Left to right: LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky; 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Genesis Bernardin.
Left to right: LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky; 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Genesis Bernardin.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Ryan Roslansky

Fall 2021 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Ryan Roslansky, CEO of LinkedIn, was conducted by Posse Scholar Genesis Bernardin, now in her junior year at Davidson College, who worked with Ryan Roslansky as a 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

GENESIS: Tell me about the neighborhood you were raised in.

RYAN ROSLANSKY: I grew up in Lake Tahoe, California but when I was twelve years old, I was invited to a tennis academy in Florida. So, when I was in the middle of seventh grade, I moved across the country by myself and my "neighborhood" became a tennis academy where I lived in a dorm room with seven other kids from all parts of the world. We were all together in one place to go to school, practice, and play tennis competitively.

It was a unique experience. It taught me a lot about myself, about thinking for myself and being on my own. It taught me a lot about EQ and the importance of learning, and how to get along with people who think differently. It was a remarkable experience that I was extremely lucky to have.

How did your relationship with your parents shape your trajectory in life? What values did they instill in things within you that were instrumental to your success?

They were both, and still are, entrepreneurs. I learned a lot from that. They taught me to believe in myself and they were also very open to letting me figure out what I wanted to be. I went to college for a couple of months and during that time, my friends and I decided to start a company. I eventually dropped out to pursue the startup and when I told my parents, I wasn’t met with resistance. I was met with: “That sounds wonderful, Ryan. Do you want to do that?” I was very fortunate to have that kind of support from them to do what I thought made sense and was right for me. They really helped me understand that there’s not one path in life.

Wow. That’s amazing, because I feel like parents sometimes want to control their children and their paths and what they think is best for them. And to hear that your parents were very supportive and encouraged you to find the space to do what you want to do and be who you are without putting their constraints on your life is amazing. So shoutout to your parents.

So we’re going to switch gears and we’re going to go focus on your career. Would you mind telling me about the first time that you were someone’s boss? What did you learn from that experience and how has your leadership style evolved since then?

The first time you become a manager, you don’t necessarily realize what a different role it is and how you have to truly change your mentality and approach. You go from being a player to needing to become a coach. Many find joy in doing that—you’re helping to teach and coach people on how to get things done and how to be successful. You need to build unity and camaraderie, and galvanize and inspire people to get things done. You can’t go in thinking “I’m going to tell this person what to do and how it works.” That’s not inspiring people to do their best work. These types of soft skills that help you coach and inspire are so important to learn as a manager.

On the flip side, sometimes people become a manager and realize “I actually liked doing the work.” I liked being the one who was writing the code or making the sales call or being the person designing what the product looks like. And that’s okay! There are a lot of successful people at LinkedIn who don’t manage anyone else. They’ve done amazing things in their career and have come up with some of the most innovative, outside-of-the-box ideas and strategies. I think it’s really important to make sure that there are career paths where you can be senior and influential, and not need to manage people as well. There’s probably going to be more of that in the future as the economy evolves and we see trends like gig work grow.

Was that something that was natural to you? Like those soft skills that made you successful at galvanizing inspiring and people? Was that something that was difficult for you to acquire?

Absolutely not natural. These skills are rarely natural to anyone. They’re something you acquire and learn by doing. And like anything in life, you figure out what works and you pivot along the way. For me, I love nothing more than seeing teams of people at LinkedIn that are figuring things out, aspiring to new heights, and driving the company forward. That’s where I get all my joy from. Not from me figuring out the strategy myself and passing it down. That’s not a successful way to lead or to motivate, but it took me a long time to figure out. Especially being an entrepreneur early on, where you’re trained to do a lot of it yourself.

Okay, I’m sorry if I’m still sticking on this subject, but you mentioned that you naturally had that entrepreneurial spirit where you’re used to doing the work by yourself and relying solely on yourself to achieve your goals. My question is, how was that transition? From doing everything that’s intimately involved in the inner workings of your company, to being more hands-off and allowing others to carry out your vision. Tell me more about that. Like a specific experience.

When you get the experience, you learn quickly whether or not you want to be a leader. For example, I first began to manage people at LinkedIn about 11 years ago when we started to build our advertising products. I had been the lone product manager so we brought some new folks onto the team reporting to me. I quickly realized that we could move faster and make more progress in the short-term if I told everyone what they should be doing. But that’s not the key to long-term success or to making the relationships successful. In some cases you have to sacrifice moving quickly in order to help your team come to speed. To help them understand what’s important, to think for themselves, to have them understand that it’s okay to fail, and to let them make mistakes. You’re trying to play the long game. You’re trying to garner a level of trust, understanding and vision towards a long-term goal of building a successful team. For many people, myself included, it’s much easier in the first few months to do things yourself or tell your team “No, do it this way, not that way.” There’s a famous quote that really captures this well: "Managers tell people what to do and leaders inspire.”

