Glenn Kelman is not a fan of this “era of entitled CEOs.”
It’s basically impossible for a top leader to get fired these days, Kelman argued in an appearance at the 2018 GeekWire Summit, citing the recent antics of top Tesla executive Elon Musk as an example. Kelman, CEO of Seattle-based tech-powered real estate company Redfin, wants to go against the current corporate grain, both as a leader and in how his company operates.
“I hate the baloney-gorged, bullshit-filled corporate world, and my whole goal is to try to build a business that goes beyond that,” Kelman said.
Kelman is known to zig where others zag. He broke with the tech community on the controversial head tax, offering a sober perspective that still opposed the plan in a nuanced way amid vitriolic responses to the legislation.
His speeches are must-see — from appearances on 60 Minutes more than a decade ago saying “real estate is the most screwed up industry in America,” to his major rants, proclamations and predictions on quarterly earnings calls. That’s because, unlike many top executives looking to avoid any attention or controversy, Kelman is something different: himself.
“The world is starved for a little bit of personality. I used to try and act all grown up so that people wouldn’t figure out all the weird stuff about me,” Kelman said. “But then if you go in the other direction and you’re actually just flying your freak flag a little bit, people who should be working with you will work with you and the people who shouldn’t be working with you still work with you, and both of you will be better served if you figure that out sooner rather than later.”
Redfin’s slogans like “everyone sweeps the floor” paint the picture of a company where everyone has to scrap and hustle. But that means nothing if top executives don’t embody that philosophy as well. That’s why, Kelman says, he sleeps on friends’ couches when he travels, rather than staying in fancy hotels.
Kelman knows if he gets too comfortable, there are plenty of talented people at Redfin who could take his spot. He is honest about his own worth, understanding he too has to live by the hustle he preaches to his employees.
“If you actually feel un-entitled to the job — like some of the people who work for you might one day do your job better than you and that someone else on your board is going to notice that before you do — it puts a lot of hustle in your game,” Kelman said. “You’ve got to stay strong to stay on top. I just feel like there are so many good people at Redfin that I need to be the hardest working person there to earn my place as their CEO.”
Kelman has often been dinged by investors for his “brutal honesty.” After he warned of a slowing national real estate market, Redfin’s stock cratered.
But Kelman says all he owes investors, as well as employees, is the truth. He treats earnings calls as a way to “bring investors into my brain” rather than just talking about how revenue is “up and to the right.”
This honesty has become a signature element of Kelman’s leadership style, but there’s always the question, is it all an act?
“If it were a tactic that would almost be ironic, that I am deceitful about being truthful,” Kelman said.