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Leading Through Inclusion

May 12, 2009
Steven Fan, CEO of HelloMovies

Steven Fan, CEO of HelloMovies

A while back, I met Steven Fan, CEO and co-founder of the startup HelloMovies (, site that helps you to figure out what to watch, and where to find it.

During our conversation, I was particularly struck by Steven’s personal likeability, openness, and willingness to invite people – even relative strangers like me – into his life.

Steven is a generous, highly intelligent, hardworking Stanford grad and ex-VC associate who’s as friendly and open with car mechanics as with the ambitious and climbing hedge fund crowd. “As long as they’re genuine people,” and “Everyone deserves to be treated nicely,” he says, and really means both.

Steven exemplifies a key trait of entrepreneurs who make a successful transition to leadership (not everyone does), inclusiveness.

Is it surprising that these ‘fuzzy’ character traits have the power to launch a successful leader?

I read lots of entrepreneur and business content that focuses on business tactics, revenue models, and force of personality.

It’s true that there are people who bulldoze their way through projects and conquer followers through force of personality. This is the style so highly leveraged by leaders like Steve Jobs, or Max Levchin – or so I’ve heard.

But, few can rule by fear, and so the bulldozer method probably isn’t going to work for most of us.

Instead, consider this component of the ‘fuzzy,’ high-Emotional-Quotient approach that Steven Fan has mastered: inclusiveness.


Several of Steven’s engineers are computer science students at Stanford who don’t own cars. To get to their office that’s in a suburb located a few miles up the highway, Steven personally chauffeurs his developers to work. The engineers are impressed with Steven’s commitment to enabling their work-school balance, and are all the more dedicated to HelloMovies as a result.

As a plus, the shared commute builds the team’s sense of camaraderie and heightens each individual’s feeling of inclusion — all of which have had a positive impact on morale and productivity for the HelloMovies crew.

Steven recalls another moment where inclusion was critical to teambuilding:

To celebrate some milestone we completed for our website, we decided to go bowling. Unfortunately, one of my team members had forgotten his ID and couldn’t get in to the bowling alley because it served drinks. I was not going to leave him outside.

I noticed that people who got in were each given wristbands. I also noticed a back entrance where the bouncer was young, didn’t seem to care much about his job, and had a higher probability of being persuaded. So, a group of us went in first. I took the wristband from one of my friends who got in and went back out to give it to my one ID-less engineer, and we went together to the back entrance. I convinced the backdoor bouncer that my engineer and I were both trying to get back in to the bowling alley after already having our IDs checked the normal way at the front entrance (as evidenced by both of our wristbands, mine pristine and my engineer’s a little recycled-looking). Before the bouncer could really check us, I rushed both of us in and pretended not to hear any other comments from the bouncer.

My team got to enjoy our bowling celebration all together, and we had a great time.

The HelloMovies crew at play with Photoshop.

The HelloMovies crew at play with Photoshop.

Being inclusive and open to new people and relationships makes people, in turn, open to you. This helps in life as much as it helps in business. As the two weave more and more closely together, it’s especially critical to building a network that will support you when you’re launching a new product, pitching a potential funder, or even when you just want to throw yourself a birthday party.

Most of us probably think we’re pretty good at including people in our activities and in our lives. Are we really? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I value the opinion of each member of my team or group? Do I take steps to enable that opinion to surface?
  • Is it important to me that the members of my team or group get along and feel happy to be part of the group?
  • Do I feel included in my own team or group, like an ‘insider’ rather than an ‘outsider?’
  • Am I concerned with others’ sense of belonging to the team or group? Have I thought through steps to better include people in my team or group?

These fuzzy, ‘touchy-feely’ concepts might seem like social basics, but a shocking number of workplace leaders DO NOT GET IT.

How many people have worked in a company where an entire sub-group of employees was systematically excluded from ‘company’ bonding activities that hinged on the way the leaders liked to party, or on the kinds of jokes the leaders liked to tell? This makes the people who are excluded from the In-Club feel crappy, of course, but it’s also a major business oversight that leads to really poor productivity and even worse morale.

Do you want your employees to bail water with you when the boat gets a few holes in its hull? Or how about when the boat’s still being built, as in Steven Fan’s case? Treat them like they are part of your team, your family even. They’ll stay late to finish the project you’ve designed AND do so with humor and satisfaction.

Inclusion counts in these areas:

  • Activities. Pick activities that most everyone WANTS to do. If someone can’t, but WANTS to participate, then enable their participation, like Steven did for his engineer who’d left his ID card at home.
  • Hours. Should your team members conform to your company’s hours or just get different jobs if it doesn’t suit them? If there’s a forced fit, your team’s talent and morale will most definitely suffer.
  • Conversation. If you’re a leader of a team who NEVER talks to the other people on your team, you’re excluding the others and yourself, or creating two (or more) closed circles. This is really bad move because a human leader – one who will drive you to your house when it’s too late to take the Caltrain and you don’t have a car, or one who will help you sneak in to a team party when you’ve left your ID – is a leader that people will trust and follow. Conversation is immensely humanizing.

Becoming more inclusive and more welcoming isn’t a formulaic process. You can, however, ask yourself lots of questions about your own behavior and its associated social perception.

That kind of self-awareness will win you loyalty from the people you rely on most – your team, your company, your friends, your network.

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