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‘No task is beneath me’

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A good leader can’t be afraid to get their hands dirty, according to Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang.

Long before he co-founded the computer chip giant, which is currently worth more than $3.1 trillion, Huang was a teenaged busboy working at Denny’s. Years later, he would hatch the idea for Nvidia with his co-founders in a booth at the same Denny’s where he’d once cleared tables, washed dishes and even cleaned toilets.

Despite boasting a net worth that Forbes estimates at nearly $108 billion, Huang says those humble beginnings still shape the type of business leader he is today.

“To me, no task is beneath me because, remember, I used to be a dishwasher [and] I used to clean toilets,” Huang said in a March interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“I mean, I cleaned a lot of toilets,” he added, telling a room full of students: “I’ve cleaned more toilets than all of you combined — and, some of them you just can’t unsee.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between being a teen restaurant employee and running a multitrillion-dollar company. But, Huang says he still tries to approach his job today with a similar willingness to take on anything if he believes he can help his employees improve the company, regardless of whether that task could be delegated to someone else. 

“If you send me something and you want my input on it and I can be of service to you — and, in my review of it, share with you how I reasoned through it — I’ve made a contribution to you,” Huang said.

Huang is a famously hands-on boss, with some employees calling him “demanding” and a “perfectionist.” He asks employees across the company to email him each week with the five most important things they’re working on, and then Huang sometimes even strolls up to employees’ desks to ask them how projects are going and weigh in with suggestions, according to a profile in the New Yorker. 

Whenever possible, the longtime CEO likes to show his employees his reasoning for a suggestion or solution he offers. Doing so helps the company in the long run, and Huang also finds it personally rewarding and an opportunity to learn new things himself, he told the audience at Stanford. 

“I show people how to reason through things all the time: strategy things, how to forecast something, how to break a problem down,” he said. “You’re empowering people all over the place.”

He tries to wrap up his most complicated work early in the day, so if anyone needs something from him the rest of the day, he can “always say, ‘I have plenty of time.’ And I do,” Huang said in a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology last month.

And, while many CEOs try to limit the number of people who directly report to them to a handful of employees to free up their management schedule, Huang actually prefers to have roughly “50 direct reports,” he told CNBC in November. That structure improves Nvidia’s performance by allowing information and strategy to flow more directly between Huang and Nvidia’s other leaders, according to Huang.

“The more direct reports a CEO has, the less layers are in the company. It allows us to keep information fluid,” he said.

It’s all about putting his employees in the best position to succeed and contribute to Nvidia’s overall success, Huang said at Stanford. It is the job of any good CEO to “lead other people to achieve greatness, inspire, empower other people, support other people,” he added. “Those are the reasons why the management team exists: in service of all of the other people that work in the company.”

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