How to lead

Dr. Steve Garnett has had one of the most distinguished careers of any European executive in the software industry. Business Leader recently caught up with Steve and asked him about his life journey from a boy from Everton Valley to Silicon Valley and how he became a distinguished business leader of our generation.

How did you get your first job?

Steve Garnett

Steve Garnett

I was completing my PhD in theoretical physics and had been using mainframe computers to solve mathematics. As a result of that, I had become quite good at writing code (in those days it was a language called Fortran).

Having decided to quit academia, I started job hunting. There were lots of exciting opportunities in rapidly growing companies provided you could write code (just like today!). I applied to a British software and services company called Logica, based in London, and was accepted as a programmer. That was my first real job.

How did you become a business builder and entrepreneur?

While I was working at Logica, I was introduced to the team at Oracle Corporation, which at the time was a USA software startup. I met Geoff Squire, who was heading Oracle UK along with his exceptional management team, and they persuaded me to join them. It was a phenomenally exciting time.

I was employee #25 in the UK company (I think Oracle has circa 130,000 employees today!). The astonishing growth that we created was hugely rewarding. I was quickly immersed in the Oracle growth culture, as it disrupted the computing status quo that had been established by IBM. There, I had the good fortune to work with incredible leaders like Larry Ellison, Geoff Squire, Tom Siebel, Ray Lane and Marc Benioff.

I was fortunate to experience those exciting times once again at Siebel Systems, where we grew the company from a startup to have 8,000 employees and a $60 billion market valuation over a five-year period.

However, joining Salesforce as a startup trumped everything I had seen and done at Oracle Corporation and Siebel Systems. It was the professional experience of my life, as I played my part in building the company to its current standing where it employs 70,000 people worldwide and has a valuation twice that of IBM.

Those experiences taught me what could be achieved when you combined disruptive software technology and talented people with an insatiable appetite for business growth. It has been hugely exciting, challenging and rewarding. It also forged lifelong friendships with many of the colleagues I worked with along the way.

I have taken much of what I learned and tried to apply it to over 40 investments in the UK.

What have you learned from holding senior roles?

After such an exciting time in the technology area, there is a lot I could say in answer to this question, but if I had to summarise, I would say I have learned five key principles which stand out. As I think about them, I would suggest they are just as valid today as they were when I started out.

1. To be successful, you have to surround yourself with exceptional people, then inspire them to achieve more than they thought they could. To do this you have to get them involved in defining a compelling vision and the associated execution plan, to make that vision become a reality. Hiring bright people and just telling them what to do is stupid!

With a shared vision, driven by inspired, motivated and talented people, you can reach for the stars. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. Stagnant growth or downsizing businesses attracts a different type of character. The result, in my opinion, is a lot less rewarding.

2. Put customer success at the centre of your vision. Celebrate their success and walk the extra mile to solve their problems. Successful customers will always do three things for you: they will buy more from you, they will recommend you to others and they will buy again, should they change jobs.

3. Take a strong interest in the careers of your talented people. Take the time to plan and to open doors for them to develop. We all remember people in our careers who opened doors for us – as a leader, be a door opener.

4. Certify your people, including yourself! What I mean by that is to make sure you create a constant learning culture, which requires everyone to learn and understand your latest products, positioning and customer success stories. It still amazes me how many employees have so little knowledge of what their company’s products and services do and how they truly benefit their customers.

5. Consistent poor performers can and must be fired. That doesn’t mean you create a hire and fire culture, but to achieve a great culture, you have to deal with your hiring mistakes (and you will make them). Employees who are never going to be successful need to be moved on.

You know who they are, so as a leader, you have to take the required action. Also, talented and hardworking employees want to be alongside others who are like-minded. If consistently poor performers are not removed, it becomes a drag on the business and massively demotivates your best people.

What was your first leadership lesson?

I think it was probably that as a new leader, you don’t need to know all the answers.

Most new leaders think they have to have an answer to all their teams’ problems and it is a sign of weakness to say ‘I don’t know’. That’s just not true. You need to have the confidence to say I don’t know the answer but we can sit down and figure it out.

It’s amazing how calming it is not to pretend to know more than you do!

Who is your leadership hero?

Without hesitation, it’s Marc Benioff, CEO and Co-Founder of Salesforce.

He has the ability to make strong emotional connections to his team and inspire them to achieve more than they ever believed. He always took time to learn about and encourage your dreams, minimise your fears, accept some mistakes and stand up for you against your enemies.

