10 Leadership Lessons With Blue Apron CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski
What she learned in roles at Etsy, Evernote, Alibaba and now Blue Apron.
For many years prior to the pandemic, I had the privilege of interviewing tech founders and CEOs on stage to an audience of entrepreneurs and investors as part of my “Startups Uncensored” monthly event in Southern California. During the quarantine, I revived my fireside chat series to a virtual audience with the C-suite leaders of high-profile companies including Mattel, Zoom Video and Chipotle, and I recently partnered with Entrepreneur to host a new leadership series. I host virtual one-on-one sit-downs with the CEOs of global brands to talk about "If I Knew Then Leadership Lessons," life philosophies, practical career advice and other wisdom they can impart to other industry leaders.
In the second episode of the series, I had the pleasure of chatting with Linda Findley Kozlowski, CEO of Blue Apron – the pioneer in meal prep delivery service. I wanted to speak to her because Blue Apron has re-imagined the way that food is distributed and consumed, making incredible home cooking available to everyone and returning the fun of at-home cooking to the family experience. As an avid user myself – especially during this pandemic – I admired how it developed an integrated ecosystem; working directly with food growers and artisans to bring fresh, high-quality food at a great value to customers across the nation. I also appreciate that the recipes change every week based on the season and often feature specialty ingredients that promote culinary exploration.
In addition to discussing Kozlowski’s time at Blue Apron, we discussed her background as an executive for other high-profile companies including Etsy, Evernote and Hong Kong-based Alibaba. As if that weren’t impressive enough, she also serves on the boards of Ralph Lauren, Styleseat and Dress for Success, a not-for-profit organization focused on empowering women.
Below are the top 10 major points Kozlowski hit upon during our conversation, including some of the common mistakes people make early in their careers and her surprising recommendation when it comes to timing a new job search.
1. Taking risks is really important in the early stages of your career
In fact, being adverse to risks is itself a huge risk to take. Just remember to be a responsible person first and make sure your risks aren’t adversely affecting your family or friends’ lives. People early in their careers shouldn’t presume too much about starting salary, either. They tend to over-optimize how much they can make in the short term and often under-optimize how much they can earn in the long-term.
2. Join an organization to learn what they’re doing right, not to fix whatever is wrong
Work for organizations that do certain things with amazing proficiency so you can learn how they tick. Do this instead of believing you need to define yourself by tearing the company’s processes apart. Don’t fix what’s not broken: learn about it and grow from it. You can get as much out of the company as they can get from you.
3. Learn as much as you can about multiple parts of your business
Findley Kozlowski says that when you’re open-minded to people shifting between roles and encourage them to learn multiple parts of the business, it builds incredible teams. “Every time someone gets more and more exposure to the full breadth of the business, you just start to see lights go on, and people get really excited about how to solve challenges and problems.”
4. Don’t forget the power of storytelling
Storytelling has powers that affect us far past childhood. It is about helping someone understand something, and in business that often means helping them understand something about your company. Your employees’ stories can tell the truth about your company in the best possible light.
5. Keep track of long-term goals for yourself and for the company you work for
Every major choice Findley Kozlowski has made during her career has included open and honest conversations with the company about its long-term goals and her own.
6. Be careful when the company you’re interviewing for promises too much
Some smaller companies will be very quick to promise grandiose things, such as giving you the opportunity to have a whole team built up around you. Keep in mind that those kinds of expansions are entirely dependent on choices made as the business changes, not on interview promises.
7. Consider waiting until you’ve left a job to begin looking for a new job
This one came out of left field and really surprised me in the way that it conflicts with common wisdom, but Findley Kozlowski made real sense here. “First, I tend to put so much of my energy into what I'm doing at my current job that it would be next to impossible to truly focus on looking for another job. Secondly, I think that you don't always make great decisions when you do them under those circumstances,” she explains.
8. When interviewing talent, keep in mind that there are some skills that can’t be taught
Findley Kozlowski reminds us to remember that there are both teachable skills having to do with processes and unteachable skills having to do with coexisting and dealing with other people. If a candidate seems to lack empathy, remember that this may be foundational to their character and may not be changeable.
9. It’s okay to not know everything early on in your career
You might be primed to take over the world straight out of school, but the rest of the world expects and understands that your early years are about playing catch-up and asking lots of questions. Don’t allow pride to take over what you do know — or have fear over revealing what you don’t know — and stop you from growing.
10. CEOs have lonely jobs
Service leadership is no joke. “The reality is, as a CEO, your primary job is to eliminate all the barricades for your team. You want to make sure that they have everything they need to get things done,” Findley Kozlowski says. “So in many ways, you really do work for them. It’s an incredibly hard job, and it's an incredibly lonely job.”
That’s only a sampling of the hard-won wisdom that Kozlowski shared with me during our conversation. Watch the full hour-long webinar for other pieces of sage advice. It is clear that she is not only an expert on hiring, she has handled her executive roles compassionately and thoughtfully.
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