As a part of our series called ‘Five Things, I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Lex Boost.
Lex Boost is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leaseweb USA. He is responsible for the development and execution of Leaseweb’s core vision and strategy across the United States. With over 20 years’ experience in the digital industry, he has gained leadership experience from a broad range of organizations and cultures, including both B2B and B2C markets, in startups, as well as large corporations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial and started working at a young age in different jobs. I started out working as a delivery person for a liquor store/brewery at the age of 15, supplying the local pubs with all that they needed. After college, I started my own company with a friend developing a platform which could be used to distribute content (e.g. music, text, images, etc) via a website or short message codes (sending a text to a number) so they could for instance, download music as ringtones onto their phones. We developed a platform that enabled the first texting for “Big Brother” and a voting system for ‘Star Maker’ (predecessor of X Factor) in the Netherlands. This is how I first met Leaseweb founder Con Zwinkels, who was one floor above me starting his business. My incubator company became one of Leasweb’s first customers back in 1997.
Ten years later, I decided to exit out of the company and go in the opposite direction to challenge myself, taking leadership roles at very big enterprises. I worked for a large telco, went on to head up digital for one of the biggest paper companies in the world, and later moved to a giant TV conglomerate, running a popular dating website. Then Leaseweb and my path crossed again, they were looking to grow Leasweb’s business in the U.S. When I joined Leaseweb USA in 2014, we had one data center and a dozen employees in the region. Today, our footprint has grown to 10 DCs and we employ 75 people across the country.
What led me to each role in my career path was the opportunity to build something entirely new and different. It’s been a winding journey, driven by the entrepreneur inside of me who thrives on creating and growing something from the ground up.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Leaseweb USA has grown sixfold over the last seven years, which is an indication of how quickly we’ve been able to move and adapt to the market. We like to come up with cheeky names for major projects like the “Exodus,” which was when we moved one of our locations to another. We completed it within weeks when other companies would take months. What’s fascinating to me about our company is our appetite for taking on huge projects that others shy away from or think can’t be done.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our business is all about kW (kilowatts) versus kVA (kilovolt-ampere) or Gbps vs Gigabits and an alphabet soup of many acronyms. When I first started, you can imagine the number of mistakes one could make, confusing kW with Gb (gigabits) with kW hours with kVA. Within two weeks of getting hired, I had to join negotiations for a data center location in San Francisco, which is something I had never done before. I had to learn the lingo very quickly and not without a few stumbles in the process.
Also, I spent a large part of my career working in Europe, where calendar dates are written as day/month/year versus here in the U.S. where we write month/day/year. So early on, I’d show up to a meeting as the only attendee or miss a meeting all together just because I got the dates wrong.
I think the simple lesson from both of these stories is that you’re going to encounter situations where people do things very differently than what you’re used to. Whether you’re coming in at an entry level role or as the CEO of a company, there’s a learning curve.
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 about that?
There hasn’t been that one individual, but rather there are a number of people who over the years have had a profound impact on me for different reasons. I look up to my father for being a solid rock who worked his entire life, some 50 years, for a massive multinational company and has amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge that way. My grandmother was a woman entrepreneur & kids clothing designer in the 1940s. In the end together with my grandfather, they had two factories that made children’s clothing, and even after my grandfather passedI, she kept the business running on her own. Her drive and ability to power through in the face of adversity has been a source of inspiration that I tap into when I run into difficult times.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
My perspective comes from someone who grew up all over the world. We lived in Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Holland, and the U.S. Those experiences normalized diversity for me from a very young age. So, the notion of assigning roles or an employee’s worth based on gender, nationality or otherwise is incomprehensible to me. It certainly doesn’t make sense for business.
I also recognize that while I personally don’t see the world through a biased lens, I have to make sure that we as a company don’t as well. We need to address these issues head on and have the conversation. Leaseweb is very much a company that believes that everyone brings value to the table. You are weighed against your capability, not your background or where you came from.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Leaseweb is a company that embraces diversity. Globally, we have well over 38 different nationalities working on our teams. I think the company’s inclusive culture stems from its Dutch heritage. Holland has always been a “flat country” from the perspective that everyone is equal. You’re not better than me, and I’m not better than you. You see this for instance in its schooling. Regardless of whether you’re an average Joe or you’re from the wealthiest family in Holland, you can all go to the same school.
We have a couple of Dutch employees on the U.S. team who are known to be outspoken and direct. Seeing them ask me, the CEO of the company, very pointed questions during town hall meetings can come as a surprise to many people. However, I welcome the tough questions, and my door is always open.
As a business leader, I believe you need to create those safe spaces where your employees know they have a voice and can engage in difficult conversations.
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 CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
When you’re an executive, it’s all about people. Your decisions are much less about the process and more focused on the people you put in place to run the process. As CEO, you also become more of a generalist versus a specialist. I equate it to a football team on the playing field. You have your specialists like the quarterback, the kicker and defensive ends. They each have a narrow focus. Those players are also managed by specialists such as the quarterback coach or the defensive coordinator. Then there’s the generalist, and that’s the team coach standing on the sideline. Like a football coach, CEOs have to take a much wider view of the playing field and ensure everyone on the team is working in sync.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the biggest misconceptions about CEOs is that they don’t do anything. We’ve seen that fictional image in movies, where the boss is sitting at a desk, feet up, while everyone else is doing the work. To the contrary, the demands on CEOs are only escalating.
