Leading a company requires a lot of physical and mental effort and relationship building. Ginny Lee, the COO of Khan Academy, shares her transitions from working for Intuit to Khan Academy which is a non-profit organization that provides free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. As Ginny illustrates how it is running a big company, she touches on authentic leadership which is about building a company that makes it a great place to work for the employees so that they can deliver amazing things to the customer. She also gets into how her role as a COO complements with that of the CEO, Salman Khan, and how they make it work.
Authentic Leadership with Khan Academy COO, Ginny Lee
Ginny Lee joined the Khan Academy in 2016 as President and Chief Operating Officer after a year as CEO in residence at a private equity firm based in San Francisco. Prior to that, Lee was part of Intuit’s leadership team for seventeen years where she led a team of more than 900 employees. Lee earned a dual BA in business economics and organizational behavior and management from Brown University and an MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization, created to provide free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. The organization produces micro-lectures in the form of YouTube videos, as well as exercises and tools for educators. All resources are available for free to anyone around the world. I was at a TED conference years ago when I saw the Founder of the Khan Academy, Sal, who did a talk about it. I’ve been enamored with the brand ever since. Ginny, I’m excited to have you on the show.
Thank you for inviting me.
You’re welcome. I’m enamored with your education. I couldn’t spell Brown, let alone get accepted there. I was the dumb kid in college. The fact that you went to an Ivy League school and an MBA as well, I’m honored to speak with you for that as well.
I was the dumb kid in college too, so don’t worry.
You figured out the game. How did you get involved with the Khan Academy, and what was it that attracted you to the brand?
In 2014, I had such an amazing career at Intuit. I love the company. I had no idea I would be there for seventeen years. I thought, “I’ll do two to three years here.” Seventeen years later, there I was. I learned so much from that company. It’s such a wonderful place, but I wanted something different. My son and my daughter were in middle school, just beginning high school. In those careers, where you’re one of twelve senior vice presidents of a $5 billion company, it’s not a 9 to 5 job by any stretch. I realized that my kids were growing up. Time doesn’t stay still when I’m ready. I was starting to take my daughter to visit some colleges and I was like, “What am I doing? There’s plenty of time to be the CEO of something, but there are not very many times when kids are left at home with me.” I took some time off. A mutual friend introduced me to Khan Academy. I’ve always known about it. My kids used it on a transactional basis. They listen to the videos and it helps them with homework as a supplementary resource. I got to know Sal, who’s an amazing person. The mission has always resonated with me. I am the poster child of the very learner that Khan Academy is trying to help.
I’m a first-generation immigrant. My parents grew up and moved here from China. We emigrated to an inner city in the early ‘60s. We didn’t have very much means. We were on free and reduced lunch programs. The very big constant that got me to the intro that you gave me was education, and a very strong one. I was an inner-city kid going to a public school, gritting her way through on free and reduced lunch. I wish I had Khan Academy back then, but it didn’t exist for us. I was the kid that tried to work hard. I couldn’t afford an SAT book. I had to go to the library to use it because I couldn’t buy one from Barnes & Noble. Having a tool like this would have helped me a lot. Being able to take my twenty plus years of a high-tech executive career to apply to a place like Khan Academy to help, hopefully, millions and millions of children achieve as I did with a lot of grit and a lot of hard work, the world would be a great place. That’s what motivates me and resonates with me of why I joined Khan Academy.
You see the core purpose. I love that it resonated because it would have helped you as well. You got into the technology sector around ‘97. You went through both the 2000 and the 2008 crashes. I was in the tech sector in Seattle in 2000. I remember leaving the city going, “The last person to leave Seattle will turn out the lights,” because everybody was shutting the doors. You were able to navigate through the 2000 crash and through 2007, 2008 or 2009 crash. What are some of the big lessons you learned from that? Staying with the same company through those two big corrections, you must have learned a ton.
