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 Joe Vitalone.
Joe Vitalone is Chief Revenue Officer at Extreme Networks. In this role, he oversees global sales, services, channel, and sales operations teams. His primary responsibilities include driving sales productivity and helping to grow Extreme’s market share, revenue, and partnerships. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in sales, marketing, and operations management. Prior to joining Extreme, he served as EVP and President, Americas Sales and Services for Mitel, and Vice President of Sales and Worldwide Channel Marketing at ShoreTel (later acquired by Mitel). Joe helped these companies reach their all-time stock market and 52-week high.
Joe was most recently Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Jemez Technology, where he drove the growth and success of global sales and marketing programs, ensuring that initiatives from both departments were integrated and driving toward the same overall goal of increasing revenue. Previously, Joe served as Chief Marketing Officer at Arrow Systems Integration, now ConvergeOne, and Chief Marketing Officer at Razberi Technologies.
A technology and sales expert to his core, Joe started his career in sales working for companies including AT&T and Polycom. Joe graduated from Western Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations.
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?
I’ve spent the last 37 years in high tech — working in voice, video, data networking and security. I had major career stints at Mitel, Polycom and ShoreTel. I also worked for a series of start-ups that went big and companies that went public, so I’ve completed S1 filings and been a part of three acquisitions.
During my career, I also had a 7-year stint in the music industry as a country music label executive in my spare time. That experience taught me anything can be accomplished. My wife and I founded our own record label to help our daughter that has musical talent. At the time, I had no experience in the music industry. Everyone told me that it couldn’t be done, but we used my relevant business experience as an executive and speaker to open doors and we were able to form an independent record label to kickstart my daughter’s music career. From there, we hired a publicist, built a band, created an album, and my daughter appeared on the Billboard music charts. She opened for the biggest artists and toured across the country to thousands of fans. All of that would not have happened had we listened to the people saying it can’t be done.
During my time in the music industry, we had the opportunity to call Keith Urban’s manager (Mark Moffit) and set up a meeting with his team. I was so proud that we took the chance and made that call. Now as a CRO at Extreme Networks, I bring that same confidence when I cold-call a new prospect or business partner.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story that happened to me since I started my career was when I was at ShoreTel being recruited by Mitel, and I was offered the job of Executive Vice President of the Americas. My soon-to-be new boss called me in the office on Valentine’s Day. He said, “I have good news and I have exciting news.” The good news was that I got the job, and the exciting news was that they were thinking of acquiring my soon to be former company, putting me in a very unique position. The planned acquisition didn’t happen the first time but was successful the second time. That was the wildest ride I have been on over the course of several weeks. Only in technology would that happen, and it turned out to be a good marriage, and those companies are continuing to thrive to this day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
The quote that I live by is, “Those that do what they have always done will always get what they have always got.” Meaning, if you just stay with the status quo, you won’t see change or much progress. This is why I’ve always pushed myself outside the box, and I work to get outside of my comfort zone. If you’re uncomfortable with public speaking, push yourself to be a better speaker. If you have a fear of something, try it anyway — that’s what will help you build your career and get you to where you really want to be. The confidence that you can overcome anything that tries to keep you in a box is the magic.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
“Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t,” by Jim Collins. It’s a book that I spend a lot of time rereading and adding sticky notes to the text. I’ve managed people across various companies and startups, and many have been successful, so there’s a lot of anecdotes or lessons in that book that I saw lived out in my career. Disciplined leadership, Discipline thoughts, Disciplined actions.
“Don’t let perfection get in the way of the good,” is another lesson that I learned from that book and others. It’s a must-read whether you’re far into your career or an up-and-coming business professional.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Extreme Networks stand out is the people. I’ll speak about the leadership team specifically — the management team is forward-facing, candid, transparent, and truly values diversity and inclusion. Extreme really lives by those principles — it’s the first company where I see the values written on the wall realized.
From our board of directors to the leadership team and management teams, we work hard but we look after each other’s health and make sure that we’re doing it with the right balance.
I’ve worked for some really good companies in my life, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great CEOs. However, our CEO Ed Meyercord at Extreme is a genuine leader– he sets the tone and everybody lines up and enrolls. He walks the talk daily.
