The best idea wins: Jim Whitehurst on the Red Hat meritocracy

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There’s a Southern expression that goes, "Says easy, does hard." In this case, it’s easy to say that your company is focused on collaboration and ideas. But many executives conflate the terms "collaboration" and "consensus." Seeking consensus and creating a democracy of ideas is not what we at Red Hat would call collaboration. In fact, it’s a misstep. Rather, managers at Red Hat make it a practice to seek out ideas from those who’ve shown that they typically have the best ideas—those who have risen to the top of our meritocracy.

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To get to the top, though, it’s not enough to merely have an idea; you’ll also need to defend it against all comers. That means there may be disagreements. Voices will be raised. Building your reputation, therefore, can take time, patience, and a thick skin.

This environment can seem harsh at first. But keep this in mind: Open source software developers say, "In the end, nothing matters but the code. The code wins." And the kernel of that thought has helped shape collaboration at Red Hat, even when we’re addressing business questions unrelated to software per se. Working this way means that nothing matters but the idea. The idea wins.

Just as it’s neither possible nor advisable to listen to every person’s input on every issue, we don’t want to get to a place where we hold hands and agree on everything. At Red Hat, we want to foster effective collaboration and create an environment focused on ideas. Over time, the people who consistently have good ideas will be listened to.

Of course, no one’s immune in the Red Hat meritocracy. Being the CEO doesn’t protect me from being called out sometimes. I, too, have to be ready to defend my ideas. And you know what? I encourage it. I celebrate it. That’s how you can ensure the best idea wins in the end.

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.

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