Management Skills

People Leading People: Eoghan McCabe of Intercom talks finding your authentic leadership Style

23 min read

Season 2 of People Leading People is here and for our very first episode, we sat down with Eoghan McCabe, CEO of Intercom to learn how he has found (and continues to discover) an authentic leadership style.

On finding your authentic leadership style

“There are a whole bunch of ideas in this industry about what you’re supposed to do on a range, a long list of topics, and if you wanted to be your true authentic self… you’re going to end up bumping against them. Or put another way, if you’re going to be honest with the fact that you are unique in the world amongst these 7 billion odd people, you’re not always going to fit into these status quo ideas.”

"If you're going to be honest with the fact that you are unique in the world amongst these 7 billion odd people, you're not always going to fit into these status quo ideas." – @eoghan of @intercom on finding your authentic leadership style. Click To Tweet

On 10xing your productivity

“A big part of the growth of a CEO, I think, is having the confidence to say, “I’m not going to do most things and actually, the value I do provide is less tangible than the productive work that everyone else does and I’m going to be comfortable in my position and not worry about people questioning my value and worth and place, even if it means I’m not answering every damn email and I’m in a whole bunch of meetings and checking all the boxes and finishing out all the little itty-bitty tasks.” So that’s a big big opportunity for every CEO, to continue to pull themselves and extract themselves out of the details. And like I said, I think at large, you know, if you think you’re out of the details I bet you could half the amount of things that you’re doing and be substantially happier and more successful.”

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People Leading People: Season 2, episode 1 | Eoghan McCabe of Intercom (transcript)

Jillian Gora:  People leading people is a podcast about the stuff that pops up when you lead people at work. Join Brennan McEachran, CEO of SoapBox and Jillian Gora, Customer Experience at SoapBox, as we interview the people leaders that inspire us most. 

Jillian Gora: Hey listeners, welcome back to season two of People Leading People. I’m Jill.

Brennan McEachran: I’m Brennan.

Jillian Gora: And we’re super excited to be back in your ears with a whole ton of awesome leaders to interview for the season, starting out today with Eoghan McCabe of Intercom. Eoghan is a serial entrepreneur. After starting two other companies in 2011, he and his co-founder started Intercom, a messaging app for sales marketing and support that aims to make business personal again. The company became one of Silicon Valley’s fastest growing startups going from 1 million to 30 million ARR in three years. Today, the company has well over 450 employees and has raised 241 million in funding. More than 25,000 businesses including New Relic, Sotheby’s and Shopify use Intercom to connect with a billion unique people worldwide. Welcome Eoghan.

Eoghan McCabe: How you doing? Good to be here

Jillian Gora: Good. We’re so happy to have you.

Brennan McEachran: We’ll throw ourselves on the list of companies that use Intercom.

Jillian Gora: I love intercom. I’m like, I’m a huge Intercom advocate.

Eoghan McCabe: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Brennan McEachran: So, that actually maybe leads us into reaching out. You know, I think one thing that really stuck out in a different podcast that you’re talking about which was you know, first of all, I think that you are a Kanye fan and maybe depending on if he’s on his meds or off his meds, well, we’ll see, but the other piece of it is you talked very briefly about finding your authentic leadership style.

And I think that’s something that we don’t get a chance really to go into often with a lot of people who had to discover it on the fly. So, I know you think Kanye is an authentic person. I’ll jab you on that as we go throughout but I would love to kind of hear about, kind of your path from your own words starting, you know, at the start: Your first role at a workplace, all the way to you know, what got you into this seat, now. Kind of walk us through your LinkedIn if you could.

Eoghan McCabe: So the LinkedIn narrative I could give you is probably the most sober, boring, sterile version of my story and similarly to anyone’s story. So I’ll go a little further back, you know, the context within which I started to work for myself and really enter my career was my experience as a kid and a child in school. 

