Tone at the Top – Lew Cirne, CEO New Relic talks authenticity and joy


Lew Cirne believes that your work environment should be filled with joy. Here’s how his company, New Relic has gone about establishing joy in the workplace.

lew cirne
Lew Cirne, CEO New Relic

New Relic recently brought its FutureStack event to Berlin for the first time. Berlin? you might ask given that it has established London as a European venue. But then the company has just committed to building out data center capacity in Germany. It’s a strategic decision that allows New Relic to gain experience in a market where data sovereignty is high on the local political agenda but where there is a vibrant startup community that plays well to New Relic’s roots.

While FutureStack was focused on the now familiar mix of education sessions and customer stories, I wanted to catch up with Lew Cirne, New Relic’s CEO and listen to how he views culture building. Regular readers know this is not the first time I’ve profiled Cirne but it is worth reminding why doing so in the context of ‘tone at the top’ is important. This from what I wrote in December, 2015 as it relates to a buying decision made by a regular reader who used part of what we said as a check list item in their buying process:

I have consistently argued that buyers should care about these things because the tone at the top, alongside leadership direction, impact the degree of risk you make in a buying decision.

There’s plenty of nuance behind this topic and you only get to understand what it means by carefully tracking and studying what’s going on at a particular company. The picture is always incomplete and often in flux.

In discussing culture, there’s a certain poignancy in Cirne’s observations. It is 10 years since he started thinking about what New Relic could be, how it should be shaped and the foundations upon which it would be built. He says that while culture evolves early on, it is much more out of gut feel than anything that someone can readily articulate into a set of core values.

You need some time to really clearly understand and discover, not declare, but discover what’s unique about your culture, and then clearly write it down so that hiring managers and hiring and firing decisions, promotion decisions, hard decisions are made on those core values. I feel like some companies declare their core values really early and it’s akin to asking a six-year-old what they want to do professionally when they grow up. They’re just too young to know themselves.

One of the ways Cirne articulates this is by laying waste to the oft expressed view that vendors want to put customers first.

Everyone can say that but if you mean it then there has to be much more than words everyone uses. In our case we determined that we’re bold, we’re passionate, we’re authentic, we’re accountable, and we’re connected. If you meet someone from New Relic you should get the sense of the type of people they are and how we act at New Relic. It should be consistent.

A cornerstone in achieving what sometimes sounds like a state of grace is in the assiduous exercise of authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a place of comfort with who you are and who you aren’t, and being okay with that reality. Therefore, not feeling the need to over-represent or to be overly boastful. You can sense inauthenticity because usually it’s the folks that are just making wild, big claims, and humans are good at telling that’s not authentic. It’s become the expected mode of communication in trade shows and for enterprise software companies.

How does this work out in action?

We want to create an environment where people can feel like they’re being their true selves and they’re respected and admired, and supported and loved for who they are. Therefore, they’re more comfortable being their authentic selves. The best people we’ve hired have all been comfortable with who they are.

In common with many ‘mission statement’ kinds of statement, that sounds idyllic but Cirne is quick to balance against worldly realities.

Recognize there are moments when everybody, myself included, lose that sense of authenticity and so often it’s the environment you’re in. Sometimes, for me anyway, it’s harder for me to be authentic if I feel like I’m just overwhelmed and out of touch with the environment That was more common for me when I was younger but it can catch anyone.

What’s especially interesting in this particular context is that this is not Cirne’s first rodeo. This is his second venture of substance and so I wonder what he has learned along the way that informs this special focus.

I found out through meeting a lot of great leaders of all sorts of companies, great CEOs come in all different shapes and sizes, and skill sets, but they know who they are and they’re comfortable with who they are. Then they look to get themselves alongside people with complementary skills and try to get the best out of the people that surround them. It’s about the team, not the individual.

Leading any successful venture is demanding and especially so in the maelstrom that is Silicon Valley where your position in the corporate pecking order is often defined by your perceived (or real) unicorn status. For what it’s worth, New Relic is among that rare unicorn breed that has IPO’d and stands at a market cap of $2.3 billion at time of writing.

In closing out, I wanted to get a sense of how Cirne re-energizes himself to think about the next 10 years. Cirne regularly takes code retreats where he goes back to his coding roots, often to experiment on an idea that’s forming in his mind. It provides a combination of creativity, relaxation and achievement within the safety of a personal space he carefully guards. The outcome provides the nut of how he envisions ‘the next thing’ at New Relic:

I can’t think of any other city I would rather have founded New Relic than in San Francisco. The creative energy and the talent and the excitement and the venture funding mindset, and the whole thought process of what could go right instead of what could go wrong. But you have to balance all that and the pressure it brings back to being joyful.

I feel like I reconnect with the joy that got us excited about this in the beginning but let me step back. I was watching in the US the Golden State Warriors who won the basketball championship, and a lot of people don’t like the Warriors  because they won so much but I love their coach. His whole mindset, before they start the game, he says, “Don’t forget the joy. Play joyfully.” Find that balance between the joy and the discipline. Right? There’s discipline and hard work, but when you were a kid, to pick up basketball was for the joy of the game too. I feel like that’s the way we ought to think about building our business.

My take

Cirne is right to say that CEOs come in all shapes and sizes, but his observation about ‘being comfortable with who they are’ is something to which I’d not given a great deal of thought. Too often, our media is stuffed with tales of inequality and inappropriate behavior to the point where it is sometiues hard to believe there are companies that live by what they say rather than trying to fake it. What’s emerging in this occasional series though is something else.

It’s a commitment to relentlessly following what leaders believe to be true, in the best interests of everyone and not just one group of stakeholders. Couple that with a degree of humility and a pattern is emerging. Let’s see what the next leader has to say.

In the meantime, I’ll continue following this story because as all leaders know, nothing is truly done when you’re building for the long haul.


Image credit - via the author

Disclosure - New Relic is a premier partner at time of writing