Profile in Leadership: Niraj Shah, Wayfair CEO

Melisa D. Galvin

What do you believe is the difference between leadership and management?

There are ways in which leadership and management overlap, but there are also some clear distinctions between the two. To me, leadership focuses on setting a vision and strategy in the face of risks and ambiguity, and communicating that in an understandable way, while management focuses on the exercise of executing and achieving that vision.

Leadership often entails making decisions about things that are nebulous and uncertain, while making sure that everyone involved understands and is motivated to pull in the same direction. Management calls for a high degree of focus and accountability to implement the strategy behind those decisions, day in and day out.

Don’t miss it: Niraj Shah will be appearing at this year’s Furniture Today Leadership Conference.

What were the traits, habits, beliefs of the best leaders you’ve worked for in your career?

The best leaders I’ve known are not only all hard workers, they each also understand the importance of doing vs. just thinking and talking. They understand that results are typically driven by 1% strategy and 99% execution. It’s very easy to focus on generating ideas, but it’s another thing entirely to go out and put those ideas into action.

With that in mind, the best leaders I know are incredibly focused on building the right team. They recognize the power of camaraderie and communication, so they put energy into getting the right group of people together both from a skills fit as well as a culture fit.

Are there strategies, traits or characteristics of leadership that are more important during times of crisis or change than at other times?

A crisis doesn’t necessarily change the things that matter, but it does contribute to a more acute urgency. Being decisive, communicating effectively, having your finger on the pulse — these all matter during good times but are critical during times of crisis. Consequences are elevated during precarious circumstances, and the margin of error narrows.

One leadership trait that is especially important during those times is communication.

In the crisis we’re facing now with COVID-19, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as over communication, both internally and externally. In the spring, we had to take decisive action to ensure the health and safety of our employees, and that required close coordination with our own teams, as well as suppliers and medical experts.

Across the multiple continents in which we and our suppliers operate, circumstances were changing quickly, and it was essential to have almost constant communication. We operate like a tight-knit family even under more stable conditions, but this crisis demonstrated how uncertainty amplifies the importance of having those communication channels and close relationships with suppliers.

As a society, we’ve also been confronted with social crises that have illustrated the importance of communication. Amid the recent racial justice movements, we launched a companywide discussion series to bring greater visibility and understanding to the perspectives of Wayfair’s diverse employee base. Communication through discussions like these is helping us to collectively address the multifaceted issues that many of our employees contend with every day.

How have you grown as a leader over the years?

My growth as a leader has been informed by progressively gaining a broader understanding of different skills, as well as working with people who bring a variety of styles and perspectives to the table.

Leadership requires constant evolution; when I was younger I was very driven, hardworking and focused on the customer. Those are all traits that are still important today, but having a large, diverse and growing team has helped me think about how decisions will impact our collective future and how we can organize around optimal outcomes.

The ability to look further and further into the future and make decisions informed by long term outcomes is one skill that I’ve honed over the years, which has impacted my evolution as a leader.

What strategies, practices, techniques can be used to help develop/train young leaders?

Leaders put a tremendous amount of energy into creating strong teams, so every time you hire, you’re trying to find the perfect person for a role. In my experience, when it doesn’t work out, it feels like a personal failure.

Early in my career, I found it difficult to have those tough conversations, but over time I found that by putting off resolving those situations, I was only letting down that individual and the rest of the team. As a leader, it’s important to see the big picture and face disappointment head on in order for the broader team to be successful in the long term, and it is important to make sure that everyone is in a role in which they can succeed.

As a leader, what has been your greatest failure or disappointment?  And what did you learn?

I gain a great deal of leadership perspective with each new biography I read. Reading about Warren Buffett, I was reminded of the compounding gains created by having an effective strategy and executing it consistently over a long period of time.

Reading Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog, about the early days of Nike, was eye opening as well – today we think of Nike as a dominant global brand, but there were plenty of perilous times when it was a younger company. Reading about the trials and tribulations of a storied brand like that was a great reminder of the grit and determination that long-term success requires.

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