I was a nerdy kid. There’s so many different types of nerds. For my part, I loved technology and electronics and I used to watch a bunch of these futuristic shows. Beyond 2000 was one of them Tomorrow’s World was another. They talked the future; flying cars, magical fantastic things, but I also loved art and I loved to draw and create different things and you know, there was a point I thought I would be an actor. I played hamlet in the school play and that worked out well, but I was bullied in school, and there is a Hollywood version or idea of bullying where the kid gets punched in the stomach and his lunch money is taken and while a punch in the stomach will be pretty damn painful, what does a lot more damage is the trauma, experience from you know, existing in an environment over a very long period of time where the kid is like, not only like underappreciated, but perhaps may think less of themselves, may feel like they’re uncool. They’re shitty. They’re, you know, not really deserving of the love that any human in the world is. And so, you know, I grew up from the age of around five or six, were around these folks until I left high school at 17.

A lot of these folks still in the picture, you know, the bullying had finished by then and you know, my story is so similar to the story of a lot of CEOs. You’d be surprised how many CEOs got bullied, where later in school and high school, you know where this nerdy stuff these these endeavors these things.

I was interested in, you know were kind of were artifacts of the way in which perhaps I stood out and wasn’t, you know, a part of the popular groups were things I could use to my advantage and you know early on. I think I was 16. I was you know, reaching out to companies to try and you know leverage this technical understanding and knowledge. 

I had, I was, you know working as a freelancer. I was programming. I was making crappy little websites for you know, B&Bs in my hometown and I was kind of using it as a lever and a vehicle to prove to these folks that you know, I was indeed worth something. I wasn’t the cool, you know, I was, you know, worthy of love and was using this as an opportunity to validate myself and so, you know, that is the context required. 

That’s the type of context required to understand why a person does what they do, you know the outside story and certainly the LinkedIn resume is more of the “what” but the “why” is the fascinating piece. And so, that had me really beat myself up and hold a very high bar for myself. 

That said, you know, you must prove to these, you know, notional bullies the names of which I’ve forgotten by now, that you are worthy.

You are unique. You are special. You are wonderful, and there’s a double edged sword, to kind of a set of characteristics you can take into the world from an experience like that. Of course, the great benefit apparently is the success it can bring for you and you know the power, and the wealth, and the popularity, and there is no human on this earth without an ego and there’s no ego that doesn’t like those things. And yet at the same time, it is a challenging system that- which has you constantly try and prove yourself and require, that adds side elements and forces validate your validity and worth. So that was the setup, and- and then the less interesting things happened after that, which was I just kept starting businesses.

I started trying to be successful in a bunch of different endeavors and we can get into those if you like to, but you know, I had my first and last job at the age of 16. It was in a local hotel. I was clearing tables and it- I think I was two or three weeks in when it ended in a fiery argument. I couldn’t stop being told what to do by the hotel manager.

I resigned with a long list of things he needed to improve the business. So that kind of gives you an understanding of the type of the type of person I was before I started starting companies.

Brennan McEachran: And then you very quickly jumped from, you know, that role to the CEO role and I think you’ve been there since. Is that, is that correct?

Eoghan McCabe: Yeah. I mean CEO is a title you should typically hold pretty lightly, I was like first the CEO of one-person company and then I was the CEO of a four-person company and now many, many, many hundreds of people are working in this company for which I’m the CEO of- so yes. I have been a CEO but you know at different scales.

Brennan McEachran: And I think you know, I think that’s kind of- what I want to get at is I found anyways what is needed of the CEO at different scales and paces changes? And I think, especially for an influential young kid, you hear or you read what should a CEO do, what should you do? And what should I be like? And what, you know, characteristics and attributes should I have? Did you ever feel as you kind of went through that trajectory that you had to prove you could do those things or were you always, and maybe you still are, but or- or were you always just trying to do it your way, trying to be you?

Eoghan McCabe: No. I mean every day, I and we, all are trying to fit into the environment around us. You know, we couldn’t actually communicate and connect if we didn’t work according to some norms.

Brennan McEachran:   Yeah.

