This interview is part of FirstMark’s Effective Leadership Series.
Jeetu Patel is the Chief Product Officer & Chief Strategy Officer at Box. He’s helped lead the team at Box to build one of the most ubiquitous and essential tech tools of the modern digital age—touching tens of thousands of businesses, millions of users, and billions of interactions.
1. What was your first management role? What did you learn from it?
My first managerial role came when I was promoted to a service supervisor from a waiter at Sizzler, and my job was to manage the other waiters during our shift. During this time, I realized that I could no longer argue to have the best section of the restaurant assigned to me, but rather as the manager, I had to provide the best section to the other waiters working that shift. The biggest lesson I learned, that I have carried with me throughout my career, is that being a leader isn’t about getting your way — it’s about clearing the way so others can be successful.
2. Early in your career, before you assumed leadership roles, what was one quality you appreciated in a great manager?
My favorite managers were the ones that gave me autonomy and provided direct feedback. This way, I always knew where I stood and what I needed to work on. Additionally, high integrity has always been a very important character trait to me — it was important to me that I knew that my manager had my back.
3. Is there one moment you can point to that fundamentally shaped your approach to leadership?
When I was CMO of Documentum, my boss at the time asked me to take the job as CEO of [EMC] Syncplicity. The catch was that I would have to give up my current CMO role — which at the time, was a bigger job with a much larger scope. When I asked him why, he told me two things — first, that it wasn’t a negotiation, and second, he felt that I had a higher chance of success if I focused all of my energy on one problem. And he ended up being absolutely right.
Understanding how to set people on your team up for success was a big lesson I learned and I realized that sometimes giving strong people too much scope can bury them, leading to an undesirable outcome for that person and the company.
Sometimes giving strong people too much scope can bury them.
4. What are the most important daily or weekly habits that you’ve developed as a leader?
I am terrible at responding to email, and learned early on that people get frustrated if they can’t get a hold of you. But, I realized that text messages work much better for me and am always responsive on text — so, people who really need me can always get a hold of me this way.
Recently, I have also instituted another habit for the purpose of always being available to people that matter. Whenever my seven-year-old daughter calls me, I answer no matter what meeting I am in — this way she knows that her dad is only ever just a phone call away.
5. What framework do you use for your one-on-one meetings?
I’ve made it clear to anyone who schedules one-on-one meetings with me that this is their time and it is up to them to set the agenda. My job is to clear any hurdles and make their life easier.
And I tell them to bring me the bad news first.
6. What advice would you give to a first-time manager about giving effective feedback?
Don’t focus on being liked — focus on being clear, yet respectful. If you care about your people, then you will be very clear with them on where they stand at all times. If people know when they are doing a good job and when they aren’t, they will be able to consistently improve. I believe that hiding behind a curtain of politeness is just the modern day form of lying. You owe your people more than that.
Don’t focus on being liked — focus on being clear, yet respectful.
7. Have you worked with a coach, and if so, what was the biggest lesson you learned?
I have had several coaches and mentors throughout my career, but the coach that I had during my time as CEO of Syncplicity was incredibly helpful. This coach helped me to see the importance of self-awareness and how, as a senior leader, if you are not deliberate with your words and actions, you will create a great deal of confusion. People hang on to every word you say — even when you are just thinking out loud. This coach instilled in me, not only the importance of being aware of the words I am using, but ensuring I’m providing my teams with the clear direction they need to be successful.
If you‘re not deliberate with your words & actions, you will create a great deal of confusion.
8. What’s one thing you are working on now?
Diversity in the workplace is an area I feel passionately about, especially working on getting more women in technology, across all functions. I truly believe that teams perform better in an environment where there is a diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and where employees feel like they belong.
We have a long way to go, but I am personally committed to driving change on my teams and more broadly at Box, where we have been focused on developing and implementing programs and partnerships that we believe lead to real results.