Lorna Borenstein of Grokker: Invest in People for the Long Term

Lorna Borenstein of Grokker: Invest in People for the Long Term

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Lorna Borenstein, founder and chief executive of Grokker.

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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

This interview with Lorna Borenstein, founder and C.E.O. of Grokker, a provider of online cooking, yoga and fitness videos, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were you like as a kid?

A. I was really curious. My mother is a judge, and my dad’s a lawyer. So they encouraged my curiosity and kept directing me to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where I would read up on things. I was always trying to figure out how to make things better.

I also had this very natural desire to save money. I was the banker among the kids. I have three siblings, and while they would spend their money, I was always saving. Even when I was 9 or 10, they would come to me for loans.

That combination of curiosity and frugality got me interested in business. When I was 11, I started working on weekends in the garment district in Montreal. Initially, I was just unpacking boxes.

They were wholesalers, but they would open the factories on weekends to the public. I was allowed to sell, starting when I was about 12, and you made up your own prices. You knew your wholesale price, and then you would assess the customers, try to figure out what they wanted, sell it to them, and then price it the best way that you could to have the highest yield. I watched the managers and learned from them.

Where do you think your drive comes from?

I just love figuring things out and building things. If it’s been done before, it’s not that interesting to me. There’s this expression that I love: “Being early and being wrong feel exactly the same.”

Parse that for me.

If you have a notion of something that’s going to be important, the fact that you see it before anybody else sees it either means that you’re early to it, or that you’re wrong. It’s about seeing the trends and putting them together. But you don’t know until you know.

What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

I worked at HP back in the mid-’90s, and they really believed in trust and respect for the individual, and that someone was going to spend their career with the company, so you cared about them for their whole career. You invested in someone for 25 years, as opposed to just for the job you were hiring them for.

That has affected my leadership style probably more than anything else. When I interview people, I always want to know what their ultimate ambitions are. And I always tell them that when the time comes to move to another role or another company, I want to be the first person they talk to because I want to help make that happen. I always say that life is long. We may work together for a time, and then not, and then maybe work together again.

But what’s interesting about investing in people for the long term is that you don’t do it for a return. You do it because that’s how you connect with people, and it’s how you truly build a sustaining relationship. The dividend is that you end up with people who follow you in your career.

Tell me about the culture of your company.

We have about 30 employees, and every day we sit together for lunch at one big table, and we don’t talk about work. It really brings you so much closer because you’re not just work peers. You get to know people.

One of our rituals is that if somebody says something that, if taken out of context, would sound like a massive H.R. violation, anyone who hears it can nominate it to put on our big board, and it gets attributed to the speaker. It’s just funny.

Other leadership lessons?

One of my favorite questions when someone has a different idea than mine is, “Why don’t you tell me more about why if we do it this other way, it’s going to be a mistake.” Rather than making them justify where their idea is right, it helps me see why what I’m thinking might be wrong. I find that more effective because it helps me see things I may not have considered.

How do you hire?

I always start with sharing life stories. I want you to know where I’m from, and how I got to be where I am, and then I want to hear that from you. I want to understand what makes you tick, what your competencies are, and then hear about examples of when you either got it right, or when you got it wrong, and what you learned from it.

I also want to understand why you really want to work here — what is it that we’re going to do for you, and what are you going to do for us? And I also want to understand your long-term aspirations.

What’s your thinking behind telling your life story first? Many people just prefer to ask questions.

Because my objective in an interview is to help the candidate do as well as possible. I want the candidate to show their best self. And I think if you’re generous, and you put them at ease by being somewhat vulnerable in opening up first, and modeling the behavior you’re expecting, it really does put people at ease to let them show you who they are, and all that they can do. I think it’s a really poor interview style to try to catch people or trip them up.

What’s your career and life advice for new college grads?

I tell people they’re going to have lots of careers. Between undergrad and law school, I was an insurance underwriter. Then I was a lawyer. Then I moved to business. And then I ended up in this thing that hadn’t existed before called the Internet.

You don’t know where your life is going, and they don’t get that. They believe there’s a path. So my central message is always a lesson that I learned too late in life, which is that happiness and joy are not rewards at the end of a life well played. It really is about enjoying it every step of the way. So you better like what you’re doing, and don’t view everything as a steppingstone.

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