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?
I’ve had some great mentors so if you don’t have them, get them. They will pull you along in this symbiotic kind of relationship. Your mentors will pull you along in your life but you have to ask for help. Get outside your box.
If you just take a look around, there are people with so much wisdom and experience. You should take advantage of that and can avoid mistakes that have already been made. The mentors in my life really helped me compress my timeline to get to where I wanted to go as the youngest Vice President at AT&T.
And it’s beyond just the business realm. Some of my mentors have been sports figures, family members, and people that I really trusted to give me sound advice outside the industry.
I’ve guest lectured at the MBA school at the University of Southern California almost every semester for many years. I teach about human networking (aside from the COVID semester) and to this day, I stay in touch with many of those students and have become mentors for a lot of them. It’s rewarding to watch them go on to be successful.
Whether it’s helping raise venture capital, building a resume, public speaking, or cultural differences, or negotiating your compensation there’s a lot you can learn through mentorships.
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?
The worst advice I ever received that I wish is never followed is that getting promoted is an age thing, a chronological game. I started to believe I needed to be 30 to be a VP, I needed to be 40 to be this or that, I needed to be 50 to start a company, etc. But that all went out the window. It was advice I received from someone a lot older than me. I don’t believe that now; I think you set your own progression. Your career is a direct result of the effort you put into it, and what you ask for. If you really want something, you can obtain it. You can’t collapse time, but you certainly accelerate experience to help get you to where you want to go.
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?
Energy is number one. I’ve always had a lot of passion and energy for what I was doing and if I don’t like the job I have, I switch to a new position. It’s important to have a lot of energy, be transparent with people, and treat them the way that you want to be treated.
The second is to lead by example. I think if you ask people about me, they will tell you that I’m not “fear based” critical leader, I’m a carrot leader. I tend to get out front, run with the team, carry the flag, and charge the hill. If they can’t do it, I will do it for them or certainly try. Our CEO Ed Meyercord has similar attributes, he is front and center.
The third is to practice self-awareness. Learn how to take criticism well and grow from it, and it will help foster a strong career. Most people ignore it and don’t want to hear negative things about them, and they don’t want to give constructive feedback. If you do it genuinely with high integrity, those are good qualities whether you’re in a management role or you’re in a sales or operations capacity.
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?
I think a C-Level executive looks at the bigger picture of the vision five years from now. For example, when I was in middle level management, I was more focused on day to day, this week, this month, this quarter. Right now as a CRO, I’m thinking how to grow the organization three years from now. The hires you make today will impact you three years from now — they’re going to build a company that may be generating $20 million in revenue today, but three years from now it’s going to be $100 million.
C-Level executives handle scaling, so it’s about making decisions that they play backwards in their head. They’ve seen the movie and they’re working backwards. If I’m a golfer, the analogy would be from green to tee rather than from tee to green. You visualize the goal and how you are going to work backwards to get to the goal.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think what people get wrong is that we really don’t care about them at every level. I was recently on the phone fixing an employee’s healthcare in Singapore because the healthcare situation there is challenging. The C-Suite does care. We’ve lost a few people tragically this year and you could see the effects that it had on the C-Suite and how it affected these people’s families and in the company.
I think the C-Suite is very people-oriented but the “myth” is that we’re just machines and robots and we’re looking more about margins and profits and price per share. I don’t see that at Extreme. I see a genuine belief in people and their lives, children and careers. There is an emphasis on learning, whether it’s outside the company at a higher level of education or if it’s inside the company learning how to do something new or creating a new core competency.
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 most common leadership mistake I’ve seen C-Suite leaders make is that they don’t listen. Employees will tell you about their first-hand experiences on the ground, offering insights that can really help you guide the ship. You must be a good active listener and hear their words, conjecture, tone of voice and pick up on their passion. Of course, there is some filtration that you have to do. That’s the role you play in any leadership position. The best leaders I’ve seen listen way more than they speak.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The aspect that tends to be the most underestimated is building a team, from the interview process to hiring the employee. You have to make sure that the fit is right for the employee and for the company. During the interview process, there needs to be a lot of structure around the questions that are asked and the role you’re trying to fill to make sure you get the right fit. You need to put that person in a position to win. If you want to dial in that process and get the right fit culturally, you need to make sure they have the proper energy for the role to set them up for success.
