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Hiring an Executive Team for the Long Game at Benchling

In this episode of Uniquely Led, Jack sits down with Saji Wickramasekara, CEO & co-founder of Benchling, a biotechnology software platform. Saji shares the two most important roles of a CEO: ensuring everyone understands the company vision and building a strong senior leadership team. Learn his top tips for recruiting executives, including hiring for roles 24 months ahead of time.

Sajith Wickramasekara: You want to hire for the job that you need done 18, 24 months from now. And you may not even know what that job is, and so that’s where experience comes in because someone they’ve seen how the movie plays before and they know what’s around the corner and they can start building for that future for the company.

Jack Altman: Hi, I’m Jack Altman, the CEO here at Lattice. Thank you so much for tuning in here on Uniquely Led, where we meet with business leaders and talk to them about their unique management style. I am thrilled to be here today with Sajith, who is the CEO and co-founder of Benchling, which is software for biotechnology. And fun fact, the two COVID antibodies that were approved in the US were actually built on Benchling, it’s an incredible company. Sajith is somebody who I’ve learned a tremendous amount from over the years. He’s probably the person who I ask the most questions to about how do I build a company, how do I build leadership teams, he’s been a great mentor for me. And today we’re going to spend most of our time talking about recruiting, building, managing leadership teams. So Sajith, really excited for this. Thank you so much for being here.

Sajith Wickramasekara: It’s very kind of you. Thank you for having me.

Jack Altman: Could you start by sharing just a little bit about Benchling for those out there who maybe don’t know about it, want to hear about the company?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Sure.

Jack Altman: Walk us through that journey a little bit.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Absolutely. At Benchling, our mission is to accelerate the pace of biotechnology research. So for me, the Benchling story starts actually about 15 years ago, which is when I first got interested in biology. I’m a software engineer by background, studied computer science in school, but I got intrigued by biology at one point, which was somewhat unexpected. And I began what was many years of working in biology wet labs. And I thought maybe I’d pursue a career in medicine actually because I thought really interesting problems, high impact, smart people, and so forth.

I didn’t give up the software part of my life though. And it was actually the contrast between software and science that led to the founding of Benchling. Those worlds couldn’t have been more different. In software, I had great tools that made it easy to work with other developers no matter where they were in the world, those tools were rapidly evolving and getting more powerful full each year. And in the biology lab where I was arguably doing more complex and important work, I had paper and lab notebook and Excel spreadsheets. So software may have been eating the world, but it certainly had failed science. They’re using this alphabet soup of point solutions and generic tools, and so at Benchling we’ve built software to help power their research.

Jack Altman: Can you just give us a little sense of your particular leadership style?

Sajith Wickramasekara: We have a set of leadership principles at our company that are these simple and observable behaviors that we say are key to being successive Benchling and I can call out a few that I think are very personally important to me and I hope are reflected in how I lead. The first is around admitting mistakes and shortcomings. I think that’s a really important part of being a leader. And I find that the leaders who are secure enough to do that, and they create this kind of aura of vulnerability around them and it encourages others to be the same. And it’s all about finding the best ideas and moving the company forward, not who said what when and so forth. And so I really value that in leaders. I also value customer obsession in leaders. We’re very customer driven as an organization.

I think it’s because even though I worked in a lab many, many years ago, I’m not a user of our product anymore. And so it’s really important that we listen to customers and we’re operating in a vertical market, meaning that fewer relationships, but much deeper with customers, only 500 customers. Our goal is not to have 10,000 customers. I mean, maybe the biotechnology market will grow that much in the next two decades, but we have customers that have very meaningful relationships where they’re running their entire business on Benchling. And so it’s really important that we take care of every customer very are fully make sure they’re successful and that will lead that lead to our success. Finally, I think one of our leadership principles that I really value is to unite around the mission.

