More than a decade ago, Steve Jobs asked Sue Decker to be the chief financial officer at Pixar. She said no.
Decker did, however, accept his offer to join Pixar's board of directors.
At the time, Decker ran finance at Yahoo. The decline of Yahoo has become the stuff of Silicon Valley legend; today the company is in the process of getting absorbed into Verizon, at a fraction of its former value. Decker, on the other hand, has done just fine in the eight years since she left the Internet company.
Case in point, she's one of the few people that some of the top U.S. companies seek for guidance. Beyond Pixar, she has also served on the boards of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, chip giant Intel, retail powerhouse Costco, and others. On her path to those board rooms, Decker has gained a rare perspective on what works – and what doesn't – when you're trying to work your way to the top.
That's why I wanted to sit down with Decker for the Fortt Knox podcast. We discuss the lessons she's learned, and why she decided to start her own company, Raftr, instead of taking the CEO seat at an established business. Subscribe or listen to the stream above to get the full picture, but here are some highlights:
You're Like A Stock. Invest.
This is especially important for young people, but it applies to everyone: It often takes a decade or more to become really good at a handful of things. During that time period, it's especially valuable to focus on understanding your strengths and finding the learning opportunities that will enhance them.
"It's not unlike an investment. You think about what your outlay is now, but your return on it may happen in five to 10 years. Most companies in the S&P might trade for 16 times earnings, it's how fast those earning grow in the out years that are going to determine really what the value of it is today," Decker says. "Think about ways to create options for yourself, to develop your skills. In your 20s and 30s is when you become really excellent at something. How much it pays for the first job is irrelevant to the long-term value you're going to create."
Focus on What You Want to Learn
Decker turned down Jobs's offer to be Pixar CFO, but took a seat on the board. Why? Because it was going to teach her things that would help in her day job running Yahoo's finances.
"Yahoo, in my mind, was the marriage of content and distribution online. And I thought if I went to a pure content company and learned how they did their business the best, and a pure distribution company in the case of Costco, I would learn a lot from both cases that would help me."
You might not be invited to sit on the board of a multi-billion-dollar corporation anytime soon. But it's a good idea to choose outside activities that give you deeper knowledge into the problems you're trying to solve.
Decker also developed a remarkable insight while spending time with Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett: Companies often work best when they reflect a founder's core strengths. Jobs had the mind of a craftsman, paying attention to artistic detail. Buffett knows how to put money to work and produce growth.
"Pixar, it took them four years to make one movie. They were absolutely legendary about, if the movie wasn't going the way they thought it should go, they would go back and rewrite. And Ratatouille had a lot of that when I was there. They weren't going to release it until it was perfect," she says. "At Berkshire I would say, the one thing they do exceptionally well that overwhelms everything else is allocate capital."
That's why she decided to start her own topic-based social media company – Raftr – rather than take a CEO job. With her background in digital content, it'll be fascinating to see what it becomes.