before I sleep. I focus on care about my community, our company/product/our customers, my teammates/myself. It’s called the Evening Triangle. If a teammate has a problem, I need to make sure I stop by the office to see how they’re doing. That kind of focus on care energizes me.

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