Over the years, you have worn several hats. You have been the founder of a tech startup when you were very young, you’ve been the senior vice president of product, and now you’re the CEO of LinkedIn. On paper, it appears that you followed a very chronological path towards a successful career journey. Do you agree with that assessment? Can you speak to your understanding of the ideal career journey?

Many people think there’s a linear career path that exists in the world, and you just have to jump on that path and ride it. The quicker that you realize that no such thing exists, the better off you’re going to be. One of the most requested features at LinkedIn is a product that shows what career paths look like. If I want to become a CFO, what do I need to do? What does that path look like based on what others have done? It sounds like a cool product idea but as you start building it, you look at the data and you quickly realize “Oh, there is no one path.” It’s all over the place — people jumped, they took different paths.

Understanding that there is no one linear path is the most important thing. And then there are two critical things to do. One is putting yourself in a growth mindset. Career trajectories and roles and responsibilities are changing rapidly right now, especially coming out of COVID. Being open to learning new things and making pivots along the way is really important.

The second one is networks. Building up a network is super valuable. Not because it’s something you’re going to need immediately, but because it’s something that can help you grow over time. These are authentic relationships where, one day, you may be in a situation where you want to reach out to one of these people. Continuously building up these networks is a really important way to learn about new opportunities, and to give help along the way as well.

So, in short, there’s no linear path. Focus on skills. Focus on learning. Focus on networks.

As someone who transitioned into the CEO position during a global pandemic, what skills and best practices have proven invaluable to your success with leading through difficult times? How has that experience shaped your future plans for the company?

I’ve learned something new every day — about how to run the company, what our employees need, what our customers need, what our members need. There are three main things I’ve tried to focus on:

One is awareness. When you’re navigating through a pandemic and you’re sitting by yourself at home a lot, you can sometimes have tunnel vision. Having awareness and going out of my way to understand what’s going on is the most important thing I can do to make the right decisions. What are we seeing across the platform that is important to people? What’s going on inside of our company with our employees? And also having awareness of myself. There’s a phrase, “It’s important to be a spectator to your own thoughts.” Meaning to step out of your head and make sure that you understand how you’re thinking, how you’re feeling. I try to do that often to help make sure that the decisions that I’m making are reflective of what all those constituents around me need.

Number two is humility. It’s really important during a time like this to not believe that you have all the answers. Be humble and learn along the way.

Lastly, it’s critical that you have conviction. The hard thing about being a leader during a time like this is that you need to make decisions when there may be no good options. But you have to make decisions and when you do, it’s critical that you have conviction and confidence using the information you have available. At LinkedIn, we’re helping millions of people get jobs, make connections, build networks and navigate through the pandemic. It’s important for us to have conviction and be steadfast in decisions that we’re making, not only for ourselves or for the company, but for our 800 million members.

You mentioned awareness, humility and conviction. What are three guiding principles that you live your life by? Are they the same? How do they translate to your relationships or your passions outside of LinkedIn?

I think of it a bit differently when I broaden it to my life. Family-first is my most important principle. When you’re in any kind of role and you have a family, you will constantly be faced with situations where you have to prioritize and make a choice. For me, that undeniable first choice will always be my family.

The second is integrity. You only live once and you need to have integrity for yourself, the decisions you make, and how you make others feel. You want to be able to accomplish great things in your life and also feel good about them. For me, that’s all about integrity.

Number three is curiosity. It’s an important thing in life to always be thinking about: “What else is out there? What are other people thinking?” My way of thinking is not the only way. I want to learn more, see what others are doing, understand why they think a certain way. In a lot of ways, that’s the key to building products as well. You need to be curious enough to explore what truly motivates others and what they really need.

My fourth one is defiance. I know you asked for three but I have to be defiant and add one more. It’s really important to think outside the box. I’m not saying to break rules, but rather to think in new ways from how things have always been done. This is how innovation happens. Companies like LinkedIn were founded by thinking outside of the box and taking a long shot. I always want to be pushing the boundaries and trying new things to build a better future for the professional world.

Okay, and my final question is what advice would you give your 20-year-old self? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I would love to go back and tell myself that everything happens for a reason. There are so many things I never would have learned if it weren’t for mistakes and failures. Once you fundamentally understand that everything comes in to serve a purpose, then you don’t dwell on regrets or unfortunate events that happened to you. You believe that they’re happening for a reason and that better things will come from them. That they are opportunities in disguise.

When I was growing up, my dad had a quote taped to his phone that said, “When the sea was calm, all ships alike showed mastership in floating.” True character is defined in those moments when things aren’t going your way, when the seas are choppy. If you have a mindset that everything happens for a reason, it allows you to take a different thought process to these difficult events and to put them in perspective. So if I could go back, I would tell myself to look for the silver linings in any situation.

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