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“5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became The CEO of Synaptics” With Rick Bergman

“When you walk in as a CEO, and share an initiative or express a concept, you’d think it would magically get executed and easily comprehended among 2,000 globally-dispersed employees. In reality though, this communication often goes through multiple levels of the organization — and what you intended to say, versus what was heard by the person in China for instance, can be radically different than what a person in another country understands it to be. This was a lesson learned in narrowing down what you’re trying to communicate to an international organization.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Bergman President and CEO of Synaptics. The company develops human interface solutions for smartphones, PCs, automotive and the smart home. Synaptics creates the technology that enable products to help make our digital lives more productive, secure and enjoyable.

What is your “backstory”?

I joined Synaptics six years ago in the midst of preparing for a marathon. I was not an “avid runner” by any means. But despite the new role as CEO, I was intent on running a marathon before my advancing age would make the 26.2 miles even more difficult. That endeavor prepared me both mentally and physically for the CEO job I was about to embark upon.

It also prepared me for the journey last year when my three daughters and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together. This trip provided a new kind of bonding experience with my family that’s near and dear to my heart. Our four months of preparation led to a seven-night/eight-day expedition that was filled with less than ideal weather conditions, and a 15-hour day of vertical climbing.

Ascending the highest peak in Africa wasn’t only physically challenging and demanding on the body, but it pushed me to be more competitive, and sharpened my mind with new experiences; allowing myself to think beyond the walls of an office. There was one instance during the hike where we reached Stella Peak, and my daughters thought we were totally done but we weren’t quite there. We had to rally hard in the homestretch to reach the top of the peak. It was a moment like that, which made me think how often scenarios like this occur in business. Oftentimes, just when you think you’re done with developing a new product, you must rally the team to keeping pushing forward to the end. Adventures like these give you an edge that’s important for any leadership position.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Through my marathon experience, I learned the immense value of pacesetting in an organization. Thanks to the pacesetter (by definition, a person who sets a standard pace to help other runners maintain a constant speed), who not only kept us on pace, but also kept shouting out words of encouragement, I was able to push myself harder and faster than I thought possible. With the pacesetter’s help, I accomplished a time way beyond even my highest expectations. I appreciated the pacesetter even more, knowing she was unpaid and had to give up her own aspirations for the race, purely motivated by helping others succeed in their goals.

It’s an observation like this that helps me realize at Synaptics we have pacesetters all over the company. Each one of them has a positive attitude, encourages others, constantly finds ways to get things done, and doesn’t seek individual glory.

How exactly does Synaptics help people?

For more than 30 years, Synaptics has been on the leading edge of human machine interface (HMI) solutions that allow consumers to interact with their devices. With human interface solutions designed for the mobile, PC, smart home, and automotive industries, Synaptics combines ease of use, functionality and aesthetics to enable products that help make our digital lives more productive, secure and enjoyable. As an industry leader, Synaptics works with today’s most well-known companies, including Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo, Daimler, Google, Amazon and others.

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

There are a number of things that make Synaptics stand out from other technology vendors today. Chief among them is our strong company culture — specifically centered on driving tech innovation, customer partnerships and teaming.

Many companies probably tout themselves for having a great culture, but I whole-heartedly stand behind ours. For example, we had a major customer project a few years ago where we unexpectedly lost a few key people. Immediately, I was getting volunteers (or “Synapticians” as we like to call ourselves) to dive into the program to help remediate the situation. We have a huge international dispersion of our workforce, so what nationality you are or language you speak doesn’t often matter because our team likes to band together and provide an extra helping hand whenever needed, in this case, for that critical customer problem.

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?

My parents. I never had a lifelong mentor, so I really owe my success to my parents. They established the right core values for me as a person early on in my life. One of those is certainly competitiveness which is apparent in my personal and professional life. The other is a healthy level of frugality.

Making decisions to fly employees coach, rather than business class, for example, makes a difference even though it isn’t popular. Given the markets that we compete in, recognizing the effects of finances is important, and a healthy level of frugality has helped us be that US competitor in our market that’s still staying strong.

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

I enjoying running and have a generally healthy lifestyle. I’m a big advocate for promoting a healthy workplace through our wellness programs and initiatives. For a number of years the company has been recognized as one of the Healthiest Employers in the Greater Bay Area, and would hope that my advocacy for good employee health (which also translates into good business), also gets passed on to my employee’s families, and so on. One of my favorite charities is our yearly sponsorship and involvement in the “Silicon Valley Turkey Trot,” where every year Synaptics has the highest number of signups, and shows the true passion of our employees to promote healthfulness and make a positive difference in the world. We are also proud to give back to our Silicon Valley community by participating annually in a local charity drive that collects food and provides meals for thousands of individuals and families during the holiday season.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. The Markets You Participate In Are very Important. While working hard and being passionate help, making sure that the company is in the right markets is critical. At Synaptics we’ve seen this a couple times, during the mega-growth of notebooks and the smartphone booms, and now we’re positioning ourselves with consumer IoT in the same manner. When you’re at the right part of the S curve, life is very good; when you’re at the peak of the S curve, life can get a lot tougher.

2. Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) Are A Lot Harder Than You Think. Some people may think that when you become a CEO, you can easily make a call to engage in M&A activity (that is of course strategically aligned and makes perfect sense for the company), but the reality is, people don’t call you back. From the first step (researching and getting your foot in the door with a market) to the actual acquisition, it can take about three to four years. I didn’t realize it would take that long. Don’t get discouraged, but do be aware of the time frame these massive business decisions take.

3. Business Communications Can Be a Game of Telephone. When you walk in as a CEO, and share an initiative or express a concept, you’d think it would magically get executed and easily comprehended among 2,000 globally-dispersed employees. In reality though, this communication often goes through multiple levels of the organization — and what you intended to say, versus what was heard by the person in China for instance, can be radically different than what a person in another country understands it to be. This was a lesson learned in narrowing down what you’re trying to communicate to an international organization.

4. Get Ready For a Wild Ride. No one can really explain to you in the beginning what a wild ride life as the CEO of a leading technology company can really be. It’s been quite the roller coaster experience for me at Synaptics. One of our core values is to foster an exhilarating and rewarding work experience. When I joined, I thought other companies had ups and downs, but with the markets we compete in, and the partners and key customers we have, Synaptics has really proven to be an exhilarating experience and one that I’m incredibly thankful to have in my life.

5. Patience Isn’t a Virtue. Everyone always says that patience is a virtue. But in my experience running a tech company, I can tell you it’s not. If you take your foot off the gas, you’re going to lose in this market. As CEO, it is important to give all you got (all the time). And most importantly, surround yourself with a team that also has unstoppable drive.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

Lunch with Jim Harbaugh. He’s the coach of the University of Michigan football team, and the former San Francisco 49er’s coach. I’m a Michigan grad, and a huge fan! The philosophies he applies on the football field are similar to what we do here at Synaptics, in terms of always pushing the envelope, improving everyday, staying super competitive, and ultimately winning. Go Blue!