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.
As a leader, you’re constantly making decisions. Even upon waking up, among your first decisions is what clothes to wear. However, successful entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg eliminated these smaller decisions so they didn’t cut into the day ahead.
Count interior design service Homepolish founder and CEO Noa Santos among them. “I have a uniform, because if you’re faced with making so many decisions every day, the things that aren’t as important to you [should] become routine,” says Santos, who believes time is one of your most valuable assets.
After graduating from Stanford and setting off in a career at a high-end interior design firm, Santos became frustrated with the industry and wanted to provide design services to a broader audience. So in 2012, he launched Homepolish, an interior design service that represents designers and connects them with clients across the country and offers customers a concierge service and tools for a variety of spaces and budgets, online and in-person. Today, the company has 80-plus employees and works with more than 600 designers nationwide and has created spaces for the likes of Classpass, GQ, Karlie Kloss, Amanda Crew and more.
Santos has a background and education in architecture and design, but his five years running a scaling startup has taught him how to be a leader. From daily routines to raising capital to managing his time (without an assistant), we caught up with Santos to learn how he runs a successful, growing business.
On the most important leadership traits:
“To me, listening and time management are the most important pieces of leadership. Being a leader means you’re going to have to fire yourself constantly from jobs. If your job is to find talented people you should be looking for people who are more talented at what they do than you are, which means that you also can’t approach this with an ego. If you do and you’re worried about having people who are smarter than you, then you’ll never hire properly. So if you’re going to hire people who are smarter than you, then you owe it to them to listen. The other thing is time management. So, prioritizing your time and understanding that time is your most valuable asset.”
On leadership style:
“When I was younger, I was the kind of kid who, rather than trying to find people who are better than me and empowering them to do their part on a class project, I was just like, ‘Get out of my way, I’m going to do the class project.’ And that’s at least workable when you’re young working on a class project, but it’s not workable at the level of a company because you can’t scale. You have to be constantly hiring people. So my leadership in that way, [is being] more confident in the people I hire. I like to measure twice, cut once when I’m hiring and then empower those people to actually take control. I don’t micromanage and I really try to look for someone who can do something better than me.
“In terms of listening, I think becoming a better listener is something that I’m on a lifelong journey to do. The funny thing is [decision-making] is always a gray area because being a leader means you also have to make decisions quickly. You have to be decisive. Even if you’re making a wrong decision, being decisive is far more valuable than making the right decisions all the time because being decisive is possible whereas [always making the right decision] is impossible. Again, it’s all related to empowering other people to make decisions for you. As a leader, if you’ve trusted people to make decisions and you have respected their right and wrong decisions, then I think it’s fair of you to expect the same treatment back from them.”
On habits that help him lead:
“We have a daily stand up where me and my leadership team go into a room for half an hour and [answer] the one question: ‘What are the 24-hour challenges you’re having today?’ Anyone can ask for advice or resources, and the longest you go in the company with a problem is 24 hours. The leaders then meet with their teams and do the exact same thing right afterwards.
“The other thing is being regimented — having a routine. My fiance always teases me about wearing the same thing every single day, which I kind of do. I have a uniform, because if you’re faced with making so many decisions every day, the things that aren’t as important to you [should] become routine.”
“Patience. Hands down. On the one hand, I know that to be an effective leader I need to be decisive, ambitious and passionate, and I need to push people to their limits. But I also need to display patience and slow down [in order] to speed up when we’re making long-term strategy decisions. Sometimes it’s better to take a couple of days to really dig in before you make a decision. And that’s always been my struggle. I’ve never been a patient person.”
On his toughest business decision:
“The toughest decision I’ve ever had to make [was] raising capital. We’ve only had one round of capital [in 2016], and we built the business profitably for three and a half years before we raised it. The reason why it was hardest wasn’t because of the money, it was because I truly don’t like making promises I can’t keep. When I make promises to other people, whether it’s employees or investors, I take them very seriously. And because we grew profitably and because money has always been important to us, making financial and fiscal promises to a group of people was a very big decision. It forces you [out of] your comfort zone and causes you to push further and harder than you ever thought you could because you are accountable to other people. But at the same time, you have to make sure that you and your team don’t suffer from burnout and that you don’t lose the core of why you are doing this in the first place. It’s not to make money — value must come first.”
On the most important traits in a new hire:
“The most important trait, outside of being a specialist in a certain area and having industry knowledge, is passion and drive. Frankly, we’re going too fast [and] we ask too much of people that if they’re not enjoying themselves and loving what they do every day, it’s not going to work.
“The second is self-awareness. Almost everyone who hasn’t lasted at Home Polish, if you trace back why, it’s come down to self-awareness. Self-awareness is such a fundamental character trait for people. It affects everything, from the way you do your work to the way you accept feedback about that work.”
On recognizing employees:
“We have daily stand ups and a weekly all-hands meeting. A huge portion of [the all-hands] is what we call ‘handouts.’ Because an achievement doesn’t need to be a milestone. We just had one today and it was a short version so a half an hour, and 15 minutes of it was shoutouts. It’s amazing because people undervalue the positive effect of a thank you. We clap after every single one, [and] frankly, half the time they’re hilarious as well but it’s really good to see cross-team collaboration.”
“For us, rather than making one big production, every Friday a different team in the company hosts a happy hour. And it’s become competitive. … At some point it’s going to get a little out of hand. The product team was the first one to and we did martinis and our head of product baked an insane cake. And everyone was just blown away. And the last one we had, which was the sales team, was sponsored and there was a little Italian wagon with beverages. The next one is going to be like peacocks and flamingos.
