Building LeapFrog’s Company Culture through Leadership Practices

By | April 23, 2011

I was fresh out of college just after the internet bubble popped and looking for a job to get my foot into the door of a Bay Area company when I heard that a former classmate of mine was working for a startup that makes toys. “That sounds like fun,” I though, and gave him a call.

Thirteen grilling interviews later I accepted a position as a Producer for LeapFrog, a quickly growing educational electronic toy company based in Emeryville.

Looking back, interviewing with thirteen people over the course of five company visits only seems appropriate. After all, LeapFrog’s design process was based on each product surviving intense scrutiny. We may have been building toys, but it was serious business. The rigorous product development process resulted in LeapFrog winning top industry awards year after year, including my three consecutive wins for “Best Educational Toy of the Year” from the Toy Industry Association. Much of the scrutiny came directly from LeapFrog’s founder and CEO, Mike Wood.

Mike Wood, Founder of LeapFrog

Mike Wood created a passionate driven culture where employees go above and beyond to ensure they are building the best products possible to deliver on the mission. The intensity was palatable, and the quest for quality was uniting.

I knew that before I presented to Mike I better be aimed with feedback from dozens of parents and kids, else I increased the risk my hard work would be thrown out in a 30 minute review session. Although the company was growing quickly (within a few years of my joining we hit 700 employees), Mike’s involvement never slowed, and I found myself sweating on at least a monthly basis as I sat across a desk from him pointing out features on prototypes.

Mike stated in an interview: “I am a really hard taskmaster. It’s not good enough for our products to be good. They have to be spectacular. Because at the end of the day, if a kid won’t play with it, we haven’t succeeded.”

I worked long hours and long weeks to deliver on his expectations. Why? Because Mike made us believe in what we were building.

Leapfrog's First Product: Phonics Desk

The intensity Mike projected in a small room softened when he presented at all company meetings. Yet his softness conveyed even more passion and a greater sense of authenticity. Mike would often begin the meetings by reminding us why we were all there with the telling of his own leadership story. He would describe how his son had struggled to read, and how he searched for a product to help him learn the sounds each letter makes. When he couldn’t find anything to help his son, he decided to build LeapFrog’s first product: the Phonics Desk.

As Mike told the story of his son’s struggles, and the importance of helping kids learn, he would occasionally pause and look down, collecting himself after being carried away by his emotions. It was authenticity at its best.

Mike also told stories collected from customers to convey the importance of the mission. One that stands out nearly 10 years later is a letter Mike read from a mother of a disabled child who had been told her son would never read. After using the LeapFrog products for several months, he began reading.

As Mike read the letter and neared the end where the mother thanked us for giving her hope, Mike began crying, and many of the employees (myself included!) cried with him. There was no doubt we were working hard for something very important. We were not just building toys. We were changing children’s lives.

By revealing his softer side, Mike won us over. We knew he was the real thing: someone who was going to make decisions for the company not based on selfishness or riches, but based on wanting to make outstanding products to help kids learn. It made his yelling (and occasional throwing) during product reviews more palatable.

Mike Wood’s Leadership Best Practices:

1) Intensity

Mike’s intensity and passion spilled over to the LeapFrog culture at large. No detail was too small for him to care about; therefore every aspect of the business was taken seriously by employees.

2) Authenticity

Mike’s hard driving leadership style was made more palatable when he revealed his softer side. We were drawn in by his sincerity and passion.

3) Storytelling

Mike used his own leadership story to convey the company mission, and stories he collected to make employees proud of their contributions.

4) Clear Mission

Mike united and energized employees by clearly explaining the mission, and emphasizing product quality.

Unfortunately many of the leadership characteristics that led Mike to be a successful entrepreneur were the same ones that likely contributed to his replacement as CEO following LeapFrog’s IPO. As is the case with many founders, Mike’s intensity, clarity of vision, and passion were essential for motivating employees and building great products to get the company off the ground. But in a growth stage, a passionate founder can weigh a company down.

Initially Mike transitioned into a visionary product role where I was still working closely with him. At the time he stated in an interview: “I could have retired, but I love doing this.” Today he has a new startup with a very familiar mission: helping kids learn to read.

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Laurie Peterson (a.k.a sfgirl) is an award winning product manager for interactive consumer products and websites. She graduated from Haas School of Business in May of 2011. 

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