LinkedIn CFO Steve Sordello:
Mapping the Global Economy
Steve Sordello is the Chief Financial Officer of LinkedIn and serves on Santa Clara’s Board of Trustees. Prior to LinkedIn, Steve was CFO of TiVo, CFO of Ask Jeeves, and held senior management roles at Adobe Systems and Syntex (now part of Roche). Steve holds an MBA from Santa Clara and a degree in business administration. Raised in the Bay Area, Steve grew up working amid his parents’ apricot, prune and walnut orchards.
In this conversation, we discuss lessons Steve learned from his CFO roles, differences between small and large companies, how LinkedIn is mapping the global economy, how Steve balances short-term shareholder obligations with long-term social impact, and what career advice Steve would give college students.
Gavin Cosgrave: How did you advance into CFO roles so quickly in your career?
Steve Sordello: A lot in the early days of how I was transforming in my career was just hard work. I took on a lot of different projects. There’s this concept of IQ (intelligence), EQ (your ability to interact and relate), and I think there’s also AQ which is about adaptability. For me, less on the IQ side, but what has helped me over the years is listening and understanding needs and problem solving and getting people to align toward objectives. EQ and adaptability have been more important. As I look back, that’s been the most important characteristic of mine.
I’ve been at different companies in different stages of growth. When I first became CFO I was relatively young so that was a tremendous learning experience for me.
GC: What are the differences between the smaller and bigger companies you have been a part of?
SS: The biggest challenge is being able to scale with the organization as it grows. When I joined LinkedIn, it wasn’t a big company. we had 100 people and 10 million members. Now we’re approaching 700 million. We had $15 million in revenue, now we’re approaching $8 billion. One of the learnings I’ve had in terms of an organization is that to be successful, you have to scale through that.
Many of the early folks here were very strong in a smaller environment, but then once you reach a certain stage, it’s not as good a fit. Being able to make that transformation multiple times was a learning experience for me. I started out as a “doer,” but you reach a point where you have to delegate and lead.
GC: What is it about LinkedIn that’s made you want to stay for so long?
SS: It’s a great company, and LinkedIn has a very purposeful culture and mission. The people at the company are a big reason. Family might be too strong a word, but coworkers that you’re excited to work with. And finally, having an impact because of LinkedIn as a platform more broadly.
GC: LinkedIn’s mission is to “create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.” What does a future where that mission is realized look like?
SS: We have this concept called the “economic graph.” It’s basically the digital representation of the global economy. We want to have every member of the workforce, every company, every job, every institution of higher education, we want every skill and we want an ecosystem of knowledge sharing. When you start to fill in all these nodes, they’re all interconnected in a powerful way. There’s a flow of information that enables you to see where are the jobs and what skills are needed. Reducing friction is a powerful way to lift economic prosperity for people globally. LinkedIn is a platform where people can improve their lives by improving their careers. The platform compounds in a powerful way.
GC: How do you balance short-term making shareholders happy with making a long-term impact?
SS: What we focus on at LinkedIn is what I call “intelligent growth.” One of the great outcomes of where we sit today is that our biggest risk is more execution risk. There’s always competition, but given the opportunities we have, our biggest risk is not taking advantage of those the right way. When I think about how you optimize a company long-term in this environment, it’s about focusing on the things that really move the needle.
Often times companies that are growing quickly will focus on shiny objects and try to do a lot of different things and lose track of their core. My boss Jeff has an analogy. If when a rocket launches it’s off by inches, when it’s in orbit it could be off by miles.
What is sustainable growth over time? When you think about the investment side, sometimes less is more. You can focus on the things that matter most. To me, growth vs. profit are in many ways one in the same. It’s not an easy question because it’s all relative to the opportunities.
GC: If you had to give career advice to college students, what would you say?
SS: I didn’t have this when I was in college, but this idea of perspective and a growth mindset. A lot of people when they’re entering college don’t know what they want to do. Earlier in my education, a lot of stuff was rote. It took a while for me to take a step back and approach things form a mindset of “I’m going to learn from whatever I’m doing.” It’s almost a mindset things as opposed to having goals or outlining what you want to do.
I tell my daughter that I want her to have perspective. When you look back in 20 years, a lot of things that look critical will all be small. In the moment it’s hard, but a combination of perspective and growth mindset is what I’d encourage.