Animation by Olenka Malarecka
Animation by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

In times of change, we must change or be changed, says Tae Hea Nahm

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Published on June 12, 2020

Animation by Olenka Malarecka

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Tae Hea Nahm moved to America from South Korea when he was just five years old. Though he spent most of his formative years in the U.S., his parents wanted him to be mindful of his roots and raised him in a Confucist environment. 

“I was told to study hard and show a lot of respect,” says Nahm, who would go on to found Storm Ventures and author the Survival to Thrival book series. “I learned about harmony, why we should avoid conflict, and the importance of humility.”

His upbringing served him well. Nahm excelled in school and was accepted to Harvard University, where he studied applied mathematics. After graduating, he moved to the University of Chicago Law School.

Everything seemed to be going well until Nahm began applying for jobs.

With a glistening academic record, Nahm secured a steady stream of interviews at large law firms. He would leave those meetings feeling good, but little came of them. No one, it seemed, wanted to hire him. 

For months, Nahm tried to figure out what he was doing wrong, until one day he received a valuable piece of feedback during yet another interview. The hiring manager told him he wasn’t projecting confidence.

“One of the interviewers said I came across as very meek,” Nahm recalls. “They said I was a nice guy but that I was a meek-mannered person.”

Nahm realized the firms were looking for American leadership traits. They wanted someone assertive, confident, and outgoing. He resolved to adjust his approach.

“To succeed in those interviews, I had to unlearn certain aspects of Confucius,” he says. “I needed to project less Confucian scholar and more Captain America.”

The year after he changed his interview technique, Nahm’s fortunes turned. His acceptance rate steadily increased from a dismal 5% to an impressive 95%.

This idea—unlearning behaviors that don’t work in new contexts—is one that stuck with Nahm through his entire career, from lawyer to CEO to venture capitalist. Recently, Nahm joined forces with a long-time colleague Bob Tinker to document the process of unlearning in his book Survival to Thrival: Change or be Changed.

Dropbox caught up with Nahm to discuss the origins of unlearning and explore how the concept can equip people, whether would-be lawyers, startup founders, or individual contributors, to excel in a world of constant change.

When did you start thinking about unlearning as a concept?

One of the companies I worked on from incorporation all the way to IPO and beyond is a company called MobileIron. I helped start the company and hire the co-founders. I got to know the CEO of the company quite well. We've worked on MobileIron for over 10 years and we decided to write these books together. They’re focused on how to build companies and how to build leaders.

It took us a long time because even though we worked closely on two companies, we felt like we were watching different movies.

"I had to unlearn certain aspects of Confucius. I needed to project less Confucian scholar and more Captain America.”

As the CEO of MobileIron, he's like a surfer in the water. His number one goal is to not wipe out. As a VC, it’s like being in a helicopter above the water. I'm not actually worried about wiping out but I'm watching 20 surfers and saying, "The wave is coming from there. You should go in that direction."

Our first book, Survival to Thrival: The Company Journey, is about unlocking growth. In our research, we found that growth is hard on people. They need to change or be changed. There was very little written about that because people only want to talk about hero stories, not firing people. We felt it was important to explain the journey of how executive roles change.

The reason why it was so hard for executives to change is that they had to unlearn what they were so good at during the prior growth stage. To succeed, you have to unlearn what made you so successful at the prior stage. And so that led to the unlearn concept.

How would you define unlearning?

Think of Yoda from Star Wars when he is training Luke Skywalker. Yoda says, "You must unlearn what you have learned." It's about unlearning your past to prepare for the future.

How does unlearning play out practically?

I’ll give you an example: We had a VP of sales, who worked at one of our companies. His CEO often came into board meetings and said, "Our VP of sales is an absolute superstar. We should put him on the shortlist to be CEO of a company someday." He was singing praises about this person. This company was skyrocketing and its performance was very good. But then, six months later, the same CEO came to the board meeting and, talking about the same VP of sales, said, "I have to fire him."

The VP of sales joined the company when they had five customers. Now they're up to about a thousand customers. He was a proven leader, who got along with everyone in the team. He was a proven success.

"Wait a minute,” I'm thinking. “Is this guy crazy? He just said our VP of sales was a superstar. Now he's saying we have to fire him.”

But then, as I thought about it and the CEO explained it better, I realized that the VP of sales job had changed.