I can’t speak well enough about it. I’ve been incredibly blessed. When I joined the company, Bill Campbell was the CEO. He moved on to be the Chairman. We had our first flip in 2000. Quicken was not the 90% market share company anymore and we were solely Quicken. We had our first layoff and that was hard for the company. What I saw was an enormous amount of authentic leadership to weather that storm for its people. That loyalty to those people got paid back with the employees having longevity there. On top of that, we were very good at reinventing ourselves. Scott Cook, who’s the Founder of Intuit, talks about, “Savor the pleasant surprises.” As we were the Quicken Company, predominantly, a lot of their market research talked about meeting a financial management software for small businesses. Scott at the time was like, “We’re not a small business. We’re a consumer. This was made at the kitchen table with my wife, Signe, because she needed to learn how to manage the checkbook.” That was a pleasant surprise with the market research. We reinvented ourselves and started to be a small business company. That’s how we got through the early 2000s.
What was wonderful about Intuit is not just we reinvented the products and what the company stood for. There was such acknowledgment by the leaders of the types of leaders that are needed at the time the company was going through. In the early ‘90s, Scott as the Founder said, “I’m a great Founder, but as the company gets bigger, I’m not as big of an operator. Let me go find a CEO.” We were a $500 million plus revenue company. He said, “For us to get to the next level of greatness in the billions of dollars, it’s not me, Bill Campbell. Find another CEO.” He found Steve Bennett, who was a 23-year veteran, direct report of Jack Welch from GE, a renowned leader and ran $8 billion businesses coming to rinky-dink Intuit when we were at $500 million. It was a recognition by Bill that says, “The company has this potential to be X. I don’t have that experience as much to get us to X, but I’m going to find somebody that does.” It was not just reinventing the products and who the company was, but also the leaders that were needed at the time.
You talked a little bit about loyalty equaling longevity. That was something that came out of that 2000 crash. It was the people that were loyal to the brand, stayed and dug in deep. They were rewarded by the company being loyal to them long-term. You also mentioned authentic leadership. Walk us through a couple of the key things that you had pulled from authentic leadership and how you would incorporate that now.
Intuit had a framework, which I apply and love. It’s in my heart and core. I also brought it to Khan Academy. It’s wonderful that Khan Academy is aligned to it as well. The thought at Intuit is every leader has a personal true north. The company has a true north. The way that the framework works is you have three key stakeholders that you have to serve. It’s employees, customers and shareholder. You have to make sure as a leader that you balance short and long. There are five dimensions by which to be a leader. It’s in that order.
You have to build a company that makes it a great place to work for its employees so that they can deliver amazing things to the customer. When you do that, the shareholder metrics come. You want to balance short and long because if you’re too short-sighted, it’s not going to be a long going concern. If you’re too long, you can architect something from purity, but you can’t deliver the short-term results. Those are the five dimensions. The framework works such that you need employees, customers and shareholders. They all are needed to live. The analogy is, think about employees like the air. You can’t survive for two minutes without air. Think about customers as water and shareholders as food. Water is for two days. Food is for two weeks. I’m generalizing, but the point is you need all three but in different degrees. That embeddedness of employees to deliver for a customer to then the shareholder comes is the loyalty that Intuit gave to its employees. That got reciprocated.
That reciprocated hugely. The first time I ever heard of this concept of employees first was with Southwest Airlines. They said, “Our customer is number two and our employees are number one.” It resonated with me as being accurate. When I was growing up, it was, “The customer is always right.” It seems so backward. Corporate America was always about profit and growth. The employees felt like they were on a treadmill or they’re being grounded down. When do you think we’ve started to see this shift for this employee-first culture? It is being mentioned more and more. It’s still not the norm, but when did the shift start?
I’m outdating myself. It started when I was working at Pepsi. This was probably three or four years out of college. I worked in investment banking. No disrespect to that industry, but that is not an employee-centric company by any stretch. Pepsi, at the time that I was there, had the customers’ why. That was a big mantra, but they flipped it on its head and they had an upside down triangle. This was in the mid-‘90s. It’s an upside-down triangle where the widest part, the base of the triangle, is the employees. For Pepsi at the time, it was truck drivers because it’s all about distribution. The CEO, if it’s an upside-down triangle, is the one that’s on the bottom. That was a big flip for Pepsi at the time and a very appropriate one. I’ve had that experience. I can point to a handful of companies in Silicon Valley when I moved out here after business school that had that employee mantra. Intuit, Adobe, Workday, PeopleSoft are the names of companies that I feel put employees first to deliver on the customer.
