Eoghan McCabe on the importance of authenticity in leadership

Our Chairman and Co-founder, Eoghan McCabe, sat down for a chat with Harry Stebbings on the Twenty Minute VC podcast to discuss his startup journey and the lessons he learned while building Intercom.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Eoghan explored the complex nature of ambition, the role of self-doubt in creating our drive to succeed, and the crucial role of authenticity in leadership.

Listen to the episode below, or if you’re short on time, here are some of Eoghan’s key insights.

What was the motivation to build Intercom?

Eoghan and his co-founders saw an opportunity to help online businesses connect easily and effectively with their customers. How did that journey begin?

“A story like so many others, young boy has big dreams, chip on his shoulder, sets out to prove himself. I don’t know if there’s a lot more to it than that. I was always passionate about building and creating and was so excited about the promise of the internet for creativity and connection and commerce. And with Intercom, I saw an opportunity to help online businesses just more easily and effectively connect to their customers and have a lot more fun doing it too. So, that was what Intercom was all about originally, and still is today. Our mission was to make internet business personal, and we made this little messenger and then bots let these online companies and their customers really get to know each other and get their work done.”

Acknowledging the role of self-doubt

Like so many entrepreneurs, the drive to succeed comes from the tension between self-doubt and self-belief – but ultimately, the things we strive to attain may not offer a resolution to self-doubt.

“You kind of have to go that journey, you kind of have to prove yourself wrong before you can do the harder work”

“What do we mean by chip on your shoulder? It means you think there’s something lacking in you. It’s a lack of self love. It’s a sense that you’re not good enough and that you need to possess or achieve something to be lovable or popular or safe or whatever it is. Often, a product of our nurture and conditioning and the environment we grew up in and the experiences we had. One thing we do to medicate that is we try and attain these external things – I don’t know is it money or status or achieve something to prove yourself. The trite and clichéd lesson is that we find out that that’s not what we needed at all, that everything we needed was within us. But you kind of have to go that journey, you kind of have to prove yourself wrong before you can do the harder work.”

The limits of our self-identities

The pursuit of success and status can often mean we limit ourselves to the identity we think will bring us most happiness. But having the courage to break beyond that self-imposed identity brings great rewards.

“These identities that we build for ourselves, this armor, these images, they’re our place of comfort and safety and we latch onto them. They’re everything to us. We’ve worked so hard because we believe that they are the thing we need, that they are us. We believe it so strongly that we will answer questions by saying things like, ‘Oh, I’m a founder. I’m a tech guy. I am a VC.’ And you’re not. You’re so much more than that … And that’s a big risk and a big danger, just getting stuck onto and associated with these images that then become limiting. Imagine what else you could do with your life … When I thought I was a CEO, I was trapped by that. Even though I knew I had so many more things I wanted to do with my life, and ways I want to invest my energy and different missions and adventures. I had known that for years, it was a long process to be able to shed that outer protective layer and look that fragile ego in the face and say, ‘You’ve been a great CEO, but you’re more than just a CEO.’ So it’s scary, but it’s so rewarding.”

What distinguishes good leadership from bad?

Our industry focuses a lot on the qualities of good leadership, but good leadership involves more than just satisfying employees – it involves an authentic commitment to your values and purpose.

“I think that real leadership equates to a deep connection with your purpose and your values and any deviation from that makes for a bad leader and poor leadership. I understand leaders today, they’re in a precarious position. When your very talented employees can work anywhere, the temptation to say what they want you to say and give them what they want is very real, but it’s not sustainable. It’s not enduring.”

How to manage your stakeholders

If successfully leading a large group of employees requires an unwavering commitment to values and purpose, that is even more true in terms of your relationship with stakeholders. And yet, it can be even harder to achieve.

“You will be most respected when you speak the truth to your stakeholders, whoever they are, even when the truth is somewhat difficult”

“My co-founder Des [Traynor] used to say, ‘Discretion is the greater part of valor.’ That was a long time ago in a different context, and I think more broadly that refers to choosing your battles. Just because you disagree with a certain topic or you have an opinion does not mean that you need to weight in on it and let the world know. Doing that does not mean you’re being inauthentic to you, it just means you’re setting your priorities straight. But therein lies the real challenge for those who are value-driven and who have strong ideals. Deciding when to speak and when to not speak is very different from kissing the ring. And I would say that you will be most respected when you speak the truth to your stakeholders, whoever they are, even when the truth is somewhat difficult. It’s the only way to build real trust and respect and they’ll appreciate you so much more for it. ”

Why you should question everything

The advice we receive will often come from a place of experience and wisdom, but progress happens from challenging received wisdom, so it pays to question a lot of assumptions.

“I don’t believe that there are any rules in work and life. I have always taken a healthy approach to any endeavor where I try and question all the assumptions. Part of that is my own nature in that there’s a part of me that wants to be a troublemaker and a contrarian. That may be the part that has a chip on his shoulder, but regardless, any endeavor I face into, I ask, ‘How can we do things differently here?’ When I was raising our seed round in 2011, and all the way into 2013, actually, when I was raising our Series A, I was told you cannot build a hundred million dollar software business selling to SMB. Can’t do it. You can’t reach these people. They won’t pay enough. They won’t retain … And it just turned out to not be true. We built a hundred million dollar business with SMB. I’m just a big advocate for just questioning everything, and that obviously is a big strategic one, but there’s little facets, little things around the edges – how you employ people and work together. All of it, question everything. For me, I find it just so much more fun. Rip up the rules. Surprise people. The degree to which you can inspire and ignite imagination and make people so proud to be part of a company that is different is quite shocking, quite shocking.”

Process can enable creativity on a big scale

Growing companies often hit a wall where they need to adopt processes to ensure they can continue to function, but that process can feel stifling to creativity. It doesn’t need to be that way, however.

“The art is to weave the creativity and innovation in with the process”

“I do get pretty tired of the minutiae of process. That’s not my forte. That said, it can be super fun to be creative on a big scale when you have hundreds of engineers and teams of brilliant designers and marketers at your disposal, ripping up the rules with that weight behind you, it can be thrilling. The art, again, is to weave the creativity and innovation in with the process. And for me, what that looked like was partnering with our COO Karen [Peacock], who we made CEO this year, and Karen was able to help deliver a substantial amount of process around our creativity.”

The scale of our vision constrains the limits of our ambition

The journey to achieving great things requires having a vision – and it pays to dream big, to set your vision on the broadest horizon, as that will often determine the scale of your success.

“Vision is just how you think about the future. We give it a grander name, like a vision, because in our industry, we’re all about achieving big, great, audacious, bold, and no less than world-changing things. But vision comes in all shapes and sizes. I think what you’re really getting at is that our potential for accomplishment is massively determined by the scale of our thinking, and that was a big lesson for me. I’m pretty sure that all other things being equal, if I was able to go back in time and start Intercom again, by this stage, it probably would be 10X the size, only because I now know that I can think bigger, and that simply doing so gives you just so many more benefits. If you take bigger bites out of the apple as you go along, you don’t limit yourself, you don’t hold back in the face of fear, you tell a larger story to bring in more talented people and point them in a bigger direction.”