“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of Kinetica,” With Paul Appleby
…I wouldn’t give them advice so much as respect and trust. I respect the people on my team to decide how to do their jobs well and to use me as a sounding board. And I trust them to determine how they will structure their team, their territory, and their time. The latitude that comes from that respect and trust ultimately acts as a bulwark against burn out.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Appleby.
Paul is CEO as well as a board member of Kinetica in San Francisco, a startup that analyzes billions of data points continuously to make dynamic business decisions. Paul has successfully built and led global teams across the United States, Asia, and Australia, as President of Worldwide Sales and Marketing at BMC Software, EVP of Global Sales at Salesforce, CRO at C3 IoT, Managing Director of EMEA and APJ for Travelex, and in senior executive positions in the Asia Pacific region at both Oracle and Siebel Corporation. Earlier in his career, Paul was CEO of Gocorp and Director of Financial Services and Telecommunications for SAP.
Paul is a passionate advocate for design thinking and project-based learning who regularly writes and speaks about how to prepare society for a post-industrial future driven by artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. He serves on Forbes Tech Council and the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and is an advisor to corporations and nonprofits in the United States and Asia. Paul is also an avid cycler, surfer, and skier, depending on the season.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It was the late 1980s, and the idea of mobile computing did not exist yet. We were beginning to have discussions around the concept of diverged versus converged devices and the idea of uniting mobility and computing. An advisor came to me and suggested that, in my career, this was an area I should be investing in because there was a belief that these technologies, particularly mobile technologies, were going to transform the way we lived as individuals, as well as the way businesses functioned. Looking at our world today, it was prescient advice.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
My first impression of Kinetica was that this was an organization with incredible potential that needed more direction and cohesion. As with many young companies, we had visionary, market-leading technology being used by amazing customers, but internally, I saw potential divisions that could prevent us from achieving our full potential.
In driving both growth and business transformation over the course of my career, I developed an understanding that one of the most important things for a company to be successful is alignment around vision and strategy. That being the case, we spent the first phase of our time at Kinetica focused on developing a unique narrative for the company in the marketplace and building consensus and alignment across the organization around our market positioning and our strategy.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
When I first started out as a CEO in Australia, I wanted to be in Silicon Valley. Now, I am thankful for all of my international experience. I have experienced the unique challenges of growing a business internationally. I have also benefited from the fact that my first role as CEO was at a company that was entirely consumer-focused, followed by leadership at very large B2B companies. These sets of experiences dovetail at Kinetica, a company that is focused on providing solutions to the largest organizations on the planet.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
I wish someone told me that the first thing I had to address was the culture. As CEO, you think you’ve been hired to grow the company, but unless you take on the cultural issues within it, it will be impossible to get alignment around the vision and strategy.
For example, we immediately surveyed Kineticans about the company culture, in detail and anonymously. The leadership team reviewed the results and divided the feedback into six buckets in order to measure how we were doing in these areas over time. We matched metrics with action, and as we’ve measured our results biannually, we’ve seen a marked improvement in the anonymous survey results that is likewise clearly reflected in our lived culture.
You’re building a brand as much as running a company. You have to create a brand and market positioning that both your employees and customers can become passionate about.
In a previous role, I was working for an incredible legacy technology company, and I had a charter to try to bring it back to growth. Yet what I found was that its market positioning and branding broadly predated the evolution of cloud computing and mobile computing. In an effort to bring the company back to a growth footing, we first had to establish its relevance in the current set of market dynamics. So I secured a CMO who has famously transformed several brands with a charter to transform our brand to make it both modern and relevant, not only for customers, but for employees. This process proved how deeply bound brand, culture, and success are, and I’ve carried that with me.
Know when — and where — to go international. Silicon Valley companies all want to expand internationally, but they tend not to understand when and where to make these investments. It’s not just the already complicated matter of picking the right locations to grow and scale, but just as importantly, who would you employ?
