As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Frost.
Sitecore CEO, Mark Frost, is a Silicon Valley native and possesses more than 30 years of experience spanning every major business function including product, marketing, sales, operations, and finance. Mark has a strong passion for creating a customer-first culture and driving high employee engagement, and is known for driving business transformations and category leadership. He’s held leadership positions at enterprise software companies such as Documentum, CA Technologies, and PeopleSoft, where he served as General Manager of PeopleSoft’s flagship Human Capital Management products division. Before joining Sitecore, Mark was CEO of MarkMonitor, where he drove record topline growth and customer acquisition, and ultimately completed a sale of the company in October 2016. In his spare time, Mark’s hobbies include spending time with his two boys, cooking, playing the Great Highland Bagpipe, scuba diving, and fishing.
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?
I was born and raised in Oakland, California, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Computer Science. At Cal, I was inspired by the creativity and inventiveness of the students, staff, and alumni and by the rapid pace of innovation in the field of computer science. I knew I wanted that to be part of my career. I started as a software engineer at General Electric before moving into user experience design and project management roles, where I discovered a passion for leading and coordinating teams and delivering truly useful solutions to customers. I later moved to EDS to take on a general manager role, which gave me my first taste of managing a large, diverse team in the turnaround of a business unit. After that, I launched a start-up with a colleague, which turned out to be quite successful. Over the years I’ve held GM and CEO roles at Documentum, Peoplesoft, and MarkMonitor, which we sold in 2016. That led me to the CEO job at Sitecore, where we help companies connect with their stakeholders and develop a competitive advantage through the creation of a powerful digital presence using our market-leading content management system and digital experience platform.
I’ve been very fortunate to spend my career in technology and have never lost my passion for building cool things and helping customers benefit from using them. What’s really exciting is that the technology field has a kind of gravitational pull that has continued to attract top talent from around the world. As a result, we have a large and diverse concentration of creative, innovative, and inventive people who contribute to this never-ending cycle of creativity and new solutions, and at an ever-increasing pace. It’s been fun to contribute to this ceaseless engine of human creativity.
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?
Very early in my career, I was working at a start-up company where we were successful in winning system implementation contracts with several state governments in rapid succession. Given our resource limitations, we thought it would be clever to negotiate the implementation schedules associated with these contracts such that we could execute them in sequence. Unfortunately, with the perspective of having grown up with the mild weather of the San Francisco Bay Area, combined with our lack of experience, we ended up implementing a system for the state of Maine in the winter, Texas in the summer, Minnesota in the winter, and Florida in the summer. I had to spend a lot of money buying new clothes for the more intense weather conditions, and it was actually a lot of fun. But I learned a very important lesson that I’ve applied over and over again in many different settings, and that is to ask myself, “Have I become a prisoner of an existing paradigm or frame of reference, and if so, what changes need to be made to be successful?”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a little kid, and it’s still one of my favorite activities. I read at least two or three books a month on a variety of subjects for entertainment, intellectual stimulation, personal development, and discovery. I love history, especially in the form of autobiographies and biographies. But if I have to narrow my list down to one book that I keep coming back to as a leader — and that I often recommend to others — it’s The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. Whether you’re starting a role in a new company, transitioning to a new position in the same company, or embarking on a transformation effort, the book is essentially a roadmap for early success, from establishing yourself to avoiding pitfalls to securing early wins so that you can better position yourself to make a positive difference.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our purpose at Sitecore is to create human connections between brands and their stakeholders so that our customers can thrive in a world where, without a digital experience, there is no product. Our team is passionate about shaping the future of online experiences, and our collective alignment on the vision and focus on being a part of our customers’ success is a big reason why we’ve been able to attract top talent and continuously increase our growth.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Culture is paramount and a positive, healthy culture is nurtured by building trust, being honest, open, and fair, and by living our company values.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have two young working sons and, early on, we we decided to do everything we could on a personal level to help stop the spread of the disease, including sheltering in place, wearing masks, and social distancing. We’ve also been tested and watch closely for any symptoms. In addition, we’re trying to support local businesses as much as possible and to continue to be caring and compassionate.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our first priority as a company was the safety of our employees and stakeholders, and doing everything we could to limit the spread of the virus, so we very quickly moved to a work from home approach. Before the pandemic, less than 10% of our employees worked from home on a regular basis, and that went to 100% in a matter of days. That meant we all had to learn new ways to connect and collaborate, myself included. As someone who has always gotten a lot of energy from being in the office with everyone, we used this as an opportunity to develop new ways to connect with all of our employees around the globe. It’s been great to see how our teams have used our collaboration tools for both work and friendship to maintain the camaraderie that is so important in times like this.