And we have a really important mission at Benchling and everything our customers do is net positive for the world, whether it’s COVID 19 antibodies, drugs for cancer, gene therapies to correct genetic defects, growing meat in labs to solve climate change, or making crops have higher yield through genetic engineering, coming up with new ways to make materials that don’t involve petrochemicals. So it’s all net positive and if we do our job, right, we’re creating a tremendous amount of leverage for the better of the world.

Jack Altman: So, I want to talk to you today about how do you build an executive team, which I think is one of the things that more about than almost to anybody. And I guess to get started, would love to just talk terms. What’s the definition of an executive in your mind?

Sajith Wickramasekara: As you know I’m a very by the textbook person when it comes to company building and someone once said something really clarifying to me about this, which is that managers are people who are going to take a plan that’s been given to them, execute with some supervision. The director’s going to be similar. They’re going to be able to execute, but with minimal supervision. Being able to kind of set and forget a director is a wonderful thing. And then executives are paid to bake the plan. So that’s the big difference. They should be participating with you, the CEO in setting the company’s strategy, and then figuring out what their function needs to do to help achieve that. And so they both set the plan and sign up for it and are held accountable for the results.

Jack Altman: So how do you decide the difference between what the CEO plans versus say a VP of marketing or a VP of engineering?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah.

Jack Altman: In terms of making plans.

Sajith Wickramasekara: That’s a good question. I think you, as CEO you  are the steward of the company strategy, and a lot of it’s going to come from you and you are going to have the most context versus the rest of your executive team, but they should definitely be meaningful influence on that company strategy. And then based on what the company needs to achieve, coming up with the right functional plan to help achieve those goals.

Jack Altman: How do you know when it’s time to recruit an executive? Say you’ve already got managers or directors in place. How do you know okay, now we need a real executive in this function?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. I have an interesting philosophy here actually, which is I think that I’m going to be worse at hiring the manager or the director and being able to come up with a plan and supervise and coach them. And so I always want to hire the executive first because I think they’re going to do a much better job of hiring the director than I will. And so I think once a company has product market fit, you as CEO, you have two jobs, one is articulate the company’s vision and make sure everyone understands it. And it’s an ongoing process. It never ends. You’re hiring new people. You’re reframing the vision. You’re repeating it constantly like a broken record. And the second job is to hire the senior leadership team. And there is no third job.

Jack Altman: Right. I’ve heard someone once described to me that if you don’t have an exec in a particular function, then you as CEO are that exec. And so really you just need to hire somebody to do that job that you’re currently doing poorly.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely the case. And when I see second time founders start companies and get to product market fit, they tend to build their executive teams in much faster than first time founders because I think they’ve experienced how much a fully built senior leadership team can pull the company forward.

Jack Altman: So once you’ve got product market fit, now you’re an executive hiring mode. You’ve decided which exec to hire.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yep.

Jack Altman: How do you go about it? Do you do it yourself? Do you use firms? What does that look like?

Sajith Wickramasekara: I think the first thing is figuring out what are the most important levers for the company? What are the levers you need to pull to achieve the company’s goals? And I think that sort of defines who your executive team is going to look like. So for us, when we were first getting to product market fit for us, that was marketing, sales, engineering, product, success. Finance and HR actually came a bit later for us. But in hindsight, I wish I prioritized those earlier as well.

Jack Altman: And you typically work with an exec recruiting firm. Right?

Sajith Wickramasekara: That’s correct. I really believe in the value of a good executive recruiting firm. I think a lot of folks will be queasy at the cost. It costs 90, 100 grand, 120 grand, even more sometimes. Sky’s the limit.

Jack Altman: Right.

Sajith Wickramasekara: But I think a good executive recruiter will get you candidates that you wouldn’t be able to talk to that you have no business talking to yourself.

Jack Altman: So you spoke about how Benchling slugged it out for years without hiring super fast. And then you caught lightning in a bottle, you got a lot of commercial traction and then things started really scaling on the team side. Can you talk a little bit about what the CEO role looks like before versus after product market fit?

