“There Is Power In Truth, Even If That Truth Is, At Times, Hard To Swallow” 5 Leadership Lessons with Yuchun Lee CEO of Allego
“If a team doesn’t see the world correctly (i.e., truthfully), then the team is bound to make poor decisions — regardless of how smart the individuals on the team are. Misunderstanding or avoiding the truth when it’s not convenient can cause catastrophic failures. Examples include the Enrons of the world, or the many companies that ignored the early signs of the housing bubble of the late 2000s. Recognizing and embracing truth — and not pulling the wool over your own eyes when there are things you’d rather avoid — is, in my opinion, a vitally important trait for a successful CEO to have. “
I had the pleasure of interviewing Yuchun Lee, the CEO and Co-founder of Allego
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
It has been a long road that has led me to Boston and to my current position as CEO at Allego. I was born in Taiwan and lived there until I was 13 years old. Even from a young age, you could say that I had an entrepreneurial spirit. I started two “businesses” while in elementary school: first, I sold stickers to fellow classmates while in kindergarten, and later, I sold silkworms while in grade school. Ever since I was young, I’ve had a fascination with business and entrepreneurship.
In 1978, my family moved to Natchez, Mississippi from Taiwan. My father was an oil tanker captain and was gone for long periods of time, so it was mostly me, my mother and my sisters. We were middle class in Taiwan, but became poor when we moved to the states. As the only Chinese family in our small town, I learned a lot at that young age about race — and about disparity. I was forced to learn English very quickly — within nine months. This was a blessing in disguise, as I later learned that many immigrants don’t learn English and have a hard time adjusting when surrounded by others who speak their language and know their culture. After a year in Natchez, we moved to Houston, but I’m glad that we spent the first 12 months in Mississippi for that reason.
My family valued education above all else, and I attribute much of my academic success to my mother’s strict requirements around school. In my junior year of high school, I had a competition with a friend to see who could complete the high school’s math course first. We both finished over a year of calculus in about nine weeks. The teacher had nothing left to teach us, so we ended up hanging out in the computer lab, where I wrote and brought to market my first software application, which was a program for professional drafting artists at the dawn of computer graphics. While I did well in school at the behest of my mother, some people would be surprised to learn that I wasn’t a straight-A student! I did, however, hone my natural affinity for data, numbers and technology (as well as a wide-ranging curiosity).
I attended college at MIT, where I majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I also started another business, selling PC components out of my dorm room, until the MIT police shut it down for creating traffic jams on campus from all the deliveries we were receiving. After graduating MIT, I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation, and then started a marketing software firm called Unica. I also became a member of the (unofficial) MIT Blackjack team — the group of card counters that was the inspiration for the book “Bringing Down the House” and movie “21.” While that time isn’t something I talk about often, it definitely has influenced much of life and taught me many lessons that I still use in business today. Relying on such a tightly knit team in what was often a stressful situation taught me the value of teamwork and of learning to let go and trust those around you to do their job well. In the business environment, much like at the card table, I’m very careful who I hire, which has resulted in a core group of business partners that I trust implicitly. I think this ability to rely on those around me and to function well within a team has been a big part of my success.
The rest of my career has been pretty well documented, so I won’t go into great detail again here. My company, Unica went public in 2005 and was later acquired by IBM in 2010 for over $500 million. I worked at IBM for a few years and subsequently oversaw a team of about 2,000 employees. After advising several start-ups, I founded Allego, with my business partner, Mark Magnacca. Mark was a veteran sales trainer with 15 years in the industry, and he knew that the recording capabilities of mobile devices coming onto the market in the late 2000’s had the ability to transform the sales training industry — if harnessed correctly. I asked him if he had thought about building a software company to support better sales training, rather than trying to hire someone to build a software application for his training company. He liked the idea, but said he knew nothing about building a software company. “Well, I do,” I remember telling him, and not too long after, I left IBM to found Allego. We derived the name of the company from the Latin root word for “allegory” — a short story that makes a point — and that’s just what Allego does: It enables sales reps to share short stories and valuable lessons with colleagues across the organization.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the funniest things that has happened to me since I became an entrepreneur relates to my mom — and her vision of what it means to be successful. To this day, my mother doesn’t really understand high-tech businesses — or really much about what I do every day! So, back when we were in talks about selling Unica to IBM, I had kept silent on the topic for over two months as we underwent the due diligence process as a publicly traded company. Finally, we reached an agreement with IBM and I was able to share the news of IBM’s acquisition of Unica with the world. That evening, after a busy day with analyst calls and meetings, I called my mom and told her Unica had been acquired for acquired for over $500M — I was obviously very excited, and couldn’t wait to share the news with her. However, instead of excitement, her first reaction was one of distraught and worry — because to her, it meant that I was no longer a CEO and was therefore out of a job!
