“You lead by serving others,” says Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO Ray Zinn

“You lead by serving others,” says Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO Ray Zinn

Ray Zinn, 82 and now retired, lives on a 500 acres ranch near Helena, Montana, where his pastimes of riding horses with his wife and riding his all-terrain vehicle suggest his appreciation of nature. So, it may surprise onlookers unfamiliar with Zinn’s background to learn of the impact he has had in the tech industry.

Zinn is the longest serving chief executive officer in Silicon Valley. He served as the CEO and co-founder of Micrel Semiconductors for 37 years. He holds more than 20 patents for semiconductor design. He also founded ZinnStarter, which provides college students aspiring to become successful start-up founders with mentorship and financial assistance.

We were excited to talk with Zinn to learn more about him, his thoughts on leadership and how he has been such an effective go-getter.

Integrity is important

More than successful, Zinn is also kind. He grew up on a cattle ranch in El Centro, California, where he was the eldest of 11 children. He also was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps his upbringing has something to do with his former company’s mission to be altruistic.

Zinn’s book “Tough Things First” details knowledge accrued throughout his career; he elaborates on how he believes much of his success had to do with Micrel placing employees’ happiness as a key priority.

“A good leader must become a servant first. That means that you lead by serving others," Zinn told us. “Your employees love it when you are serving as you lead.”

Servant leaders are game-changers because they strive to achieve authority, as opposed to power. They aim to have a service-first mindset where there is a prioritized focus on what’s best for staff members.

Zinn argues in “Tough Things First” that the happiness of employees is critical to a business’ success. How he defines himself suggests that his leadership methods are not informed by merely what will be most lucrative. He cares about people, too.

Do the tough things first

The oldest of 11 children, Zinn had a lot of responsibilities from a very young age. Not only helping his mother to raise his younger siblings, he also got his first job at the young age of 12.

Reflecting on his early life, Zinn said “having to juggle school, work and helping my mother meant I had to learn to do the tough things first. Having this skill set already ingrained in me [and] helped me discipline myself when I started my company in 1978.”

The significance of this is apparent when Zinn explains that discipline is at the heart of success in “Tough Things First.” His practical advice to entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs is to stay focused, value moving fast and innovating fast, to not be content with falling short of your personal best and practice running a frugal business.

He believes it is also important to prioritize the completion of unliked tasks. “Learning to love the things you hate is part of becoming disciplined. Discipline is defined as doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well. That is loving the things you hate,” Zinn said.

Don’t be afraid of an unconventional path

Zinn’s success story is not a traditional one. He chose an unusual funding method for the semiconductor industry; he convinced the bank to provide him with a loan so he did not have to use venture capital. He also became legally blind during Micrel’s initial public offering period.

However, despite following a unique path and coping with an unusual personal challenge, Zinn enjoyed much business success. Micrel was profitable for 36 of its 37 years and was eventually sold to Microchip in 2015 for US$839 million.

According to Zinn, three words that describe his journey as an entrepreneur are “discipline, persistence and vigilance."

We were excited to learn more about Zinn and what has shaped him as an individual and business leader.

How did you feel when you first realised you could go into entrepreneurship full time?

I felt excited but also nervous.

Describe your mind in three words.

Organized, creative, innovative

What are three words you would use to describe your character/you as a person?

Integrity, honesty and caring.

What’s something, personal or professional, you’re currently working on achieving?

I love teaching entrepreneurship at the university level. I have a program called ZinnStarter, which helps selected students fund their projects while they are still in school.

What are three habits any young entrepreneur should avoid at all costs?

1) Starting a company without having sufficient funds to take them to profitability

2) Not having a plan to pivot if the market changes

3) Drinking your own “kool-aid,” i.e. not recognizing the pitfalls before you start. You must have [an] equal number [of] positives [as] you do negatives.

What is one critical moment in your life that has shaped you and where you are today?

When my boss told me that I don’t fit in and I should start my own company.

Screen Time or no Screen Time?

Depends on why you are viewing. To use screen time to disconnect is to lose precious time. Be mindful of how you spend your time.

If the 20-year-old you were here asking you for help about life, what advice would you give them?

Read my book, “Tough Things First.” Make sure [you] have taken course work in Basic Accounting, Financial and Managerial Accounting, Basic Economics and Business Law.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An engineer.

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