“Authenticity comes from quiet confidence and a level of trust: in yourself and each other. Authenticity creates stronger bonds and a connection that is satisfying. It is why I love to do what I do.” – Jay Fulcher
I am grateful and thrilled to have had the pleasure to sit down for a wonderful Intimate Chat with Jay Fulcher, Chair and CEO of Zenefits. Jay leads a “unicorn” tech company that, under his guidance over the last 22 months, is resurging from mismanaged hyper-growth. He exchanged frankly with me about his journey in the dual leadership roles of Chair and CEO, inspiring with clarity, focus and his understanding of the importance of doing what is right to serve all stakeholders. This unicorn is projecting and executing with positive power!
Jay’s tenure “has been a transformative time for the company.” Jay intently listened to my questions– the kind of intent listening that is unquestionably one of his hallmarks as a leader. He listens consciously to his employees, his customers, his partners and the market. Jay is passionate about the leadership of his organization and the impact that Zenefits’ software is making as a technology disruptor SaaS platform across HR, Payroll and Benefits. The company is positioned to hugely benefit SMBs (Small and Medium Businesses), which in his opinion is a segment that has been under-served for decades.
He has remarkable energy and drive, and Jay Fulcher won’t allow for shortcuts of any kind. To him, authenticity is essential. He says: “Our team recognizes there’s not a ‘growth hack’ for everything. It’s not healthy to have a shortcut mindset. We have a sacred responsibility to our customers not just to win, but to win the right way. We embrace the ‘grind’: the detailed work to get it right.”
Jay believes in being transparent with all stakeholders, clearly communicating how his company plans and executes under a distinct vision. It is especially important to him to be transparent to his employees about why and how decisions are made. Along with his employees, Jay “operates with integrity” and successfully “innovates for the greater good.” He views himself as a collaborator and a team builder, and he is willing to be vulnerable.
He doesn’t need to be convinced or educated about any aspects of social responsibility, as it is top of mind for him to permeate Zenefits’ culture with it. With regard to diversity and inclusion, he states: “We are putting our thumb on the scale for equality. From the vantage point as a father, a business person, an avid sportsman: diversity and inclusion isn’t just the right thing, it drives performance opportunity for individuals, teams and companies. We do this by how we hire, how we are radically transparent in our conversations about topics that extend in- and outside the business and how we develop products to support more fair and competitive business.”
Some background for this chat:
I was in the tech industry for 25 years, and I am a fervent follower of trends and emerging technologies. Having been focused on leadership dynamics and effectiveness at the highest level of organizations, specifically boards, I have blogged about the governance of the “unicorns,” fast growing start-ups with valuations of $1B and more. One unicorn that I closely watched was Zenefits, known back in 2015 for its online software to automate health insurance and payroll. Unfortunately by 2016, Zenefits was in the hot seat and had become plagued by a poor reputation due to an unhealthy culture and poor oversight.
I was contacted on a number of occasions by the San Francisco Chronicle’s business columnist to share my views about the unparalleled fall of a company that could have made an incredible positive impact. On February 16, 2016, I was quoted in the article “Zenefits struggles show VCs are not paying enough attention,” and 10 days later I was again quoted in the Chronicle in “Weak boards hurt unicorns.”
As I gathered my thoughts for the latter, I realized I had a blog, and three days later I published “Board Governance: Taming the Unicorn.” In it I wrote that “New leadership thinking is needed to instill solid and consistent governance practices for these ‘start-ups on steroids,’” and said to my audience: “Will taming these unicorns help maximize their long-term success and the impact that they can and should have on our business and economic environments, while still fueling the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation? I believe so.”
On February 9, 2017, CNBC reported that while Zenefits had “turned heads for its rapid ascent to elite ‘unicorn’ status, gaining a $4.5 billion valuation,” its newly appointed CEO, Jay Fulcher, announced that it was laying off 430 employees. Jay was quoted saying, “I strongly believe these difficult decisions are essential in setting Zenefits up for success.”
I continued to follow the company, as it was clearly “tamed” and revitalized, and in just over 18 months Zenefits has now transformed under Jay’s leadership. Jay and I met few months ago and it was a natural sequel to invite him as an honored guest of BonneFire, as his voice is in harmony with the BonneFire Community.