How a Pickup Basketball Game Turned a Senior Executive into a Team Player

Amy Fisher Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

Gogo Chief Commercial Officer Ash ElDifrawi learned to lead by playing hoops, not by jumping through them.

By Amy Fisher

“At its core, marketing is rooted in psychology. It’s about forming relationships with people in order to influence attitudes and behaviors,” said Ash ElDifrawi. He is Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) at Gogo, and with a degree in Clinical Psychology, marketing is a second career for him. While moderating focus groups for consumer research companies, he became enamored with marketing and has made it his business since.

Gogo, conceived in 1991, delivers broadband Internet access to airplanes, keeping travelers connected in flight. Using Gogo’s exclusive networks and services, customers have the ability to get online on more than 6,500 business jets and 2,000 commercial aircraft.

“Simply put, it’s the Internet in the sky,” ElDifrawi said. With substantial marketing experience, including positions at McKinsey & Co., Wrigley, Google and Hayneedle, ElDifrawi came to Gogo in 2010 as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). The company was appealing for many reasons, one being it struck him as “a cool and emergent technology, which doesn’t happen often.”

“‘Cool,’” he said, “is actually really hard to find. Gogo, it was changing people’s lives in a very real way. I’ve spoken to people who have literally chosen one job over another because of Gogo.” The group’s efforts, he said, have “fundamentally shifted what the concept of time means in the air.”


Ascending Toward Team Success

Since 2008, the launch of Gogo’s debut on commercial aircraft, the company has been transforming the in-air experience for modern travelers every day. As the technology has taken off, there has been a natural evolution from educating consumers about the product to managing customer expectations. Transitioning from his initial CMO role to his current CCO position, ElDifrawi’s role also has evolved. He has six direct reports across multiple commercial functions, including Marketing, Product, Customer Care, Sales, Pricing, Channel Management and Airline Partnerships.

As a leader, ElDifrawi characterizes himself as a player-coach; he really gets to know his team, focusing on understanding members’ strengths and weaknesses. He perfected his leadership in part from a friend in his pickup basketball league. This friend was not a star player, but consistently was on the winning team. When ElDifrawi asked his friend how he managed this, the friend explained that every time he is put on a team, he looks around and decides what role he must play for the group to win. This is how ElDifrawi has come to think about leadership: always asking himself what role he needs to play for this team to win.

“To do so, it means you have to know your team very well, take the time to learn their strengths and weaknesses,” ElDifrawi said. “There has to be a lot of trust, a lot of candor. There must be what I call an obligation to dissent—so not only does my team know they can raise their hand at any time and say it’s not working, but they have an obligation to do so. It’s about all of us winning, not individual achievement.”

As a business leader, ElDifrawi has extended this philosophy beyond his own team, investing time in understanding the broader operational challenges at Gogo.

When seeking out new talent, ElDifrawi looks for “the impact players who make a difference in their organizations, regardless of what roles they’re put in.” People who are “relentless in their ability to work through obstacles and get past them.”

“Creativity is often underrated,” ElDifrawi said. “That’s a lethal combination. When you have players that are creative problem solvers, relentless and results focused, they usually achieve any goal that you put in front of them.”


Getting By With a Little Help From Friends

In each of his marketing roles, ElDifrawi has worked with leaders who have proven to be strong mentors. His earliest experience was at McKinsey, where he says his time was the most formative in terms of “intrinsic DNA as a professional.”

He learned three profound lessons there that he has taken with him everywhere since, the first of which is a relentless obsession with impact. A Director at McKinsey once pointed to Navy Seals landing on a beach as an example, noting that one staff member has to equal eight of them. This idea created unbelievable internal expectations that ElDifrawi credits as having served him well.


The other two major lessons he took from his time with the firm are to have an egoless attitude, constantly looking for feedback to improve, and to seek to be the dumbest person in the room, meaning it is important to surround oneself with phenomenal talent from whom to learn.

McKinsey was not the only place ElDifrawi was fortunate enough to meet inspiring people. During his time spent at Wrigley, Bill Wrigley taught ElDifrawi that great brands are built through innovation.

“You win by out-innovating your competitors, not only with product, but in supply chain, distribution and reducing costs,” ElDifrawi said.

Tim Armstrong at Google taught the marketing master the importance of really inspiring people. “[Armstrong] had the ability to make people want to walk through fire for him,” ElDifrawi said. “It created a phenomenal culture of passion and focus.”

And Carter Cast at Hayneedle, according to ElDifrawi, “was the best pure marketer I’ve ever worked for. He taught me that great marketing is all about having a winning value proposition and customer obsession.” Cast taught his mentee to always ask, ‘Why do you exist, and why do people care?’ “If you cannot answer the question in a compelling way,” ElDifrawi said, “you have a problem.”

Last but not least, ElDifrawi’s current Chief Executive Officer, Michael Small, has taught him to think about running a business in a holistic way—to always think about decisions in a broader context, and not only how they impact the customer journey, but the entire value chain.

With diverse experience and mentors, ElDifrawi has become not only a strong team leader, but also an attentive and thoughtful person. He says, “I tell people to think followership not leadership. Anybody can lead, but what if no one’s following you?”

Amy Fisher is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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