In my case, I feel I have less time now than I’ve ever had. I wish I had more time. As the people on my team will tell you, I like getting my hands dirty. I’m making phone calls to customers. I’m talking to the people on the ground in our data centers, asking questions. I’ll go straight to the source. In a company our size, so much work has to get done, there simply isn’t time for anyone to sit dormant.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I come back to the people point again. When I first started out, I thought my energy would be heavily focused on managing core activities of the business like selling and coming up with new products. In reality, my job has been more about making sure we hire the best people who are the right fit and who will help us grow the company.
I’m a big believer that HR needs to have a seat at the table. The head of HR should be part of the executive team and report directly to the CEO. Having a strong HR department will only help your company thrive.
Leaseweb USA has had the fortune of being recognized three years in a row as one of the Best Workplaces in Virginia, and much of that credit goes to our HR director. We need to be the employer of choice, and we need to show that we care because that’s what customers want in a business partner or vendor.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Some people think they want to be a manager for no other reason than it’s in their head. But when they get there, many realize they aren’t good at it or that they don’t like it. I think that to be a successful executive, you need to be able to negotiate and be a diplomat. You need to understand that you have a wider scope of responsibility and not fall into the trap of thinking one department is more important than another. Ultimately, it’s the group goal that should be driving the decisions across every department. There are all these different forces that are working within the company, and your job as the CEO is to make sure they’re all moving in the same direction. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, take being a CEO off your vision board.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
As I mentioned, Leaseweb USA has had three great years of being selected as one of the Best Workplaces in Virginia. We know that customers and job seekers value what that recognition stands for. To be an employer of choice, you need to create a culture of inclusiveness, and that starts with listening to people.
One of the ways we do this is by conducting surveys to solicit their ideas and input. As we’re contemplating how everyone is going to return to the office, we know that we need input from our colleagues on what’s going to work for them. We may find that what we thought was important 18 months ago, before COVID-19, no longer is. Also, I used to do quarterly town halls with our employees. We asked for their feedback, and they said they wanted shorter but more frequent meetings. So now I host a town hall every month.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As the captain of the ship at Leaseweb USA, I’ve tried to steer us to a place where every employee feels heard and valued. My hope is that being a part of our company has opened new doors for people and had a positive impact on their lives, professionally and personally. It’s the way we treat each other with respect, talk about issues and question the status quo that I believe is helping our people think about the world differently, for the better.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Let me preface this by saying I don’t think you start as a CEO. Most of the time, you grow into the role or that realm of responsibility. Each step of the way, you learn things that you wish you’d known earlier.
- People, people, people. I can’t repeat enough that it’s all about the people. When I first started out, I thought I’d be knee-deep in managing the business. It didn’t take long for me to realize that everything hinges on recruiting the right people to do the work. As a CEO, you need to make sure you have a strong and adept HR team that will place the right people in every job.
- A paying customer is a customer — otherwise, they’re not. It’s not personal, it’s just business. This lesson I learned the hard way in my own company by being too accommodating to the customers’ needs. Ultimately, your responsibility is to the company and employees to make sure they get paid. If a customer doesn’t pay, it leads to a whole chain of events. In the past it would happen that I was too nice and lenient with a customer, agreeing to let them pay next month. However, that puts a lot of strain on the rest of the company.
- Rise above the politics, if you can. I didn’t have my first taste of corporate politics until ten years into my career because I was running my own business from the get-go. Then I saw it when I started working for big companies, wherein one occasion we flew to another country to start a project and the colleagues there literally didn’t let me into the building. Knowing that there are often sharks swimming below the executive level deck would have saved me a whole lot of anguish.
- You have to let go. One of the most difficult choices we can make in business and in life is to let go of something. It might be an underperforming product, a person on your team or simply holding the reins. You have to release the reins and trust the process and the people you put in places to do it. It also means killing your darlings. I’ve worked for companies where they should have sold off part of the business long before they actually did.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. This may sound trite to someone who carries the weighty responsibility of running a company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to do something as simple as providing clean water and basic hygienic infrastructure around the world. We take these things for granted, while many parts of the world still lack the basic essential of clean drinking water. It’s killing more people, especially children in regions like Africa, than any other disease in our history.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I always say, “Fail fast.” It’s either going to work or it’s not. Using marketing as an example, I have no problem putting money toward an idea or pilot to see if it sticks. I’d rather someone try something and fail quickly than see them do nothing out of fear of failure. The only way to know if something is going to work is to try it. Just do it fast.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Because I’m a big tech geek and also an entrepreneur at heart, I’d put Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on the top of my list. I’d want to pick their brains about how to approach solving problems and hear first-hand how they grew their companies and what motivated them.
But there are also historical icons like JFK and MLK who would make for a brilliant lunch conversation. I’m a big history buff, and if I hadn’t gone into business, I would have majored in history. I’d love to be a fly on the wall during those moments in history that made these men great.