Eoghan McCabe: Like the way we greet each other and shake hands etc. You could decide, no I’m going to greet people by, you know bouncing my elbow off their chest. But that is the definition of a crazy person in our society. And so, absolutely I’ve tried to like, you know fit in according to what the world expects of a CEO. Hence the challenge that is being and becoming your authentic self, whatever that may be, (if there is such a thing) and that’s a lifelong endeavor and it’s been a really fun Journey for me over these past years.

Jillian Gora: If you could describe what your authentic leadership self is in this moment cause it can shift depending on where you’re at, like what your company is, or kind of how many people are there, and a million different factors. But what would you say today at Intercom with the number of employees that you have, what is your authentic leadership style right now?

Eoghan McCabe: Yeah, so you know if you’re to describe anyone’s authentic style or personality or approach, it would be basically a definition of them at how would I say in their most honest form without thinking too carefully about what others will think of them. That said, as people grow and learn and develop I think that what you would describe as authentic becomes the same thing. And that’s what I personally aspire to and reach for. I think at this point (and of course part of this will be aspirational and you know if we were to really make this interesting we’d conduct a survey of the intercom employee to see to what degree do they think this is bullshit) but you know, I try and be direct to people. I try and be open and honest. I try and be vulnerable and let people know when I’m worried and scared I try to not take myself too seriously. I try to be open about my desire to do things in love and in kindness. I try to show gratitude when it is appropriate, and it’s always appropriate, but you know when people do particularly good work I want to make sure that that’s recognized. I try to apologize when I’ve made mistakes. I try to let people know I don’t have all the answers. I try to bring people into the conversations that matter to them. I try to not shy away from telling people things that they don’t want to hear and I try and promote an independent approach to thinking such that I can be more open, honest, and direct. And what I mean by that is, there are a whole bunch of ideas in this industry about what you’re supposed to do on a range- a long list of topics and if you wanted to be your true authentic self you’re going to end up bumping against them- or put another way, if you’re going to be honest with the fact that you are unique in the world amongst these 7 billion odd people, you’re not always going to fit into these status quo ideas. And in fact, the status quo ideas are often a lagging indicators of the most interesting ideas that will be successful in any industry. 

Brennan McEachran: They’re outdated.

Eoghan McCabe: That’s right. And so, so it’s a big project for me is to try and tell people that this it isn’t necessarily the way in that some of the most interesting companies in the biggest opportunities out there will come from swimming against the tide sometimes.

Jillian Gora: Mhm. You said a lot of great stuff about, you know, how you like to be vulnerable and make sure that you have moments to offer gratitude when it’s necessary and needed and deserved. That’s the kind of stuff, that to me, I think about and I’m like that would be a lot easier to do if your company had 25 people than if your company had a hundred or 300 or more than 450 like getting into the thousands.

What’re, I mean, if we can get super concrete for a second and if we have some listeners who are maybe about to hit that a hundred, hundred and fifty mark, what are some organizational habits or things that you can design into the way that your organization works day-to-day that allow for those authentic moments to happen?

Eoghan McCabe: Well, I think there’s a process here and it actually comes, it is actually about building a relationship with your staff. If you think about two individuals, you know, the best model a lot of people have for this is say like, an intimate or romantic relationship with a significant other or maybe also a family member where there is a very deep amount of trust. Such that you can say what’s on your mind and tell the truth without fear of judgment or without fear of losing their love. And so, what you need to do to be able to be open, honest, direct and vulnerable and authentic is to first lay that groundwork and be real with people and so it’s like, it’s an ongoing practice. You can’t just break it out when required.

You need to be open with people and practice integrity. There is no shortcut to it. And so, you know, whenever you’re tempted to message something and try and spin something, ask yourselves, “Is the truth so bad, and do I have the confidence to let people know what’s really going on and you know, what’s the worst that would happen if I did?” Like maybe, it’s a show of strength if I say to people, “Hey this one leader left and we’re disappointed. We’re bummed. We must have messed up.” Maybe people will say, “Oh shit, yeah. Like, it is a bummer that that leader left but you know, at least no one’s sugarcoating it and our leader feels what we feel.” 

