Lessons From a Tech Titan: “Rewarding hard work is a key to retaining talent” With Charles Sansbury, CEO of ASG Technologies
Rewarding hard work is another key to retaining talent. Employees often feel unrecognized for their contributions, which can quickly drive top talent out of an organization. When I first joined ASG, there were a few groups whose efforts were clearly not aligned with the corporate goals. My team and I identified this lack of contribution to the organization’s overall success and worked quickly to reassess those employees’ roles. This effort helped set the tone for a new culture where all teams could feel they — and their colleagues in other departments — were contributing equally and pushing toward common goals. Through respectful, constructive criticism, we built a culture that our employees could get behind — one that today incentivizes good, hard work and acknowledges those who are excelling. I believe that if you hire people who have the drive, motivation, discipline and initiative to show up and do great work from the start, you have the foundation for success. But to create a truly healthy, productive workforce, the CEO first needs to align at the top of the organization and ensure it filters down to each employee. At ASG, we operate against a mantra of: “customers matter, people matter, results matter.” We show employees appreciation when they meet the goals of the company as an important part of bringing those words to life.
I had the pleasure to interview Charles Sansbury, the CEO of ASG Technologies. Charles joined ASG as President and Chief Executive Officer in 2015. Charles has more than 16 years of experience in strategic, financial and operational leadership. He brings a strong background in technology and a proven record of driving organizational improvements and delivering long-term growth strategies. He also serves on ASG’s Board of Directors. Most recently, Charles served as COO and CFO of global software company The Attachmate Group. Prior to that, he held senior leadership positions at Vignette Corporation, a provider of enterprise content management software. He graduated from Georgetown University with his BS and earned his MBA at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
After getting my MBA at Wharton, I went to work in investment banking, first at Lehman Brothers and then Morgan Stanley. The clients I worked with were in semiconductors and software, which gave me tremendous insight into the ins and outs of the technology industry. In those roles, I built up a core understanding of the financial dynamics of the businesses and how senior leaders managed their businesses. This experience put me on the path to senior roles with operating companies and ultimately to the role of CEO of ASG Technologies.
After 7 years in investment banking, I transitioned into technology full time — doing corporate development, M&A and investor relations for Vignette, a company focused on content management, and reporting to the CEO. From there, I was promoted to CFO. My first day was September 10, 2001. The next day was one of the worst in recent U.S. history. No one was prepared to handle that type of disaster, and there was no real precedent for how to manage a company in the wake of a tragedy at that scale and its ensuing economic repercussions. As a 34-year-old, first-time executive, it was daunting. But, looking back now, it was one of the most pivotal times in my career. It was in those months, when we had to restructure the business, prioritize our goals and preserve the business through a long downturn, that I was forced to learn how to lead a company through uncertainty and make tough decisions to benefit the organization.
After Vignette, I worked at The Attachmate Group from 2006 to 2015. The CEO was someone whom I had known from my time at Vignette and we developed a point of view on how to run software companies by focusing on the products that mattered most to customers. We looked for companies with products that were important to customers but hadn’t had the focus they deserved, typically because more effort and investment was focused on the new products in a company’s portfolio while the more mature products were under appreciated. We applied an approach that involved reinvesting in product innovation or extending the value of existing, often mature, solutions, by adding functionality that customers wanted, improving product quality and investing in support. So many brands have an incredible product but need a better business process or a deeper understanding of what customers want to be successful and customers want to maximize the value of their investments, so they appreciate continued innovation in more mature product areas. Reflecting back on my career, this experience certainly is most relevant to my work since joining ASG.
When I started at ASG in late 2015, I was excited about the company’s suite of technology to help companies with enterprise information and IT systems management. However, the opportunity I saw in those products could only be realized if the company was in a good place to support them. The company was struggling both financially and culturally, so my first order of business became kickstarting a corporate turnaround. A critical part of this transition was focused on people, motivating the existing team and supplementing the team by bringing in some new leaders to help bring ASG back. This meant not only creating a stable business structure, but also a healthy work environment that motivates employees want to take pride in their work and take on even the most mundane tasks with zeal–and, as a result, inspires them to remain loyal. Since then, the business has seen strong growth, and because of that, now has a positive corporate image that makes employees proud of their workplace and focused on their goals — both at the individual level and as part of what the company overall is striving toward.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Before I joined, ASG had a very hierarchical corporate structure. While I knew this was inherent in the organization at the time, I didn’t understand how deeply it ran until my first all-hands meeting at our Naples headquarters. While there, an employee asked me what I’d like to be called. Since I had just introduced myself, the question didn’t make sense to me. I told him that my name was Charles and expected that to be the end of it. Instead, the gentleman replied, “so, we don’t need to refer to you as Mr. Sansbury?” It was clear that this type of formality had been the norm at ASG. This seemingly simple exchange gave me a window into the existing corporate culture and I quickly recognized that a significant overhaul was necessary.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together? What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
Many of our employees work remotely and we have offices around the world, so it’s crucial to synchronize teams of all sizes across geographies. The most important aspect of managing our disparate workforce is to consistently communicate corporate goals and provide transparency into our progress against those goals. For executives, this means being present and visible in as many locations as possible so you can talk to employees about priorities and ensure they not only understand them but also feel included in reaching them. For example, we host our executive Quarterly Business Review meetings in the various offices around the globe, which provide our teams in those offices with access to the leadership team — and vice versa — and helps instill a sense of camaraderie.
