Spencer Rascoff is a busy guy. On a daily basis, not only is he making the most critical business decisions for Zillow Group, a real estate media company which encompasses brands like Zillow, Trulia, HotPads, Bridge Interactive, Mortech, and more — he’s also constantly checking in to ensure that his employees are engaged, happy, and as productive as possible. In fact, over the past three years, among companies with more than 1,000 employees, Rascoff has responded to more Glassdoor reviews than any other CEO of the 700,000+ companies currently listed.
But if you ask Rascoff, that type of success doesn’t have to come at the cost of his home life. In addition to being one of Glassdoor’s Highest Rated CEOs in 2017, Rascoff is a dedicated husband and father, who aims to get home by at least 7 p.m. every night to spend quality time with his family. This work-life balance, Rascoff believes, is critical to reaching peak productivity and performance.
Glassdoor’s Emily Moore recently caught up with Rascoff to learn how he balances his time so effectively, how he’s managed to put company culture at the heart of everything Zillow Group does, and why his secret ambition is to become a cowboy (really). Read on for insight, leadership advice, and more from Rascoff.
Glassdoor: I’ve got some meatier leadership questions for you later on, but I thought we could start out with a fun one: What was your first job?
Spencer Rascoff: My first job was in Fox Broadcasting in their research department. I analyzed TV ratings and programming recommendations about what shows Fox should put on the air, and made recommendations on which storylines they should develop and which ones they should cut back on. This was back in high school. It’s not your typical first job, but I learned a lot about data… [and] where data and art intersect. It also gave me some early exposure to the media industry. I still feel like I’m in the media industry. [Zillow Group] is a real estate media company — it’s not all that different actually from TV programming.
Glassdoor: You’ve been on Glassdoor’s Highest Rated CEOs list several times, and Zillow has made appearances on Best Places to Work as well. What do you think it is about your culture that makes it so special and unique?
Spencer Rascoff: Culture is incredibly important to us — I believe it’s our most valuable asset. When most people describe company culture, they tend to focus on a company’s perks, such as free food, or their performance, such as revenue growth or stock prices allocation. I prefer to focus on how decisions get made as the best exemplification of a company’s culture. Decisions at Zillow Group are decentralized, meritocratic, census-oriented and data-driven. We have a shared mission that is well understood by our employees, and we have core values that people abide by. And as long as their behavior is driving toward that mission and consistent with our core values, they feel empowered to make decisions with minimal executive oversight. It’s a pretty decentralized decision-making culture by design.
Glassdoor: How have you worked with HR to build that great culture?
Spencer Rascoff: I consider myself the head of HR. Most companies think of HR from a risk-mitigation function, or a necessary evil which serves some bureaucratic function. We view HR as the most important function of the company, because it speaks directly to employees and engages them. If you have a well-functioning HR operation, then you can achieve enormous leverage by improving employee engagement across thousands of people. I take a huge personal interest in [HR] — most of my day is spent on HR topics and issues affecting employee engagement.
Glassdoor: What does leadership mean to you?
Spencer Rascoff: I consider my job to be to recruit, retain, and motivate great people and to create an environment where they can do their best work. A great leader is somebody that empowers their team, clears roadblocks for their team, and extracts the best possible performance from their team. A leader serves their direct reports, not the other way around.
A great leader is somebody that empowers their team, clears roadblocks for their team, and extracts the best possible performance from their team. A leader serves their direct reports, not the other way around.
Glassdoor: What have been some of your most rewarding moments in leading Zillow Group? What about your most challenging?
Spencer Rascoff: I take the most satisfaction from receiving recognition from our own employees of our company being a great place to work, whether it’s a Glassdoor award or some other… similar recognition. Great people, properly motivated, build great products. Great products attract a huge audience, and a huge audience in a category like ours monetizes incredibly well. Great financial results begin with great people — employee recognition is a leading indicator of financial and corporate success. My favorite day of the year is our all hands, our nationwide all-hands meeting where thousands of people from other countries fly in and we spend the day together, discussing and hopefully inspiring them about what lies ahead.
The most challenging thing that we have encountered, just like our greatest success, [is] people-related. [Particularly,] when I have to fire people. I hate having to fire people, and that is one of the hardest things for any manager to do. But it’s very important as a manager to make sure that the entire team is properly positioned for success… That is definitely the most challenging thing that I encounter.
Glassdoor: What advice do you have for burgeoning leaders, whether they aspire to become a CEO or maybe just want to rise through the ranks a bit?
Spencer Rascoff: I have known for a very long time in my career that my success is, to a large degree, determined by the success of those around me. My advice would be to surround yourself with a terrific team who complements your skills and helps you succeed as you help them succeed. I also have found it valuable to suggest that people look to those 10 years their senior at their companies, and… try to determine if that is what you want out of your life. Usually, people look at that senior person’s compensation — they sometimes don’t look at the whole picture. They don’t look at their respect in the community, their title, the challenges that that job includes, their work-life balance, their relationships… [Look at that] and say to yourself, “Do I want that?” Because just 10 years later, you’ll be in that situation. Too often people don’t look at the whole picture — they just look at one piece of it, and then they wake up [and] before they know it, they’re kind of stuck in a rut.
