Leadership Lessons From My Best Boss: The Importance of Humility and Love
by Dan Burton, CEO of Health Catalyst.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
In the summer of 1999, as a young father with two kids in diapers, I participated in a graduate-school internship at Hewlett Packard, in my wife Sarah’s hometown of Boise, Idaho. It was a golden time for me, both personally and professionally. During the seven-month internship our family lived in a small apartment right next to HP’s beautiful campus, and at lunchtime I would often meet Sarah with our two-year-old daughter Samantha and our six-month-old son John at the playground next to the duck pond on campus.
In the first few weeks of this internship I met an extraordinary leader who, based on outward appearances, looked pretty ordinary. He drove an old, beat-up pickup truck and lived in a modest home two minutes from HP. His office was a cubicle and he had just stepped away from a management position with significant responsibility to pursue an idea he had for a new business inside of HP — with no team and no budget.
The leader I met was Paul Horstmeier, and the more I got to know him, the more I felt that I could learn from him. Since then, I have had the good fortune of spending thousands of hours with Paul, working across a spectrum of business settings, from multi-billion-dollar global enterprises to a struggling three-person tutoring center, and lots in between. Included in this experience is our work together for the past six years at Health Catalyst — work that began when Health Catalyst was a three-person startup, and that continues today with over 500 team members supporting 400 hospitals, 4,000 clinics and 90 million patients.
I consider Paul to be the best boss I’ve ever had, someone who has taught me more about business leadership and success than anyone else in my career. My current boss, Fraser Bullock (the Chairman of Health Catalyst), is a close second, but that is a topic for another day.
At the heart of the lessons I’ve learned from Paul are two foundational attributes, which at first may seem out of place in an article about business leadership and success. These attributes are at the core of Paul’s personal character, and they manifest themselves naturally and pervasively, in many settings. They are the attributes of humility and love. Let me share a few reasons why — based on what I’ve learned from Paul — I believe that these two attributes are foundational to long-term success in business leadership.
Humility Fosters Listening, Unselfishness and Learning
Humble leaders are careful listeners. A few weeks ago, during a meeting of our Leadership Team at Health Catalyst, we spent over an hour discussing a difficult issue, struggling to find a solution. Paul said nothing during this discussion, but listened intently to each of the comments made. Then he pulled up a diagram he had been working on as he was listening to the discussion. It reflected a deep, profound understanding of the problem, and then a simple, elegant and beautiful solution. As he talked through the diagram with us, it was clear that he had captured the solution to this problem. This is just one example of Paul’s consistent practice of careful, concentrated listening. This active listening sends a clear signal to others that he values and respects them, and wants to understand their point of view. It also enables him to be an especially effective thought-partner in solving problems.
Humble leaders don’t care who gets the credit. In the example above where Paul had diagramed an elegant solution to a problem that fell outside his direct area of responsibility, he was thrilled for the leaders responsible for those areas to take that diagram and begin utilizing it, refining it and then communicating it to the broader organization. Paul has often been a thought-partner to me in an area that was outside his direct responsibility, but was happy to help me brainstorm solutions, without ever seeking recognition or credit for those solutions. This is one of the reasons why I believe that Paul is so often sought out for advice, and is in such a position of influence at Health Catalyst.
Humble leaders are also great learners. Many years ago, as I was considering various career paths to pursue after graduate school, including the option of going back to HP to work with Paul, I received advice from multiple sources. None of my classmates were considering either HP as a company or Boise, Idaho as a destination post-graduation. Many were headed to tech startups, with big titles, or to top-tier consulting firms or investment banks, with big paychecks in big cities. Paul shared with me some advice that ultimately persuaded me to come back and work for him. The advice he shared was actually given to him shortly after he joined HP two decades earlier, by a senior leader at HP. He told Paul “your career will last a very long time. You don’t need to be in a hurry. Give yourself permission to spend enough time as the learner so that when you’re asked to be the teacher, you’ll be ready.” Paul followed this advice, learning how to master various functional roles including financial, marketing, and operational roles all before he became a manager and a leader at HP. I spent nearly eight years working for Paul in the same group at the same company. Many of my graduate-school classmates were on their fourth or fifth job change during the time that Paul and I worked together at HP. But when I consider all that I learned by helping Paul build an organization from nothing to a group of several hundred team members spread throughout the world, influencing billions of dollars of HP revenue, I can see that this was an education that I would not trade for any of those other paths. And Paul has never stopped learning — he is constantly reading, studying, progressing and growing as a lifelong student. His humility enables him to embrace new ideas with excitement and without defensiveness.
Love Leads to Trust & Commitment
Leaders motivated out of love can be trusted. When our deepest motivation springs from love, from a genuine care and concern for our teammates, our clients, and our investors, they can feel this love, they feel our sincerity, and they sense that they can trust us. I believe Paul’s love for those with whom he works is one of the primary reasons he is such an incredible boss and so beloved by his teammates. I have seen Paul manage teams in many different settings, and in each case, he devoted time, consistently, one on one, to those on his team. He listened to them, paid attention to their needs, thoughtfully served them, and sought to provide an environment within which they could thrive and do their best work.
These stakeholders often reciprocate that love with a deep, long-term commitment. Paul’s influence has left an indelible mark at Health Catalyst, and we strive as leaders to love and care for each team member, consistently and conscientiously. We have certainly experienced this reciprocity from team members as they have contributed so significantly and so consistently to the mission of the company, highly engaged in their work and focused on contributing their best efforts. We have also experienced similar reciprocity in our interactions with customers and with investors.
A few days ago we completed our most recent quarterly Board Meeting at Health Catalyst. This was my twenty-third such board meeting since the Health Catalyst board was formed in 2011. Paul has been there with me at each of these board meetings, as have many members of our leadership team. In the evening after the board meetings, as I was walking out of our offices, Paul happened to be leaving at the same time, so we walked out together. A dear friend and colleague of ours, Dale Sanders, one who has also been there for every board meeting, saw us walking and talking and laughing together and commented on what a golden moment that was. He was exactly right. The older I get the more I try to savor and appreciate these golden moments, times of sweet association where I recognize how privileged I am to work alongside such exemplary colleagues.
A lot has changed since I met Paul 18 years ago — his kids are all grown, he’s a grandpa now, my two-year-old daughter Samantha is now a Junior at BYU, and my six-month old son John is now taller than I am and headed to Brazil in two months to serve an LDS mission. One thing that has remained the same is the daily, positive influence of Paul’s sterling example of humility and love.