As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Brinkman.
Eric Brinkman is the Chief Product Officer at Cobalt, the leading Pentest as a Service (PtaaS) company that’s modernizing the traditional, static penetration testing model, where he leads product vision, enhancing the existing suite of offerings and identifying innovative ways to meet and exceed the needs of current and future customers.
Eric is a seasoned technology industry veteran, with 15 years of experience driving and sustaining long-term product growth. Previously Senior Director of Product at GitLab, Eric founded the company’s very first growth team, which evolved into a critical component of the company’s business approach. He built and managed product teams that innovated on widely successful GitLab product features and functionalities, and developed new product areas within the company such as Compliance Management, Design Management, Requirements Management, and Quality Management. Notably, Eric led the product team that secured GitLab’s placement on the 2020 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Agile Planning Tools.
Thank you so much for your time. I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
I started in technology as a Product Engineer 1 at AMD, working on mobile and desktop microprocessors right out of college. I remember taking two resumes to career fairs: one with the objective to secure an entry level hardware engineering position, and the other software. I really enjoyed the people I met at AMD, which is how I started my career. Over time, software began to interest me a bit more because the barrier of entry to innovation was so much lower. Instead of a multi-billion-dollar fabrication plant, you only needed an idea and a laptop. So, I moved into software product management focusing on cloud web applications and DevOps. Along the way, I picked up public cloud, ecommerce, cybersecurity, and developer tooling experience and found my way to Cobalt.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
When I first started at AMD as an engineer, I was testing a batch of about 50 processors, and three units from that batch failed a power specification we were testing for. I remember presenting the results to my team, as if nothing was wrong, and then looking at the very concerned faces around the room. I then asked something like “it’s not that bad if three out of 50 failed, is it?” to which there were emphatic replies of “yes” with explanations of how many millions of dollars would be lost if we had to throw away 6% of our product. While not necessarily a mistake that I made, it taught me to always think about the bigger picture and to think with the business in mind.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Any stories you’d like to share?
There are so many folks that helped me along the way, starting with my parents and continuing at every organization. One particular instance that stood out to me was one of my managers at AMD, Muthu, who went out for some dental work, so he had prepped me to give our team’s update in a regular weekly meeting to leadership. He made it back in time for the meeting, but insisted I present the team’s updates since I had prepped for it. It was a great example of servant leadership, taking a step back and letting someone else get the credit. But there are so many others along the way like Prashanth, Christy, and Brannon at Rackspace, Tony at Hostway, and Sid and Scott at GitLab.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you led your team during uncertain or difficult times?
2020 was a difficult year for everyone and was an even tougher year to lead a team. Every person had different circumstances to deal with, and in these situations, sometimes the best thing to do as a leader is to listen to your team. Check in and see how they’re doing and actively listen. Encourage team members to take time away from work, even if they can’t go anywhere. Every situation is different, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but empathy and servant leadership are good places to start.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Life is interesting in that it can be going great and then unexpected events happen, and it throws a wrench into things. 2020 is a great example of this, and just last week, Texas experienced a winter storm that nearly knocked our electrical grid offline for months, on my first week of work at Cobalt no less!
To me, life is all about adapting and growing. You only ever truly fail if you give up. In my opinion, the key is to remember that you’ll always have another chance. Maybe you had a bad day, but the sun will always rise again tomorrow.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the best leaders inspire confidence, paint a vision that’s worth achieving, and treat people with respect throughout it all. This is true in good times and in challenging times. People will stick with you in challenging times if you let them know that you care about them and if they believe you can achieve something great together.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
This depends so much on the makeup of your team, their life circumstances, and the circumstances around them. At times, the best way to boost morale is to encourage team members to take time off to recharge. At other times, it’s been about team bonding, getting together on Zoom to play games, or share stories about our favorite experiences. Or sometimes, it’s focusing on work because it’s the only thing that’s stable. A good leader needs to stay in tune with what their team needs and how they’ll respond best.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly, but with respect and empathy. We have a tendency to sugar coat bad news, but usually that leads to lack of clarity in the message. You’ll actually gain more respect in the long run from customers if you’re transparent about what happened and take it as an opportunity to learn from it.
A message to a customer along the lines of “we promised you we were going to ship this feature this month, but it’s going to be two months later” goes over a lot better if you also communicate what happened and any safeguards you’ll put in place to prevent the root cause from happening again. The same holds true for team performance; providing clear feedback that’s both positive and constructive to team members actually helps them to understand how they’re doing and what to improve.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As a leader, your goal should be to make the best decisions based on the information you have available, plus what you think is likely to happen. If you wait for perfect information, you’ll never make any plans. If you account for too many variables, you’ll likely come up with too complex a plan. So, my approach is to make a plan and then be ready to adjust. Flexibility is an underrated trait in leaders.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think it comes down to taking care of your people and reinforcing the message that you care about them as humans first and foremost. Building a company and scaling it is a marathon, not a sprint. The work will always be there and will never stop, so it’s important for your team members to feel supported and safe. When they do, they’ll work hard and do their best work.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Generally, I’ve seen companies make mistakes that fall into a few buckets. The first is when companies don’t take care of their people. Recruiting and retaining talent is so important today; the right people will pay huge dividends. Companies start to go off course when they don’t focus on keeping their best people.
The second is when a company doesn’t address or pivot quickly enough into a new or developing market. The third mistake is largely related to company culture, especially as a company enters hyper growth and if the culture can keep some of what got the company to hyper growth mode in the first place and scale as more people are added. It’s important to be intentional in practicing your company values!
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability, can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy/difficult times?
Scaling a business requires many parties that are part of a broader system, and not all parts of that system are within your control. One thing to focus on in turbulent times is what you can control. Are you ensuring that your personal life is in balance? Are you ensuring your team is clear on what you’re asking them to do? Are you writing great code that’s going to scale? Is your product strategy still relevant? Are you pivoting into new markets appropriately? These are all examples of things within your control, and from my experience, if you focus on that, the “score” usually takes care of itself.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or a quick example for each, as relevant.
- Listen and understand how your team is doing.
- Remain consistent: This includes your attitude, demeanor, and company mission.
- Be candid: Let your team know what’s going on and why.
- Over communicate: One job of a leader is to ensure there is as little uncertainty as possible for their team. Over communicating in times of difficulty provides team members with a sense of certainty.
- Be decisive: Sometimes you’ll need to make tough calls in difficult times.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that has been relevant to you in your life?
There are so many, but one of my favorites is by hockey great Wayne Gretzky who said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This basically means that you can’t succeed unless you try. I’ve used this quote several times to motivate myself into trying something new or to achieve something great that I wasn’t sure I could achieve initially.
How can our readers further follow what you’re up to?
I post on LinkedIn and Twitter and use both as a mix of professional and personal communication. Most of my time will be spent building Cobalt, so follow along at our blog, LinkedIn, or Twitter for the most recent updates!