Look to those 10 years [your] senior at [your company], and… try to determine if that is what you want out of your life… [Look at that] and say to yourself, “Do I want that?” Because just 10 years later, you’ll be in that situation.
Glassdoor: Wow, I really like that — great advice. On a day-to-day basis, what makes working at Zillow Group so special?
Spencer Rascoff: Real estate is a fun, interesting, exciting category. That makes it attractive, but also, we’re trying to solve really challenging problems. It feels to me like even though we’re 10 years in, we have barely scratched the surface of innovating in and around the home. I think people go to work here every day excited about challenges that lie ahead, because there’s still so much open field ahead of us.
Glassdoor: It’s clear from what your employees have to say that you are someone that they look up to. I’m interested in hearing who you really look up to, and who you consider to be your role models?
Spencer Rascoff: Microsoft… I think is doing a really good job of accomplishing something that is almost impossible in tech, which is a cultural turnaround. [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is] working really hard to reboot the culture, to recreate an environment of nimbleness and high employee engagement and pursuit of excellence. From everything I have seen, he seems to be doing a great job of it. It’s particularly hard to relight a flame, [but] he seems to be doing quite fine.
Glassdoor: All right, now for a few fun questions. If you weren’t a CEO, what would you want to be?
Spencer Rascoff: Cowboy.
Glassdoor: [Laughs] Really? What was it about being a cowboy that appeals to you?
Spencer Rascoff: My one regret in my career choice is I can’t really do my job outside. I prefer to be outside all day long. Unfortunately, outside jobs tend to be less remunerative… but I wish I could do my job outside. I love horses, I love riding, I love the outdoors.
Glassdoor: I can definitely say I haven’t heard that one before. What are some more fun facts about yourself?
Spencer Rascoff: I can wiggle my ears, [either] one ear at a time or both together. I used to be a competitive chess player — I was one of the best chess players in the country under age 12, and was the captain of my middle school chess team which won the national championship. I also have a dog named Fido. And my feet get cold very easily. I usually wear two pairs of socks.
Glassdoor: What are you usually doing at 7 p.m. at night?
Spencer Rascoff: I am almost always with the kids and my wife unless I’m on a business trip. At 7 p.m., I am usually running around my house chasing my three young kids and two dogs and trying to turn mayhem into order.
Glassdoor: That’s awesome that you’re able to spend that much time with your family. That sets such a good example for everyone else in the company, and lets them know it’s okay to have a life outside work.
Spencer Rascoff: That is something we work hard at. I strongly believe — it is unsustainable to work nonstop for years at a time. Our executive team sets an example of work-life balance.
Glassdoor: What kind of people do you usually like to hire at your company, and why?
Spencer Rascoff: It’s so easy to say this, but I hire people who abide by and live by our six core values which are on my wall right now in my conference room: own it, act with integrity, move fast, think big, winning is fun, Z.G. is a team sport, and turn on the lights. What does that mean? It means people who are results-oriented, that are highly ethical, that are competitive, that work well as a team, that act transparently, and that are smart.
Then I guess I would layer in another thing. One of the HR programs that we have is something called Insights, where we give every employee a personality test and it explains what type of energy they lead with. Are they analytical? Are they happy-go-lucky? Are they incredibly competitive? Etc. The reason that we do that is we encourage everybody, especially managers, to change their communication style to adapt to how the person they’re communicating with wants to be communicated [with]… I look for people who are humble enough that they can change their communication style to adapt to whom they are communicating with.
Specifically, that might mean that our Chief Revenue Officer, who happens to be very competitive and results-oriented and analytical (as you might expect from a Chief Revenue Officer), when he needs to communicate with a product lead, I need him to try to involve a person, gain their buy-in, use data to win them over. They just can’t railroad the person even though that might be their normal DNA. To ask a senior person to change the way they communicate based on their junior person’s personality requires humility. That is another key for what I’m hiring for.
Glassdoor: What has that personality test revealed about you? I’m sure you’ve taken it before.
Spencer Rascoff: I have. It says I lead with red energy. The phrase for red energy is “Be brief, be bright, be gone”… In my core that is who I am. By comparison, green energy is “Show me you care.” Yellow energy is “Involve me” and blue energy is “Give me details.”
Glassdoor: Grab your smartphone. What was the last app that you used and what did you do with it?
Spencer Rascoff: A couple are boring — email, iMessage, Calendar, and then Slack, Twitter, and Instagram. Slack is the most interesting of those — what I did with it was today was Star Wars Trivia Day, and I happened to bring my two kids to work. I was posting in Spencer Rascoff Talk, which is my CEO chatroom on Slack, about Star Wars Trivia Day and my son and daughter participating in it. It’s my way of connecting with employees and telling them a story.
Glassdoor: Love it! Before we wrap up, is there anything on your mind that we haven’t covered so far?
Spencer Rascoff: The only thing I’ll add is that Glassdoor has been a really valuable tool to me to keep my finger on the pulse of my employees. Almost every candidate that we interview reads Glassdoor reviews before interviewing. Nearly every offer that we make, the candidate reads before signing… [And] I read every review. Every review gets replied to by an exec, frequently me… I like to say I’ve been doing it before it was cool. [Laughs]