Being a Leader Often Means Doing Less of What You Started out Being Passionate About: Leadership Tips with Robert Lipps

By Casmin Wisner

“As you advance up the corporate ladder, you find yourself suddenly wondering what happened to that thing you loved to do. Business owners and founders know this problem well. But it’s a great opportunity to learn and enable others to be successful in roles I used to occupy.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Lipps, Executive Vice President of Sales at Sonic Foundry, the maker of Mediasite Video Platform. Robert leads the company’s global sales organization. He has over 25 years of sales leadership, business development and emerging market entry expertise in the technology and manufacturing sectors. That includes sales and channel management at Adaytum (now Cognos, an IBM company), Esker Software and Best Power (now Eaton Corporation).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

Thank you for having me! I went to school to learn Spanish and business — I even studied at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico — and I always envisioned myself working in Latin America, speaking the language. So, naturally, my first job out of college was working on the Latin American sales team for Best Power (now Eaton), a power management company. What a dramatic change of events one new employee training can have.

Timing is everything. I just so happened to start my job on the same day as the company’s new SVP for Asia Pacific, which meant that we would go through the training together. One thing led to another, and he ended up inviting me to work on his, at the time, sales team of one at HQ. With the prospect of travel on the horizon, learning from a veteran and the opportunity to learn new cultures, I enthusiastically accepted. This allowed me a unique opportunity at my fresh age to get out, start traveling and gain some experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten had I started at the bottom of a much taller ladder with the HQ-based Latin America team.

Fast-forward a few months and I found myself on a three-week whirlwind trip to Asia and Australia. I was 22 years old, flying in business class to what felt like another world. I was on cloud nine during my time at Best Power — absorbing everything I could learn about people, cultures & business.

Two years later, that same SVP recruited me to work for him at Persoft (Now Esker, a cloud-based document automation software maker) in Madison, Wisconsin, a city which happens to also host the headquarters of Sonic Foundry. The many great relationships made at Persoft paved the path to my current role as EVP of Sales at Sonic Foundry.

At Sonic Foundry we make a video technology called Mediasite. Essentially, we help higher education institutions and enterprises create, manage and deliver videos (like lecture capture and microlearning in schools and continuing education and online trainings in businesses and healthcare) to communicate more effectively and work more efficiently. At the heart of all those videos is very powerful metadata that can tell you a lot about who’s watching it, its effectiveness, etc.

When I came to Sonic Foundry in 2006, I was steeped in the business intelligence world and very intrigued by the opportunities to look at video from a metadata perspective — to learn why people created it and why people watched. It’s exciting to be part of a company that is committed to making an intelligent technology that is helping people learn and teach smarter.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a leader at your company?

A few years ago, I was delivering a keynote presentation at a large international conference and was very unprepared for how accepted it is for someone to stand up and take a phone call in the middle of a presentation. In the room directly in front of the stage where I was presenting! It was perfectly acceptable for folks to get out of their seats, talk on their phones (not using indoor voices) and engage in conversation with each other while presenters were doing their stuff. It was difficult to stay on my message, but it was just a cultural thing that I had to get used to. At least it was a memorable experience that helped me learn how to carry on in a distracting situation. I can laugh about it now.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Sonic Foundry stands out because of our commitment to our customers to make them successful. We build long-term relationships and have a “customer for life” philosophy. If you look at our top 50 customers, their average tenure as a Mediasite client is more than a decade. That’s because we are committed to continuing to innovate our Mediasite technology and support our customers more than any other company for which I’ve worked.

We have an unbelievable customer support team that consistently receives high marks, a global network of sales engineers that support customers year-round, an engaging Mediasite Community that gives customers daily informational webinars and training videos and unlimited access to peers and our staff, as well as several regional and international user group meetings around the world each year.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Ultimately, what Mediasite does — and what we’re always trying to innovate around — is make the viewer feel connected with the presenter and the content and the presenter connected with the viewer. We’re constantly asking ourselves ‘How can we personalize the online learning process and make the experience more intimate?’