No one told me CEOs need to be historians and anthropologists, but because I’ve lived and worked around the world for three decades and built businesses in multiple countries multiple times, I’ve seen how important it is to be a good student of history and to pay attention to societal and cultural change in addition to innovation going on around the world. The oppportuniy of course is in playing an important role in helping many of these companies innovate, and in some cases leapfrog, what we’re seeing here in the United States.
As an example of that, in Indonesia, we are helping companies transform financial services by leveraging the power of data to provide financial services and microloans to the 93% of Indonesia’s population that is unbanked. Whilst it is challenging to do business in a region where there are massive linguistic and cultural differences, I personally find those opportunities exciting, because we get to play a part in the evolution and transformation of that economy; and at a personal level, I find it exciting to learn more and to be sensitive to the cultures that we serve.
It’s people, people, people. You’re not going to change the world, transform the company, drive home some strategic message, or announce an IPO if you can’t first impress upon your team some aspects of vision and strategy that they can get behind. The best you can hope to do is to make a great impression on your people. People, particularly in highly competitive employment markets like the one we’re in today, have a virtually unlimited range of choices as to where they might work, so at the end of the day, the most important thing is the impression you make on your people and their ultimate decision to give this new CEO a try.
I’ve been in business long enough to understand that you don’t want to hire people just to tell them what to do. At Kinetica, the goal is to hire great leaders and then win their support and respect.
The CEO is a servant. Sure, half your role is vision and strategy, providing people a north star direction they can get excited about. But the other half is a servant. As CEO, it’s not your job to tell people what to do. Your job is creating a strategy and solving the problems that make them successful. If they are successful, then the company is successful. Take the direction away and create the tools, assets, culture, environment, and processes that enable people to be successful in their jobs and their careers. You’ll succeed as a leader only once you learn how to be a good servant.
One example: I’ve worked proactively multiple times to build a career strategy for executives on my team, not just around their current role and their current job function, but around their long-term ambitions and careers. And we have taken that career plan seriously to the point where I can name three instances where people I have worked with have ended up as CEOs of billion-dollar-plus companies. It’s not just about being an “I help you do your job” servant. Let’s truly understand your aspirations and then help you get there.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I wouldn’t give them advice so much as respect and trust. I respect the people on my team to decide how to do their jobs well and to use me as a sounding board. And I trust them to determine how they will structure their team, their territory, and their time. The latitude that comes from that respect and trust ultimately acts as a bulwark against burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Years ago, I had a spinal injury. That was when I met John Maclean. At the age of 22, he was in a near-fatal accident that turned him from a promising rugby league player into a paraplegic. Despite the grief he felt, John committed himself to becoming bigger and stronger than he was before. He went on to become Australia’s first wheelchair triathlete, and competed in over 20 of the world’s toughest sporting events, and proved himself against every benchmark there was. His story and how he overcame adversity has been and still is a huge influence on me.
When I was still in Australia, I spent a great deal of time with The John Maclean Foundation, a now national-scale organization providing support and assistance to Australian wheelchair users under the age of 18. His story and mission inspired me on my own journey to recovery. I now stay involved with the organization as an advisor.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
At the professional level, it is building a company that defines and creates a whole new category. On a personal level, it is finding more time to contribute back to the community and to play a role in the transformation of educating the next generation.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
My aim is to achieve one of those goals that I set out to accomplish. I intend to build a company that defines and creates a whole new category of enterprise technology. I also consider it my personal responsibility to leave the world a better place.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
A brighter future starts with a strong education, and there is a lot of education that needs to happen at a population-wide level in order for businesses to have the staff capacity to convert data into a business asset. I want to use my position at Kinetica to educate the market. But I also want to create a more substantial program for educating the next generation of workers in design thinking. Schools should be integrating technology and data-driven curriculum alongside general education requirements. At the same time, the industry needs to play a part in educating students in the data technology of the future. Just as we should work to retrain employees to adapt to an automated future, we should likewise prepare our children for a dynamic, data-driven job market.
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