As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jed Ayres.
Jed Ayres, IGEL’s Global CEO, is widely recognized for the transformational impact he is making on the end user computing industry, as well as the instrumental role he has played in IGEL’s pivot starting in 2016 from a hardware-centric to a software-first company. As Global CEO, Ayres leads IGEL’s seasoned team of executive leaders as the company works to align with the world’s most prominent cloud providers to transform end user computing by simplifying and securing the cloud-delivery of all needed applications and resources.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
When I transitioned from IGEL CMO to CEO, I was motivated to help IGEL transition from a hardware-focused company to a software innovator. We needed to create a new market category, to articulate a new vision for IGEL. Coming from a CMO role, I had the skills to help create the ‘new’ IGEL, and lead the company with this vision, in a very strong and powerful way. I also truly believed in this new vision, so I had the capacity to share this vision with others, to define the narrative of IGEL and write its next chapter.
I also believed in the possibility of IGEL becoming a powerhouse IT company. This created new energy around the company. Employees saw that growth could occur. I brought this energy and vision to the company, and it’s one of the reasons I landed in the CEO chair.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
How I ended up at IGEL is an interesting tale. My former company, AppSense, had just agreed to be acquired and I was driving down the 280 freeway at 4 o’clock in the morning. Knowing the sale was coming, I had already put some job feelers out. So, it’s 4 a.m. and I get a call from an unknown U.K. number with a 44 country code. It turns out to be IGEL managing director Simon Richards. The call was one of the most significant and interesting in my career because it began my entire IGEL journey. What’s funny is that Simon pitched the company as a hardware company, and I rebuffed him on the call. I wasn’t interested in hardware. Software was the future, I believed.
Finally, I agreed to a dinner with IGEL’s founder Heiko Gloge. We were both in the U.K. on business and I started to see the possibilities of how we could change IGEL. However, two of my mentors, that were influential during my career at AppSense, were also in the U.K. at the time and asked me to go to a little pub, during which they spent two hours advising me that IGEL would be the wrong move.
Ultimately, after talking to partners, customers, lots of people, I convinced myself to go to IGEL, and thought, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” I could spend a little time getting to know German people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have two favorites. One is Henry Ford’s statement, “Either you believe you can, or you believe you can’t. Either way, you’re right.” It maps to my ‘believe’ philosophy, that you must be able to dream where you want to go before you can get there, and you have to believe that it’s possible. It’s not going to be easy and you’re going to have all kinds of things that will be thrown in your way but believing carries you through.
The second one is from Henry Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” It’s the American dream: if you can think of it and you have the right work ethic, you can achieve it.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
“Worst to First,” written by Gordon Bethune, the CEO of Continental Airlines. It describes how he took the airline from being the worst in every single category and flipped it to being first in every category. He essentially rewired the human psychology of the company, to a ‘we can’ instead of ‘we can’t’ mentality. To reward employees, he would give them hand-cut checks when they met improvement goals. He knew that this would make the reward feel more ‘real’ than dropping it into a typical payroll check. I never quite did this at IGEL, but I did set incremental goals. When I started we were ranked seventh in the market, I zeroed in on those strategies that would get IGEL to third, and eventually to number one. The incremental goals made achievement seem possible, and therefore more relevant.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Two main reasons come to mind. The first is that IGEL is a German company succeeding in the United States. Very few German companies make it in the U.S. The second is that IGEL was able to shift from a very unsexy, dumb terminal, thin client business to a sexy, very relevant software solution. The IGEL story was definitely unexpected and why we’re a standout success.
I’ll share a story: That night before I started with the company when Heiko and Simon took me to a Michelin-starred restaurant in the U.K., we literally opened the restaurant for dinner and closed it. Heiko, as the founder, has a great curious mind and the evening went fast. As we were getting ready to leave, Heiko pulled out a piece of paper with 40 typewritten questions he wanted to ask me about marketing. Heiko wanted to know how we could put IGEL’s software message into a compelling story. We ended up going another hour!
It started my successful journey with IGEL and Heiko. He empowered me to run marketing and make critical decisions, after he felt comfortable that I knew what I was doing. I had his confidence, which began with those 40 questions.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
There are no shortcuts in life. You really have to start by making phone calls and doing the menial things, but those things actually add to your business intelligence later. You rarely see somebody that is a CMO, that hasn’t done all the things that lead up to that. My advice is, don’t be afraid to start out as an intern to get some experience. I started out as a marketing intern.