Because the problem is when you like, tell little white lies and fibs and message things, you know, it’s rarely effective. If you go and say, “Hey, some leaders leaving” say it with a simile, and “Actually, it’s great news. We’re really really happy about it.” You know, you might even be tempted at a point to say, “Hey, we kind of were gonna let them go etcetera.” Don’t think for a second that your employees, your people on the ground in the mix, don’t at the very least suspect that there was more to the story. That you aren’t disappointed and if not, know the facts because people talk. And so like, a lot of this, a lot of the inauthentic approaches to communication and leadership and management- I don’t believe work anyway, and so being real with people very rarely costs you and wins real trust that you can depend on deeply in the future. And that type of trust is a trust that you can then later use to say, “Hey this thing happened in the business, so we made a mistake, or someone’s leaving and guess what? It’s actually not a problem. I’m actually not worried about it.” And then people will say, “Okay, you know, he’s real with us and I believe him.”

Brennan McEachran: Did that come naturally to you? And I’m kind of jumping back to where we started in the interview, you know going up in front of 600 people and being vulnerable and saying, you know, “Hey, I’m bummed. I’m upset. You know, maybe we screwed up here. You know, I don’t feel so great about it.” And kind of laying it out being, you know, yourself in front of that large group of people. Does that give you pause now? Did it give you pause at a time? Is that a lesson you learned or is that something that you just, you know, continued all the way through?

Eoghan McCabe: It’s something I learned. And if you, again think of the set up here. You know, I’ve really only ever worked for myself. I’m 34. So, still young in business and as a CEO and an executive and not only did I get into this trying to prove myself and trying to prove to others some certain thing, trying to create some image, you know. I was far from being my authentic self back then. My authentic self probably wanted to go out and play and ride a bike and climb a tree give and take.

Jillian Gora: Don’t we all?

Eoghan McCabe: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, rather than responding to, like, requests for proposals and putting invoices together. So, I started from an inauthentic place to some certain degree. And then, also you talked about expectations for what a CEO should be. Think of the model of your typical CEO and leader. They look perfect and they’re strong and they’re confident and they’re infallible and they’ve got it all figured out. And they’re grown up and wise and mature and I was none of those things. And by the way, secret is, nobody is all those things. Nobody is. And so I also came into this world not only trying to create an external image to prove myself and, you know and, gain love but also to try and play the part of CEO.

So I had to learn that- hold on a second, this is just a label and identity I’m adopting for myself. And there are so many labels we adopt in society and it’s a self-imposed set of restrictions. And maybe, not only would starting to shed some of those lighten the load of being a CEO, think of the life of trying to be somebody else at every stage, every step. You’re worried that someone might see you being the thing you want them to think you are, right? There’s a lot of energy. There’s a lot of life energy in that, you’re holding your body in a certain way, your expression on your face, the way you speak, the words you use, the things you decide to not say, the secrets you keep, the friendships. You can’t have- it’s like, painful, yes not to be you, it’s exhausting.

Brennan McEachran: As you’re saying that, I’m just smiling because I’m just remembering the conversations I’ve had with my co-founder over the years and we always end up, it’s like we’re too tired for that. We’re too old and tired to do that. Yeah. I can’t. I just don’t have the energy. And I think that’s the, that it’s funny how it’s, how exhausting it is to try to pretend.

Jillian Gora: Yes, and I mean that you have the energy but it’s not best used in that direction. There’s so many other places to put your energy.

Eoghan McCabe: That’s right. But, that is part of the gift that growth brings, where you start to see that you’re living your life in silly ways and you’re worrying about things you shouldn’t and so for sure, yes. I had to learn how to how to be more authentic and I really think and deeply hope that when I look back, say five years from now, I’ll be like, “Wow. I still wasn’t- I still wasn’t me.”