“It’s 5 on a Friday. Half the people are not answering emails anymore. Let’s have a cocktail. It’s a nice relief.”
On unique office rituals:
“[The happy hour] is kind of weird. Happy hour [in general] is not unique, but the way we do it is a little unique and weird.
“Our core values have been here [since] the very beginning. And being weird just to be weird was never part of it. Some people’s core values are literally to be weird, which I think was Apple’s — right? It was, ‘Here’s to the crazy ones.’ Ours have never really been that way. The happy hours just evolved and they get a little weird sometimes, like [for] the marketing team’s one, all of the dips and hors d’oeuvres were named after divas. It was VH1 themed. So there was a brie wheel and it was labeled ‘Brieance.’ There was ‘Celerine Dion.’ These are just weird because they end up being weird — we don’t try to do it. I don’t feel the need to stand out that way. What you’re doing should speak for itself honestly.”
On managing meetings:
“The great thing about hiring the right leaders and the right team, is that I very infrequently am the one managing a meeting. I’m usually sitting in, weighing in, giving suggestions but ultimately letting them make the final decisions. In terms of my own personal schedule, I’m in meetings all day long and usually don’t need more than a half hour in [one].”
“I don’t have an assistant. It’s been awhile since I’ve had an assistant. I tried one out and he was very good, [and] he actually taught me more about how to manage my own time. Again, I hired someone better at it than me. So after he left, I [didn’t] even think I needed an assistant. I think that if you need someone to do that — at least where I am right now — it means you’re not spending your time properly. I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg has an assistant and I’m sure he needs one. At some point, it probably becomes a complete necessity but I don’t know what that point is.
“Just today, at all-hands, I actually made an announcement that my inbox is no longer for day-to-day communication. I’m basically going to have daily office hours — if you need five minutes, I’m going to have a list, come in and we’ll just bang things out. Again, you shouldn’t have to wait longer than 24 hours for an answer from me and you could take five days to get back to someone [on email].”
On office setup:
“There’s no hierarchy. Unless [offices are] operationally necessary, [it] doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just extra real estate that you could use elsewhere. If I was running a different company where, as a CEO, I was talking through a lot of sensitive information, I think you should have an office. But it should be based on functional needs of the company, not hierarchy.”
“Once a week, I like to have a ‘lady’s lunch,’ so I’ll go out with a client or someone. Once every two weeks, I take out a group of six to eight people from different teams to breakfast. Just to be like, ‘How are you doing? Tell me about what’s going on. What are the challenges?’ It keeps me feeling accessible, which is important, but it also keeps my ear to the ground.”
On a strong company culture:
“Being specific about your core values and establishing them early are probably the most important things. And the third one being reinforcing them constantly — almost to the point of nausea.
“Our core values are: keep it fun, be the solution, dream smart and make it personal. We established three of those when we were just four people in our first office; the only one we ever added was make it personal. And they are constantly being reinforced. For example, every time we have shoutouts, in order to give someone a shoutout, you have to tie it back to a core value. Even when we have reviews, we calibrate people and score [them] across the core values.”
On his biggest cultural mistake:
“When it comes to a company of 80 people, assuming that a single person, if they weren’t a core culture fit, would go unnoticed. Even if it’s one person it’s like a cancer. It just spreads. And you have to catch it as fast as possible. It just completely erodes away not only at the culture itself but also at the leadership’s credibility because in interviews you’re constantly reinforcing your core culture. If you don’t force it then your word doesn’t mean much.”
On his biggest cultural win:
“It’s related to before, which is, when we were four people, we established our core values. And it’s astonishing to me, when I talk to founders who have large companies but don’t have core values — if you’re trying to be decisive on a day-to-day basis and you don’t have a set of guidelines to help you make those decisions, your decisions are just sort of going on a squiggly path. I feel very fortunate that we’ve had those guidelines for so long that it didn’t occur to me other people don’t.”
On his role models:
“I’ve never really had a subset of mentors. I don’t look for one person to emulate, I look for traits across a lot of different people. So it might sound cliche but someone like an Elon Musk. I don’t try to emulate him exactly because he sounds like he could be rather intense to work for and on a personal [level], maybe our values don’t match up exactly. But for specifically the ability to see beyond now — like six or 60 years from now — and to not be afraid to do something that is completely revolutionary.
“But if I was talking about someone’s personality — from a from a personal standpoint, I would talk about something else. I don’t blame people for these things — no one is 100 percent. It is almost a disservice, in my mind, to have a single person that you try to emulate. You’re yourself — try to pick the best parts of people and try to combine them as best you can. You have to take the dark with the light.”
On his favorite leadership books:
“Now what I love about it is that it causes you to take a step back and look at what actual job your customer trying to do. And so for us, you might at surface say, [they’re] trying to hire Homepolish because [they] want my house to look prettier. But [if] you take a step back, they’re trying to feel better about the way they live. Leadership should be forward-thinking.
“Normally I would say I’m competing against another design firm or a new decorator, but you’re actually competing against movers, therapists — frankly, everything from medication or alcohol. The point when you’re thinking about business over 50 years, very few businesses are doing now what they did 50 years ago. You have to evolve [and] broaden your scope.”
On where most leaders go wrong:
“I think in the short term where most leaders go wrong is that they don’t hire people who they believe are better than them. You have to be OK and self-aware enough not to have too big of an ego. I know that my leadership sitting in the room are better at the things that they’re doing than I am. And that’s a scary thing because you’re technically, as you fire yourself, building a company that could exist without you. But if you hope your company does live longer than you, then that’s your responsibility. You need to, over the course of your life or career, be building a company that essentially you phase yourself out of. And that’s a really scary thing to do.”