A few years later, when I mentioned that I started Allego, she said she was proud of me again since I finally worked my way back up and became a CEO. Go figure!
So how does your company help people?
Allego provides a mobile video sales learning platform that is dramatically changing the way organizations train and enable their sales teams. The platform takes advantage of the ubiquity of mobile and video technologies and enables sales reps to rapidly capture and distribute expert knowledge and best practices. By combining mobile, video and peer learning, our platform helps prepare sales reps for better customer conversations. A number of leading brands in financial services, medical devices and high-tech use Allego to onboard new hires more quickly, successfully launch new products with greater message consistency, reinforce training, skills and knowledge in the field, and provide easy access to critical information anytime, anywhere.
While the market is currently comprised of video distribution, learning management systems and video practice/coaching tools, Allego is the only platform that supports the full spectrum of sales training — curriculum learning, reinforcement learning and just-in-time learning. This approach helps reps to not only acquire new knowledge, but also drive it into long-term memory and quickly grab high-impact refreshers at the exact time and place of need.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
From a company perspective, I believe Allego is changing the professional world in a significant way. Many people go to work every day, wanting to do their best for their company and to grow in their profession. Studies have shown — and I truly believe — that people who are good at their jobs are happier and more productive. However, most organizations have done a lousy job training their employees and providing them with the necessary knowledge to be truly successful. This is where Allego comes in — we’re at the forefront of righting this wrong every day with comprehensive and well-researched solutions that enable success through streamlined training tools and peer-to-peer collaboration capabilities. The result is not only more productive, successful employees, but ones who are happier and more fulfilled as well.
From a personal perspective, I am on also on a mission to help young entrepreneurs and I am a member of a few local entrepreneurial and mentorship associations. I make time to share with young, aspiring entrepreneurs in the Boston area the things I have learned through the many years I’ve spent running high-tech companies — ideas and insights that I wish somebody had told me when I was first starting out!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
(1) There is power in truth, even if that truth is, at times, hard to swallow
If a team doesn’t see the world correctly (i.e., truthfully), then the team is bound to make poor decisions — regardless of how smart the individuals on the team are. Misunderstanding or avoiding the truth when it’s not convenient can cause catastrophic failures. Examples include the Enrons of the world, or the many companies that ignored the early signs of the housing bubble of the late 2000s. Recognizing and embracing truth — and not pulling the wool over your own eyes when there are things you’d rather avoid — is, in my opinion, a vitally important trait for a successful CEO to have.
(2) Embrace and love your own mistakes
We are all taught from a young age that mistakes are bad. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! I wish somebody had told me earlier that we should embrace our professional mistakes, as they are the most valuable opportunities to improve ourselves in our careers — provided one can build up the emotional fortitude to “own” the mistake. I for one have only gotten comfortable with this in the last 10 years or so, and it has drastically changed my relationships with my colleagues and the way I run my businesses — for the better!
(3) Essence of execution excellence
Execution at its core depends on some simple, repeatable concepts. They include the ability to prioritize work, plan the work, communicate what to expect, and deliver on what’s planned. I am constantly surprised by how forgetting something this basic is at the heart of many failed companies. These rules help to focus a person or a team and ensure the right work is getting done to the highest standards.
(4) Love the process of learning and growing
Life is short. I personally can’t imagine a person going to work and not striving to grow. This doesn’t mean new learning happens every day, as some insights come only from true mastery and repetition. However, measuring from one year to the next, I believe every professional — including CEOs — should feel they are improving; otherwise, I believe they are in the wrong job or wrong company.
(5) Learn to compartmentalize
When I first started in my career, I was high-strung and much more stressed than I am today, even though I am doing a lot more now across the different projects in which I am involved (I’m currently an executive or board member of 8 for-profit and non-profit organizations!). However, I have since learned that bad news often turns out to be not as bad as it first appears and that things generally turn out okay. I have learned to compartmentalize the ups and downs of work every day, having faith that things will most likely work themselves out. This attitude has freed me from the shackle and stress of work and, for me, has made work more enjoyable. As Confucius said, if you find work you love, you will never have to work another day in your life!
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. 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 see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon. I am fascinated with exploring how decisions are made when one must choose between focusing on a business’ core market and values versus expanding to explore new markets. To me, that judgment call often determines a company’s ability to either grow rapidly through various market adoption cycles or remain a niche, sleepy company — or, at worst, head into a steady decline. I am interested in learning more about the evolution of Amazon and when Jeff Bezos decided to take certain actions during its journey, and how those decisions eventually led Amazon to become what it is today.