Sajith Wickramasekara: So before product market fit you are doer and chief, you just need to make it happen. And that might involve at one point briefly, I was writing code before people realized that they’re better people for me than that helping out on product. I was the first sales rep. I closed probably the first 3 or 4 million of revenue. I was flying to the east coast every other week, picked up a bag and just did it. Take up the trash, even if I need to, you need to make it happen. But once you have product market fit and for us, that came from the fact that we could repeatably sell Benchling and sales reps could sell Benchling not just the founders, because the founders can always sell something with vision and passion for the problem. I think it’s really important. I really believe in founder led sales, but being able to be the leader and having two sales reps successfully selling a product that was kind of when I knew we were onto something and sort of revenue growth from that one year. The job CEO really changes after that.

And that’s not something I immediately internalized. I was still very much in the mindset of I’m going to keep closing deals, work on product, like still doing. And I learned a really important lesson from a great investor, which is that after product market fit, the job of the CEO is to, one, make sure everyone understands the vision. You’re starting to grow and scale quickly, you have new people in the building. They don’t have all the same context here. You’re constantly repeating that vision and telling the story to make sure everyone is pointed in the same direction. And then to build the senior leadership team of the company. And there is no job three and building a senior leadership team of the company, it took me some time to kind of warm up for that. These expensive, big company, people coming into our little startup. No, thanks at first and then slowly but surely I realized that was actually the difference between us and building a successful public enduring organization that really maximized the opportunity that we had in front of us.

Jack Altman: Something you just said there, which I think points to something interesting is hiring in these big, fancy, big company people. Yeah. And I think not all founders, even founders who are sort of scaling companies always go for the most experienced biggest company possible exec.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah.

Jack Altman: Many often try to bet on an up and comer. Something that you’ve always believed, I think is that you should go for someone with as much experience as your company can possibly attract.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Maybe by luck at first, but became more deliberate over time. We’ve always tried to overhire for some of these roles, these executive roles. I think companies grow so quickly, whereas humans are fairly linear. A company will grow much faster. Exponential growth is very hard for people to kind of into it. And so you want to hire for the job that you need done 18, 24 months from now. And you may not even know what that job is. And so that’s where experience comes in because someone has… They’ve seen how the movie plays before and they know what’s around the corner and they can start building for that future for the company. And I think that comes from experience. It is really tough though. You’ve got this team, you’ve built a lot of camaraderie. You’ve been through the kind of trough of sorrow together.

And all of a sudden you get to keep your job, but you’re starting to layer all your friends probably at this point like that. That’s really hard. And I struggled with it, people with it. But the way I look at it is that if you’ve caught lightning in a bottle and you’ve found product market fit, and for that, I have no, that’s just a requires intellectual honesty to decide if you have it or you don’t. It’s very easy to lie to yourself about that and if you start scaling prematurely, you will destroy your company so you shouldn’t do that. But once you have that, I think the crime is to not maximize the opportunity. You owe it to your employees, your investors, everyone around you supporting you on this journey to build the best, most successful company.

Jack Altman: How do you navigate that conversation? Because I think that’s one of the trickiest things. When the team did such a good job to get your company to the next level, they worked so hard. They helped you grow. And now you said, great, you did such a good job that we need to hire a new person to do your job.

Sajith Wickramasekara: I think that’s really tough for people emotionally. You get to keep your job as CEO, but they don’t have to give up anything really. There’s a bunch of jobs that are not being done at all though. And if you think about it, if you hire an executive and right now they’re that person’s ceiling is here and guess who’s going to be the mentor that helps them achieve their potential up here. It’s going to be an executive, not you. You’re definitely not the person who is going to mentor and coach this person and help them up level their craft.

Jack Altman: You mentioned that second time founders often hire their executive team much more quickly, which suggests that experience leads people to do this. Can you talk about why you think it is that first time founders, maybe don’t hire executives as quickly as they should?

