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Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman spoke as part of Seattle Startup Week. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

There’s a lot of talk about culture in the tech world these days, and sticking to core values as a company grows can make or break its future.

Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman has watched his company grow massively in his 12 years there. It just went public over the summer, and Kelman and his team are now tasked with steering that growth while simultaneously keeping the company’s soul intact.

Redfin has a very clear set of principles that guide the company, many of which focus on teamwork. “Everyone sweeps the floors,” and “everyone can be a leader” encompass the idea that no job is too big or too small.

That fits with Kelman’s background as well. In a wide-ranging talk as part of Seattle Startup Week’s leadership track, the startup veteran pointed out he almost twice left the tech industry to go to medical school, once in his 20s and once in his 30s. But early experiences in his career at Stanford Technology Group taught him that he could do whatever he wanted, while still being true to himself.

“I just realized that the ‘they’ that was supposed to be running the world, the ‘they’ that people refer to — whether you mean scientists or government officials or business leaders — they were just dingbats like me and it made me feel that if they can do it, I can do it.”

Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman rings the Nasdaq opening bell with members of the team. (Nasdaq Photo)

Kelman is not your typical CEO, and he is not a fan of what he calls the “cult of the CEO.” This trend perpetuated by companies themselves and tech media puts too much of a spotlight on the chief executive, he says, crediting all failures and successes to one person for the work of a company of thousands. This phenomenon, he claims, is one of the reasons CEOs make so much more than everyone else. He was quick to credit fellow executives, employees and leaders who came before at Redfin for the company’s success.

“One of our statements on the walls at the company is that everyone sweeps the floors, and If everyone sweeps the floors, everyone should get the glory too,” Kelman said.

A self-described ex-hippie from Berkeley, Kelman said he realized that he used to talk about fighting the power, but now he had the power. That was a factor behind the social impetus for Redfin’s diversity efforts, which focuses on making the environment comfortable for the women and people of color who already work there through the novel concept of talking to them about the workplace. Do that, and it will get easier to hire people from backgrounds of all kinds. Though building a diverse workforce at Redfin certainly has a social component, Kelman also frames it as economic imperative.

“Engineering pay is going through the roof; competition for talent is absolutely fierce; and here you are limiting yourself to a third of the human population,” Kelman said.

Here are a few more highlights from his talk:

On his advice for new CEOs: “I just don’t think you can blame anyone else but yourself the day you take the job. Page one of the new CEO playbook is to find every skeleton in the closet and say that the company is in much worse shape than I realized when I interviewed to buy myself more time to fix it. And it’s just a little lame. I think you just need to own the company from day one. You need to act like you founded it because you have to care that much about the people and the mission of the company. If you come in as professional management and you don’t have that level of emotional engagement in the mission of the company or with the technology that it’s built that can feel very cold.”

On Amazon and its core leadership principles: “I think the company that has the clearest set of values is Amazon. That company knows what it is. It may be that it’s not your cup of tea, but every single person at that company knows what the Amazon values are. I think many people who don’t work out there, if they only read those values carefully, would have saved themselves a bit of grief, and I think it’s the source of much of Amazon’s success. When you are good at not just retail but cloud and many other businesses, at some level it just has to be that you have a unique approach to business. Your values have to pass that test, that they have to draw some people in with a special strange intensity as if built for them alone, and they have to put off other people. If your values don’t alienate anyone it is just platitude.”

On his theory of human happiness: “I have this theory of human happiness that when you are at peak need in your life, when your parents are aging and need you to call them everyday, and your little kids can’t even go to the bathroom on their own and you have a marriage and a job and everyone needs you. It’s incredibly stressful, but as you go from 40 to 50 to 60 to 70 you are less and less needed, and I actually think that people are most happy when they are most needed.”

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