Gary Kovacs keeps Mozilla Corp. moving with the pace of change Featured

8:08pm EDT September 30, 2011
Gary Kovacs keeps Mozilla Corp. moving with the pace of change

When Gary Kovacs joined Mozilla Corp. a year ago, the company was on track to release the next version of its browser, Firefox 4.0., with immense anticipation from the user community. While everyone was excited about the 2011 release, Kovacs also saw that approximately 15 months were lapsing between each update. With the increasing speed of innovation, he knew the company couldn’t afford waiting another year or longer to introduce Firefox 5.0 if it wanted to stay competitive. Fifteen months might as well be 15 years in the Internet space.

“What I came in and helped all of us understand, which is something that everybody knew but we didn’t really internalize, is the market’s moving at a different pace than it did even a year ago, and our mission is to lead in the creation of the open Internet that gives the user choice,” says Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla. “Lead means continuing to push new features, new products at a pace that is ahead of others in the market, and we weren’t doing that.

“Coming in as a leader, what I understood and I think everybody understood is that the pace of the Internet is moving at a very rapid rate. We needed to continue to evolve our offerings and our processes and organization to keep up and to continue to lead. That requires some changes and adjustments.”

While Mozilla had already been growing when Kovacs arrived — generating $104 million in revenue in 2009 — his ability to expedite change through his leadership has been instrumental in expanding the company’s scope, offerings and size over the last year. By reenergizing Mozilla’s mission through swifter execution on several key initiatives, Kovacs has made sure Firefox remains a leader in the evolution of the Internet.

Reframe the issues

Transitioning the Firefox browser to a rapid-release cadence was just one opportunity Kovacs saw for Mozilla to move quicker in adapting to the change around it. However, one of timeliest areas he wanted to address when he came in as CEO was how to handle the Internet privacy issue of Web tracking. After many months of going back and forth, the company had still not reached a decision on whether or not to add a “do not track” feature to Firefox 4.0, which would enable users to opt out of being tracked by websites they visited online. So to get closer to a decision, Kovacs says he needed to put the issue into a different context for his 350 employees.

“Sometimes I make the decision and surface it and socialize it with the group,” he says. “Sometimes I just facilitate the decision getting made. A practical example would be on do not track. I asked a question. I felt this wasn’t exclusively my decision to make, but I felt we had to make one. … I asked, ‘What’s stopping us from making a decision?’ — which is a really different question than, ‘What do we think we should do?’ ‘What’s stopping us from making a decision to implement this?’”

When a decision is at standstill, asking people to examine it from a new perspective can help them identify what are the most significant roadblocks and obstacles to progress.

“I call it the yellow car syndrome,” Kovacs says. “You don’t realize all the yellow cars on the road until you buy one, and then you realize all the yellow cars on the road. After you see the behaviors a few times, you start to recognize them. The behaviors sound like this: When a team or a group or a community is debating on an issue, they start covering the same points and then they cover them again. At that point it’s like ‘OK, done. Time for a decision.’”

When the same, familiar answers came back about the do not track feature, Kovacs reframed the issue for his team again, this time as a question of mission accountability.

“I came back and said, ‘Our mission is to lead the Internet where users are in control and choose, and this is an issue with privacy where users aren’t in control” he says. “‘So do we think some solution is going to be needed this year?’”

Everyone agreed it was.

“Then our only question was are we truly going to be a leader or are we going to wait until somebody else develops something and then fast follow it?” Kovacs says. “The former was the only one that felt right to people. I said, ‘OK, then the harsh reality is, we’re going to have to take a step sometime before knowing the final outcome because the answer can’t be created until you take many steps toward it. Let’s take this first step.’”

Sometimes getting people to see the urgency of taking action begins with getting them to think about choices in new ways. Reframing an issue as how it ties into your vision, mission or core values for instance can help people who are caught up in the initial challenges of a decision see the larger value and implications of making a change. Once Kovacs got his people to redefine Mozilla’s mission and vision of leadership, the team recognized the necessity of making changes to execute both moving forward.

“Everybody to the core said, ‘Absolutely. Time to lead. Time to move,’” Kovacs says. “Once we created that highest order vision, which really tied closely to our mission of leadership of the open Internet, then the work of leadership turned into the work of management, just making sure the processes and structures were in place to actually drive what everybody wanted to do anyway. But it was really calling that out and making that something that was visible.”

Set parameters

By redefining the challenges at hand, you can help your team turn the corner to move forward on a tough decision. However, to balance a participative decision-making culture with efficient execution, you have to have mechanisms to hold people accountable to progress. By providing your people time constraints and clear responsibilities, you can give them input and encourage dialogue without letting a participative culture turn stagnant.

“Doing anything where it involves the ‘I’ word — ‘I think’ or ‘We’re going to do this because I say so’ — that’s death,” Kovacs says. “There are organizations that benefit from that type of leadership. It’s not here. That doesn’t mean that you have to be slower than if it was just you, but you have to be much more inclusive in your leadership style. … The second thing that is negative is if we confuse communal with no need for crisp execution.

“People will follow you, but they want to know that you are going to execute crisply, effectively and things are going to get done. You are going to stay true to your word. If you say you are going to do something or the organization says it’s going to do something or starts to do something, they’ll do it. So the execution, the metrics around that, the processes around execution, getting things done is really critical. And the negative, of course, is if it’s just sort of arm-wavy and nothing gets done.”