Sajith Wickramasekara: The work that gets you to product market fit is not the work that helps you scale the company and you need a totally different set of skills in the building for that. Getting to product market fit is not something execs are going to help you add. A VP of sales is not going to save you if you don’t have a repeatable sales process. They’re going to take a working sales process, make it much better and hire great sales reps and scale the machine, but they can’t get you from zero to one. And I think a lot of times, once you’ve gotten from zero to one, you may feel like, Hey, I don’t need any of this experience. I already made it this far. I can just keep doing what I’m doing, but I think that’s a strategic mistake. And that’s why you see second time founders, once they can sniff product market fit, they just be their leadership teams as fast as possible because they know they can just get big, fast and scale very quickly.

Jack Altman: We’ve now hired the executive.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah.

Jack Altman: They’re in the seat. What’s the onboarding look like? How do you make them successful, the first couple months on the job?

Sajith Wickramasekara: My philosophy in this has definitely evolved. And earlier on, if you ask our first couple executives who joined, they’ll just say like, Hey, Sajith just threw me in the deep end and I just ask him questions and figure it out. And I definitely did that. Now I’m a little bit more structured. I’ve improved. So I typically I’m going to give them a pretty long form like written onboarding plan. And usually the onboarding plan has a couple different pieces. First here are all the things you should watch and read. It’s going to be like past all hands, past board X, things like that. I’m going to just overload them with information.

Jack Altman: Like a syllabus.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. Basically a syllabus. You need to read all these things, watch these videos. I’m going to give them one-on-ones they need to do. So like talk to these people.

I’m not really giving them agendas or anything. I’m sort of like, Hey, here are the key people you need to meet for your function. Here are cultural leaders in the company. And they need to do their listening tour. And part of them being the ones, making the plan means like they make the plan. So I’m not giving them the plan. And then I will give them a list of things to think about. I’m just like, Hey, these are the things that are on my mind. You may say these are not important priorities at all. You may say that’s the right priority. I leave that to you. Let’s talk about it. I’m going to be the final editor, but here’s just the brain dump of all the things that are on my mind that are probably relevant for you. Some strategic, some tactical doesn’t matter.

And then I’m going to check in with them very frequently when they’re onboarding. I think it’s really important early on after you’ve hired an exec to give them lots of point in time feedback, and there will be a tendency to not do this, because you’ll say like, oh, I hired this person for their expertise. They’ll do things that feel weird to you because you are inherently sort of buying this playbook from the other companies. People are just their lived experiences from the past and you need to point out the cultural differences between your company and their past companies.

Jack Altman: It can also be difficult for people because you’re hiring somebody for a role who’s dramatically more experienced than you. And so to give them feedback can feel awkward.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. And I think that’s why you can talk about how it makes you feel like, Hey, you did this thing and it makes me feel weird. And they may have a perfectly rational explanation or they may say like, Hey, that doesn’t matter at all. It’s just how we did in my last company. We’ll do it this way here and so having that open discussion very early on, it’s going to feel micromanagey, but I think it’s better to do that and establish that trust very early on. And then you can be a lot more hands off later on once it’s working.

Jack Altman: How about them hiring their own leadership teams? Obviously as an exec, they’re going to be hiring managers, directors, et cetera. What do you focus on in terms of their team?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. So once an exec gets their onboarding plan, maybe they’re going to spend their first 30 days of listening and synthesizing. I ask them to come back with a written plan. I’m flexible in format. I don’t care if it’s 90 days or a year or whatever, but come back and tell me, what are you going to do? What are the key milestones? What are the outcomes that we’re going to agree to hold you to? And what’s the team you’re going to build? I really believe that the exec hiring their senior leadership team is how they will keep up with the growth of the company. If they don’t do that, they’re going to become the bottleneck. If you ask any of my execs, they’ll probably say that I’m really annoying about them hiring their leadership teams and making sure they’re hiring senior enough. Very few people will go back and say, yeah, I built my leadership team fast enough.

