As a CEO, one of the impactful things you can do is enable people and give them the freedom to try new things. Most people don’t have a bias towards trying new things. Several of our most successful programs came from a person who said they’d like to try this or that. A major growth piece of our business came about this way. One of our team members approached me about exploring the cloud communications business. The first year we tried it, nothing happened from a revenue standpoint. The next year, we made $100K, but by the third year, we knew we’d hit on something big. Once we scored a million, we put it in the hands of the next guy to take it further along the journey. As a CEO, you want to take calculated risks like that and allow people to soar.
I had the pleasure to interview Rich McBee, the CEO of Mitel. Rich brings more than 25 years of experience in telecommunications to his position as President and Chief Executive Officer of Mitel, leading Mitel’s strategy, business performance, and global execution. Appointed to the role in January 2011, Rich is responsible for advancing Mitel’s evolution and leadership in the business communications market, driving revenue growth and profitability, and devising and executing business strategies. Under his leadership, Mitel has doubled revenue to more than $1 billion, emerged as a global leader in the business communications market with #1 market share in Europe and the fastest growing cloud communications business in the world. Prior to joining Mitel, Rich served as President of the Communications and Enterprise Group of Danaher Corporation. In this role, he was responsible for leading the companies serving the communications and enterprise markets, with combined total revenue of more than US$700 million annually. Rich joined Danaher in 2007 as President, Tektronix Communications, following the acquisition by Danaher of Tektronix. During his 15 years with Tektronix, he held a variety of positions, including Senior Vice President and General Manager, Communications Business Unit; Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales, Service and Marketing; and Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Initiatives. Rich holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the Chapman School of Business and Economics (California, US) and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science in 1986. Rich serves as Chairman of the Board for the largest technology trade association in Texas, known as Tech Titans. Rich is also a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD).
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
From the time I could even begin thinking about business — literally in grade school — I wanted to be a CEO. That might sound strange, but I was intrigued by what CEOs did, and I loved the stock market. I was determined to groom myself for that role, so I made sure my professional career set me on a trajectory to do just that.
Mentors have always played an important part in my life. They were the ones who cautioned that I’d need a lot of tools in my toolkit if I wanted to become a CEO. They pointed me in the direction to get started, advising me to get strong experience in sales and marketing, which are the primary training grounds for most CEOs. And that makes sense when you think about it. There’s nothing more customer-facing than sales and, at the end of the day, a company is all about revenues — total cost = profit. As a CEO, you must understand how those levers work.
I began my career in product marketing and then went from there to sales, back to marketing and later back to sales as I moved up the ladder. At each step, I gained more and more experience, which led me to Danaher where I ran the company’s communications and enterprise division. A few years later, while I was in my 40s, the opportunity came along to join Mitel as CEO. It was time to decide — do I jump or not? My mentors thought maybe I needed a bit more experience, but I believed I was ready, so I made the leap.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s hard to settle on one story as the funniest because on the CEO path, you need a sense of humor or you’ll go crazy. What I’d consider my most interesting story, though, reminds me of how sometimes the greatest lessons come when things don’t go as planned.
A few years ago, we decided to broaden our footprint and diversify our business. We convinced our board this was the right thing to do and we acquired a mobile company. Unfortunately, the reception didn’t go as we’d hoped and there were some interesting lessons in that. The main takeaway for me was around focus.
Despite exceeding every financial metric, the story became too complicated for many to understand. The market doesn’t like change and we simply weren’t big enough to be a highly-diversified company. The market preferred the focused strategy we previously pursued.
A lot of people in the financial markets asked why we bought it. Of course, when we sold it, just as many were also asking why, which brings me to the other lesson. As a CEO, you can’t take everything personally. You’re going to see the bell-shaped curve of responses to whatever you do. Some people will laud your decisions; others will say you have no clue what you’re doing. You’re always going to get both sides of the coin in full force and publicly. The ubiquity of social media can make the negative comments sting even more if you spend a lot of time dwelling on those and not appreciating the “atta-boy”s.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
Simple frameworks and repetition are critical. A lot of thought must go into developing messages, and the vision and mission tied to those messages. Just as important, you need to work from the top down to the next level, to the next level, and so on. You can’t bypass levels, or you won’t have complete alignment throughout the organization. It’s good to follow the old advice given to speakers where you “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you told ‘em.”
Incidentally, one of the fascinating things about being a CEO is there is no next level up. When you’re working for somebody, there’s a safety valve. As a CEO, you can’t play catch ball. The Board expects you to have a clear vision and direction. It’s a pretty defining moment the first time you’re asked where you want to take the company. No one is going to tell you what needs to be done. You don’t get a list to tick off. Your performance review is basically where you said you were taking the company, and what you did to take it in that direction.
I’m always reminded of the quote about how strong leadership can move an organization, even if it’s to the wrong place. That’s a scary thought and why everyone — across the entire organization — must understand and believe in where you’re going.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
Just as alignment is key to synchronizing large teams, it’s really the top challenge when it comes to managing highly dispersed teams. Think about how an engine can’t run well without the alignment of its parts. Human capital is the most important part, most important asset, a company has — not patents, not technology. If your people aren’t aligned, you’re going to get siloed behavior and sub-optimization. The larger the organization, the greater probability of silos because there’s more specialization. That gets back to what I said about setting a clear direction and making sure everyone within the company embraces the messaging.
