Business Management

Red Hat CEO's book centres on importance of being open

For a CEO, managing a company with its roots in the open source community might seem like the equivalent of Dante’s inner circle of hell. It’s doubtless financially rewarding but the noise of opinion on technology, ethics, strategy and so on must pose a risk to hearing problems for leaders. In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst reports on what it’s like to run the world’s biggest open source software company, Red Hat. This affable, entertaining and eye-opening book sees Whitehurst reporting on the interviews, company meetings, the challenges and mistakes he has made and the result, I believe, will become a textbook for managing modern businesses, even those without a strong technology component.

I can’t claim to know the author well but I have interviewed him twice and have gained the impression of a modest, self-effacing man, quick to laugh at the occasional absurdities of the IT industry. This is unusual enough in a sector where egomania, arrogance and the beating of macho chests is common currency among company leaders. My impression is confirmed by this book and its frank, plain-spoken tone that is leavened by stories of Whitehurst’s tenure at Red Hat, having joined (unusual again) from the airline industry.

Whitehurst’s leadership style comes across as inclusive, meritocratic and more about listening than shouting or the traditional top-down, rule by fear ethos. The old model might work in some organisations but softer approaches are often needed today. We live in a world where employees can often take their pick of employers, where companies depend more on community and service than intellectual property, where velocity and flexibility are prized, and where globalisation and technological change are creating an almost dizzying pace of change.

The answer for Whitehurst is the “open organization”: one that is receptive to changes in stimuli, has its antennae permanently twitching and is receptive to internal and external counsel. He acknowledges the role of crowdsourcing in building modern working environments but also criticises it as unidirectional. Instead he prefers to take his cues from open source and the mutual benefits of what happens when creativity is ignited and where people can very often manage themselves.

It sounds simple but it really isn’t, of course: witness the absence of open source companies to have achieved anything like the scale of Red Hat. Whitehurst admits to having previously been a classical top-down leader but says he was changed by his experience at Red Hat. In some ways this is the story of a conversion; not Damascene perhaps, but a major shift in thinking and culture nonetheless.

Whitehurst doesn’t say so explicitly but he was probably helped by the fact that his experience in management consulting had let him see the workings of many different companies and many different corporate organisms. That experience and his later education at Red Hat helped him to relax control and trust people to deliver.

Refreshingly, Whitehurst doesn’t present his journey as having been without challenges or detours. In fact, The Open Organization is full of droll tales where the CEO is often the person in the wrong.

One example of many:

Early on, I issued what I thought was an order to create a research report. A few days later, I asked the people assigned to the task how things were going. “Oh, we decided it was a bad idea, so we scrapped it,” they told me in good cheer.

That’s a difficult concept for many of my peers in other com­panies to embrace. Other CEOs to whom I’ve told this story have gasped, “What do you mean they didn’t do what you asked them to? That’s insubordination! You should have fired them.” At first, I felt that way, too. But, the truth is that my team was right to turn down the job—it either wasn’t a great idea or, just as importantly, I hadn’t done a good enough job selling them on why they should jump into it. A leader’s effectiveness is no longer measured by his or her ability to simply issue orders.

This is a smart book about leadership and the importance of adaptability in an era when diktats will no longer be obeyed. It’s brief, to the point and lacking in the filler or jargon that make most business books such a chore. By all means, read it.


Also read:

The Open Organization – an excerpt

Jim Whitehurst interview


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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