The Leadership Lattice: Bruce Dines
The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation about building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Bruce Dines, Vice President and Managing Director of Technology Investments for Liberty Global Ventures.
What is your approach to leadership?
Many leaders get confused between their sphere of influence and span of control. The great leaders all understand that sphere of influence is much more important. Span of control leaders are concerned about the size of their organization. It's also much more important as a leader to engage your teams than it is to attempt to control their direction. People want to be given the freedom to exercise their own brain power and develop their own projects. People who are challenged will always perform better and provide more energy and effort to an initiative than if you've given them an assignment and demanded completion. It's about ownership. The art of leadership is helping people discover what needs to be done and how their skill sets can most benefit the business and the company. It comes down to ensuring that every single individual that reports to you feels as though they're respected, that they're valued, and that they're heard.
How does your role differ, depending upon your internal role at Liberty versus the role that you may take on at your portfolio companies?
This concept of sphere of influence versus span of control is directly relevant to my role in Liberty. I have one direct report at Liberty. It's a company of 20,000 employees. But, my sphere of influence is considerable. First because of the successes that we've had within the technology investments we've made in new and disruptive technology companies. And second, because of the Office of Innovation that I lead at Liberty. This is our idea incubator - a portal that not only enables but encourages anybody in the company to submit an idea that they think will save the company money, will drive revenue for the company or will engage better teamwork or cross-function development. You can see that my role within Liberty shows the real juxtaposition between span of control which is very limited and sphere of influence which is really global and broad.
As far as the portfolio of companies that we've invested in, in most cases I have a Board position in the company, either a non-voting or voting position. In all the companies where I've got a voting position I'm also on a sub-committee. I actively work with our entrepreneurs in developing the company's strategic direction and helping the executive team avoid the kind of mistakes I made when I was a young entrepreneur.
What were some important leadership lessons for you in your career?
A lot of young, bright college graduates who are identified for executive roles get identified because they've got native intelligence coupled with very strong attention to detail and very good analytical skills. And it's almost an oxymoron, because people who have those qualities, when they move into a supervisory or executive role tend to micromanage. That's what they know how to do. I took my detail orientation and my analytical skills and immediately thought the best way for me to add value as a leader was to show everybody how they needed to be more detail oriented and analytical, and I learned that this was not the best way to lead people.
Did you have a mentor early in your career?
I had a number of mentors along the way. The first one that I recall was a really gifted leader, everything that I've spoken about. He was a great listener; he was well prepared; he had a very strong understanding of the business; he valued and respected people. He was the kind of guy who could actually tell you that you were not performing at your best level and rather than go away angry, I'd go away motivated. It's so much about how feedback is communicated and ensuring that the underlying message is not one of "Do this or else:" it's "I want to get the best I can from you, and I know you want to get the best out of yourself. How do we work together to realize this potential?" He had the ability to energize people and get the most out of them and that ties back to this whole concept of Art of Leadership. He was one of the best overall leaders I've ever worked for.
How do you hire and what qualities to you generally look for in a person?
I use what I call the ‘hang out factor' in addition to the typical Q&A. I meet with people several times. I want to get to know them. Would I want to sit next to them on a nine-hour flight to Amsterdam? Time helps me understand their personality and cultural fit within the organization. I'm always looking for native intelligence. I'm always looking for people who are thinkers and can articulate their thoughts well. I look for creativity because I don't think that business today puts enough of a premium on creative thought. I'm not at all shy about hiring people outside of traditional business realms. In regards to interviewing, I ask very open-ended questions. Who, what, how, when, where. I like to get specific examples and so when someone represents to me that they've accomplished something, I'm always going to ask them for the specific example and result.
When you're looking at a potential investment, what qualities do you look for in the management team?
We may invest in a very early stage company where we know we're going to add people to the management team. This company will have very promising technology and a strong technologist and a strong visionary behind how that technology can become commercialized. We also invest in later stage companies and in that case, I'm looking for a reasonable amount of synchronicity among the managing team. Before we invest we'll spend time with managing team members. But mostly what I look for is the leadership qualities I've talked about in the CEO. I would rather invest in a company that has a mediocre business plan and a great management team, than a great business plan and a mediocre management team. They will always outperform. Ideally, I look for both.