Bongos, Not Bikinis: GoDaddy CEO Beats Drums of Change

By Gloria Feldt

When you speak with GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, it’s easy to conjure the teenage percussionist he once was, asserting his high energy drive with his drumsticks and quite possibly driving his mother crazy by beating bongos while doing the split in the kitchen like Jean-Claude Van Damme, in this classically weird GoDaddy ad.

I had a chance to interview the leader of the world’s largest, and most controversial, domain name registrar, not long after his first anniversary there.

This New York Times piece on GoDaddy’s changed advertising strategy had initially drawn my attention to Irving, who describes himself accurately as gregarious and easy-going. I was curious to find out about his leadership philosophy, and how he had quickly moved the company to a laser focus on the mission of serving small businesses, their core customer base, while deftly changing its public image with women.

Like many women, I’ve in the past been offended by GoDaddy’s sexist brand presence. Remember those Superbowl ads depicting "hot women" in scanty clothes, their come-hither messages aimed to entice adolescent boys – and men who think like adolescent boys – to use the company’s products? Eye rollers became deal breakers as they increasingly objectified women’s bodies, with ample breasts and bikinis splayed over the company website.

Then suddenly, there was the switch from boobs to those funky bongos. What had happened?

The timely confluence of economics, personal lived experience, and women’s activism, I believe, propelled Irving’s successful change of course.

CHANGING THE CORE CULTURE

I found Irving, who keeps a drum set in his office, straightforward about how he had approached the company. He’s big on doing the hard work of understanding the company and the culture before making decisions about where to take it, then being decisive and consistent about his vision. He likens the discipline of leadership to jazz, saying that in both, one must simultaneously perfect performance while improvising.

One of the first things he observed is that women, lo and behold, had become GoDaddy’s core customer. "We conducted extensive customer research and found that 58 percent of our customers are women. Half of the businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, and globally, women are the primary business owners," said Irving. "The values inside the company didn’t square with the ads that were in the marketplace."

Careful not to disparage GoDaddy’s founder, Irving opines that Bob Parsons knew garnering attention could gain market share. But, he acknowledges in today’s economy, a successful company has to be inclusive of women, both inside the company and in its public face: "We value everybody. We allow women customers to pursue their own ventures. We do not want to objectify them."

Irving believes a successful company’s employee base has to match its customer base. GoDaddy leadership overall is 30 percent women, and they’ve just appointed Silicon Valley insider Betsy Rafael (about whom I will write in my next post) to their board. Though she’ll be their first female board member, one gets the feeling she won’t be the only one for long.

I’ve even noticed more female (and female friendly) voices lately when I call GoDaddy for customer support.

So the marketplace has pushed GoDaddy, as it has many companies, to better serve women customers and better treat female employees. But other factors are also at play.

THE PERSONAL IS STILL POLITICAL

Often it’s soft hearts for their daughters that influence men to want women to get a fair shake. But Irving, who has sons and no daughters, says his views were shaped by his mom, wife, and sisters – feminists all. And he was moved by the untimely death of his youngest sister, a leading researcher on the effects of women’s body image. He promised her he would do everything he can to get women into leadership in the tech industry. He’s making good on that promise.

At the root of social change is always the personal story, the most powerful driver in all realms. So for Blake Irving, commitment to advancing women comes from this deep well of lived experience.

But for changes in any field to occur and to stick, pressure for that change also has to come from outside.

WOMEN ARE CHANGING GODADDY

It’s said that the job of advocates is to make it impossible for decision makers not to do the right thing.

Women customers had begun beating the bongos of change at a volume impossible to ignore. Many were quietly voting with their mouse clicks over to other hosts. My female journalist friends launched a campaign to move their own website hosting to other services.

When I posted on my Facebook page about GoDaddy’s sponsorship of the Close the Gap App, a young woman entrepreneur quickly let me know her university still won’t use Go Daddy’s services because of its founder’s highly publicized ultimate macho elephant killing escapades in 2011. There’s even a hashtag: #breakupwithgodaddy.

And if anyone thinks it’s hard to affect large systemic change like Take The Lead’s goal of reaching leadership gender parity by 2025, look at GoDaddy. Women, as purchasers of 85 percent of consumer products, are now very much in possession of all the power we need to achieve – whatever we want.

Whenever I tell audiences that it’s time to change the narrative about women in leadership from problems to solutions, they cheer. There is a readiness as never before, and clearly there are male champions like Blake Irving who will – and do – use their power to drive that change forward.

Reposted from content partner Take the Lead.
 
Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead, is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She teaches "Women, Power, and Leadership" at Arizona State University and was named to Vanity Fair's Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers.
 
Photo: Fortune Live Media via Creative Commons/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)