Mitchell Baker -Chairperson & Former CEO, Mozilla Corporation & Creator of Mozilla Firefox
The leader behind the one of the world’s most popular Web browsers says her professional success secret is not always being so rational.
By Taylor Mallory
A popular name on “Most Powerful” people lists and a top exec with decades of experience, Mitchell Baker has given and received plenty of advice. But what insight has served her best as chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation and chairperson and former CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, creator of Mozilla Firefox, the world’s second most popular Web browser?
“Beware of the power of rationalization,” she tells PINK. “Humans are amazingly flexible and, in the right setting, can convince each other of many things and have lots of reasons why they’re true and why things should happen the way they always have.” But to be successful, especially in a rapidly changing business climate, “you must go back periodically and question the very fundamental assumptions of everything you do – to know if there’s a better way.”
Here she talks to PINK about motivation, not having any role models and being brutally honest with herself:
PINK: What are your success secrets?
Mitchell Baker: First, a level of pretty brutal honesty with myself about what I’m good at and what I’m not, and selecting careers and specific jobs that reflect those areas where I excel. I started in software as a lawyer doing both corporate law and licensing in software. Those are pretty different areas. People would have said I was good at both, but I knew I was better at software and building and distribution of products than finances and boardrooms. And knowing my skills has helped me make some tough decisions. For instance, my undergraduate degree is in Chinese studies, and I’ve always wanted to live and work there. I had several opportunities, but they were all sales related. I had to say, “What I’m really good at it is this business.” So I made job choices that didn’t take me to China. And that’s been the right choice. I’m mentally engaged and at my peak capacity, and it’s only because I made a few hard choices.
PINK: You recently relinquished your CEO role but remained chairwoman. How has that transition gone?
M.B.: I made the best decision for Mozilla and for me. We have a great CEO now, and he and I together are much stronger for Mozilla than I alone ever would be. We have very different leadership styles, and he’s been able to lead in one set of areas and me in others. I get a lot more range of motion this way.
PINK: How do you motivate yourself?
M.B.: It helps to be doing something you want to be doing and where you think the results matter. And then you have to be accountable to others and yourself. There are some areas in which you put me on my own in a room and I’ll happily be productive. But a lot of what we do is hard, and there are times when I want to avoid things because I’m not sure exactly what to do. It helps if you have great people working with you who are also relying on you, who are working really hard but can’t get to the best result if you’re not fully engaged. And I try to give myself permission to do something fun that’s still work related, now and then. So I’ll go build a persona – which lets you decorate and customize the top and bottom of your browser with images. A lot of people like simple browsers, but all that gray depresses me. So I take photos of the small quilts I make, especially ones I’ve given away and can’t see anymore, and make my background. That’s fun. I go in and see what our developers have done that’s new, how they’ve changed it, if it’s easy to do and if my friends can do it. It’s a fun element closely tied to our business that gives me a break from my to-do list.
PINK: How do you manage your Life/Work balance?
M.B.: I’m married with an 11-year-old son. It helps to decide family time is as important as work. And that means being honest about whether you really feel that way. Personally, I have noted I have a strong sense of self, and I value that. If it doesn’t get some expression, my creativity goes down the drain. I have internalized at some very deep level that I am important and that certain things have to happen for me to be remotely effective at work. Some of that is time with my family, and some of it is with myself. I make art quilts, a genre that requires drawing and sewing. Often my son is around while I’m working on it, but I’m doing my thing. I often completely lose my sense of time. When I get in that space, that’s when creativity happens. Sure, somewhere, something about work is going on in my brain, but if I’m really engrossed, I’m not really thinking about it, and that’s often necessary to get a good solution – to be able to turn it off for a while.
PINK: What is your goal for the future of the Mozilla Foundation?
M.B.: I want us to be the voice for an Internet with certain key characteristics. They boil down to being able to maintain control over my online life. I’m not a number or a pocketbook or a wallet – something that gets manipulated to spend money and then gets tracked and followed. As a nonprofit, we don’t have to sell ads, and we can have individuals all over the world helping us create this thing we call a browser, which has an astonishing impact on your experience, your safety, how much control you have and how much innovation occurs. With personas, it can even look and feel like you. The first version of Firefox for certain cell phones comes out soon.
PINK: Who inspires you?
M.B.: I don’t really have any role models. I said this during a speech recently, and some people were very disturbed by that. But I think it’s because I never had a clear idea or plan for my career. In terms of approach to life and values, I learned from my dad. But whenever people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I only remember utter confusion at the question. My career path doesn’t match anyone else’s. The things that tie it together are abstract. I would never have said I’ll be the CEO of a major software company. I’ve always followed the most interesting path where I have some unusual or particular skills. And that changes over time as I learn more about myself and what I’m good at. I’ve never been able to point to someone and say, “That’s what I want to do.”
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