One of America’s best-known entrepreneurs, Michael Dell, founded his eponymous company out of a University of Texas dorm room. More than three decades later, he’s led the computer technology business through multiple transformations, including taking it public, then private again, before undergoing an acquisition that would change everything, again.
Dell is also the author of Play Nice But Win, a new book detailing three eras of his company’s life–and the leadership principles he’s leaned on along the way. One he says that’s underappreciated is curiosity, which, he tells Inc.’s What I Know podcast, encompasses a lot more than you might think. He says:
It’s certainly been super valuable to me… being open to ambiguity and remaining curious and always having big ears and listening, and trying to understand how the world’s changing and where things are going, and really what the unsolved problems are. Companies exist–if they’re successful–to solve the unsolved future problems that customers have. And if they’re successful doing that, they’ll grow and they’ll thrive.
But, Dell adds, when ambiguity exists, to truly embrace it requires a certain risk tolerance. “The leader has to show the way, even if he or she doesn’t know what it is. That’s one of the paradoxes of leadership,” he says.
It’s especially true in fast-changing industries. Dell said two decisions he agonized over the most were taking his company private in 2013, and taking on $50 billion in debt to undergo the acquisition of VMWare and EMC in 2016. He explained what he’s learned about the way leaders should think about risk along the way:
When people hear the word risk they think, “Ooh, that’s bad.” Like “risk reduction,” or “risk management.” Companies have entire risk divisions where they’re trying to make risks go away. And I understand all that. Having appropriate controls is important. But I actually think of risk differently, in the sense that it’s a good thing. If you’re not taking any risk, you’re doing it wrong. What might seem like a risk to one person might not seem like much of a risk to me. Dropping out of college didn’t feel like a big risk to me. I could go right back to college if it didn’t work out. Taking on $50 billion in debt to buy EMC and VMware: Yeah, it was a risk, but given the cash flows of the company, and given the opportunity that we saw, it felt like an incredible opportunity.