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7 Questions with Steven Song
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7 Questions with Steven Song
Name: Steven Song
Current title: Chief Financial Officer
Current organisation: Lukes Lobster
Steve Song is the Chief Financial Officer for Luke's Lobster having joined the crew in 2016. Prior to Luke's Lobster, he spent 14 years as a private equity investment professional working with various companies and management teams across a variety of industries. He began his career at JPMorgan in 2001 before working at hedge funds and private equity firms including Magnetar Capital and Altpoint Capital.
Since 2011, Steve has also served as a Board Member of Minds Matter of NYC, a nonprofit organization serving low-income high school students, and served as its board chair until 2018. He has served on the Board of Directors for private companies, including Ford Models, AHN International and Sanchez Resources. Steve graduated with a joint Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics-Mathematics from Columbia University in 2001. He has traveled to over 30 countries and has watched a game at every Major League Baseball stadium. He is based in New York City.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
The most challenging aspect of my role is maintaining a real pulse on the granular workings of our business to truly support my team at a deep level, but also find the mental space to also zoom out and strategically think through macro trends and changes coming ahead and bridging both things to drive true progress.
Many executives are stereotyped as "strategic" or "tactical" but I have two points to add. First, some people can be BOTH while others can be NEITHER. Second, there's often a big gap between having a strategic goal/vision and then finding an effective tactical way to implement/achieve them. This gap is where I think I add the most value by organizing ways for team members who need clear, achievable direction and guidance that will fundamentally propel the organizational goals forward.
For example, Luke's Lobster wants to foster an even more Diverse and Inclusive company culture (big strategic goal). Most people will come up with quick schemes to hit KPI metrics (tactics), but the true goal is to have a sustainable pipeline of talented employees from a variety of different backgrounds all feeling valued and able to bring their entire self to work to contribute to the discussion.... all happening in perpetuity without needing constant pushes from leadership. So besides implementing hiring quotas (which I think is short term tactical thinking that lasts only as long as D&I is trending), how can we set up systems and processes that will self-reinforce this goal? That problem solving requires a deep understanding of our recruiting/hiring processes, performance evaluations, promotion and compensation criteria, how credit is attributed between vocal extroverts and more reserved introverts, personal development and mentoring programs, conversations about workplace equity, etc. Only by having a depth of tactical understanding guided by our strategic north star will we truly create lasting change.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I was a professional investor for most of my career after graduating from Columbia University in 2001. Wall Street was a popular career choice during those times and I learned much more and faster than many of my peers who opted against Wall Street. The amount of access, information, and volume of deal flow I saw by the age of 25 was more than many experienced in their entire career. The way my mind works, I began to recognize patterns across the wide variety of companies, industries, leadership teams and market cycles. All those data points helped me formulate a view on how good companies operate and navigate all different environments.
While it was an intellectually stimulating career, I found that I no longer resonated with the stereotypical Wall Street peer group. I found my personal values diverging from the environment I was in and chose to leave the industry and seek opportunities where I could truly lead teams, build and operate businesses and create financial and personal value in the lives of my coworkers.
I was introduced to Luke's Lobster through a friend who knew the owners were looking for a Restaurant CFO. I told him that I didn't know anything about restaurants (besides eating in them) and had never been a CFO. He encouraged me to meet with them anyway. I was pleased to find out that they were open minded about my lack of "paper qualifications" and were more focused on my character, potential and capacity to help align their 7 year old business. I respected the fact they focused on the true needs of the organization and team rather than relying on less relevant "job experience" metrics. I codified this experience into my data set as "solving problems by focusing on first principles and not relying on conventional thinking." That lesson would serve me well in my later years at Luke's Lobster (particularly during COVID in 2020).
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
It may surprise people who see me online late into the night and early the next morning, but I don't enjoy working. I do want to be great at everything I do and getting to that place often requires a lot of hard work. I've been gifted with a quick mind, a strong memory and fast typing skills, but I've never wanted to waste my opportunity to make a positive impact.
So I generally wake up at 630AM and scroll through the news from bed, often emailing myself and others with interesting articles that might spark conversation or ideas. I ensure my 9 year old daughter, Eden, is getting up and ready for school and then hop on the computer to check my calendar and orient myself for the upcoming appointments and meetings.
Side note: I am a calendar super power-user and even schedule my individual contributor work where I need to create a work product (and treat it like a meeting with myself). I even schedule breaks and lunches and email time to ensure I make time for everything, including taking my daughter to/from school each day. I can't keep everything in my head (anymore than a smartphone can have too many apps running at once), so I put it all on my calendar and allow it to tell me where I need to be and when.
Most of my day is going into different meetings with different teams and stakeholders. I try to have deep one-on-one meetings with my direct reports where I check in with them as human beings with personal and professional aspirations as much as I do about specific work tasks and projects. I find that allows me to be a better support for their careers as they develop into executives who can then move faster and take on more responsibilities, which in turn free me up to work on more strategic and aspirational projects.
