Leader Board

Why the Entrepreneur Behind iRobot, Which Has Sold More Than 20 Million Robots, Burns Frustrating Documents at the End of Every Year

Colin Angle, who co-founded the company 27 years ago, shares his leadership tips and habits.
Why the Entrepreneur Behind iRobot, Which Has Sold More Than 20 Million Robots, Burns Frustrating Documents at the End of Every Year
Image credit: iRobot
12 min read

In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.

Rather than let your frustrations settle -- figure out a way to cope, by say, burning some papers. That’s what 27 years as the co-founder and CEO of major robotics firm iRobot has taught Colin Angle.

Whether it’s an annoying email or an upsetting meeting, when Angle and other members of his exec team feel frustrated, they take documents that represent those frustrations and put it into a folder. At the end of the year, the team huddles outside the office around a burning fire and tosses the documents in while reminding themselves how they overcame that challenge. He calls it a “symbolic purging of the challenges of the last year.”

Related: Why This Entrepreneur Who Leads More Than 1,000 Employees Prefers to Eat Lunch Alone

With office rituals such as these, Angle has built a company with more than 700 employees worldwide. Since its founding in 1990 in Bedford, Mass., the company has sold more than 20 million robots. And while iRobot is often associated with the Roomba, the team's work has historical roots beyond the home, including defense -- supporting agencies, governments and nations around the world with its innovative tech, from inspiring the first Micro Rovers used by NASA to deploying robots used by the U.S. Forces.

Angle has led the company through it all. In fact, other than being a camp counselor, his role as iRobot’s CEO is the only job he’s ever held. From prioritization to sleep to collaboration, there are certain things Angle has found that help him be a successful leader. Of course, even as the co-founder, chairman and chief executive -- he’s not there because of his merit or stake in the company, but because of his ability to create a cohesive company and continuously evolve in the position.

“I have been able to remain CEO not because of the fact I was CEO yesterday but because I've worked very hard to listen, learn and evolve in the seat,” he tells Entrepreneur.

We spoke with Angle to learn how he successfully leads one of the most innovative and impactful robotics companies around.

On the most important leadership traits:

“One of [a] leader’s key roles is creating thoughtful clarity in the direction of the team or the company, and in the same thought, absorbing ambiguity and uncertainty. Leaders are put into place to help teams move in a direction. It's not to say the leader must create that direction personally but they need to be the keeper of the clarity of direction or else things start to fall apart.”

On leadership style:

“Collaborative to a point. I try to surround myself with as excellent a team as possible. I've been a CEO for a very long time. In fact, other than a camp counselor, it's the only job I've ever had. So going on 27 years as a CEO, I have been able to remain CEO not because of the fact I was CEO yesterday but because I've worked very hard to listen, learn and evolve in the seat.

“Depending on the period of time, my role varies -- from recruiting being the most important thing that I do to being the cultural cheerleader to being a change agent. My job changes very dramatically every four to six months depending on the company's needs and the company's growth.”

On habits that help him lead:

“I think it's very important to create some unscheduled time in your day where you’re able to step back and think as to what's going on, what might be coming down the pike and how [to] prepare yourself for it. The job of being a leader is so overwhelming, it's possible to get incredibly reactive by the complexity of the magnitude [of] responsibility that you shoulder every day.

“Even if I create an hour of time to think and find myself staring at a blank piece of paper, not really sure why I'm sitting there when there's so many other things going on, I still try to force myself to do that.

“I would [also] put sleeping as an important daily habit. Where I went to school, at MIT, it was commonly viewed that the less you slept, the more successful you were. Yet, I felt just the opposite. Prioritizing and trying to start off the next day with a proper perspective requires some amount of recharging.”

On challenges:

“Prioritization -- to make sure that I'm spending my time on the things that matter most. One of the biggest challenges is making sure the things that are easy to ignore but will ultimately determine whether [a] company is successful or not are attended to. Oftentimes those can be personnel issues where it's easy to say, 'How broke[n] is it? We can certainly kick that one down the road a little bit.' And then it can become something that truly limits [a] company's success and grow challenges from within, which can ultimately destroy companies.”

On the toughest business decision:

“The toughest kind of business decisions are making changes for future scalability when the current situation is OK, and you know those decisions are going to have profound impacts on [particular] people who have done a lot of good for the company in the past. It's typically when someone has not scaled with the business and have ambition for roles and responsibility beyond their capabilities -- someone can be great at an early stage startup and crappy at a business [in] revenue optimization stage.

“The classic growth problems around upgrading talent are often the toughest decisions because they're personal and because they're judgment calls.

On the most important traits in a new hire:

“At iRobot, so much of building and growing a company is how you work in a team: How are you at giving and receiving feedback? Are you motivated by our mission vs. being here for your paycheck?

“What I like to do in an interview is find a topic that evokes a passionate response from the person [and] move the conversation into something that you can see is speaking at a different level and figure [out] what insight you can gain from that. You can ask people about when [they] have been really challenged or tested, or some passions or things that [they] most love about [their] past jobs. Those types of questions can reveal a lot about what motivates a person.”

