Published June 12, 2014
If you ask a kid -- or even a teenager or Millennial today -- what they want to be when they grow up, chances are the answer you get won’t include a focus on one particular career path.
Jim Whitehurst has taken a page from the kids’ book.
By the time many adults have usually carved their niche and settled into a career, Whitehurst was still considering, if not accepting, opportunities that sounded appealing…even if they were outside his chosen career destination.
It’s an unusual strategy for “growing up,” but one that’s paid off for Whitehurst, who now leads Red Hat (RHT), the biggest open-source software company in the nation.
Whitehurst’s love of technology began at an early age. He had his hands all over the Apple II computer when it made its debut. And later, in high school, he developed a contact management system he later sold to stockbrokers. It might sound like a linear career path, but while he's ended up with a career as the top dog of a technology company, his route there wasn’t a straightforward one.
He spent a lot of his time working on computers, so it made sense for him to complete his undergraduate degree in computer science. But after graduation things started to zig-zag.
“I thought that I should spend several years in business to kind of round out that side of my background before going back into technology,” he said.
So he went to work for strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. And a job he thought would just be a stepping stone on his way to a career in a field he was passionate about turned out to be a job he loved.
“I loved client service. I loved solving complex business problems,” he said. “It’s very similar to solving computer problems, but actually doing it for businesses around their core issues.”
While working for BCG, the firm sent Whitehurst back to school, this time for business. Once he graduated, he landed a spot as a partner and continued to love every minute of his job, causing him rethink his position on a career in the technology space. Delta Air Lines (DAL) became one of Whitehurst’s many clients at BCG.
But what happened next he never could have calculated into his life plans.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Whitehurst received a call from his client. But it wasn’t a call for consultation. Instead, the airline wanted Whitehurst to join the team full time as treasurer.
“So I became treasurer at noon on 9/11 and officially joined a few months later,” he said.
Joining a company in the midst of crisis never provides a smooth and easy transition. What complicated matters for Whitehurst was that he wasn’t just joining any company, he was joining a company in an industry that many around the world had begun to fear.
“It was an extraordinarily difficult time, as you can imagine,” he said. “Aircraft weren’t flying, no cash was coming in the door. Between Tuesday the 11th and Friday the 14th, I went home once to get a few hours of sleep, otherwise I worked straight through. And you really learn the importance of trying to stay calm in a storm.”
With his team, and a healthy dose of determination, Whitehurst helped lead Delta through what arguably became the most turbulent period in the airline’s history. But he wasn’t done there. His time at BCG provided him with the tools to later lead the airline through bankruptcy restructuring, and help it come out whole on the other side.
“I loved the airline business because it’s very complex and it has a lot of difficult problems to solve,” he said.
Still, even in the face of the rush that led him to success in the airline business, the passion and devotion to technology that fueled him as a young adult still simmered somewhere inside and he knew the airline industry wasn’t where he’d stay forever.
Learning by Diversifying
His time in three very different industries has taught Whitehurst a thing or two about how to be a good leader.
At Delta, he worked among rigorous schedules, deadlines and demands, but when he moved to Red Hat, he found a culture totally unrelated to the kind of work environment in which he was accustomed.
That’s proven one of the greatest experiences and growth opportunities for his career.
“Frankly, when I first got to Red Hat, I thought it was chaos. People had no trouble talking back to their superiors and really, really pushing hard for what they believed was right,” Whitehurst said. “At first I thought this was chaos to be tamed, but very quickly I realized the culture, the way people interact are truly what made people different, special, and what made it work.”
Not only did he develop an appreciation for Red Hat’s unique work environment, but he said he now actually sees it as the wave of the future as the world moves into an increasingly information economy. To ensure ideas and creativity are at the forefront, Whitehurst said it requires treating employees differently and worrying more about culture and engagement, and less about structure and policy.
To that point, Whitehurst says he dives 100% into an internal forum called Memo List where employees can post issues and concerns for their superiors and colleagues to read each day. It’s a list that can add up to literally hundreds of posts a day.
“It’s very effective for giving you a monitor of what’s going on in the company and giving you the temperature of the company and allows us to react so much more quickly to changes or issues deep down in our culture,” he said.
It’s that company culture shift that allows Red Hat to solve problems more quickly and better identify problems that exist not only within the company but also the products they put out for their users.
Whitehurst emphasized that at a “normal” company it might be months before a CEO realizes there’s been a fundamental change in the product markets before it works its way up to the c-suite. And then months before a new strategy can be formed and rolled out.
“More businesses have to enable their people to be able to react to stimuli that understands which (problems) are more important and which ones aren’t. And on the important ones, be able to then have the power to act and change,” he said.
Whitehurst credits his diverse career background for giving him the power to appreciate and fully embrace flexibility in the workforce. He said he’s never chosen a job based on the one he thought came with the most prestige. Instead, he based his decision on gut instinct, acting on the position he felt was right for him.
“Too many young people worry about, ‘Well, is this the right step in my career?’ And, my general advice is find things you love to do. You will do them well, and that is what will open up career possibilities for you,” he said.