Chris Dornfeld | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Chris Dornfeld

Aug 10, 2016

Fast Facts


St. Louis, MO

Number of employees:


Years in current role:


Previous experiences:

CIO for the City of St. Louis, Executive with three start-ups, Architect with the world’s largest design firm, Director of Entrepreneur Collaboration at Washington University in St. Louis

First job:

I was a janitor when I was 12-years-old at the college preparatory school I attended. I worked after school every day vacuuming halls and cleaning up the wood shop to help pay for my tuition. Definitely not my favorite job.

Leaders you admire:

Dr. William Peck, former Dean of Washington University School of MedicineHon. Francis Slay, Mayor of the City of St. LouisMaxine Clark, Founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Questions & Answers

Why is it so important to engage employees via their mobile phones right now? What can mobile engagement provide that other communications channels lack?:

Convenience and quality of experience. Mobile is the primary communication platform for everyone, and its dominance is growing as the quality of the experience continues to improve. Most of us check a mobile device as we start our morning and before we go to bed each night—on average over 100 times a day. Our mobile devices are a bionic extension of each of us. Companies must realize employees’ expectations for communication is being defined by mobile consumer technology—information at their fingertips, accessible whenever or wherever they want it, interactive, instantly shareable, emotive and delivered through a great user experience.

Work is more virtual and remote than ever. How has leadership changed in this new work reality?:

I recently spoke with a software engineer who had worked remotely for the past two years and said he had never met his boss in person. I asked if he felt any loyalty to his boss or the company. He said: “No. It was really more of a transactional relationship.” This is an example of a growing trend as almost 50 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is working remotely or from home full- or part-time. For remote teams to work well, additional emphasis must be placed on strengthening relationships and building culture. No company will be successful if employees are emotionally disconnected. Leaders have to make engagement a priority and constantly look for opportunities to engage remote teams—not an easy task but one that can be accomplished with the right tools and strategy.

What is your most, and least, favorite part of your leadership role?:

Seeing people on my team succeed or fail. We have an exceptional group of people at Bonfyre, and my role is as much a coach as a manger—observing, calling a timeout for key plays, encouraging the team, mentoring when needed and knowing when to not interfere. When people do great things it is a tremendous feeling. When they struggle it is as much a reflection on me as them and can be pretty sobering.

How has your experience shaped you to become the leader you are today?:

My twenty years of professional experience spans global corporations, not-for-profits, government, higher education and several start-up companies. Not only did this breadth of experience expose me to a wide variety of leaders, it also included many opportunities, successes and failures. Opportunity taught me the value of friends and hard work. Success taught me the value of team. Failure taught me humility, risk and grit. Failure is hard but it definitely has the greatest learning opportunities for leadership.

What is one of the toughest lessons you’ve learned?:

You can have success and still not succeed. I was on the executive team of a startup that grew to 500 employees and $100m in annualized revenue in 18 months, only to have it shut down by investors when the economy was tanking. There is always an X factor and things beyond your control. As an entrepreneur you are by nature optimistic (and maybe overly confident). Appreciating and understanding risk gives you a better perspective to prioritize and make decisions for future success.

What’s the biggest difference between leading and managing?:

In the simplest terms, leadership is about people and motivation. Management is about process and the administration of work.

How does mentorship fit into your role as a leader?:

Mentorship is part of building a learning organization and part of my daily activities. There are people on my team I formally mentor and meet with on a frequent basis just for that reason, and people I informally mentor as opportunities arise. Building a high-growth company, I need to constantly be building teams and people that can take on more and more responsibility. In effect, I am always trying to build a function, team or company that can not only perform without my involvement, but perform better than if I was involved.

What do you think is the greatest leadership challenge leaders face today?:

Change. Most companies still operate based on organization structure and process based on concepts from the industrial revolution. In the knowledge economy, people are a company’s greatest resource and advantage—this concept is featured on every company website and recruitment brochure. The challenge is, most companies do not operate this way—HR is not part of company strategy, communication systems are not organic and interactive, processes are not dynamic and we are still training people to perform tasks instead of solving problems. In a hyper-connected, hyper-competitive market, companies must be responsive in almost real time to compete. Leaders not only must adapt to change, they need to be building change-ready organizations.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders?:

Work with great people and learn from those people. When I was CIO for the City of St. Louis, the Mayor came into my office after a particularly rough day. We were creating a new technology agency and it was not popular with a handful of Alderman who shared their displeasure with me in a public hearing. He reminded me that when he hired me, I told him that as an agent of change I would become the most unpopular person in his cabinet. He then said, “Congratulations—you were right!” After we both stopped laughing, the Mayor told me that change is not easy but what we are doing will positively impact hundreds of thousands of people. Two weeks later, legislation passed to create the Information Technology Services Agency.

A little humor and perspective can have a profound impact.

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