Related: The Success Secrets of the 4-Time Entrepreneur Behind BarkBox, Which Brought in $100 Million in 2016

On recognizing employees:

“Some of the most important things are not in front of all hands -- it has to do with giving feedback on a routine basis and recognizing how people take feedback. If you are giving someone feedback [and] you want the person to walk away from the conversation with a neutral impression of your judgment of their competence, you need to have said four positive things for every negative thing.

“We're a very mission-oriented company. People are part of iRobot because they believe in what we're doing. Events are important but every day feedback I think is more impactful.”

On team-building:

“It's valuable to get people out of their natural environment a little bit and spend time forcing the group to do some of the things that I value so much around blue ocean thinking.

“Typically we go off-site and hole up in a conference room with agendas that focus not just on the day to day but on organizational health. Then [we] have significant blocks of time, which are lightly organized, but really [for] a self-generating list of priorities and playing those priorities out.”

On unique office rituals:

“Throughout the year, when something really annoying or stressful happens, we take that email, document or whatever it was that represented this frustration and put it into a folder. At the end of the year, we go out into the back parking lot where we have a 55-gallon drum that we’ve got a fire going in. [We] stand around this burning drum and ceremonially remind ourselves of what [the frustration] was, how we overcame it and toss the document into [the] drum as a symbolic purging of the challenges of the last year.

“And then, instead of having a fancy dinner to celebrate, we typically go out to a sports bar and eat nachos and beer -- with the notion of life running a company has its ugly side, and we overcome a lot of challenges and we're a scrappy team that figures out a way forward. Wrapping up the year feels more like huddling around a burning drum, eating chicken wings and drinking beer than sipping wine and [eating] filet mignon.”

On managing meetings:

“I go to significant lengths to make [the meetings] that I'm involved in working meetings as opposed to report outs. It's often the case that if your executive team is a collection of people who are merely representing their groups and their decisions within their functions, that's an unhealthy state, and your exec meetings become report outs as opposed to strategy sessions or problem-solving sessions.”

On scheduling:

“My assistant helps me block my day. We try to prioritize all of the different requests on my time and make sure that there are occasional times to breathe. But I will operate with a schedule -- it provide[s] the structure that I need to say, 'OK, this is my time to do X and my time to do Y.' Typically I'm blocked in hour blocks but sometimes half-hour blocks.”

On office setup:

“I have an office [and] it has a conference room, which is used constantly. I probably have 85 percent of my meetings in my office, and my walls are lined with enormous smartboards. One of the reasons why I want meetings in my office is because the environment is very conducive to the way I like to communicate.”

On lunch:

“If I'm trying to maintain a healthy diet then I might have a healthy milkshake sitting in my office, but probably three times a week I go and find one of my exec team members or somebody who is doing something interesting and we have lunch together. It's an informal way to stay in touch.”

On a strong company culture:

“A strong company culture is one that is well known, is infectious and has a material impact on behavior. Companies that have a strong culture are ones that have been able to infect new hires with that culture and have whatever that culture's desired outcome impact that person's life.

“iRobot's culture is one that challenges us to be innovative and not just come up with ideas but reduce those ideas to practice and change the world with those ideas. While we're in an innovative company, we value building over innovating -- innovating is necessary but it doesn't count unless we make it real.”

On cultural mistakes:

“As iRobot grew in its adolescent years, from the sea of opportunity we had two different divisions which were created: one focused on defense and one focused on home. Those two divisions started to get identities that were larger than the identity of the company, and I allowed leadership of those two divisions to use a very destructive strategy to motivate their people: an ‘us vs. them’ strategy. Making [themselves] feel special by putting down other parts of the company.

“The shift from companies within a shell back to one company was a very painful time for iRobot. We integrated all of the organizations and moved people around. In some cases, we changed leadership at multiple levels. We talked very openly about it as a problem that needed to be solved.”

On his biggest cultural win:

“One of the things that I did early on was write iRobot's mission statement -- even though it sort of violated all the rules of what mission statements are supposed to be. It was very simple: build cool stuff, deliver great product, make money, have fun and change the world. We put that on the back of all of our card access keys to get into the building. I think 100 percent of the people at iRobot know that phrase and some of the most important executives who came to iRobot came because of that mission statement.”

Related: Why This First-Time Entrepreneur That Built a Website With More Than 5 Million Monthly Visitors Sets Aside Time to Work Out With Her Team

On his role models:

“Winston Churchill. I've been very impressed when a speech can matter and when [an] individual can stand up and through the utterance of words change the course of history -- of a company, a nation, a world. Particularly if the speech and the words are noble words that are inspiring and focused on duty, nobility and purpose. As a leader you have an opportunity to help people understand and think about the bigger picture -- and that's something Churchill did.”

On his favorite leadership books:

“Patrick Lencioni's The Advantage is the book that I've adopted. I believe that it speaks to organizational health as a concept that companies that hope to scale need to embrace.”

On where most leaders go wrong:

“Any notion that you are a leader by right rather than merit often goes to a bad place. I've been the CEO of iRobot for 27 years not because I own a controlling stake in iRobot -- I have a small minority stake -- [but] because my board, the employees and our investors choose to have me here.”

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