If we’ve got these engaged employees with the high net promoter score for the employee side, they’re going to take care of the customers because they’re happy and excited. It’s our opportunity too or we get too or we’re thrilled too. What’s the scope of Khan Academy? How many employees do you have? When I listen, it’s still Sal doing the videos. Does he sleep, or they just record more videos all day long?
He has an amazing gift to take concepts and teach it in a way that’s quirky, fun but all within five or seven minutes. That’s about the attention span that anybody has at any given time. It is hard for us to codify that gift. He does do a lot of our videos because it’s incredibly effective for all learners. The tone that he uses, the quirkiness, it works. It puts the student at ease. You’re listening to uncle Sal or cousin Sal, erasing on a blackboard. He does this little tangent and you don’t feel like it’s a lecture.
How big is the Khan Academy in terms of scope and number of employees? My vision is that you’re going from a massive company like Intuit into 100-person Khan Academy. Is it way more than that?
It’s not quite, but yes. I am going from something massive to something that’s not massive at all. Intuit is about a 7,000, 8,000, 9,000-person company with $5 billion in revenue. Khan Academy is at 230 people. Our revenue that’s measured by donations and earned revenue is about $50 million.
It’s a real business. It’s 250 employees. You’re dealing with politics and cross-functional decision-making. You’re dealing with some of the layers that you would have had experienced at Intuit. What doesn’t work for an executive? I see this all the time, especially at the COO level where the CEO is trying to hire the COO to come in and run their company for them or helping that yin and yang relationship. What doesn’t work, going from a big corporate environment into that more entrepreneurial environment? I don’t know if Khan Academy is more entrepreneurial.
It’s still like a start-up. There is an absolute yin and yang with Sal and me. We’re very complementary and that’s what makes this work. The things that he gets a lot of energy from, which is the external speaking, the TED Talks, the donor stewardship were necessary evils in my General Manager job, but it’s not where I got most of my energy from. For him to get a lot of energy, it’s awesome for him to do that. In return, I get a lot of energy running the company, the internal part of shipping a product, getting marketing to come up with campaigns and awareness to increase reach, to putting in HR policies and making sure we stay on budget. I have a full GM role because all those functions report to me.
You figured out the yin and yang between the two of you.
Yeah, because the things that don’t give him as much energy, which is running the company, I very much enjoy. We don’t always agree, nor should we, but together, the company gets the best of both of us. That whole is very much needed by the company.
Where did you need to adapt when you left Intuit at 9,000 people and coming into Khan Academy at probably 200-ish? How did you have to adapt your skills, your leadership style or your way of thinking?
There are two parts. I had to adapt to the business model, which I’m still trying to adapt to. Let me describe that. In a corporate for-profit world, which is where I’ve spent the majority of my career, you build great products, you market it, you understand the competitive landscape and you provide more value than anybody else. The user that loves the thing that you built pays for the thing that you built. It’s all in one hand and it’s a wonderful feedback loop. In Khan Academy, I do all those things on my “left hand,” but the dollars come from my right hand. The philanthropists, the grants that we do, they’re not the users. That’s a bit of tension because there are many grants or donations that people would like to give us that we don’t accept because it’s not aligned with our mission. That’s one. There has to be a fair amount of overlap for us because we want to stay pure to that mission. That’s a big difference from corporate to nonprofit.
The other thing that’s different in how I lead slightly is, in my Intuit world, even with it being such an employee-centered company, leaders need to lead with what I call a steady hand, a strong mind, strategic, but also heart. You need all three. That was a big lesson that I learned from Bill Campbell in particular. In the corporate for-profit world, you don’t lead with the heart as much. It could be perceived as a weakness. In the nonprofit, particularly at Khan Academy where we are so mission-based, I have to flex that heart muscle. It needs to be more pronounced here, which is great because they’re not motivated by the stereotypical things, money, stock options and things like that. I love this about Khan Academy. To a tee, all 200 plus people are here because of the mission. They want to make a difference in children’s lives.