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.
- The true demands of the job. You need to understand the expectations of the job so you can be committed to do the work. It’s not a 24-hour a day role, but it’s a lot of hours. Managing a global enterprise means dealing with 20+ time zones and, until recently, lots of international travel. Work is not a place you go but a thing you do, and in the C-Suite it tends to never end. Having fun despite working long hours, focusing on wins, and creating a family-friendly environment is important for the team and key to making an unpredictable schedule manageable.
- How are you going to be measured. It’s important that you know the expectations of how you’re going to be measured. Whether it’s price per share, gross margin revenues, or customer sales, every C-Suite member needs to understand how they are going to be measured in that capacity. For example, I’m measured on the company plan, which lines up with the rest of the C-Suite. It’s a combination of gross margins, revenues, and profitability for the company. Not all CROs take this approach, some are just measured on revenues.
- Understand your hiring capabilities and your budget. For example, a lot of C-Suite leaders tend to jump on board, and they don’t really understand what the budget is or what they’re going to be allowed to do. Before you take the job, you need to understand what the finances are. Before I got here, they disclosed exactly what the budget was, what I was going to be allowed to do, so that I could make informed decisions on the business. That was very helpful because it was at a critical time during COVID-19. There were tough decisions that had to be made with respect to people, places, safety issues and facilities.
- Practice flexibility and latitude to succeed. With COVID-19, we are dealing with things they don’t train you on and they don’t teach in school. I spent 25 years in the video conferencing market. I was advocating 25 years ago that work is “not a place you go, it’s the thing you do.” For the first time, all of us are doing this, and we’re just starting to have live events. I’ve been able to deal with this a little better than my peers because I’ve been living it and talking about it for 25 years. At Extreme, we are all on Zoom or Microsoft Teams virtually around the world. These experiences will help you, but you have to understand what your latitude is.
- Expect the unexpected. You take a job and you think that everything is going to be rosy, but you’re going to face obstacles and you don’t get a hall pass. You must still maintain revenues, profitability, and earnings per share despite the circumstances. I would advise any C-Suite executive to prepare for anything to happen. For example, you need to start hiring and looking for people before other people leave your company. You need to have a great succession plan and always be looking for your replacement. I had a key employee retire, who led a very successful career, and we had a backup plan immediately for that person. We’re not going to leave a 90-day vacancy at my level and at the publicly traded level, you can’t afford to. C-Suite leaders must make sure that at all levels of the company you do succession planning, so you are in a position to recommend a successor and start to train those people for those roles.
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?
Work culture is critically important to the growth of the company. At Extreme, we have employee resource groups that get together and discuss topics across cultures. For Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re doing a lot to understand the different traditions and cultural values. Kimberley Basnight is the Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Extreme, and spearheads most of these initiatives. When employees see executives participate in employee resource groups, it can help create a culture of inclusivity and transparency.
Through my work with employee resource groups, it helps me as a leader to understand the different cultures around the globe. There are over 70 languages we do business in countries worldwide. We are dealing with different currencies, cultures, and different sets of values. It’s not uncommon to be talking to people in 13 countries on a given day. I’ll be on video every day talking to people in different languages or accents with different issues, currencies, time zones, and age groups.
Lastly, you have to pay attention to make sure employees aren’t overworked or fatigued. It’s important to allow people to shut cameras off and ensure they are doing things they’re passionate about outside of work. It’s important for leaders to pay attention to not just the number of hours employees work, but how they’re taking care of 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. :-)
If I could start the biggest movement, I would encourage internships and early career success. I would do something for young people to encourage them to pursue a career in data. Networking is complicated, and not everyone is an engineer. I would like to encourage young people to choose the networking industry as a career choice. The industry is not just about Wi-Fi access — it’s also hardware, software, services, and human resources. There is a lot you can do in this career.
I would advocate for strong internship programs. Here at Extreme, we have Extreme Academy, which provides courses designed to equip aspiring IT professionals with critical training, business skills, and valuable industry certifications & accreditations, as well as an internship program.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can follow my LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-vitalone-499ab916.