Jillian Gora: Yeah, as you grow, you’ll just learn more and more.

Eoghan McCabe: Yes.

Jillian Gora: Okay, so well, we’d love to move on to the next segment of our show, which is called, “The secret question,” my personal favorite part of the show. So what we need to do Eoghan, is to please pick a number from 1 to 3.

Eoghan McCabe: My lucky number is 7 so that’s not useful. Well, I will pick 1.

Jillian Gora: All right. Oh, I like this question. What’s the one thing you’ve done as a leader that has made you 10 times more productive?

Eoghan McCabe: I mean, this is based on the idea that I am productive. The CEOs are often the least productive.

Oh my goodness, 10 times more productive. You know, it probably ties into much of the things we’ve been discussing and not only as you, kind of grow in your role do you realize there is an authentic version of what a CEO means to you, but you also start to get comfortable with the things that you are and are not good at. And, you know, I always say to people that true confidence is an internal thing and it represents or looks like looking at yourself and wholy loving yourself, the good and the not good or the strengths and the weaknesses. And as you become more authentic and, you know, you and- you’re comfortable and confident to be you, you’re also happy to say, “Hey, I’m not good at these things. I’m not going to try and impress people. I’m not going to try and be the hero here.” You know, we hired a COO, a little over a year ago. Her name is Karen peacock, and she was an SVP at Intuit. And Intuit is, you know, one of the great- one of the really truly great technology companies. And, you know, she has over 10 years of experience there. And when she came in here, I was embarrassed to give her shitty work and I was like, “No I got- I got that Karen, you know, no worries.” 

I was embarrassed to just give her certain things. You know, I was- I was trying to, I was still trying to keep up appearances that I can handle everything. And that was just, not only disingenuous and false, but it was inefficient. And so I’ve got even more productive in this last year by being honest with the things that is just not my forte and I think. You know, especially for a founder or CEO who started doing everything- yeah, I’ll say two things: One, they take great pride in being able to do everything and they’re willing to do everything and they want to set the example for the rest of the company that they’ll happily roll up their sleeves and clean the toilet. Although, I’ve literally never doing that. I’m afraid to admit, not quite you know, well, yeah, perhaps the time has passed. But at large, I think they think that they’re better at things than they are. You know that they, at any given moment, the jobs that they’re doing that they think they need to do. 

I would fundamentally deeply question that- A, and you know, a big part of the growth of a CEO, I think, is having the confidence to say, “I’m not going to do most things and actually the value I do provide is less tangible than the productive work that everyone else does and I’m going to be comfortable in my position and not worry about people questioning my value and worth and place, even if it means I’m not answering every damn email and I’m in a whole bunch of meetings and checking all the boxes and finishing out all the little itty-bitty tasks.” So that’s a big big opportunity for every CEO, to continue to pull themselves and extract themselves out of the details. And like I said, I think at large, you know, if you think you’re out of the details I bet you could half the amount of things that you’re doing and be substantially happier and more successful. 

Jillian Gora: Totally, great.

Brennan McEachran: And maybe the company be more productive.

Eoghan McCabe: And productive. 

Brennan: At the same time.

Jillian Gora: Exactly. So, I would, I would probably gamble that that has led to 10x more productivity for you.

Eoghan McCabe: That’s probably an okay gamble. 

Jillian Gora: Good. Cool. Well, thank you so much Eoghan for taking the time to chat with us today. We really appreciate your time and your story and all of your advice was just fantastic.

Eoghan McCabe: Cool, yeah. I love chatting to you folks. Thanks for the questions.

Jillian Gora: People Leading People is produced by SoapBox, an app that helps managers and employees work better together by giving them a place to manage their one-on-ones, team meetings and company-wide discussions. Download it for free at SoapBoxHQ.com/free. Special thanks to our editor, Joel North. If you like what you heard today, do us a favor and give us five stars in the reviews. And if you’re really feeling the love, leave a comment with a secret question you’d like us to ask in an upcoming episode.

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