How do you get a nonprofit to operate as a business? Is this a bias that I’m painting on based on no information whatsoever? I assume nonprofits are clunky, nobody gets anything done and we have meetings for the sake of meetings. I can’t see that being the case with Khan Academy. Is that even the goal? Maybe we should get businesses done more like nonprofits.
There’s a lot to learn on both sides. I don’t think a nonprofit should be more business-oriented, or businesses should be more mission-based. Those are wonderful things on both sides to learn from each other. That very question was something I grappled with. It took me several months to decide to come to Khan Academy. We went on many walks and Starbucks things. I said, “Sal, I know how to grow an organization. I know how to grow businesses. I don’t know anything about nonprofits.” He said, “I want this nonprofit, which has this innate mission in it, to be more effectively and efficiently run and take those lessons from the business world. I want that.” Over the span of several months of us walking, talking and Starbucks things, I gave him use case after use case to say, “If I did this, how is that going to affect Khan Academy? Is that something that’s so anti-cultural?” If it is, it’s so inherent to my leadership. One by one, we saw things the same way. We came from different backgrounds. That’s been wonderful for Khan Academy as well.
Were you replacing someone when you came in as the President COO or was this a new role?
Shantanu was the prior President COO. I’ve only met him once. I believe he was Sal’s college math competition friend. He left to go to Google back in 2015. Sal ran the company as the CEO/COO and realized that is not where most of his energy is. He wanted to hire again another President COO.
How did you and Sal embrace conflict? You said you don’t agree on everything at times. That’s the exact wording. I believe in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He talked about embracing good, healthy conflict. How did you guys embrace good, healthy conflict? How do you encourage that in the organization? Conflict may not be the right word, but it’s the good, healthy debate for the good of the organization. How do you embrace that work through that? How do you also not get hurt feelings or take things personally and still engage that way?
You asked multiple questions in there. For Sal and me, it starts with a common set of values and principles and an inherent trust and respect for each other’s perspectives. There are different for sure. We don’t see eye-to-eye many times because we come from different perspectives. The fact that we have that fundamental trust, belief and respect of the differences, we take the time to share the perspectives and the rationale for why we have that perspective. In my language, we walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to say, “Now you understand why you have that. Here’s my rationale,” and we come to an alignment. That’s how we do it between Sal and me. That’s how we try to scale that across the organization as well.
In your role as President and COO, what are you focusing on?
You talked about this 2010 TED Talk. You said, “We’ve got to get this into my classroom.” That’s what we’re doing. When you think about the wonderful heritage of Khan Academy, it was an online education tool or product for what we call the self-motivated, independent learner, which is great. They came to us.
It’s less than 1% of the kids probably too.
It’s the self-motivated ones that come to us, that want to accelerate. If they’re self-motivated because they weren’t the smart kid in college, it’s a way to supplement. It’s awesome but not sufficient. When I got here, it was, “How do we build on that?” It’s what I call standing on the shoulder of giants. “How do you build on that with a great product and a great brand? Rather than being reactive to them coming to us through a Google search, which is predominantly how they find us, let’s go to where they’re learning, which is the classroom.” We’ve embarked for the last years solving for the classroom as well. Our goal is to help the teacher provide personalized learning and mastery inside their classroom by giving them a set of tools. Teachers have one of the hardest jobs. They have an average class size of 35 to 40 people. At any given bell curve, you have 10% to 15% that are bored because you’re going too slowly. You have another 10%, 15%, 20% that says, “I’m checked out because you’re going too fast.” It’s hard to do differentiate learning in such a tough ratio. We’re trying to go into the classroom, building tools for the teacher. In 2019, we’re fulfilling the ecosystem of the learner and the teacher.
There’s a third actor in this play, as I call it, which is the districts. The districts want to grow and get their districts to perform. We have a small but mighty district strategy to help bring Khan Academy into the classroom. That helps us target certain districts. It helps us go after districts that need our help. We have a pick a metric, 60% free and reduced lunch, 80% Hispanic, African American demographic, whatever it is. We say, “Let’s go into the classroom and use our stuff for 30 minutes every week as a supplementary resource for you. We have efficacy games that show that if you do that for 30 minutes a week, you’ll be one to two times better more equipped to handle the level that you’re at and to advance than if you didn’t do it with us.” That’s a big part of our strategy.