The challenge now is we live in an Instagram world. Young people may have expectations that careers can be Instagram-quick, but it doesn’t work that way. The people who end up succeeding are the ones that put in the effort.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I ALMOST followed some advice from people I trust and respect, but I decided not to… I’m sure glad I didn’t. It was just before joining IGEL and following my record-length dinner with IGEL founder Heiko and Simon Richards. Two trusted mentors from my previous company literally performed an intervention with me, taking me to dinner with the sole purpose of convincing me to step away from the opportunity with IGEL and look to other opportunities. They applied their opinions and advice with such conviction, I nearly gave in to their views. But, in my gut I knew there was something magical about the opportunity with IGEL. I trusted that gut instinct and have been overwhelmingly thankful ever since. It now reminds me that, while trusted advice is always to be valued, you often know your own direction and possibilities better than anyone.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would say work ethic is definitely at the top of that list, then creativity, being an out- of- the box thinker and problem solver. Those are the two big ones, and then the third is the ability to build, respect and nurture a really powerful network. And then, if we can add a number four here, it would be to feel gratitude for the position we’re in; to feel blessed.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The key thing is you are no longer serving as a domain expert. You have to have a lens into all domains across the entire organization, to assimilate the business value of each domain operation, and then make companywide decisions that best serve the company’s goals. It’s like being a great championship coach. You need to believe in your team, your domain experts, that they can pull off a victory! As coach, you’re always making subtle adjustments to what your team is doing, whether it’s the people on the field, or the strategy they’re deploying. At the end of the day, you own the vision, execution, and results.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The myth is, you have all these people around you and they’re bringing you coffee, and you’re flying around in a jet, and making these exorbitant paychecks. It’s life in the fast lane, the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But in truth, you might be moving your office furniture one day or filling the coffee machine another day. At least that’s my style. You’re not above doing anything. If it helps advance the company, from big tasks to small, you do it with enthusiasm.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The number one thing is that they come in like a bull in a china shop and say, “I’m going to make these 42 changes.” Even if those changes make sense, you have to first do a ‘listening tour.’ This gives you the opportunity to see all perspectives, and if you do make changes, they come from more empathy and context. The old-fashioned, top down, brash approach no longer works.
I think it’s the number one reason why people that might be super intelligent and have great ideas fail; they lose the hearts of the people involved in any change. You need to give them the vision before you start making changes.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
My answer to that right now would be HR. They are a big part of communicating the culture of a company. They are the pulse takers of how people feel about their employee journey. If you want to transform a company to do something extraordinary, you need that human resource advocate sitting on your wing.
HR has to adjudicate multiple generations, different work styles, time zones, cultures and expectations. They have to process these disparate elements and make it work.
Fortunately, HR is getting more credibility, and COVID taught us that HR is a priceless asset in such a crisis. HR is also finally getting C-Suite level positions as companies realize they need to invest further in HR-related functions. As a result, HR jobs are now in high demand.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- First thing is that I would have to change my mindset from being a specialist to a generalist. Becoming CEO was a big wake-up call. A CMO has a specific job, growing the sales pipeline and the company. A CFO is in charge of financial controls and HR has their role. But a CEO has to be involved in all areas to lead the company.
- That segways into the second thing: the ability to focus — to think critically about each functional area, and to prioritize actions that would deliver the best results for the company — is an important part of being an effective CEO. IGEL’s founder, Heiko Gloge always used the phrase ‘be focused’ at kickoff events. Now, working across all the areas in our company, I really understand what it means!
- Thirdly, never forget that people make a company successful, that a CEO has to be emotionally connected to the employees. This connection leads to better results in working with domain experts in the company, with getting buy-in and enthusiasm in executing on projects to grow the company. Also, when a crisis like COVID hits, that emotional connection supports better communication. To this point, as CEO, you need to engineer productive relationships with your board and investors. As the new global CEO at IGEL I’ve been working to strike a balance between taking advice from principal stakeholders and staying firm to the vision we want to move ahead.
- Fourth, on a day-to-day practical level, bringing organization and prioritization to your own work life is essential to being a healthy, productive leader. As CEO, you need to question every meeting and ask yourself, “Do I really need to be on that call or in that meeting?” Controlling your calendar is a big one to make sure there is time for the activities with the most impact. Another piece of advice that would have been good is not to slip into your comfort zone. If you come from a sales and marketing background like I do, engineering is a different mindset, but as CEO, you really need that lens across all types of thinking. Take the meetings that are uncomfortable but might produce really powerful results.
- Fifth, is to really be present in a meeting, in conversation, in the work in front of you. As CEO you can get pulled in so many directions, but you have to control the urge to multi-task and weaken communication with those in your company.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Adopt a ‘servant’s heart’ culture in the workplace. Let everyone know that we’re going to take care of each other. It’s a little bit like creating a family atmosphere within the company and it translates into different actions. If a person needs help with a problem or sales account, for example, we help them even if they’re not a direct responsibility on a team.
I’ve heard from quite a few employees that they’ve never seen people that are so helpful. I think this creates a positive balance, that our employees are not all in it just for themselves.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
I truly believe the existential crisis of our generation is climate change. The best way to change this is to become a digital society, instead of having billions of people trudging off to an office building. When we do need to be on site, we should all be driving an electric car. Besides buying a new vehicle, if we could make it super affordable to convert gas vehicles to electric vehicles it would make a big impact quickly. Climate change may be a runaway train at this point, but at a minimum we should push to make electric vehicles affordable for everyone.
At IGEL we recognize there is place for the office and that humans need to be around each other. We can only do so much through the Zoom screen. Part of why we have good relationships is we’ve met each other, we’ve had dinner together, we’ve broken bread together. But we are also trying to deliver on our vision of a more digital society, transforming the way the world works. We want people to be able to use virtualization solutions, including IGEL software, so they have the ability to work from anywhere on any device and in that way we are truly transforming the world’s culture of work.
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