I use my daughter's pickup time from her after school program as my "alarm clock" to finish out the office workday at 5PM. I'm also a single father, so much of the child rearing responsibilities (meals, playdates, activities, birthday parties, parent teacher meetings, etc.) all fall on me, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Being efficient with my workday allows me to be present and focused on my daughter when I'm done with the office day.
But after we eat dinner and get her setup on her homework, I hop back onto the computer to catch up and move forward on some of my individual contributor work. We are still a young startup in many ways, so there's a lot of actual work product that I'm producing myself whether it's reviewing and redlining legal documents, creating excel projection models for our investors, creating board meeting presentations and initiating interesting value add projects that will further develop my team's skill sets.
I tend to go to sleep around 11pm depending on if I want to watch a movie before bed or not, but I fall asleep fast knowing I put in a solid days worth of being a good father and executive.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Leadership only happens when you have people willing to follow you. It doesn't matter if you have the greatest idea that will save the company if you cannot convince those around you to listen, engage and agree. Yes, titles and status undoubtedly help, but in a world where you recruit strong, smart, talented individuals to join your company, they will not always defer to rank. This isn't the military.
Instead, I really try to foster a multi-faceted leadership style that incorporates (a) servant leadership, (b) parenting, and (c) active coaching... because people are all different and situations are all different. One approach will not work for all people. It won't even work for the same person in all situations.
Servant leadership is knowing that a leader is there to support and empower their team members. It's not about me getting the credit while they do the work. It's about communicating the company goals/needs, encouraging their idea generation, removing roadblocks out of their way, ensuring they get the spotlight when they deserve it and also giving them critical feedback so they can improve next time.
The aspect of parenting is so broad so I'll just focus on the aspect I find closest to being a manager. I have to set them up to succeed without me. I won't always be there for them, so they need to learn how to problem solve, experiment, learn, fail and get back up on their own. And one day, they may be managers of other teams and will need to continue that pattern of thinking for that next generation.
And active coaching. I've been around many people who all hate micromanaging. I've been on the receiving end of that, and I know it's not fun. That being said, I think less experienced managers and employees often overuse the term micromanaging to anything they don't like (including getting much needed feedback or clear/specific direction). I personally think of how when I was in Little League, my first baseball coach had to show me how to swing a bat and throw a ball. He would practice with me on the minute movements of my hands, including my specific finger placement on the ball's seams to make it go straight. Would you call that micromanaging? I wouldn't. For me, that's a very engaged manager who recognizes that I need that level of instruction and support. When I mastered those basic skills, then he would give me more latitude. In situations where my team is doing something foreign or new to them, I want to be actively and deeply engaged with them...rolling up my sleeves and deep into their thinking. But if it's a project I know they have full mastery of, then I just need to give them guidance and an estimated deliverable date.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. It's not about leadership, but it's about how to truly listen and communicate with anyone. He doesn't use the term Empathy or Emotional Intelligence, but many of the author's concepts are fundamentally aligned with those systems of thinking.
Before I read that book, I relied on my intellect and logic to compel others to follow my lead. And frankly, it worked well much of the time, but not all the time. I came to understand that often that approach left the other person feeling unheard or stupid. And most people who can't identify or communicate their inner feelings would turn those negative thoughts into disdain for the person who made them feel that way. That dynamic wasn't helpful if my goal was to add value at a macro organizational level.
But now (though I'm not perfect at it), I will pause and let the other person share their thoughts, demonstrate that I've truly listened to understand them, connect with their underlying aspirations/fears (which is the most important part) and only then, do I offer my perspective.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
This is an age-old question that spans generations. I've found that there is not one shoe that fits all people. I've learned that each of my direct reports thinks about the world and their place in it very differently.
For one colleague, she wants structure, rules and a role model to follow. For another colleague, she shies away from managerial/leadership roles because she enjoys being an individual contributor. And yet another wants as much explicit and overt opportunity and development as they can get.
Again, I foster the approach of "first principle thinking" over "conventional wisdom" here and the first principle in any engagement is always "Know your audience."
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
When COVID happened to us in March 2020, we knew this pandemic was serious enough that it could have killed our company. We had a lot of people employed across multiple states. I knew from my experience in 2001 and 2008 that the companies that survive are not the ones that had the best product, market share, or brand. It was the one that had enough cash to endure the downturn. So we made some really hard decisions to transition people into other opportunities outside the company. I guess that's my nice way of saying we had to let them go, but I did spend a lot of my time, energy and connections to get each of my direct reports, job interviews and networking opportunities so that they would land somewhere great and have financial security.
In addition to having to let go members of our team, we asked everyone who was left to take a meaningful salary reduction (some up to 50%) to allow us to keep as many people on payroll as possible. Mathematically, every single person who made that sacrifice allowed another person to stay on the team. Myself and the other top 5 leaders volunteered to take a 100% compensation reduction without knowing when it would be restored.
Fortunately, the Payroll Protection Program loan came through for us in late April and we got many people back most of the way back to pre-Covid levels, but I was so proud of the team banding together like that.