If you want to remain competitive, you can’t afford to let your organization stall in its decision-making. Ensuring decisions are made decisively is easier if you set parameters to steer people toward the end result by keeping everyone accountable to progress.

After asking each of his senior leaders if a week would be long enough to research the different aspects of a do not track decision, Kovacs gave them the time period to investigate the issues and then report their findings to the rest of team. He also set a two-week time limit on the final decision. In two weeks, a call would need to be made one way or another. When the team regrouped before the deadline, it reached a decision in favor of the Do Not Track feature.

“Then we moved right to ‘OK, let’s talk about how we are going to execute this over the next three weeks,” Kovacs says. “‘How are we going to communicate it? How is it going to get built into the product? Who is going to own each piece?’ We put a dashboard of operations to it. That’s my approach. You give people an opportunity, but you don’t give them an infinite time to exercise their opinion. You time-bound it, you make it specific, and then you execute based on that.”

Explain your reasoning

If you were in Mozilla’s corporate office, you would see huge boards and monitors constantly rolling user feedback from mechanisms built into the Firefox product, beta channels and its external channels pushed out into the user community. Mailing lists, briefings and community meet-ups that Kovacs attends also provide ongoing consumer feedback to help the company make decision about its direction and product.

Yet while Mozilla relies heavily on input from its user community, Kovacs understands that the company is never going to please every one of Firefox’s 400 million users with a decision.

“If I make a decision or send an email or think through a strategy or even ask an opinion, I’ll get a wide range of feedback that will be everything from, ‘Hey, that’s great. I love it,’ to really in-depth how it could be better, to ‘You’re an idiot, and I’m not sure why you are leading that organization and that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,’” Kovacs says. “If you are uncomfortable with who you are and uncomfortable receiving that kind of feedback in as plain form as it comes sometimes, it’s not going to work.”

Although it’s probably impossible to have every customer back your decision every time, when you communicate why you made it clearly and assertively, you make it easier for people to meet you halfway and buy in to it long-term. That’s why once Mozilla decided internally to implement its do not track feature — being the first in the market to do so — Kovacs made sure the company reached out fully and transparently to its user community, using every one of its community touch points to explain and discuss the reasoning behind the decision.

“We posted,” Kovacs says. “We blogged. We helped them understand our rationale. We shared all of that, and we expected some to be upset with it. What came back was ‘I’m not happy that you did it, because we don’t have the full solution, but I really get why you did it and once I understood it, I think it was the right thing.’

“You can’t manage by averaging the opinion because then you please no one. In the end, there is a judgment call that needs to be made. What we have learned and what I certainly have learned and has been reinforced … is people will accept a decision. They’ll accept a judgment, but what they also expect is that you’re clear about how and why you made that decision.”

In order to inspire confidence in the long-term vision of growth, transparency is critical. Even if people don’t agree with some decisions you make, if you are clear that you have the mission and core values guiding your choices, they will be able to buy into your judgment as a leader.

“People see you make those decisions – and we’ve made lots of them in the last six months – where we’ve had to say this might result in more revenue, or might be more interesting or might move us in a better direction short-term, but it wouldn’t be good for the mission so we don’t do it,” Kovacs says. “The mail that we get back constantly is ‘Way to go. Way to stand up.’

“You have to be comfortable servicing that point of view, comfortable taking feedback, but the most important piece then is over some period of time, and not too long [saying], ‘OK, we’re going west and we’re going west for these reasons. I’m going to communicate it openly ? but we’re going west.’ Then sometimes there is sort of a hailstorm of negative feedback and you have to push through it. If you believe and you create that belief for the right reasons, then you push through it. It works.”

How to reach: Mozilla Corp., www.mozilla.com

The Kovacs File

Gary Kovacs

CEO

Mozilla Corp.

Born: Toronto, Canada

Education: completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Calgary

Who are your role models for success?

My father — due to his outstanding integrity, fairness and keen ability to clarify thoughts — and Lou Gurstner. I admire him for his steady resolve, absolute simplicity and clarity of thought in the face of tough obstacles. I also find Reid Hoffman extremely inspirational as a leader.

Who were your mentors in transitioning to the role at Mozilla?

I had some of the greatest people who have led major organizations and major missions both in the Valley and globally. I’m very pedantic about this. I sat down with them prior to coming to Mozilla. I asked their opinion. I involved them in the decision and then I put the touch on them. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to need help and perspective, and I would love to be able to come to you. I gave them a frequency — we’ll have a glass of wine or we’ll have a dinner — and I’m going to be thoughtful and mindful of your time. I think I can give something back to you. So we created a little bit of a mentorship agreement. When I faced some of the toughest challenges or decisions or issues, I relied on the mentor network to help me navigate through them.

What can California do to create a better environment for business?

We have to improve our fiscal plans and budget in order for businesses to be more effective. I think as a state we need to take steps to make major improvements to the primary education system in California. Great education is fundamental to the success of future generations.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Every morning, I get to enjoy my first cup of coffee with my family. This helps to keep me grounded and allows us to spend quality time together. Also, some sort of physical activity is essential in my day to day.