Decaf: the entrepreneur's jet fuel

I’m always intrigued by people who don’t drink coffee. I once had a boss who said he was “naturally caffeinated.” I admired how he could keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny.

Jeff Stibel is one of those self-professed decafs. Looking at his resume, you can tell that he derives all of his stimulation from life, from people and from the pursuit of success.

Jeff Stibel is an entrepreneur. He builds companies. For the most part, he does it in the classic ways – acquire a division of a larger company, take it private and reinvigorate it. As CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, Jeff is definitely reinvigorating a 176-year-old brand and running a successful business service provider that seems to understand its customers quite well.

You’ve heard of Dun & Bradstreet – the company with the DUNS number – a sort of information clearinghouse for businesses? Well, the re-imagined D&B Credibility is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) D&B.

Headquartered in a lofty perch in Malibu CA overlooking the Pacific Ocean, D&B Credibility feels more like a Facebook or Google. Bright, airy, breezy – like the local climate. Open workspaces, young faces, tons of energy. Are these the people who monitor credit records of 30 million small businesses and help them improve their creditworthiness?

In a word, yes. And it’s largely the embodiment of Jeff Stibel’s vision of the workplace. A brain scientist by education, Stibel has written and spoken extensively on his conviction that the internet is like the human brain. While that may sound terribly intellectual and even wonkish, consider that Stibel does a masterful job of balancing the scientific with the human. He has an excellent intuition when it comes to people. Indeed, D&B Credibility is known for hiring and retaining talented people; turnover is miniscule. So, how does the company find these people and what makes them want to stay?

We had coffee at a Starbucks near his office – Jeff ordered decaf, of course – and I asked him how he builds successful teams. More specifically, I asked how much of D&B’s so-called employee engagement is a function of his people, and how much is a function of – well, him.

“It’s not about me; it’s all about the people,” he said, in a self-deprecating way. “Our hiring process takes generally nine months.”

My jaw must have dropped, because he went on to explain.

“We have to be certain that a person is the right fit. They spend lots of time here, talk to lots of people, observe and ask questions. We ask them what they think [of us] and it becomes apparent if they’ll thrive or not.”

He admits he loses some good talent because the process takes so long, but says that’s immaterial if they’re ultimately getting people that are a perfect fit.

So what makes a person a good fit? He told me they need to be collaborative, inquisitive and hard working.

“From the outside, our culture appears intense,” he said. “It’s about hard work and long hours. A person has to love work and love what they do.”

That explains the congenial, accessible atmosphere: the game room, the décor, the openness. They do the cool things for their employees that make the work a pleasure, and it seems genuine. When I arrived on a recent Friday morning, the receptionist was planning to order lunch for everyone. It was her idea – apparently she has lots of these – and the company lets her run with them.

From the looks of things (literally and figuratively), you’d think D&B is a young workplace, but Jeff disabused me of that notion. Their youngest employee is 18 and their oldest is well into what you’d call senior years (although I try hard not to label). He says there’s no formula when it comes to age or background.

“It just is,” he said, in the way a CEO can utter few words but make his point. “Maybe that’s not the way other companies do it, but ultimately we are hiring for the person irrespective of their age, background, etcetera. We have an incredibly diverse workforce as it turns out and we didn’t plan it that way."

He went on to assert that the most talented people happen to come from a large cross-section. Seems accidental, but one of those instances where you don’t mess with the universe.

Probably the most telling statement Jeff made during our chat is that every strategic decision (let me repeat that: every strategic decision) he and his leadership team make starts with a discussion of people. 

That’s because they’re not about to allow an idea to take on life that contradicts the nature of the talent in the organization. Simply put, it’s about playing to one’s strengths but in a massively important way. 

As a communications strategist, I learn a lot from successful entrepreneurs. Jeff Stibel sees what’s going on in the world and finds a way to commercialize an intellectual advantage. He also knows how to identify talent and lead people into the realm of greatness. Those are things you can’t do without an ability to communicate your intentions and aspirations – to use your words to influence. 

Next blog: D&B Credibility’s Failure Wall. There it sits, bigger than life, staring you in the face. And you ask yourself, “Why?” 


CAR GEYE said...

Great insights. But I do think that the nine-months hiring process is absurd, and hardly a best practice. Strategic organizations are proactive, self-confident and, yes, decisive. If it takes you nine months to make a hiring decision, your leadership model is broken. Maybe some high-test coffee would help after all!

John Novaria said...

Car Geye,
Thanks for the comment. As we've all seen, there are many ways to acquire talent and I'm sure D&B Credibility gets dinged occasionally for doing it this way. As with any company, the good (and great) ones dare to be different.
- John