And so as CEO, you should be constantly applying pressure here. It’s one of the things you should talk about in every single one-on-one once they’ve kind of figured out the rough kind of org structure that they want to build to. And it’s really important that you don’t let them hire senior leaders that you wouldn’t hire. So I think you should be a part of the interview process. You should absolutely lend them your support, help them get cold candidates activated, help sell, help close help assess also if it’s cultural fit or something that you have some expertise in. And you do want leaders who have sort of followers, people who worked for them in the past and are like, wow, that was an amazing experience. I want to do it again with that leader and that’s super valuable and all awesome, but you still need to make sure they meet what the company needs and fit your culture and so forth.

Jack Altman: How do you balance the tension when you are growing very quickly between you got to build that leadership team and you got to keep the bar super high? What do you do when those come into conflict?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. That’s why you’re an exec. This is the job that you signed up for and it is painful, but it will pay dividends to get the right team in place. And I think it’s important that I tell my executives, I own this with you. I’m not going to both sort of be punitive for you not hiring your leadership team fast enough while also not helping you and constantly raising the bar, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get in there with you. We’ll get a new recruiter if we need to, I’ll do cold emails to candidates that won’t respond to you. Do we need to change up the panel? I think it’s important that you are supportive and you own the outcome with them so it’s not like, Hey, you couldn’t hire this person in six months. You’re out. I also raised the bar the entire time. It’s not like that at all. It’s like, Hey, I’m just going to get in there and problem solve with you and this is our shared success or failure together.

Jack Altman: How do you manage the collaboration between the exec team? So you’ve got sort of growing number of people they’ve got sometimes competing interests. There’s obviously going to be conflicts. What’s your role as the CEO in terms of either helping resolve those conflicts? Or helping resolve the actual underlying business problems? Where do you step in?

Sajith Wickramasekara: So when I said earlier that besides articulating the vision, the second job is to build the senior leadership team. Build definitely doesn’t stop at hiring. You’ve got to make them work together in a really high functioning way. And that’s not something no matter how diplomatic and wonderful and awesome humans those people are, which hopefully they are, it will not just naturally happen. It takes a bunch of work. And I feel like that’s actually one of, even when you’re sort of done hiring, you’ve got the core leadership team in place. Although I don’t know if that’s ever true, because you’re always hiring their leaders and so forth. It’s a lot of active work. You need to run a good staff meeting. You need to do one-on-ones. You need to have team offsites and it all needs to be focused on making sure the team operates together.

There’s this really great book whose philosophy I subscribe to. It’s called Five Dysfunctions of a Team. You probably read it. You probably recommended it to me. It’s a one hour read. Big believer, very simple in theory, very elegant when you read it and then you realize you definitely have an oh shit moment where you’re like, okay, we have work to do. And so a lot of what I do on the team is trying to make people talk to one another enough.

A lot of my one-on-ones are coaching conversations to coach the exec, to go back to the other exec with their problem and figure out the solution together. And if they can’t agree, sure, I’ll be the tiebreaker. But most of the time, them sharing problems with me, I should not be the one fixing the problems. It’s probably with one of their peers and they need to go solve something in the business together. And then oftentimes you need to both coach them to go back to their peer, but coach the peer to hear it. Because oftentimes if they’re coming to you, their peer is not hearing them properly or there’s some conflict they need to be good at mining for that disagreement. I think it’s a really important concept we try to do it in our exec team meetings is like surface the conflict, but healthy conflict is very good.

Jack Altman: And how do you ensure that it’s healthy conflict? For example, triangling is something that I think all CEOs end up dealing with probably all managers. When somebody comes to your team with a problem, about a particular person. What do you do when you’re faced with that very common?

Sajith Wickramasekara: If one exec comes to me and is sort of complaining about something the other exec is, or isn’t doing, my first question is to be like, cool, what’d they say when you talk to them about it? 100% of the time well, I haven’t talked to them about it yet or I’m not sure how to approach and maybe it’s a very valid coaching conversation of maybe they need a sounding board to articulate what the problem is and then they can go back and talk about it. But I think it’s really important that you, as CEO are not agreeing to go do or change something. You’re saying, Hey, go talk to them. You’re the tiebreaker. But when you’re tie breaking, they should both be in the room with you.

Jack Altman: Right.

Sajith Wickramasekara: So maybe the next conversation is actually like, cool, should we pull them in and talk about it?

Jack Altman: Yeah. And I think group conversations are very powerful for that. How do you know when you’ve really hit it out of the park with an executive hire? What are the signs to you that you say gosh, I know we got this right, three months later.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. A couple things in retrospect, as I reflect on the interview process with some of the executive hires, we’ve made. The execs who were intensely curious, ended up being really great hires for us, the ones who there were interviews and meetings, where I felt like I was being interviewed. I think it’s a really good sign if you feel like you’re being grilled and interviewed about the business. Other times now I get nervous if I feel like an exec, isn’t asking enough questions, isn’t doing enough diligence because I’ve always had the mindset of these are candidates that we don’t deserve to be talking to.

They have great jobs at great companies, they have very comfortable lifestyles. Why would they throw that all away and come work at this small little startup that’s not proven? Obviously we’re much bigger now, but I think kind of embracing that mentality and remembering that when you’re trying to both sell and assess these people is really important. And so occasionally I’ll have these meetings where I’ll come out of kind of the meeting and I’ll be like, wow, my company sucks. What’s wrong with it? They poked all these holes in the business and that’s a really good feeling and you hire them and you’re almost afraid to disappoint them. You’re like the company’s almost is growing into them still and that’s when I know I’ve got the right hire because I’m like, wow, this person is just pulling us forward.

Jack Altman: I love that. I love that. That’s something about a co-founder too where you’re like, gosh, I need to make this company great because they put all this time and effort into it.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah.

Jack Altman: When you have that same commitment to an exec that’s very powerful.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Absolutely. And you’re relieved they are in your corner and not in someone else’s.

Jack Altman: So we spent a lot of time now talking about executives. I want to spend a little time here at the end, talking about what you said was the only other job of the CEO, which is setting the mission, strategy, vision. How do you do that? You are nine years into it. What does that look like today? Are you still repeating the same thing? Have you updated your models of how you’re doing this? What does that part of your job look like?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. The story’s definitely gotten more expansive as the company’s progressed. We’ve certainly increased the scope of our ambitions. Benchling started off as this personal itch that I wanted to scratch and now is this opportunity to change the way that scientists work all around the world. Those are two very, very different things in some senses. And when you’re scaling in hypergrowth, I think you need to repeat the mission more now than ever.

I actually just got done with an all hands right before I came to meet you. And every all hands is an opportunity to kind of repeat to a new demographic because the company’s growing and changing every day. And maybe the old timers that have been there four years are like, I’m tired of hearing Sajith say the same thing over and over and you should refresh it and evolve it as the company evolves. I’m sure I change our sort of story about the mission and vision every year and I rehash it every quarter and make a little twists and turns as the company evolves. But half the company, if you’re growing very quickly, half the company hasn’t been here for a full year. And so they’ve heard it two times, three times, maybe they joined two weeks ago and they need it repeated in until they’re tired of hearing it.

Jack Altman: Also one of the other things I’ve realized over time is you have to repeat it in every different possible form in media and emails and group conversations.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Absolutely.

Jack Altman: Any other tips that you have for communicating these things or making sure that everyone’s on the same page and knows what’s going on? Yeah.

Sajith Wickramasekara: I think it’s really important as CEO that you don’t outsource that in the early days, we just hired our first comms person at 500 people before that I was kind of painstakingly making every all hands. Maybe, maybe not all of that was… Some of that might have been an unforced error on my part to not get more leverage. But I found that being really thoughtful about that message, writing it down, repeating it, being the one to get up there and present it is really important and doing that at all different levels of the company. So honestly writing it down is really important. And we run a very open company so we have board meetings and we take the board deck share it immediately with the company and we get up there and we talk about how each theme of feedback we got on the board meeting connects to helping us achieve our mission as an example. And so just constantly finding new ways to make those connections.

Jack Altman: You told me that when you’re pulled into particular work, many times that’s a signal to you that something’s not scaling. Maybe you need a different executive, but there are a couple things that are individual work that a CEO should do. You just mentioned comms as one of them.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah.

Jack Altman: Are there any other things that you still hold dear besides recruiting executives? Whether that’s doing certain things with custom customers telling a certain story. What’s that short list?

Sajith Wickramasekara: Yeah. I think it’s important enough for you as CEO to go get some ground truth, what’s happening. Not that you’re not their execs are lying here or something like that, but they’re processing a lot of information and they’re filtering it and giving it to you and some signals going to be lost. I think it’s very important for me to get in front of customers every once in a while. Now I’m not the sales rep trying to close the deal. I may come at the end to meet and greet the exec or meet the exec after the deal is closed and establish a relationship. There are certain things that you can do if you step into your role as CEO and assume it, which I think is actually really hard to do at first because you feel a little arrogant.

You’re like, well, I’m not CEO of this company. I’m whatever. If this were a 20 person company, CEO is also the janitor. That was really hard for me to get over at first, some of the imposter syndrome associated with it, but if not using it is a disservice to the company. And so if people want to customers want to meet with me, because I’m the CEO, great let’s do it. And so I try to get little bits of ground truth here and there, but I’m not sort of functionally responsible for closing the deal or implementing the product or whatever it is.

So that’s important. Some founders will intensely and jealously guard the roadmap and their product visionaries. I’m really lucky that I have a co-founder who does that exceptionally well and so I don’t really have to sort of do there other than be a sounding board for him and talking about the company strategy, so he can help work with our product leader, engineering leader to align what Benchling is doing with that company strategy. And then on the comm side, the narrative for the company and the story and being the face of the company, that’s your job. And so you need to do that hopefully with support from your comms team and marketing team.

Jack Altman: So I have to ask because we’re Lattice. Can you talk specifically about the chief people officer role and what you’re looking for and what you’ve believe is most important in that function?

Sajith Wickramasekara: The people leader has to both using five dysfunctions of a team terminology, they both have to be part of the executive leadership team, but they also have to step off in some cases and help you as CEO and partner with you to build the team. It’s almost like the HR-BP for the exec team. And that’s a really a challenging job to be in because you both have to be a part of the executive team, be a peer to all the other executives, establish trust and rapport with those folks, because they’re going to come to you and view you as a partner, but you also have to step off and talk to the CEO about the team dynamics and then hold up the mirror sometimes and be the truth teller and say like, well, this is how you showed up in that meeting.

Or here’s, what’s happening between these two people. How do we problem solve and unpack that? And it’s a very fine line to walk because you don’t want people on the executive team to think like, well, that’s the CEO’s person and I can’t trust them. But you also need to be able to help troubleshoot those problems and make the team really high functioning. And so it’s an incredibly, incredibly challenging job in my opinion, that takes a lot of self-awareness and EQ and skill to do well. And so to me, I think that’s the number one job of a people leader.

Jack Altman: All right. Well, Sajith, this has been a total pleasure. I learned a ton, even though I’ve asked you all these questions a million times, but I still got new stuff out of this. So thank you so much for doing this.

Sajith Wickramasekara: Awesome. Thank you for having me.

Listen to the Podcast
Uniquely Led with Jack Altman

Sajith Wickramasekara

Sajith Wickramasekara is the CEO and co-founder of Benchling, pioneer of the cloud-based R&D software powering the biotechnology industry. Since co-founding the company in 2012, Sajith has guided Benchling through remarkable growth. Today, more than 200,000 scientists at over 600 companies and 7,000 research institutions globally have adopted Benchling's R&D Cloud to make breakthrough discoveries and bring the next generation of medicines, food, and materials to market faster than ever before.