What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is like as a leader

September 13, 2013
Kimihiro Hoshino / AFP/Getty Images
Kimihiro Hoshino / AFP/Getty Images

After Twitter CEO Dick Costolo joined the company as COO four years ago, his first tweet read as follows: "First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: Undermine CEO, consolidate power." A year later, he became CEO, and will be leading the social media platform as it prepares for one of the industry's most buzzed about IPOs.

But Costolo is not, at least by all public accounts, a scheming tech CEO bent on power. (Known for his early career as an aspiring comedian, Costolo almost certainly meant that tweet as a joke.) Yes, Costolo has a reputation for being decisive, leading with high expectations, and remaining focused on the long term, but he's also known for being accessible, disarming and, of course, funny. As Silicon Valley writer Sarah Lacy has noted, referring to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Costolo's "ability to put a room at ease and be self-deprecating makes him pretty much the anti-Zuck."

Costolo is different from Zuckerberg in another way: He is not an original founder of the tech company he now leads--though he has been one in the past. After working in improv comedy in Chicago for several years, as well as at Andersen Consulting, he founded and sold a series of tech start-ups, the last of which Google bought in 2007. Two years later, he left the search giant to join Twitter, which was originally started by Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. He became CEO in 2010 and has steadied what had been management turmoil and turnover at the top.

Costolo's management experience should help guide the company as it makes this transition, and it seems he's spent plenty of time thinking--and recently, talking--about leadership. At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco on Monday, Costolo gave a 10-minute chat called "How to Lead." In it, he left the digerati wondering about the public future of his company, and instead summarized a management course he teaches to his own employees with a couple of tips.

First, he said, leaders should care deeply about the people who work for them without worrying about their personal impressions. "Don't lead...trying to be liked," CNET reported Costolo as saying. Communicate "with them based on clarity, not based on I hope they perceive this in a positive way or feeling good." The other? There are many different ways to be successful, and leaders should find what they're good at and take that approach.

Costolo also chatted in June at a Commonwealth Club event about the same course he teaches at Twitter. It's worth a listen. He talks about setting direction, how hard it is for managers to give direct feedback, and the problems with a "Marxist school" of management--that is, putting time and resources into improving the worst performers on your team. Instead, he supports what he calls the "Darwinian way," where the effort goes into improving those who are already the best performers.

And he had plenty of thoughtful advice for graduates during his University of Michigan commencement address in May, when he shared some lessons he learned from his improv days. "You need to make more courageous choices," one director told his group when they kept selecting hum-drum environments like an apartment rather than, say, a spaceship for their skits. "Make bigger choices. Take courageous risks."

Another director, when Costolo once tried to steer the scene in the direction of a line he wanted to deliver, told him "you can't plan a script. ... If you try to plan what the next line is supposed to be you're just going to be disappointed when the other people on stage with you don't do or say what you want them to do."

Given the unpredictability of the stock market, Costolo may soon have an opportunity to put his own advice to good use.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.
Read also:

Ben Bernanke gives the best commencement address so far this season

What Mark Zuckerberg should do now

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
SECTION: {section=business/on-leadership, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/on-leadership, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Lillian Cunningham · September 13, 2013