That’s a huge shift. What do you work on the day-to-day? If you think about your role and your direct reports, what are you working on?
I spend a lot of time getting the right who in place and getting the right who to define the what. As we define the right what with the prioritization, the strategic plan, it’s giving those employees and empowering them to do the how.
I was at a mastermind event. One of the guys in the group said, “It’s not a how problem. It’s a who problem.” It’s not, “How do I do something?” It’s who.
It is. I want to give credit to Jeff Bezos. This is where I learned it. He talked about early in your career when you’re a manager or you’re an individual contributor, the success of an individual contributor is knowing how to do something. That’s your functional craft. As you come to the director VP level, it’s about your strategic thinking. How do you define what it is that you’re going to do and manage a group to get it done? As you get to the senior VP level or, in my case, GM, whatever the titles are, it’s all about the who at that point. It’s getting the right people in the right jobs in the right functions, clarity of roles and responsibilities, effective decision-making frameworks and unleashing and empowering that group to bring their best selves to work to deliver on that customer.
If you’ve got all the right who’s, you don’t have to worry about skill development because they’ve already got the skills, don’t they?
Is that where most companies are failing nowadays? It feels like, as I’m talking through this a little bit, they are hiring great people that aren’t the right who’s for what they’re working. We spend all our time trying to give them the skills even if we’re not trying to manage them or hold them accountable. If we flip the org chart upside down, we’re still trying to give them skills at something they should already have the skills at. Are you past that already? Is that what you mean by the who’s, or do you spend time on skill development as well? Is that a smaller company thing?
Let’s define skills. I think of skills in two ways. One is functional crafts. If you’re a designer, how do you have wonderful interaction design, visual design kinds of things? That’s the functional craft. The other part of skills to me is the leadership side.
That’s what I was talking about more, the soft skill of leadership.
I spend a lot of time teaching the softer side, but I’ve hired externally knowing that they have the harder side, the IQ part. I’m not here to teach them the IQ part.
They’ve already got it.
I have an amazing product people, engineers, designer and leaders. My VP of design, my VP of engineering and my CFO are amazing. Every single leader that reports to me have their functional craft. It’s about, “How do I get them to work together and make sure that there are no gaps that fall in between?” I’m a big sports person. My analogy is football. My job is the offensive coordinator. I’m not a position coach. I have position coaches. My job is to devise the plays so that the quarterback knows what they’re doing. It’s an interdependent system to each other. Are we doing a seven-drop pass? Is the offensive line blocking to create room for the running back? Are the wide receivers doing their route effectively to get it downfield? Whatever the analogy is, I’m not teaching the specific technical skill, but I’m orchestrating and coordinating the plays.
We’re going to come down through another cycle. We’re due for this next recession or downturn. What do you think businesses are going to have to do to adapt to that? The second part of this question is, what are we going to do when the automation and AI start to hit companies in the five to ten-year mark? How do we need to adapt to our careers and as companies?
On your first question, which is what we are doing on a downturn, it should happen whether you’re in a downturn or not. Being very clear and focused on what you deliver the most thing of is important. When there are lesser and lesser resources like in a downturn, financial resources in this case, it is that much more critical to stay focused on the thing that matters the most. Do not get too divergent in all the things that you want to get done. What are the critical things that must get done? That distinction is very important in a downturn. Your second part question is with AI and things like that, we need to be better prepared in high school and colleges. I’m not saying everyone should be in STEM because we’ll lose the art of liberal arts and that’s where the EQ part comes from. It’s, “How do you leverage such great tools? How do you combine it so that leaders know how to use those tools the best?” Left to its own devices and just using technology for technology’s sake, you’ll lose the very judgment that you can never program. You can never put logic into AI so that it takes care of all the scenarios and all the human behavior dynamics that happen. Someone still has to lead the AI group or the AI algorithm.
