Operating Advice

Undaunted Leadership: A Conversation with Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne

|Marten Mickos

Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, in the Antarctic ice, 1915
Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, in the Antarctic ice, 1915

As a five-time CEO, Marten Mickos knows how to lead companies through difficult times and has never shied away from a challenge. As CEO of HackerOne, he led the company through pandemic-driven uncertainty, facilitating its seamless shift to digital first. And many years prior, as CEO of MySQL, he led the company to a successful acquisition by Sun Microsystems after surviving the dotcom boom and bust.

In a discussion with IVP Partner Blair Shane, Marten shares his perspective on how to prosper during and despite difficult times. (This interview has been condensed for clarity.)

IVP: How do you keep employees motivated when times are tough?

Mickos: Keeping employees focused, energized and motivated is a task for the entire leadership team, but in my experience, it only resonates if the CEO leads with authenticity and consistency.

Being authentic means you don’t sugarcoat the bad news and you admit your own shortcomings. These days, any leader could ask ChatGPT to write a wonderful staff email that highlights the company’s mission statement and your bold plans for the future. AI can produce a beautifully written piece of BS that looks great on the surface, but has no depth, no drama, no truth. People don’t work for businesses, they work for humans, which is why employees see right through inauthentic leadership.

Every action a CEO takes should also be repetitive and consistent. If you choose to communicate with your employees, you must keep doing it. If you choose honesty, you must stay honest. If you choose to be tough, you have to stay tough and if you choose to be soft, you have to stay soft. I often think of a CEO as a chief reminding officer because you have to repeat things more often than you probably want to. As CEO, you may know a fact or figure like the back of your hand, but the rest of the organization might not, so the repetition may be for your team’s benefit more than your own.

CEOs should also build and nurture multiple ways to communicate with employees. At HackerOne, we do "donut sessions," which are quick conversations on Zoom between two randomly selected employees. We also do regular Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions and have Slack channels for both business purposes and less business-oriented topics. By having multiple, quick, two-way channels for communication, we make sure every employee is engaged and in high spirits.

Lastly, a big part of being authentic is to make sure you’re not just talking the talk but walking the walk. For instance, during the second year of COVID, we instituted Wellness Wednesdays at HackerOne, where employees were encouraged to sign off at 2pm to spend time with their families, relax or take care of various chores at home. In the fall of 2022, when energy prices were soaring, we instituted a special supplement to employees’ pay to help offset their increasing gas and energy bills. Given that most of our employees work from home, we felt the company had to help employees fight energy inflation.

We also have a lot of young workers who had never experienced a recession, so around that time, I wrote my monthly CEO email to our employees, but instead of discussing the company’s goals and performance, I shared my tips for managing personal finances when times are tough, based on my experience living through recessions in the past. These actions were a huge motivational boost for our employees because it demonstrated an acknowledgment of their hard work and a tangible concern for their well-being.

IVP: Speaking of remote work, HackerOne is now a digital first company, but do you still consider working together in person important?

Mickos: I think humans are fully capable of operating on their own with a digital connection. Think about the Medieval Ages where monks lived in small monasteries scattered throughout Europe. They didn't have email or the internet. They could only travel to see each other a few times a year and mostly communicated through letters. Even still, they maintained a consistent culture, using the same procedures, prayers and clothing, as if they were in the same physical place. If they could do that back then, why wouldn't we be able to do the same now, with all the technology we have at our disposal? This whole concept that we have to be together all the time to be productive – I just don't buy it.

Once you have built a strong digital-first culture, you can get huge benefits from organizing in-person meetings for your employees. Such meetings don’t have to happen in a regular office. They can happen anywhere. People are fully capable of performing their work from home, and it will boost their creativity and motivation if they get to hang out with their colleagues every now and then.

IVP: How would you characterize today’s generation of tech talent and how does it compare to previous generations you’ve worked with, in terms of skill and work/life priorities?

Mickos: I think people are people and they don’t change much, but each generation brings its own focus areas. During my days leading MySQL, it was an optimistic time because there was a lot of excitement about globalization and what the “world-wide web” could do. Today, we’re aware of a lot more problems. The ecology of the planet is threatened. Geopolitics and wars of aggression have put a damper on globalization. Cybercrime is rampant. Humans are experiencing more mental and neurological illnesses. As a result, employees have different things on their minds. They approach work differently and need to be led somewhat differently.

As leaders, we must be constantly listening to our environment, especially to our teams. What are they worried about? What are their aspirations? What kind of support and leadership are they expecting? Even though humans have largely the same DNA as 20,000 years ago, we show up differently in the workplace compared to even 20 years ago, so leaders must adapt.

For instance, a few decades ago, you would “manage” employees, but today you’re also expected to mentor them. In the past, you’d show only strength at work, but today the office is also a place to show vulnerability. When employees are young, they try to become experienced and once they’re experienced, they try to stay young. People come to work with different expectations and motivations, both of which change over time, so it’s incumbent on leaders to try to figure out what makes each person tick.

IVP: What are your thoughts on company mission statements?

Mickos: I get a lot of energy and empowerment from a mission statement, but it’s not something every CEO needs to do. I’ve always prioritized working for mission-driven companies because it answers the “Why?” question.

When contemplating the myriad of business choices as leaders, we often ask ourselves what should we do? And if you’re able to refer back to a mission statement you believe in, even if the answer is something that doesn’t produce an immediate business benefit, you still feel encouraged and empowered to move forward. If you do orient your company around a mission statement, it shouldn’t be a static concept, it’s important to reinterpret a mission statement over time and adjust if necessary. With that said, I’ve met many CEOs who don’t care about their mission statement and still find a lot of success.

IVP: Practically speaking, how should a CEO handle business turbulence?

Mickos: The best advice I can offer is to face reality with transparency. Paint a picture of the various scenarios for employees, including the worst and best case, and then start making decisions that will make the worst case less painful. For instance, when COVID first hit in early 2020, I told our employees that it could be a rough year. I said we were slowing down hires and holding back on new initiatives to make sure we didn’t have to reduce headcount. I also promised them that if I started seeing a need to cut jobs, I would let them know. Fortunately, we never needed layoffs and today we’re thriving.

In the long run, it’s important to remember you can’t cost-reduce yourself towards new growth. But you can implement a cost reduction tactic, like slowing hiring, to reset expectations and give yourself more runway. At some point, you should go back to investing in innovation and growth. But in the meantime, don’t shield your organization from the dark clouds – just give them an umbrella.

IVP: What haven't we asked you that you'd like CEOs to keep top of mind?

Mickos: As a CEO, it’s important to realize the feedback you’re getting is biased. When people are happy, they’ll tell you, but if they think you’re stupid, they’re not going to tell you that. Don’t believe your own PR, falling into the trap of thinking everything is good because everyone is being nice to you.

Also, take time to calibrate yourself. Read books or watch movies that tell stories of resilience and perseverance. Ten years ago when the company I was leading was struggling badly, I read books about the polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Sir Ernest Shackleton, including Alfred Lansing’s 1959 classic, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Journey, describing how Shackleton led 27 men off their ship as it sank into the frigid Antarctic seas.

With stories like that, we are reminded that our business problems are small in comparison. Every morning when you wake up, it is up to you to decide with which attitude you are getting out of bed. Set your mind to it, and no headwind in the economy can stop your startup.