The Upsides Of Being A Non-Technical CEO


Elizabeth Segran

September 12, 2014

Neha Sampat is not your typical tech CEO: She runs a team of web developers at the cloud software firm Raw Engineering, but unlike most of her staff, she hasn’t had an ounce of technical training. With degrees in French and mass communications, she’s more adept at writing poetry than code. Yet Sampat rose through the ranks in tech PR, then pivoted into product marketing before landing the top job at the tech company. Her unconventional background hasn’t prevented her from rising to the top of her industry: in fact, it’s arguably the secret to her success.

Neha Sampat

How does Sampat bridge the gap between herself and her employees? For one thing, she promotes building teams with diverse and complementary skill sets.”If you have the right people and the right personalities on a team, it’s magic,” she says. “The smartest thing I have done in my career has been to surround myself with people who are experts in areas I know nothing about.”

Sampat has found that working alongside colleagues who see the world from a radically different perspective forces everyone to be clear about expectations and basic definitions, which goes a long way to pre-empting misunderstandings. She takes the time to speak with different teams to learn about what is working and what isn’t, rather than assuming she understands. “There are things that are important to them that I don’t even think about,” she says. “Learning how they feel allows me to create the most productive working environment for them.”

Sampat is keen to evangelize this multi-disciplinary approach. Her firm partners with the University of California, Berkeley to teach an applied course on mobile innovation and entrepreneurship where students build a mobile app in teams made up of both technical and non-technical majors. “It’s really fun to watch students be very frustrated with one another at first but recognize, by the end of the semester, that they are more effective as a mixed group,” she says. This was a lesson she also learned early on in her career, when she was thrust into working with people who were very different from herself.

In her role as CEO, a multi-disciplinary approach means being brutally honest about the skills she brings to the table as well as the expertise she lacks. “People appreciate leaders who are authentic,” she says. “For me, that has meant exposing areas where I am less knowledgeable.” That said, when she first joined Raw Engineering, delivering quick results–like signing on new clients and finding innovative solutions to problems–was crucial to gaining the trust and the support of her team.

With her non-technical background, Sampat cannot reasonably micromanage, and has to delegate tasks to the experts she hires. “If you can’t trust the people on your team to do what they do best, you will never be able to grow and scale up as a business,” she says. At times, this means going along with teammates’ decisions even when she does not immediately agree with their approach. When her CTO tells her that the team is considering switching technology platforms, she empowers him to make the decision, even when his rationale is not apparent to her.

Sampat now feels comfortable trusting employees to make decisions even in the fields she understands best. For instance, her marketing team recently decided to use the tagline “the no bullshit platform” to describe Raw Engineering’s product. While Sampat had hesitations about using “bullshit” in the company’s branding, she ultimately let the team run with it; this turned out to be the right decision, since it got the right kind of press attention. “My job is to be an enabler and to give my people the resources they need to make things happen,” she tells me.

Recognizing the value in your employees’ unique skills is an important management practice, Sampat tells Fast Company. She believes that keeping her workforce motivated is the key to getting things done as a leader. “I am very deliberate about expressing how much I value people’s knowledge and their presence on my team,” she says. “This has been my secret formula to giving people a sense of belonging and an excitement about what they are working on.”

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter