CEO Interview Series: Steve Huffman on the Role of Therapy and Coaching in Leadership

By October 9, 2018 Interview, Leadership
CEO Interviews: Steve Huffman

Steve Huffman, CEO, Reddit, on Centre Stage during day two of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit in 2005, a project that would unfold into one of the most highly visited websites in the world.  Steve and Alexis were in their early twenties at the time, having only recently graduated from the University of Virginia where they were college roommates.  

In order to meet the personal challenges that came with hyper-growth, both have relied on coaching and therapy to manage the emotions and relationship dynamics that accompany this type of work environment. Steve Huffman talks about his own personal journey as a leader and how therapy and coaching have helped him.

Cameron: So you were 22 years old years old in 2006 when you sold Reddit to Conde Nast. The amount is undisclosed but it was in the millions of dollars.  What made you decide to leave?

Steve: I felt like I wasn’t growing as a person. I was stagnant. I still didn’t have a vision for Reddit, of how much bigger it could be. Reddit continued to grow, but since it was all new to me,  I just thought that was standard on the internet. You build something and it just grows. It felt like we were swimming upstream and I was a little frustrated. I didn’t know how to navigate a big company. Hiring was a huge pain. Firing was a pain, at least that’s what it felt like to me. It was just time to make a change.

Cameron: You left Reddit and started Hipmunk with Adam Goldstein.  You guys built a travel website together and assembled a great team, but you left rather abruptly to come back to Reddit in 2015.  Will you describe that experience?

Steve: Leaving Hipmunk was really difficult. Reddit’s board was trying to recruit me back, and on one level I really wanted to come back. I was like, “Hey, this is my dream job, and I think I could be good at it, and I think I can help.” On the other hand I was thinking, “I’m at Hipmunk, and I’ve made promises to these people, to Adam, my co-founder, and to a lot of the people that I personally recruited, that we were going to see this through together.  It wasn’t until Reddit was really in its darkest days and the company’s survival was legitimately threatened that I decided to come back. It was very difficult to tell Hipmunk I was leaving. People wanted what was best for me, but I think that made it even harder. Needless to say, that was a really stressful time because I faced disappointing people I really cared about. Coming back to Reddit wasn’t any easier. I didn’t know anybody and I was the third CEO in six months. They were getting crushed and their morale was low. I think the reason people didn’t quit is because they loved Reddit, not the business, but the idea of it, the platform. So they were willing to fight it out. They certainly didn’t welcome me. Most were very skeptical. The community was on fire. The internal business was on fire. The press was just crushing us. That was a difficult time, for sure.

Cameron: A lot of the time there’s a rosy picture of what it’s like to run a startup.  But I think that example shows some of the dark side of what it can be like to be a leader….the obsession, disappointing people,  lack of sleep, the anxiety…it can get really unhealthy.

Steve: That is definitely part of being a founder.  I’m careful to make any of this sound too extreme.  Trust me, these are good problems to have. So many people on this planet have much more serious problems.  But that being said, startups are no cake walk. And there’s times in every founder’s life that make them feel like they’re going crazy.  My return to Reddit was one of those difficult times for me, but there have been many. Every founder knows that feeling. Failure is always lurking around the corner and it takes a tremendous amount of focus and grit to stay with it day after day.  

Cameron: You’ve mentioned that therapy has been an important part of your journey as a founder…going from a shy kid in high school to a high profile CEO as an adult has come with some challenges.

Steve: First of all, mental health has been in the news a lot lately and for good reason. It really is about time we shed the stigma around therapy because it is so important and such a healthy thing to do. Therapy helped me manage my emotions and has helped me maintain perspective. Something like shyness is  insecurity and is totally natural. I’m not sure what that was for me specifically, I was a shy and awkward, like many teenagers. For that shy kid from school to all of the sudden become a CEO took some maturing. Therapy and coaching has been an important means of my development. Of course it is never over but I really embraced the process. Overcoming shyness has always been a real thing for me, particularly with Reddit.

Cameron: Since you’ve been a recipient of both therapy and coaching, what do you see as the difference?

Steve: While there are similarities, the focus is different.  Therapy focuses more on personal relationships and family.  Coaching can get into some of that stuff too, but the focus is more on workplace relationships and is more goal oriented.  At different times of my life, I have relied on both…it just depends on what I’m going through at the time.

Cameron: What have you gotten out of coaching specifically?  

Steve: I think it has been helpful to have a private space where I can just be myself with someone I trust.  There is so much that happens on a daily basis, good and bad, and it’s really helpful to have a place to talk it through without worrying about being judged.  I often use coaching to help me think through problems and role play things in advance.

Cameron: When did you realize that you and Alexis were on to something that would be a  hit?

Steve: I think It was in one of those startup schools, so probably spring of 2006, where they were introducing the speakers. Paul Graham said, “Reddit” and some of the people in the audience clapped, and I thought that was kind of cool, like, “Hey, we have people here who know about Reddit.”Then there was Mister Splashy Pants in 2007 that generated a lot of traffic for Greenpeace when users voted to name a whale they were tracking in the South Pacific.  And then Barack Obama, was on Reddit for an AMA in 2012…those were all cool moments. It was like, “holy crap!” this is really touching people’s lives. Every day it’s bigger than I thought it would ever be, but I still don’t have a good sense of how big Reddit is or what it means to people because I’m so immersed in it.

Cameron: As a coach,  I think it is important to celebrate “wins” from time to time…and that is something startup founders often fail to do because they’re always focused on the next goal post.  

Steve: Yeah, I mean I take credit for writing a lot of the code,  code that’s not very good, haha! But Reddit was built by our users. We built something that was technically good enough to enable Reddit to exist in a time at which I think the world was ready for Reddit to exist. People wanted a place to go that was real and authentic.  But yes, I’m still uncomfortable taking credit for Reddit. I’ll take credit for helping Reddit, and sharpening Reddit, and making some decisions good and bad at critical times for sure, but our users built Reddit.

Cameron: Steve, you wrote the code. You did so much of the heavy lifting.

Steve: I still think we have so far to go. We have not yet lived up to our potential. When we do I’ll be really, really proud, but if we don’t that’s my fault. I think Reddit has a destiny greater than where we are right now, but we have to do a lot of work to get there. I won’t pat myself on the back.  Reddit is a community effort. I hope that we as a company, with the greater Reddit community, can one day look back at what we created and say “I think we’re fulfilling the promise of the internet,” which is connecting people around the world where everybody’s equal, and everybody can share, and you can be whoever you want to be. Reddit allows humans to do what humans do best, which is to create and collaborate, and to support one another. I think people are fundamentally a collaborative and supportive species. Reddit just enables people to do what they’re designed to do. We didn’t create that. That’s people.

Cameron: What would you say to other founders who are unsure about executive coaching?

Steve: I know a lot of founders who use coaching these days, successful ones too.  It seems to have really taken off in recent years. That said, there is no “one size fits all” here.  People need to figure out what works for them. I do think that running a successful startup means that founders need to mature really fast, take responsibility  for their mistakes, and learn from them…and when they don’t…well there’s plenty of examples of that in the media. So I think coaching, and therapy too, are good ways to help people be more honest with themselves.  While I think that coaching is seen overall as very positive, therapy should be seen that way too. One problem for therapy, is that insurers don’t like to pay for it. I was fortunate enough to be able to pay out of pocket but there are many people who can’t afford that.  As a society we should embrace it, and insurers should too…like going to the dentist or going to doctor. If we can do that, there might be a little less suffering in the world.

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