Kara Swisher: Be the Boss
The executive editor of Recode discusses failure, diversity, and the value of being honest.
Kara Swisher’s advice to Stanford Business students: Speak up, tell the truth, be the boss. | David Fitzgerald/Web Summit via Sportsfile
One of Silicon Valley’s toughest critics, Kara Swisher has earned a reputation for hard-line interviews and major scoops. She’s called out Silicon Valley for bad behavior by pressing social media CEOs on data privacy issues and exposed big tech’s poor diversity numbers.
Swisher, executive editor and co-founder of the tech-focused website Recode, also hosts a Recode podcast and co-produces the Code Conference, which draws the tech world’s top tier each year. Her reporting path led from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal to the Journal’s tech blog AllThingsD. She launched Recode in 2014 with business partner Walt Mossberg. The company was bought by Vox in 2015 but both Swisher and Mossberg retain high-level roles.
This spring, Swisher spoke to Stanford Graduate School of Business students at the annual Women in Management banquet. The student-led club supports women at Stanford GSB and aims to build an inclusive, supportive group of business leaders. Swisher discussed failure, diversity, and the importance of being the boss.
Don’t Celebrate Failure
Failure may be a hallmark of entrepreneurship, Swisher says, but too many people in Silicon Valley treat it like it’s some form of achievement. The only way to treat failure: as a valuable lesson to learn from.
Solve the Diversity Issue
Swisher promotes diversity in two ways. First, on Recode, she holds tech executives accountable by reporting on the diversity failings of their boards and leadership.
Second, as executive editor, she takes responsibility for the diversity of her own staffing and the speakers invited to her conferences. “I think about it, I worry about it,” she says. “I look for creative ways to put people on stage, and we hold companies to task for not doing that.”
Swisher sees plenty of women who are qualified to serve on boards. Companies need to be more creative and aggressive in identifying them and getting them to serve. “It’s not a priority for (companies) as far as I can tell,” she says. “It’s priority 15, 16, 17, but not at the top.”
Be the Boss
The best role is the top spot, Swisher says. She’s been able to affect change, whether demanding more women speak at her conferences or deciding to cover the Kleiner Perkins/Ellen Pao trial in depth despite pushback from others. “You have to create companies, you have to be the boss,” she says. “Being the boss of whatever you do is the best thing.”
Don’t want to be the boss, or can’t? Work in an environment where your bosses and colleagues don’t bully you or push you down, or where you can’t speak your mind freely. If you end up in that kind of environment, find a way out because it will not improve, she says.
Tell the Truth
Swisher has a reputation for blunt honesty — as one audience member commented, “If feedback is a gift, you’re the Santa Claus of Silicon Valley.”
She advises women to learn this skill. Women have been trained to get along, to be “the good girl.”
“You have to break out from that,” Swisher says. People won’t melt from honesty.
“Not to point out the very obvious does you a disservice and the people you’re talking to a disservice,” she says. “If you’re always figuring the repercussions of everything you’re doing, you get nothing done.”
Successful people don’t think that way, she adds. “The more reticent, the more safe you are, the less risk taking you are, the less successful you are.”
On Her Own Fearlessness
Swisher isn’t afraid to speak up or challenge sources, an attitude she cultivated growing up gay in the ’80s and ’90s. It was terrible being gay in that time, she says. “If you’re Jewish or black, your parents understand. When you’re gay, your parents are often attacking you. It got me to the point where I don’t care if you like me.”
Women Need To Ask for More
Swisher noticed a theme from managing people: Men had no problem asking for more, while women invariably asked for much, much less. She remembers an employee review with a writer she described as “just terrible.”
“I was going through all the things I didn’t like about him, telling him where he needed to improve, and it was a long list. And at the end, he goes, ‘OK, thanks for the feedback. And I think I deserve a raise.’ ”
Conversely, when she had to let go another employee, the woman didn’t negotiate her severance and left money on the table. “I’m not sure why,” Swisher says. “It’s just anecdotal, but it’s been my experience that men ask for 10 times more and women ask for much less.”
Best Advice Received
Swisher says Mossberg has been a mentor to her over the years, starting when they first worked together at the Wall Street Journal. She admitted to him that she felt nervous in the new reporting role.
His advice: “You’ve got to parachute into your beat like you have cleats on. You just have to do it and then see where you land.” Swisher says, “It was an important piece of advice at the time, and I still follow it.”
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