You see STEM as being critical and I agree. You talked about focus. How do we say, “No more,” as leaders? How do we work on drawing boundaries, saying no to certain projects and keeping our team focused on the critical few versus the important many? What are some things that you do to say no or to keep your team and you focused?
It’s a combination of things. I forget who said it, but the best strategy is not what you say you’re going to do but, more importantly, what you’re not going to do. If you want to be the best, focus has to happen. It’s hard because our mission of free, world-class education for anyone and anywhere, you can put a Mack Truck through that and in spades. It’s all about sequencing and the critical skill sets that you have to deliver on the most critical things in a particular order that helps leverage each other as a stepping-stone. The way you communicate that is so that the people understand that it’s not that you don’t want to do it or that you don’t think their idea is a good one. It’s, “We have a finite set of resources. This is what we’re going to do now that leads to how we can do that other thing better later.”
It’s almost like building a home. We want to put in the Wolf stove with the red knobs and the beautiful cabinets but we’re still putting in the drywall, the plumbing, electrical and foundation. We’ve got to do the foundation first. The Wolf stove will come but give us time. If you were your 21-year-old self and you were getting ready to embark on your leadership career, what advice would you give the 21-year-old Ginny Lee that you now know to be true?
I learned that lesson not when I was 21. I learned it from a business school professor of mine named Jim Collins. He said, “Don’t pay attention to the title. Don’t pay attention to adjectives that you think you will get your confidence associated by. Focus on the company, its values and making sure it’s aligned with yours.” At the time, I was 25 years old, trying to think about what I want to do after business school. You had your investment banking consulting and all those things. He was the one that told me about Intuit. He says, “Ginny, you’re a very values-driven, people-centric person. Don’t think about manager X, Y, Z, product manager or business development. Forget about the title or the level. If you find a match in a company that is aligned to the values, where you could authentically be yourself, you’re going to bring your best self to that company.” That has carried me for many years.
I hope your kids are catching that one too. This is what all of my kids listen to. I can’t believe you had Jim Collins as a business school professor. That’s not fair.
I have been so blessed. He is a dear friend of mine. His wife and I went to business school together in the same class. I love him, his books and what he stands for. He’s been a wonderful mentor for me.
He’s one of the great business thinkers of our time too. He’s done all the research on it. It’s like saying, “Picasso was teaching me how to paint.”
I didn’t mean to name drop. I’m sorry about that. I just wanted to give credit where credit was due because he’s such an influential person to me.
It was a wonderful lesson. Ginny Lee, President and COO for the Khan Academy, thank you so much for sharing with us. I appreciate all the time and the ideas that you gave us.
Thank you so much for the opportunity.
About Ginny Lee
Ginny Lee is currently President & COO of Khan Academy, a personalized learning resource for all ages whose mission is to provide free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Prior to Khan Academy, she was a CEO in Residence at Alpine Partners, a growth-oriented private equity firm based in San Francisco. Prior to that, she was senior vice president and general manager of Intuit’s Employee Management Solutions division. Appointed to the position in August 2011, she led a team of more than 900 employees who provide easy-to-use payroll products and human resources benefits products for more than 1.3 million small businesses. Lee is responsible for creating and delivering the division’s growth strategy, product management, engineering, marketing, sales, business operations and customer care efforts.
Working at Intuit since November 1996, Lee served as senior vice president and chief information officer from 2008-2011. In that role, she led the effort to create a global infrastructure to reliably host and deliver cloud-based products in a connected services world. Previous Intuit positions include vice president of the company’s order-to-cash organization and customer service, vice president of corporate business operations and enterprise systems, and business line leader for QuickBooks Internet Gateway Services and operations manager for Financial Supplies Group. 5-time Intuit’s CEO Excellence in Leadership Award winner — most ever awarded to a single individual.
Before joining Intuit, she spent several years as a management consultant at CSC Index, focusing on strategic implementation and business process re-engineering. Lee was also a marketing analyst at Pepsi-Cola International and a mergers and acquisitions analyst on Wall Street.
Lee holds bachelor’s degrees in both business economics and organizational behavior and management from Brown University, and a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University.