Staying focused, chess not checkers, and optimizing what's natural: 8 executives from top companies share their best leadership advice

  • The best leaders should look to others for advice in order to be successful. 
  • Insider spoke with eight leaders from major companies for insights that shaped their careers.
  • Here’s the advice that has helped them to become the trailblazers they are today. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For CEOs, senior executives, and founders, it can be lonely at the top. 

A study from the International Journal of Leadership and Change found that people in leadership positions are particularly susceptible to feelings of alienation and isolation. That could be due, in part, to not knowing where to turn for advice. 

Leaders are naturally expected to inspire and advise but, when they don’t have answers, they might view seeking out advice from others as a weakness, which can ultimately be detrimental to their success. The most realized leaders lean into their vulnerability and actively seek out the wisdom of others. 

This doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t continue to look for opportunities to improve. In fact, amid a triple pandemic crisis that has touched the lives of over 160 million American workers, effective, transparent leadership is even more critical.

Insider asked eight CEOs, executives, and industry leaders from companies like Cisco, Square, and Netflix for a single piece of advice that has shaped them as leaders. Here’s what they had to say. 

Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Marc Randolph, cofounder of Netflix, on focus

“One lesson that struck me from the Netflix experience was that you can’t possibly imagine what the future’s going to look like. It will continually surprise you, and you just have to focus on what’s ahead of you and stay focused. I certainly could never have envisioned that Netflix would achieve the scale and impact that it has, and had I dreamed about that back in 1997, people would have had me committed. 

I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. I was putting all my effort into getting this silly e-commerce website to work. That was step one. And then once I have step one done, I’ll lift my eyes up and look at step two.”

John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco and CEO of JC2 Ventures, on playing the chess game

“I never make an important move without playing the chess game all the way out. So many people make one move at a time and then see what I do next. Once I get my competitor doing that, it’s game over. Henry Kissinger taught me that you have to play out the most likely scenario in negotiations, both opportunistic and pessimistic. You play it to the end, backwards and forwards, and that allows you to move with speed. 

That might be not intuitive. It sounds like bureaucracy to think it through things that way, but your speed can be so quick. At Cisco, for example, I could acquire a $3 billion company in 24 hours in a public market.”

Naomi Wheeless, global head of customer success at Square, on figuring out what comes naturally to you

“So often when people come to me for mentoring and they’ve made some sort of faux paux — someone’s upset with them, or they’re in trouble at work — it’s very often related to the fact that they tried to be something that they were not.

It’s not genuine. It’s not authentic. And so their delivery feels forced, and it ends up usually with them landing in hot water. 

If people spent more time focusing on figuring out their particular style and what makes it work for them first, instead of trying to emulate everything they read in books or watch TED talks about, they would end up long-term in a much better position than if they simply tried to replicate someone else’s leadership.

You have to find your own way because the people that you’re leading will be able to sense if it’s not genuine.”

Sheila Marcelo, founder of and venture partner at NEA, on authentic boldness

“Authenticity means vulnerability and that human side of you, and yet you’re asked to be bold, to be confident. So how could you be both vulnerable and confident? 

The way the psychology works is that the more you’re open about yourself, the more you’re actually confident because you care less about what people think. Your goal in life is actually to serve others and not impress others. There’s a sense of coming out who you are. People will want to be with you and work with you, because you inspire them with what’s in your heart and what you’re trying to achieve overall. 

It’s a really interesting leadership growth that I’ve journaled about through the years. How can I bring my whole self in whatever I do? The more authenticity I have, the more willing I am to take risks, because it’s less about what people think, but what’s my heart to serve.”

Calum Smeaton, CEO of TVSquared, on the value of hard times

“Experience is the thing that you get just after you needed it. I think it really helps when you’re going through hard times to know that hard time is the thing that you will learn from. You will get over it, and then once you’re over it, you can make it easier for yourself, because you’ve learned.” 

Eilert Hanoa, CEO of Kahoot!, on hurrying slowly

“My father, who is a neurosurgeon, said two things. The first is to think things through before you act, and the second is to hurry slowly. There are too many discussions where people say, ‘just do it, and we can fix it later.’ But the reality is that, especially if you’re a neurosurgeon, you have to think things through before you start operating on the patient. If not, the operation might not be very successful. 

That’s actually big in business as well. Over time, in order to deliver quality in every step of our process, it’s about hurrying slowly. You want to be eager, passionate, and forward-leaning, but at the same time, with quality and in the right order. We need to be constantly evaluating and making sure that we have quality in every single step on the way to deliver that at the end.”

Diane Yu, CTO of, on staying curious

“Always be curious and ready to learn. I measure my happiness based on how much I learn each day, and that has helped me to grow this far. I want to see young professionals aspire to do the same thing. Continue to learn and continuously grow, and great things will open in front of you.”

Aman Bhutani, CEO of GoDaddy, on being a better person

“To be a better leader, be a better person. That’s from a book called Monday Morning Leadership, and that principle has helped me through the most difficult of decisions. For leaders, the hard decisions are when the data is not clear and you have to make a judgment call. And of course you want to gather as much data as possible, so you train your gut to make good decisions. But it’s important to be able to fall back on values and principles when you have to make tough decisions. The idea of ‘to be a better leader, be a better person’ has made a huge difference to me.

I use that principle with the idea to come in every day and be a tiny bit better than the person I was yesterday. That creates great leaders and people who can do things that they didn’t imagine they could do, and others couldn’t imagine what you could do.” 

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Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.

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