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 Lon Baker.
Lon Baker, COO of VirtualPBX, has decades of experience in telecommunications, both as an entrepreneur and as a prominent figure of the company he now leads. His ambition and hard work have propelled VirtualPBX to be a global provider of voice, video, and texting services for businesses of all sizes. He has reshaped the way in which VirtualPBX serves its customers and has played a pivotal role in the company’s recent migration from its legacy platform of the 2000s to the current API-based Dash platform it now uses. There is no individual better suited to speak about business growth and the mindset required to transition from entrepreneur to executive.
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 started my technology and business career in the 80s, as a teenager. I would cut school to program computers at home on my Texas Instruments Ti-99 4A since schools did not yet have computer classes. My business career started as the manager of a video arcade in my late teens. Later I managed a pizza delivery shop, then combined my love of technology with the explosion of the digital publishing that the Apple Laser printer fueled as a Regional Technology Manager for Kinko’s before it was acquired by FedEx.
This all led to my first startup: an email and customer service company called Mailtank that I built for 10 years as a co-founder and CTO before I landed at VirtualPBX.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
After nearly 40 years in business, there are so many. I would say the most recent is also the most interesting and important. I led the team at VirtualPBX that reinvented the platform that powers VirtualPBX.
It was slow at first, and I watched a team of engineers spend several years designing and planning how to upgrade our platform without much progress. We needed to rewrite the code from scratch.
Even after rereading Joel Spolsky’s famous article on Things You Should Never Do — which includes rewriting code from scratch — we had no choice, so I designed a process that broke the monumental project into manageable, measurable processes that focused the entire company on achieving dozens of sprints that delivered a successful platform replacement.
It was an amazing accomplishment by the entire team that empowered team members and laid the foundation for VirtualPBX that will power our company for years to come.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” — Zig Ziglar
Every day, whether at work or in my personal life, direction is what drives me and provides a sense of satisfaction and achievement.
In my personal life, as a cyclist, I set a goal for completing a series of events known as the California Triple Crown, completing three 200 mile single-day endurance events. Having that direction helped me complete events I would not have attempted or finished. The longest of which took 18 hours, started at 6 a.m., and finished a couple of minutes before midnight.
Each time, the immediate aftermath had me stating I would never do it again; then I’d wake up in the morning wanting to do it again.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I can not say any book impacted my leadership style as much as working with my peers over the years. Having worked as a manager since I was 15 years old, leadership has always come naturally to me. As the oldest child in a single parent household, I often took on responsibilities beyond my years and never shied away from filling the gaps I could see in any team I joined.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
VirtualPBX stands out as an established service provider that believes deeply in delivering outstanding customer service. At VirtualPBX, our features and price are comparable and competitive, but our service is what sets us apart.
A recent customer was shocked when their request received a call from myself and several senior team members. We wanted to deeply understand what the customer wanted to achieve and see how we could play a part in their success. This helped our customer, and it helped us improve ourselves.
We never stop learning and striving to be better.
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?
If there is any secret to my success, it is an insatiable desire to keep learning, constantly reevaluating processes for improvements, and just start. So many times, I see people plan and plot their path to success, but they either never start or they stop early because reality does not match their plans. Success begins with showing up and doing your best.
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?
There are many pieces of advice I have received over the years I should have not followed. I would sum them all up as: someone saying a goal was impossible or would never work.
I have learned to never listen to people who say something is impossible, and instead I trust my gut and quickly act so I can use real world results to drive toward success.
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?
Boiling it down to three traits: 1. Endless curiosity, 2. Passion for innovation, 3. Resilience.
Since I was young I have always explored my passions with immense curiosity. It drove me to embrace computer programming when I was a teenager, and today it constantly drives me to revisit my own knowledge, assumptions, and habits to look for better ways to accomplish whatever I set my mind to — running the business, designing processes, or improving my personal performance, to name a few.
Innovation goes hand in hand with my curiosity. Often I will find ways to innovate at VirtualPBX and personally, through observing everyday events that appear unrelated. Listening to my wife try to order something over the phone leads me to design a new approach for our upcoming CRM integration. I want to help our customers avoid the poor experience my wife had when dealing with another company.
Resilience has always been in my character, and has always served me well. Having been through the ups and downs of startup life and leading VirtualPBX for the last 10 years, I have been confronted with every challenge a business can encounter. Resilience is what helped me overcome them all.
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?
As a C-Level executive, you must provide a consistent strategic plan for your team while guiding the tactical execution to deliver the outcome everyone expects.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that a C-Level executive is just a manager.
The best executives engage with their customers and lead by example by working alongside their teams. They take on deliverables on every project they drive in their company.
Andy Grove works in a cubicle alongside everyone else. Jason Fried works in Customer Service one day every few weeks. Those are examples of what being a great C-Level executive is all about.
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 mistake I’ve seen is the belief in dictating directions to teams and expecting adherence and execution to occur continuously.
Leadership and management of the team is an ongoing effort. You develop team members and management performance, and you discover improvements through leading. Set-and-forget leadership styles always lead to failure.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The most underestimated aspect is truly understanding the operational and financial mechanics of your business model versus the target market.
Companies can get lost in emulating or following competitors without understanding the underlying financial and operational impact on their businesses.
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.
- Do a deep dive on the overall performance of the company.
- Anytime you hear, “we’ve always done it that way”, stop and review that area thoroughly.
- Assess the operational and technical debt your teams have allowed to accumulate.
- Learn to assess when to allow the smaller fires to burn in order to maintain momentum. Prioritization and allocation of resources is a critical skill.
- Make sure you allocate time to listen to any team member who approaches you. You will learn something, and truly listening empowers the team members.
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?
The key is to maintain a culture of transparency about your company across teams.
Invest your time in your team, and lead by example. When you do this, you help create an internal logic about your leadership style, which helps everyone commit to the same mission and makes work fun and rewarding.
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. :-)
First I would encourage everyone to go support https://worldbicyclerelief.org/.
If I could start a movement, it would be inspired by my own childhood. As a child from a single parent household, and the emergence of personal computing, I believe technology is transformative for kids.
I would encourage youth around the world to build careers in technology through promoting a return of free trade schools for low- and middle-income families to expand their opportunities.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I post my professional content on LinkedIn, and my personal cycling and culinary content on Instagram.