He also introduced me and many others to integrated philanthropy. That is the idea that you can do well as a business and simultaneously do good, by helping people less fortunate. His so-called 1/1/1 model (giving 1% of the product, 1% of the profit and 1% of employees’ time to charitable causes), which he set up when he founded the company, was pure genius. Today, with 70,000 employees and a $200b market valuation, the amount of support being given to so many underserved people and causes is nothing short of inspirational.

He has also been instrumental in highlighting trust as being the most important business value. This often comes as a surprise to business leaders who cite the traditional mantra of shareholder value. All customers, employees and shareholders want to be associated with a company that doesn’t lie, cheat, manipulate, hide the truth and that delivers on its promises. That is delivered by having trust as a key value.

If you were not a CEO/Chairman, what would you be?

A university professor, perhaps in cosmology, which is a passion of mine.

There is a passage that I love in Carl Sagan’s (the famous American astronomer) book, “The Pale Blue Dot”, which was inspired by a photograph taken from the Voyager spacecraft as it looked back on the earth from a distance.

The quote sums up my views perfectly and I can’t even think how I could better Sagan’s words. Take a read of the passage that starts ‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us…’

What has been your biggest disappointment?

Perhaps that I never wrote a diary, took photos or kept detailed notes of the amazing, and sometimes “crazy”, times I experienced in being at the heart of the hyper-growth days of Oracle Corporation, Siebel Systems and Salesforce.

Debating, discussing and presenting arguments on how to scale the company in those many executive meetings was a tremendous experience. So many times we didn’t know the answer but we eventually figured out the right course to steer. It would have been amazing to document and record those meetings, but now it all relies on my fallible memory, without photos and with sketchy recollections on the detail!

I have been very fortunate I haven’t experienced many disappointments. I also don’t have many regrets. That said, perhaps not stopping and savouring the moments of success more is one area I would highlight. Savouring longer the many laughs and the joys of winning should have been a higher priority. I was often overly focused on the next quarter, the next year, the next opportunity.

It all passes way too fast!

Why is “giving back” important to you?

Lack of opportunity and poverty is like a punishment for a crime you never committed. It also often instills a severe lack of confidence in those unfortunate to be affected. That really matters. In my experience, the lack of confidence kills more dreams than lack of ability. So many lives are not reaching anywhere near their true potential because of poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of confidence. If I can help change that in my own small way then I am thrilled.

Giving is the best drug of all!

I am also a strong believer that no matter how well educated, talented, successful or rich you are, how you treat people ultimately defines your true character. Having worked in the computing industry, we should all remember just how fortunate we are and we have a responsibility to help others less fortunate. It’s the right thing to do.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

I don’t think there is one lesson that stands out. But, if I had to choose just one, it would be not taking your health for granted, which so many of us have done.

If I could add others, I would say one of the best lessons of life you can learn is to master how to remain calm. Staying calm and not creating unnecessary enemies is a superpower. So many people not only need to win but need to show their competition that they lost – it’s not necessary.

Scaling companies is very stressful, which can start to eat away at you. Worrying doesn’t change the outcome. I think it was Mark Twain who said something like “I have lived a long life with many troubles, most of which never happened”. So learn to stop worrying.

Finally, they say people are either “drains” or “radiators”! Surrounding yourself with positive people who inspire you to grow is very important. Seek out the radiators and distance yourself from the drains.

So, my summary of the most important life lessons I have learnt (so far!) is to stay calm, stop worrying, have inspiring people around you, and don’t take your health for granted.

What prompted you to be a mentor?

What was a surprise to me was that many of today’s new leaders often wanted to hear my opinion. I found that many of their challenges I had experienced before and the playbook I had used in the past was still relevant in helping them figure out the right course to steer.

I guess it also appealed to the teacher/professor in me that had been my alternative choice of a career.

What drives you now?

When I look back, a strong driver in my life has always been the fear of failure. It’s still present. I never wanted to go to my family or friends and say I had failed an exam, missed a promotion at work, or had a failed investment. Perhaps surprisingly for some, that feeling of failure was a stronger driver than the desire to make money or to be seen as successful (whatever that means).

Today, if I mentor a business leader or invest in a startup, I am driven to make sure it doesn’t fail.

That said, these days I am more focused on fun things in my life and I still am motivated to get much more done. I need to see Liverpool FC win the Champions League again (I was in Madrid for the last victory). I want to write a cookbook and most important of all, I plan to set up a foundation to help others less fortunate.

So, still lots to do and I can’t fail!

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