Episode 13

How to Manage Through Influence

With Kevin Johnson, CEO of Udemy

By Ashu Garg


Kevin Johnson led two companies in very different stages of growth. Here’s how he did it and what he looks for in new hires.

I. Episode Recap

As the CEO of Ebates, Kevin Johnson transformed the ecommerce shopping rewards business from a dotcom bust survivor into a $1 billion acquisition in just six years. Kevin is now the CEO of Udemy, a global marketplace for online learning and teaching. He spoke to me about his experience at both companies, his approach to hiring for leadership roles, and the importance of managing through influence.

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A Diamond in the Rough

Kevin joined Ebates in 2008. The company had 40 employees, a small but dedicated customer base, $15 million revenue, and had survived the dotcom bust. Kevin thought the company had potential and was a “diamond in the rough.”

  • Ebates was “small and tired” when Kevin arrived. He had to get its employees moving again.

  • Company size meant Kevin knew what was going on and could lead from the top down.

  • He also had to resist VCs who wanted him to change the company’s model into something like Groupon. Kevin resisted because those models were new and virtually untested.

In 2014, Ebates was purchased by Ratuken for $1 billion.

A Culture of Empowerment

Coming into Udemy was different; it was much bigger and its employees were “empowered” and excited.

  • Leadership through influence: the company was too big to lead from the top down and employees already momentum. So Kevin had to guide them into the culture he wanted to create.

  • Living and demonstrating company values is more important than just giving them lip service.

  • There is often an inverse correlation between how much a company preaches its values and how often it follows through on them.

Transitioning as the Company Grows

Not everyone can or even wants to manage a larger company.

  • You have to want to learn and improve constantly.

  • And you have to be able to manage through others; you can’t know or direct every single thing once a company is a big enough.

  • Pick your battles with your direct reports; let them make mistakes sometimes that they can learn from rather than telling everyone what the right thing to do is.

  • Manage through influence.

Who to Hire

Kevin has three tips for what to look for in a new hire:

  • Surefire way of hiring the best is if it’s someone you know and trust.

  • Look for a leader who has followers; someone who people have followed to different companies.

  • Do the reference checks yourself, and focus on finding out what you want from someone in this specific role.

When to Fire

Don’t be too slow to fire someone. You’ll never wish you waited longer to get rid of someone who isn’t the right fit.

Published on 08.08.2019
Written by Ashu Garg

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