Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Barber.
Jeff Barber is a Partner and the EVP of Sales and Business Development at Prime Data Centers, a wholesale data center developer. Jeff has over 20 years of experience in enterprise tech sales leadership for blue chip companies like Oracle and Dell/EMC. He has built and managed high-performance sales teams spanning the globe, and has worked to plan and manage the launch of multiple products in the IT hardware space. He’s happiest on a long motorcycle ride and skiing in the Sierras.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Way back in the mid-90s, I started with HP as a sales manager working on maintenance contracts. Enterprise tech was a very different beast back then and I’ve been fortunate to watch it evolve over these past 20+ years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my technology career I was a Systems Operator for the California State Lottery. This position started, ended and managed the game throughout the day. We were operating the game statewide with three DEC VAX systems in an N+2 configuration. If primary fails we run the game or process on secondary, and if that fails we run the system on the 3rd backup. I took a small break to grab something to eat, planning to run a simple backup job on the 3rd system. This backup job required me to “kill” the game, then perform the backup. Not a problem since I still had the primary and secondary systems running the game…completely normal situation and normal operation.
Except it wasn’t “normal” this time. During my break we had two system failures I was unaware of. We were running on that third system as our last resort. Returning to my console, I sat down and started happily typing the “Killsys” command. Thankfully a much more experienced operator literally grabbed my hand and pointed my head at the very large status board, which read “WE ARE RUNNING ON SYSTEM THREE”.
The lesson? Procedures and checklists exist for a reason. The first thing I should have done is look at that status board, the second thing I should have done is ask for a status prior to sitting at the console. The third thing I should have done is verify on the system that it was not running the entire state! I did none of these things…
This very close call (and job ending mistake) is ingrained in me now. Whether I am working in data replication/protection or operating a 20 MW data center, standardization and validated/tested procedures mitigate risk. They do not eliminate risk, you still need to assess the situation properly, but they definitely mitigate risk. In a mission critical environment, failure to create and follow procedures in IT can cost the company millions every day.
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? Can you share a story?
My mom. She always supported me, on top of a full-time job and being a single parent. She always had great advice at every turn.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When Prime Data Centers was started in 2017, it was really just an investment thesis at its core. Many investment firms start out that way. You typically test your investment thesis before you begin building a brand around it. Over time, an investment thesis can evolve into a vision and purpose. Our foundational investment thesis was that there was a powerful, long-term, secular trend around data proliferation. Therefore, the global demand for data centers, and wholesale data centers in particular, was likely to continue to strengthen.
That investment thesis has proven accurate so far and has begun to evolve into a growing Prime Data Centers brand. Our mission is “To empower our clients to become more profitable and resilient through best-in-class data center infrastructure.” Our vision is a world in which data of all types is more secure, more accurate, and more useful to humanity. Our purpose is to work towards achieving that vision.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Currently, Prime Data Centers is experiencing a lot of growth, but our team is still small. So, everyone is stretched well beyond their standard job descriptions. Left untreated, that can lead to burnout and balls being dropped. So, we’re doing a few things to address it.
- We’re clearly communicating (internally) our plan to staff up.
- We’re making sure that our employees know that they have a stake in our success, primarily through our equity sharing plan.
- We’re making sure that everyone actually takes vacation and takes their work/life balance and mental health seriously.
We also all try to emphasize that business is always uncertain. Especially in smaller companies. So our team doesn’t expect certainty. They are prepared to be agile and resilient in the face of uncertainty. As with anything, you have to lead by example, so our executive team role models calm heads and resolve.
For example, in data center real estate development, the projects are massive and complex. The customer needs are mission critical. So success requires tremendous discipline in project management and redundancy. Things often go wrong but your plan must have built-in contingencies without allowing your costs to inflate too much.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
We never considered giving up. We were lucky in that our industry was one of the few that actually benefited from the forces that the pandemic unleashed. So we were encouraged to keep striving towards our vision and continue building this company around our increasingly proven investment thesis.
However, if you stay in commercial real estate for long enough, you witness many boom-and-bust cycles. That strengthens your resolve and provides useful perspective on how to fully capitalize on the booms and how to ride out the busts.
We play in two industries: commercial real estate and enterprise tech. While enterprise technology has been enjoying a multi-year boom that shows no signs of abating, commercial real estate is more vulnerable to swings.
The excitement of all of this, and the feeling of providing real value to our clients, is what sustains our drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To role model these five characteristics:
Leaders have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If a leader is being a solid role model on Vision, Focus, Confidence, Creativity, and Agility, the organization has a very good chance of not just survival, but success. One of the more legendary tech leaders, Andy Grove of Intel, liked to say about downturns that it’s crucial to “keep swimming”. Intel would increase its strategic lead versus competitors by investing during downturns. That behavior was excellent role modeling of nearly all five of the characteristics I’ve mentioned.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The future of pretty much anything is uncertain. Resiliency is about not allowing uncertainty to get you down. In fact, true resilience is about thriving despite uncertainty. So a leader needs to understand how to cultivate institutional resilience and, even more important, they need to personally role model resilience.
In decades past, business leaders might have told their employees to simply buck up and deal with it. Today, the best leaders understand that mental health is key to productivity and ultimately to the success of a company. We’re seeing a lot of welcome evolution in terms of how companies are trying to provide atmospheres that encourage employees to take care of their mental health.
A great example of that is the once prominent, but now quickly fading trend of unlimited vacation policies. The data shows that employees actually take less vacation at companies with unlimited vacation policies.