How do you gauge whether there’s alignment? Take the temperature of the organization away from headquarters. Go out and hear, not only what your customers are saying, but also what employees in the farthest points of your company are saying. I like to go on the road, meet with new employees, conduct co-op meetings, and lunch and learns to talk with smaller groups to hear what they’re thinking. When I joined Mitel, I spent the first week at the corporate headquarters and the next 90 days in the field. I went from operation to operation, always checking back and “pulsing” to identify the disconnects.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Usually CEOs are forklifted in and given a team. You must make sure you have the right team. Although heroic, it’s not your job to make everyone successful. Your job is to deliver value to shareholders. To do that, you need the best team. I think one of the biggest mistakes I see members of my staff making is waiting too long to make a change when they have an employee who can’t deliver. As I said, people are a company’s most valuable assets. If you don’t step up and address a poor fit or performance issue, you’re not doing that employee any favors. In fact, chances are that employee knows things aren’t working out and so does everyone around them.
Going back to the alignment theme, if people know you’re not addressing performance issues, that leaks into other things. It could even lead them to thinking maybe you’re not that serious about your strategy. I can’t stress enough how having the right people in the right positions at the right time factors into success. Realize also, someone may be the right person, but in the wrong place at the wrong time. You need to consider all three elements.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
There’s a lot of truth in this. I fundamentally believe people come to work to do a good job. Those I’ve seen most happy and loyal have managers who clearly outline what they want them to accomplish and provide feedback. Where there are managers who aren’t good at either of these, there’s high turnover. Setting expectations is a given, but sometimes we underestimate the significance of providing regular feedback.
At one time in my career, before I became a CEO, the importance of feedback stood out for me when I was working for a company undergoing massive restructuring and employee layoffs. A lot of heavy lifting was taking place and even good people were being let go. One of my team members knocked on my door and insisted on speaking with me. He laid it on the line. Told me he had a family, was working hard, but worried he’d be fired and wanted to know what more he could do. I assured him I had no intention of laying him off and, as a matter of fact, planned to expand his responsibilities.
When I thought about that conversation, it struck me how easy it is to forget to thank your top performers. Here was a star employee and I wasn’t spending any time with him because I was focused on the low performers. The worse thing that could have happened was if he’d gone and found another job and didn’t know what I thought of him. Never forget to take care of your star performers. Don’t assume they know they’re a star performer. Sometimes if they’re not getting that care and feeding, they think they’re off the bus.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
- Know what kind of team you need. A copy of you is a bad thing. I always thought, as I was coming up through the ranks, I’m going to be the best at this job or that job. The reality is, you won’t be the best at everything. Check your ego at the door. Set a clear direction and let those who are the best in a particular position, be the best.
- Don’t micromanage. Make sure your team members’ decision-making authority is clearly understood. The only type of decision I’ve found that doesn’t work is an “our decision.” Somebody must step up; somebody must own the decision. It doesn’t mean you won’t work towards consensus, but anytime there’s an “our decision,” it’ll get reworked multiple times with each person often only favoring a piece of it.
- Load balance your team. A high-performance team is going to be naturally competitive. You need to aim that in the same direction and not at each other. I do the Strength Finders profiles with my teams to create balance. You can’t have all achievers, for example; you need some enablers. Enablers are good starters, but bad finishers. Identify who is good at what, steer them where they need to go, and allow them to harness their natural talents.
- Get an outside mentor. As you progress through the ranks of management, you need to learn from someone who’s been where you want to be. A mentor outside of your organization can help you look at situations more objectively. Find someone who can coach you and offer an element of compassion. You may also change mentors over time as your professional development needs evolve, or you may have multiple mentors.
- Be well read. As a senior leader it’s important to be well read and stay abreast of developments within your industry and the markets more broadly. I read The Wall Street Journal daily. About 1/100th of the articles in it are tied to my industry, but 100 percent of those articles are tied to my customers. My other favorites are anything by Jack Welch or Philip Kotler. I also recommend Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a CEO, one of the impactful things you can do is enable people and give them the freedom to try new things. Most people don’t have a bias towards trying new things. At Mitel, several of our most successful programs came from a person who said they’d like to try this or that. A major growth piece of our business came about this way. One of our team members approached me about exploring the cloud communications business. The first year we tried it, nothing happened from a revenue standpoint. The next year, we made $100K, but by the third year, we knew we’d hit on something big. Once we scored a million, we put it in the hands of the next guy to take it further along the journey. As a CEO, you want to take calculated risks like that and allow people to soar.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I keep hundreds of quotes. In fact, I have a notebook with nearly 40 pages of quotes capturing the thoughts that speak to me, both professionally and personally. I’m deeply rooted in observation and I love people. I strongly believe every person is valuable and has a story tell. The question is whether we choose to take the time to read that story. I like the quote about how it’s not the journey, but the people you meet along the way. I’m always working to make the most of my interactions with others and cultivate unique connections.