We recently announced new engagement features in Mediasite that really takes the experience to a new level. Things like embedded quizzes, polling, ask-a-question, live chat, social video, etc. are creating a more immersive learning experience.

We also just announced a new partnership with IBM Watson around artificial intelligence. New integration between Mediasite and Watson’s speech-to-text technology gives our customers deeper insights than ever before into the data that I just mentioned. It takes our video search to the next level, creating full content search for everything said and shown in many languages. Plus, Watson helps to create cleaner video transcripts, something especially important in higher education where accessibility requirements are high.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Answer calls from your direct reports first. If you’re a leader and you spend all your time talking to superiors, colleagues or customers, neglecting your front-line managers & staff, you’re less efficient. More importantly, your team is less efficient. Always help your employees first. ‘Customer first’ can be accomplished more effectively by putting your employees first. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.

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?

I’m very grateful to the SVP of Sales for Asia Pacific, Bill Klink, who I mentioned above. He took a chance on me by inviting me to join his sales team at Best Power and, in a way, I took a chance on him because I wasn’t expecting to work in Asia. But that invitation opened doors for me and I’ll always be grateful to him for that … and we made some great memories along the way.

I remember vividly one trip to Malaysia with Bill that included a golf outing with clients along the South China Sea. Waiting for us on the first hole were no less than 50 monkeys. After what turned out to be my only good drive of the day on the first tee box, a monkey strolled over and nabbed my ball out of the fairway. That monkey gave me one of those ‘this is my jungle’ looks before he disappeared into the trees, with my ball and a golf club wielding caddie in pursuit. Well that caddie proudly returned with 5 golf balls. None of them were mine, of course. A lasting memory!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Seven years ago, I was thrust into the very unknown-to-me world of accessibility. My daughter, Nora, is visually impaired so the world of video and the positive impact it can have for someone with a learning disability or special needs has been very personal to me. I want video learning to be the best it can be so that 10 years from now, when Nora is 17, she — and her many friends — can benefit from all the work we’ve done.

What are your “3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a leader” and why?

  1. Leading is really a people business. Leading isn’t about doing things, it’s about the impact of doing those things on people, whether it’s a customer or employee or the public.
  2. A lot of travel happens. I’ve always loved to travel and learn new things, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for just how much travel was to come. From exhibiting at trade shows to speaking at conferences to venturing to all corners of the globe to meet with customers, my life is never boring. It can be taxing at times, but very rewarding as well.
  3. Sometimes being a leader means doing less of what you started out being passionate about. You often start out in roles related to areas of study or interest — things that you’re passionate about. That doesn’t always include management. As you advance up the corporate ladder, you find yourself suddenly wondering what happened to that thing you loved to do. Business owners and founders know this problem well. But it’s a great opportunity to learn and enable others to be successful in roles I used to occupy.

Can you please share your favorite life lesson quote?

Not so much a quote, but advice. A close relative of mine, Dale Olseth, was past CEO of Medtronic (NYSE: MDT), Tonka Toys and was then CEO of Surmodics (NASDAQ: SRDX). He counseled me on what he called the Dale’s Elements of Career Happiness. He wrote it out on a legal pad, signed it and handed it to me when I was 22 years old. I have it framed in my office. Family, Place, Culture, Field and Function. Each of these aspects have guided my career decisions and served me well.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Hands down, Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler and father of the Mustang. I’m a car guy at heart, it’s a passion of mine. I first got interested in Mr. Iacocca when I saw a poster of him standing next to a Lamborghini with the quote “I liked the car so much I bought the company.” I don’t know if he said that, but I didn’t care. I was fascinated.

Mr. Iacocca is now 93 years old and has led a very successful career in business. In high school, the only two books I really consumed cover to cover were his autobiography and later his second book, Talking Straight. He is a business hero to me. During my studies in Mexico I found his autobiography and re-read it in Spanish, which helped me learn the language. I also learned business from his books, and particularly his thoughts on leadership, management and love of country. “Management is nothing more than motivating people” is one of my favorite lessons.

What a dinner that would be. Mr. Iacocca, I’m buying. Where should we meet?