The Leadership Game Plan: Henry Albrecht, CEO Limeade, Talks About Being Jaded

Why do you think a leaders lead? Actually, I think the better question is why do you think you should lead?

Are you leading because of:

  • Money?
  • Accolades?
  • Title?
  • Or the corner office?

If you said yes to any one of the above responses then you are becoming a leader for the wrong reasons. In all honesty your leadership potential will be limited because of your WHY in becoming a leader.

I have to come clean and admit this is what I thought leadership was about -- me. I worked hard because I wanted more:

  • Money.
  • Accolades.
  • Titles.

And I drove my subordinates hard because I did not see them for what they were -- my team.

Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, talks about the importance of building a great team, the intentionality of culture and the fostering of curiosity. Those attributes have one thing in common -- they have little to do with you, because leadership is not about you. It’s about the team and influencing the team to perform at its best by using tools like culture and curiosity.

So let’s read Albrecht’s interview. I love Henry’s answer to my 5th question -- I am listing it as an action item.

The Interview

1. So Henry, what’s your story?
There was a time when I was very jaded by business. I was working long hours on interesting work, but felt soulless. I wasn’t raised just to make a living, buy a house and a car, and call it a day. I wanted to make a difference. And I wasn’t. I had the good fortune to go to graduate school – frankly, I needed to do something different.

In the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, I fell in love with technology marketing in the heart of the dot com era. I felt the passion of sports (important for me as a former basketball player), the camaraderie of team, the intellectual challenge of science and the psychology of how people think and act.

My luck kept rolling when I joined Intuit. I’ve modeled a lot of what I’ve done at Limeade for the past 10 years after what I learned there, especially from a talent and culture point of view. I learned from Scott Cook to hire the best and most passionate people, foster their curiosity, and be more intentional about culture than the competition. At the end of the day, products and features come and go, but sustainably great businesses rise only when companies and their leaders are 100% intentional about culture.

2. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?
Other than singing ‘My Pony’ by Ginuwine at a company party? I would say looking backward too much – either with self-loathing or pride. There is always room to learn from losses and celebrate wins in life. History has lessons.

But pride especially is loathsome; looking in hindsight too long keeps your eyes off the most important day – today, and the second most important – tomorrow. Instead of wanting the world to know all of the “firsts” Limeade has brought to market, we as a business need to focus on what’s next. That’s a lesson for personal well-being and business success. Everything great starts right now.

3. Tell me about an accomplishment that shaped your career?
I had the chance to pitch an idea to an Intuit executive for a vertically targeted version of QuickBooks. I rehearsed a few times, presented, and won the right to assemble a small team. There is nothing like having a vision, attracting people to it, building the product, positioning and marketing it, then seeing it win in the market.

It was that experience and two others like it – all accomplished while surrounded by brilliant minds and in the safety of a big company – that gave me the confidence to do the same thing on my own. I am eternally grateful for those lessons.

4. Tell me about the time you realized you had the power to do something meaningful?
One evening, after a business trip for the enterprise software company I worked for, I stared numbly into the mirror. I saw a rash on my face. I heard myself bickering with my wife. I disliked my job. I burned out. When I walked in and quit to pursue my dream, I felt that I was finally pursuing something meaningful. Believing in yourself is the most meaningful act.

I soon realized how fun it is to work on something both personally and globally meaningful. The Limeade quest to understand ‘well-being improvement’ started with me interviewing people who were struggling – with weight, addiction, stress, self-esteem, family, finances, diseases and problems at work. It was humbling and exciting at the same time.

Qualitative research led to quantitative research: What do they – what do we need? Where are the common threads? This led me to all kinds of academic research – psychology, sociology, medicine, behavioral economics. And the question: How can we apply all of this science to improve the lives of the stressed out workforce?

5. Can you tell me about a time when you almost gave up, how you felt about that, and what you did instead of giving up?
No. At Limeade, I haven’t met a challenge that made me give up. I’ve made my family suffer more than I wish, but our work to improve well-being in the world through happy, healthy, high-performing workforces is important.

There was a time in 2009 when Limeade had a signed Term Sheet to raise our first Venture Capital round. We were going to sell about a third of the company for a million dollars. We sailed through the diligence VCs perform on their prospective investments, and on “wiring day” (the day the money hits the bank account)… crickets. No wire. No check. Nada.

It was a hard time. There were 5 of us in a drab office filled with colorful language. Our financial advisor told us in plain terms it was time to shut it down. We’d been at it for three years, and just weren’t breaking through. The economy was brutal, and payroll for that month was unpayable.

But after a few beers as a team, we just laughed it off. We had been studying the science of well-being improvement for years – so we knew the value of Resilience, Belief in Our Abilities, Meaning at Work, Managing Stress & Anxiety, Personal Relationships and all of the other Limeade concepts that allowed us to sustain the passion. I hope and believe we still do.

For the record, I borrowed money from my Dad and loaned it to the company to make payroll. And the founding team of Limeade at that time – David Reeves, Erick Rivas, Chris Dickinson, Jahmai O’Sullivan and their families – all made material sacrifices to make that loan go a long way. Keeping the dream alive takes a whole community.

P.S. Pick your investors wisely!

6. Solving complex problems often requires a reframing the problem. So what is your process of re-framing the problem so it can be resolved?

The world is rife with armchair quarterbacks. But sometimes they’re right. The same relentless stubborn hustle that is any startup’s greatest asset can become its greatest weakness with time. This is why looking backward is so dangerous. What helped you win last year won’t help you win this year.

I find that the best way to reframe problems is to bring in diverse views. Bring marketing, sales, customer support and engineering. Look to other industries. Bring people of all ages, colors, orientations, backgrounds. Ask customers and strangers at gas stations. Take vacations and long walks. The hardest problems need to be processed with free, energized imaginations. Innovation happens in the shower, at least for me.

It’s liberating to know that leaders don’t have to have all of the answers. They have to be intentional about creating the culture where hard problems can be solved. Then it’s a simple matter of assembling and inspiring teams, and having the courage to risk it all.


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