Any VP of sales role in a rising startup goes through three different stages. In the beginning, you want a Davy Crockett, an explorer type whose job is to find the path through the wilderness. They don’t need a map. Their one goal is to find a path through the wilderness.

"The reason why it was so hard for executives to change is that they had to unlearn what they were so good at during the prior growth stage."

But as soon as you find the path—we call that go-to-market fit—you don't want an explorer type. You want Mel Gibson in Braveheart, a warrior leader. Gibson’s William Wallace character was great at recruiting other warriors and motivating them. Just as he could stare down the large English army, he could go out there and close deals.

The VP of sales I’m talking about was the William Wallace type. He was an unbelievable warrior leader. But as the sales army grew to over one hundred reps, we didn’t need a warrior leader. We needed a VP of sales who is more like a sales general, like Dwight Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was great at managing other warrior leaders, such as Montgomery and Patton. Eisenhower never fought a battle and he was never a warrior—but he was very good at managing warrior leaders. We needed our VP of sales to unlearn being a warrior and to learn to be a general.

Have you experienced this first-hand?

Let me now give you the same kind of framework, only applied to CEOs. As we go through different stages of the company, there are three different ideal CEO types. At the beginning, the best CEO profile is Captain America. You want someone who's right there on the front line, leading by example, in charge of everything, connected to everyone. You want someone who is an inspirational, decisive superhero leader. That person is like a super program manager.

When I was the founding CEO of Airespace, I took on that role. I approved every purchase order for that company, whether it was 50 cents or $50,000. No check could be written by this company unless I approved it. I spent two hours every night clearing POs.

That works incredibly well when you have 10 or 20 employees, but as your company gets bigger, you need to hire executives and you switch from being Captain America to being the leader of a band of Avengers. Now, every other executive has his or her own superpower and they are usually better than the CEO in their niche. You want a VP of sales who's better at selling than the CEO. You want the VP of marketing who's better at marketing than the CEO.

Why isn’t everyone willing to unlearn what they’ve learned? It seems like such an obvious idea.

It comes down to one word: insecurity. If you need to unlearn what you're not good at, it's easy. No one has a problem with that. But the challenge is unlearning what you are good at.

Consider the Captain America CEO. He or she is a phenomenal project manager and takes great pride in being a great project manager. They’re like a giant brain able to understand and manage everything.

"If you change too fast, everyone will think the CEO has no loyalty. But if you move too slow, everyone thinks you are indecisive."

When that person needs to stop being a super program manager and start empowering people, they’re giving up what they’re really good at. Whenever you ask someone to do that, they get scared. It's like, "Wait a minute. You're asking me to give up what I'm a superstar in and do something I don't know how to do?"

What happens when someone’s context changes but they don’t?

If a person doesn't change to fit their new role, they will fail to perform. That's where you hear the phrase “the company has outgrown that person.” In that case, for the company to survive, you have to replace that person. That's why we called our second book Change or be Changed. You either have to change to fit your new role or you will be changed so the company can continue to prosper.

That's really hard because if you change too fast, everyone will think the CEO has no loyalty. But if you move too slow, everyone thinks you are indecisive. For a rapidly growing company, the time difference between too fast and too slow can be six months.

As individuals, how do we actually unlearn behaviors?

To lead with unlearning, I think, is a mistake. Instead, you should lead with what you need to change to. You need to know the destination first. For the VP of sales we have talked about, they should know the destination: Mel Gibson, Braveheart, or Eisenhower.

The next step is to understand how and why your job is changing. You should ask, “What do you need to do to succeed in the next role? And what's holding you back?” Then, with some self-awareness, you can then figure out what you need to unlearn.

It's not like I wanted to unlearn Confucianism, for example. But my goal was to increase my acceptance rate. If I was coming across as being meek, why is that? It's because I was valuing harmony, respect, and other Confucian ideas. I made this mental switch and said, "Okay, I need to come across as a leader, which means being more assertive."

You have worked with hundreds of founders; how do they respond to unlearning?

The better founders are very cognizant of it because, at the end of the day, the best founders are the ones that are so passionate about their idea. Based on that, they figure out what they need to do and change to be successful.

Build the culture of the company if you have people that you nurture to success at the next stage. If you can build that, you create a company that trains people for success. Then you can start recruiting the best and the brightest because they all want that opportunity to succeed.