A huge challenge I’ve seen executives face is coming up with a simple, transparent set of goals that can be easily translated across large teams and different geographies. When the goals aren’t clear and constantly repeated across every channel, it can be easy for teams to deviate. It’s reminiscent of the old “telephone” game — where the story begins on one end of the line and often becomes completely different by the time it reaches the last person. In the game and in real life, consistency is the key to success.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually quit their managers. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
Talent management is difficult. I believe in our technology and the meaningful impact it can deliver to our customers, but that enthusiasm alone will not drive result unless the rest of the organization can also get behind the vision and how we’ll get there. A critical component of getting it right is having a CEO who sets goals and aligns the organization in the most transparent ways possible. To be successful, CEOs must educate managers and employees on realistic expectations and be very clear about overarching business goals. People want to know the direction of the company. They want to feel that they’re a part of something that matters. Transparency around what everyone is working toward creates a workplace where employees feel trusted and valued, which in turn leads to improved retention.
Rewarding hard work is another key to retaining talent. Employees often feel unrecognized for their contributions, which can quickly drive top talent out of an organization. When I first joined ASG, there were a few groups whose efforts were clearly not aligned with the corporate goals. My team and I identified this lack of contribution to the organization’s overall success and worked quickly to reassess those employees’ roles. This effort helped set the tone for a new culture where all teams could feel they — and their colleagues in other departments — were contributing equally and pushing toward common goals. Through respectful, constructive criticism, we built a culture that our employees could get behind — one that today incentivizes good, hard work and acknowledges those who are excelling.
I believe that if you hire people who have the drive, motivation, discipline and initiative to show up and do great work from the start, you have the foundation for success. But to create a truly healthy, productive workforce, the CEO first needs to align at the top of the organization and ensure it filters down to each employee. At ASG, we operate against a mantra of: “customers matter, people matter, results matter.” We show employees appreciation when they meet the goals of the company as an important part of bringing those words to life.
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)
1. Be transparent. It’s important for all employees within an organization to be aligned on goals and maintain consistent communication. In one of my first meetings with employees at ASG, I read through our balance sheet — income statement, revenue, costs, profit margins, marketing budgets, etc. — to give everyone a sense of exactly where ASG stood. This covered not just product development or new customers, but also debt structure and financial goals so everyone had insight into and understood the current state of the business and where they could make impactful decisions in their own day-to-day work.
2. Be genuine. People want to hear information in a straightforward way. It can be easy to put on rose-colored glasses when delivering difficult information or to speak in sales-mode when trying to get buy-in on an idea, but authenticity is far more effective.
3. Trust your employees. Whether restructuring an organization, building a startup or growing an existing company, bringing on the right new talent, and leveraging the existing talent within the business, is key. By taking a structured approach to interviewing, selecting and onboarding new hires, managers and executives alike should be able to trust their employees to perform well and meet goals without having to hand hold or micromanage.
4. Encourage and mentor people. To reach their personal goals and those of the organization, executives should encourage employees to step outside of their comfort zones. Creating a sense of urgency prompts them to move faster than they may have otherwise and, ultimately, grow. The old adage, “sooner is better than later,” certainly applies in managing teams to their top potential.
5. Seek criticism. It’s easy for employees to compliment those sitting in an executive seat. But, as CEO, the company will never succeed if that’s all you’re hearing. Build a team of people who will give you honest and fair feedback, even if it’s negative. I’m grateful to have that at ASG.
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.
At ASG, giving back to the community is a corporate focus. Rather than choosing a specific way to do that, we give employees the flexibility to pursue the causes and charities they’re passionate about and time off to volunteer their time accordingly. Improving opportunity for underprivileged kids is a cause that I, personally, gravitate toward having taught at inner city schools in D.C. and Philadelphia while in college and business school. This experience exposed me to the lack of opportunity many kids face early in their lives and the impact of poor quality public education in big cities, where a lack of resources creates a group of underserved kids whose potential goes untapped. From my particular vantage point in technology, improving education quality in elementary and middle school would have vast, positive effects on students, national competitiveness and the ability to fill under-employed jobs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson comes from a mentor I had early in my career: “Be a good coffee-getter.” I had just moved to New York City, after business school and I was starting work at an investment bank. During our training program, the man who ran the company’s debt trading desk came in to speak with the group of new MBA hires and told us, “when I give you a task, I want you to do the best you can possibly do — whether the assignment is evaluating debt structure or getting a coffee with two creams. So if I ask you to get me a cup of coffee, do a good job at it” At first, I was taken aback, but it turned out to be some of the best advice I’ve ever received. He made sure that no matter what task we were given, we did our very best. That will forever stick with me.