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Kleiner's Matt Murphy on Why Pao Failed as a VC

"How long does it take to become a thought leader? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? Is it possible to never become one?"

Vicki Behringer

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Matt Murphy laid out in his testimony today exactly why he led the push to fire Ellen Pao.

With closing arguments in Pao’s gender discrimination suit approaching, her lawyer focused on nailing down details of her 2012 dismissal, which came only months after she filed the gender discrimination suit. Kleiner Perkins partners have said Pao had a history of conflict — so who exactly was she fighting with in 2012 when she was given 60 days to start becoming “a thought leader” or pack her bags? When and how had she been too aggressive, as Kleiner Perkins partners have described her?

Murphy, who was formerly a leader on the digital team and is now leaving Kleiner Perkins, focused on mobile and cloud infrastructure technologies and supervised Pao, especially toward the end of her time with the firm. He contended that he “pleaded with her” to improve and that her gender had nothing to do with her termination, which he said was a long time coming. He portrayed Pao as prone to conflicts with co-workers, often out of the office without documenting where she was, and unresponsive to his advice. Pao’s attorney, Alan Exelrod, argued that she had many fewer conflicts than Murphy was implying, that her performance reviews only turned negative after she filed a lawsuit against the firm, and that she was never given a real chance to improve.

Yesterday, Murphy answered questions from Kleiner Perkins attorney Lynne Hermle. Today was his cross-examination.

“Professional” Relationships, but Not Enough “Chemistry”

Murphy had said that Pao had a lot of conflicts with co-workers, but Exelrod pointed out that this didn’t seem to come through in her peer reviews.

Exelrod read through Pao’s positive peer reviews in 2011, which included phrases like “good instincts around emerging trends … never hesitates to help out … super smart … very thorough … disciplined and reliable.” The phrase “very collaborative” appeared at least three times.

But Murphy stood by the sentiment that Pao was prone to conflict. Exelrod went through a list of about half a dozen partners, and Murphy responded that Pao had a “professional” or “okay” relationship with each of them. Murphy said that a “professional” relationship wasn’t enough — and Pao’s incompatibility was more subtle, having to do with “chemistry.”

“In all these things it was professional, but there’s a certain chemistry with people,” he said. “Are they really collaborative? Do they enjoy working together? Do they want to work together?”

Pao felt left out of meetings she thought were relevant to her work. Murphy said her insistence to be at all the meetings was “pushy” and “entitled.”

“I didn’t like the tone and pushiness and the sense of being entitled to be at every meeting,” he said.

When a portfolio company CEO did have positive reviews of Pao, Murphy downplayed those as coming from someone who was just always enthusiastic.

Mike McCue, the CEO of Flipboard, which Pao worked with, wrote in her review: “Fantastic. Love her. Very happy. Great dynamic in the board meeting. Responsive. Board member you can trust and say exactly what’s on her mind. Great team player. Fantastic facilitator of benefits of being KP company.”

“He thought very highly of Ellen?” Exelrod asked.

“Yes. I also know how to calibrate Mike, but yes, that’s what the comments say,” Murphy said, later adding: “Mike’s an enthusiast.”

Exelrod read comments from other CEOs who had similarly positive reviews. So, generally, Pao received positive reviews in 2011, he asked? No, Murphy responded — and regardless, the performance review wasn’t that important.

“I think there are threads there around seasoning and conversation style,” Murphy said. “This was one of the many feedbacks. This feedback was not overwhelmingly positive among the other data points we had that swayed my point of view.”

Too Quiet and Too Competitive

In another section of Pao’s review, which Murphy and Ted Schlein compiled, one partner wrote that she needs to “be more proactive and speak up.” Another comment farther down the page was that she was “too competitive.”

Exelrod suggested this was inconsistent feedback.

“So was the view of the group that she needed to speak up more and she was too competitive?” he said.

Murphy responded: “I don’t see how the two are mutually exclusive — too competitive is team thing; speaking up is in meetings.”

Exelrod asked who exactly Pao was competitive with, listing six junior partners. The only one Murphy said Pao was competitive with was “likely” Chi-Hua Chien.

