At Kleiner Perkins sexism trial, it’s all about ‘thought leadership’

March 23, 2015, 5:49 PM UTC
Venture capitalist John Doerr, middle, poses for a portrait with partners John Denniston, left, and Ellen Pao outside of their office in Menlo Park, Calif., April 4, 2006. Doerr is betting on an emerging sector known as clean technology with plans to devote $100 million to green technologies that help provide cleaner energy, transportation, air and water. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez — AP

If there’s one thing aspiring venture capitalists can learn from the ongoing sexism trial against investment firm Kleiner Perkins, it’s that they must be thought leaders to succeed.

At least that’s how it seems after four weeks of testimony in San Francisco Superior Court during which witnesses have cited “thought leadership” more than anything else. They opined about its importance in attracting the brightest entrepreneurs to the firm. They detailed how it factors into promotions. One investor went so far as to describe his colleagues as “thought partners.”

It’s an odd preoccupation in a trial that is ostensibly about whether Ellen Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins partner, faced a discrimination and then retaliation after ending a brief affair with a colleague. Kleiner denies the accusations and says Pao, who is now interim CEO of online forum Reddit, just wasn’t good at her job, in part because she failed to be a “thought leader.”

Closing arguments in the case are expected to start as soon as Tuesday.

But what makes for a good thought leader is fuzzy. Every partner at the firm who testified had a different and usually vague definition.

In general, thought leadership is tech industry jargon for people who are well-known experts in a subject. The role usually involves a lot of self-promotion through tweeting, blogging and speaking at Silicon Valley’s endless stream of conferences, where the digerati go to schmooze and glean insight from thought leaders, of course.

Whatever the case, partner after partner have told the jury that it takes thought leadership to be a successful investor. Because Pao lacked it, she was unqualified for her job and therefore deserved her firing in 2012.

Mary Meeker, a senior partner at Kleiner, talked about thought leaders on the stand when discussing how partners find great start-ups to invest in. It takes more than mere talk, she explained.

“Thought leadership is backed up by substance,” Meeker said. “You don’t just know how to get the car down the road, you know how the engine works.”

Meeker, who is a semi-celebrity in tech circles and, by all accounts, a genuine thought leader, publishes a well-read annual report about Internet trends. She also occasionally appears on the conference circuit to give rapid-fire run-downs about what she thinks will be the next big thing.

Senior partner Wen Hsieh used his own flavor of ambiguity when he, too, was asked to define the ambiguous term. He said it was a deep understanding of an industry and that it helps with predicting trends.

“Usually you have to know something about something,” he said.

Matt Murphy, another senior partner at Kleiner Perkins, repeatedly wrote in Pao’s performance reviews that she’d have to start demonstrating thought leadership to impress the firm’s management and keep her job. Kleiner eventually put on her on notice and gave her 60 days to show improvement, including gaining some serious thought leadership.

But despite emphasizing the importance of thought leadership during his testimony, Murphy had trouble detailing what he exactly meant. The closest he came to a concrete example was to say it involved writing reports and making presentations to the firm’s partners.

Either confused or intrigued, the jury wanted to know more about this notion of thought leadership. A member of the six-man, six-woman panel submitted a written question to the judge, who read it out loud in court to Murphy.

“How long does it take to become a thought leader?” the juror wrote. “Can it be learned? Can it be taught? Is it possible not to become one after many years?”

Murphy did little to answer the riddle, responding cryptically that “being a thought leader is more about the initiative than anything.” It was unclear whether the juror was satisfied with the answer.

The “thought leader” term has become such a mantra in the trial that the gallery – made up mostly of journalists – breaks in suppressed giggles every time it’s mentioned. To be fair, the trial features a torrent of venture capital buzzwords like “board buddy,” “adding value,” and “junior implementer.”

Whatever the case, one is thing is certain: Thought leadership is one of the pillars of venture capital. If you’re a venture capitalist with thought leadership, whatever it is, you’ve got job security. If not, then you better get it.

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