It’s more beneficial to both employer and employee to have a predetermined vacation allotment that is mandatory to take. For example, many companies have begun to give most departments the week between Christmas and New Years off. It works well because that’s a natural lull in business activity anyway. Hubspot just recently gave employees a “Global Week of Rest” in early July.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Ideally verbally and in person. Just like breaking up with a romantic partner via text message is generally not a good idea, communicating bad news in a business environment via email is generally not a good idea. If the news can’t be delivered verbally and in person, at least go for asynchronous video. Record a video message as if you were in the same room at the same time as the recipient of your message. There are plenty of apps today that make that easy to do well.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
That’s how good leaders are forged…in uncertain times. Anybody can succeed in a certain future. As a leader today, you make plans based on your experience, talents, and perspectives, those of the team you’ve built around you, and the data available to you. If you can’t comfortably lead given those tools, you should probably step down.
Look at it this way: we’re the first generation of leadership that has access to the kind of data we do. So in many respects, we have a leg up on generations of leaders past.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I don’t think so. If success could be boiled down to one constant, universal principle, we’d all be quite successful. If I was forced to choose however, I’d say resilience. Take the time to learn what that really means. Read Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Absolutely. Psychological bias accounts for many of the common mistakes businesses make during difficult times. For example, an established incumbent (like Blockbuster) often fails to recognize and internalize the threat of a disruptive force (like delivery and streaming). Even if they do recognize that threat, they often don’t act on it, for fear of cannibalizing existing business lines.
One way to avoid that is to have a long-term strategy group that specializes in studying disruptive threats and how the company can turn those from threats into opportunities. That group should be a cross-section of leaders from the various business units, but it should also be independent from those business units.
In my opinion, the cognitive bias codex (shown below) is one of the most important graphics to familiarize oneself with for success in both business and life.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Increasing profit is healthy to focus on first. It forces the company to examine two crucial things: 1) how to deliver more value to the customer, and 2) how to deliver that value more efficiently. If you can make progress against one or both of those, you’ll strengthen your business for the long run.
The opportunity that a lot of business leaders miss during turbulent times is to capitalize on changing needs from your customers. In tough times, companies too often turn inwards. The best companies focus outwards, on how their customer’s needs are changing and how the competitive landscape is shifting.
For example, home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot typically do well during recessions because people are renovating themselves rather than hiring outside contractors or buying a new home. They have both capitalized on that trend, by staying tuned to the needs of homeowners. Lowes doubled down on strengthening their e-commerce capabilities when Covid hit. It allowed their suddenly home-bound customers to plan improvement projects digitally and pick up their purchases with curbside pickup.
At Prime Data Centers, focusing on profitability has been tough amidst rising input costs, due to high global demand combined with industry supply chain problems. So we’ve been looking at how we can deliver more value to customers and how to do so more efficiently aside from our input costs. We’ve been delivering more value by doing things like improving our data analytics capabilities.
Our sales cycle tends to be long, often lasting for 6–12 months. So we try to keep our sales engine running and our pipelines full by keeping our conversations with our customers focused on the long-term. Recessions and enterprise tech cycles come and go, but baseline data center needs tend to reliably increase with time.
Once you’ve tried your best to increase profit, then you can also address generating new business. It will likely be difficult because a lot of your customers will be tightening budgets during tough times. If that’s true, it may be wiser to focus on finding new lines of business rather than simply trying to extract more revenue from existing lines of business. After all, the opportunities evolve most during tough times. A lot of the most successful startups were launched during recessions.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Certainly. To begin with, I recognize that change is constant. So “uncertain or difficult” is relative. Most of us would rarely say that the future of our personal life or business is certain or easy. In relatively uncertain or difficult times, I try to adhere to five core characteristics:
Prime Data Centers has grown through the covid pandemic, as well as other disruptive forces in information technology, like the dangerous rise in ransomware.
We’ve kept on course through these rough waters by keeping focused on our end goal and being agile and creative enough to adapt to whatever changes were thrown our way, both anticipated and unanticipated.
One particular story that comes to mind has to do with a situation that many businesses face at least once. Turning away revenue is never easy. For a startup juggling cash flow management, it’s even more difficult. And if you happen to be the EVP of Sales and Business Development, as I am, it’s even more difficult.
At Prime, we were faced with that decision. We turned away revenue for the long-term benefit of the company.
We were getting inbound interest in renting small amounts of our data center space…a service called retail colocation. For a while, we discussed whether we should try to accommodate those requests, even though we were really built to serve wholesale data center development only.
Ultimately, we decided not to get into the retail colocation business because we recognized that it is a quite different business than wholesale data center development. It requires different capabilities. We knew that our core competence was in wholesale development and we decided to focus on that.
That decision not only allowed us to maintain a more powerful focus as a business, but it also allowed us to stay away from competing with retail colocation providers, which was a market segment that was quite attractive to us as a wholesale developer.
Our recently announced deal with Cyxtera is a perfect proof point.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yes, one of my favorite life lesson quotes is: “Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it.” ―Irving Berlin
I might change that to 20/80 or even 30/70, but regardless, it’s true that how you react to the world around you, and how well you realize that some things are in your control, but most are not, largely decides how happy and fulfilled you will be. That quote has helped me free up time that would have been unproductive, focusing on negative feelings, and instead put that time towards positive progress.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way is on LinkedIn. You can find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jabarber1/