“How about one anecdote of her being competitive?” Exelrod asked.

“Well, we have a lot of emails that show various forms of friction, and that can be construed as competitiveness,” Murphy responded.

Exelrod brought up Trae Vassallo, the well-liked Kleiner Perkins partner who was sexually harassed and allegedly promoted more slowly than her peers before being left out of a fund, which is akin to being asked out of the group.

“Now Ms. Vassallo wasn’t viewed in the partnership as being too competitive?” he said.

“No,” Murphy said.

“But she wasn’t promoted either in 2011? She was not told she would be a general partner when notifications came out for Fund 15?”

“Correct,” Murphy said.

Exelrod wanted Murphy to provide examples of Pao being “overly opinionated,” as he had characterized her. Murphy brought up an investment in a broadband company called M2Z.

“I felt like the investment was unlikely to work out, and Ms. Pao was highly opinionated — overly opinionated, really pushing it forward,” he said.

Did he consider that behavior to be aggressive?

“Well, if it comes across as passion, I get you’re really excited about it. But if it comes across as you’re trying to be smarter than someone else …” he said, leaving the sentence unfinished.

Pregnancy and a 60-Day Improvement Plan

When Murphy told Pao she had 60 days to get her act together before the firm would fire her, he had an action plan for her that included becoming a thought leader and a better source of ventures. Exelrod suggested 60 days was an unrealistic time frame to show progress on these two fronts.

“Now from 2006, when you thought Ms. Pao was ‘overly opinionated,’ to 2012, when she was terminated, you never really liked Ms. Pao, did you?” Exelrod asked.

Murphy said Pao just wasn’t a culture fit.

“It wasn’t about ‘like,’ it was about how well she was doing as a team member,” Murphy said. “It was about the culture of the firm and how well people were getting along, the culture of teamwork.”

He referenced how Pao canceled a meeting with UberConference because of a doctor’s appointment and then rescheduled it without inviting Murphy. Around the same time, she fell asleep in another meeting, which Murphy found “embarrassing.” Around that time, Pao was pregnant and suffered a miscarriage.

Jury Questions: Simple Math and Thought Leadership

The jury had about a dozen questions they passed up to Judge Harold Kahn to read.

One interesting question was about how many peers, exactly, rated Pao’s performance as below expectations. For part of Pao’s performance review, seven peers total had rated her. Hermle had focused on the fact that 28.6 percent in a few categories rated her as “does not meet expectations.” On the other hand, 57 percent of the reviewers said Pao “exceeds expectation.” (In other categories, reviewers rated her majority does “does not meet expectations.”)

Judge Kahn read the question: “This juror has observed that 28.6 percent of seven is two. So the point of this juror is that only two people gave the negative input under peer input, is that correct?”

Murphy said he wasn’t exactly sure. The judge pushed on this, rephrased it, and still Murphy said he wasn’t sure it was two people.

“Well, I know a little math myself — so 28.6 times two is 57 percent” Judge Kahn said. “So four or five people provided ‘exceeds expectations,’ is that correct?”

“Well, yes, that could be the way this operates,” Murphy said.

Judge Kahn was not done trying to get Murphy to do this particular math problem.

“So I think this juror is observing that there were seven people who provided peer input, four or five provided input that her performance exceeded expectations and two said it does not meet expectations, isn’t that right?” the judge said.

“No, no, there were a lot of dimensions to evaluate on,” Murphy said. “This just captures kind of the clusters at the exceeds and the negative ends of the spectrum.”

Judge Kahn paused for a moment and then moved on to another handwritten jury question.

He read: “How long does it take to become a thought leader? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? Is it possible to never become one?”

Murphy responded: “Being a thought leader is more about initiative more than anything. Ray Bradford came from Amazon Web Services, so he came in with knowledge about tech, but not necessarily what areas might be interesting — he had to learn those, he had to develop a thought piece.”

The production of thought pieces was a key component to becoming a thought leader, Murphy said, referencing successful Kleiner Perkins junior partners who produced thought pieces around drones and bitcoin.

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