Meanwhile, we’re in an enviable position because the stunning speed and scale of the migration to digital services has not only pushed companies to refocus their digital efforts to reflect changing customer expectations, but also given them a better sense of what can be done once they decide to change things. Some companies have realized they were too slow to digitally transform their business, so now they’re moving decisively to close the gap. And companies that already had a lead in delivering great digital experiences for their customers see the current environment to extend their advantage. It’s a challenge in the sense that we’re working harder than ever to accelerate new product development, marketing campaigns, and sales programs…but those are good challenges to have.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s important that we don’t lose sight that people are going to be feeling the effects of the changes to our work and life routines, not to mention the emotional toll of illness or financial hardship. We’re all human, and we’re all going to cope with those stresses differently. So, most of all, we need to be empathetic to what others are going through and be ready to help when they need it, as well as let others know when we need help ourselves.
For myself, I try to spend some time every day connecting with friends and family. Reaching out and checking in with people I care about is a great way to help me feel connected during the day — and talking with them about topics other than the pandemic helps create a sense of normalcy. I also try to remind myself and others that we all have license to seek moments of joy, especially when we’re vulnerable to anxiety. Early in this pandemic, one of my employees at Sitecore, knowing my Scottish heritage, light-heartedly asked how I would manage to replenish my stock of Scotch since, in his words, “whisky is the first thing that runs out” during a shelter-in-place order. It was good for a chuckle — not least because, at the time, whisky was probably easier to get than paper towels — but it was a great reminder to keep trying to enjoy the little things in life. During the restrictions we’re under for our health and safety, that might mean taking the chance to have lunch with your kids, helping out an elderly neighbor who can’t travel to the grocery store, taking a mid-day run to recharge, or, yes, having a glass of your favorite beverage during a virtual happy hour with your colleagues. These things strengthen our connections to each other, or help ground our sense of wellbeing.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We neither can nor should ignore the very real impacts this pandemic has already had on lives around the world, but I’m a big believer in the adage that adversity breeds opportunity. And because of the very unique circumstances of our current environment, I think the biggest opportunities will come from the fact that we won’t return to what we used to call “normal.” When I look across our market and talk with our customers, it’s incredible to see and hear about all the ways that businesses have worked faster and better than they dreamed possible just a few months ago. Maintaining that sense of possibility will be an enduring source of competitive advantage.
Digital transformation is a great example. Most companies were already digitizing their operations before the coronavirus hit. But the pandemic is causing them to look more closely at their strategies and, in some cases, accelerate them to meet new demands. The actions that companies are taking now to be more nimble and customer-focused will help them survive this crisis and come out stronger and more competitive on the other side. Before the pandemic, a report from a digital agency called Karmarama found that only 19% of people agree that brands care about them as people, not simply customers. For the companies that take steps to improve that figure, the opportunities are enormous.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We’re approaching six months of living with COVID-19 but, as a global community, I think we’re only at the earliest stages of thinking about the ways our lives — personally and professionally — will change. We’re still in a very uncertain and constantly evolving environment, though some broad themes are starting to emerge. Consider some of the basic aspects of typical business operations we used to take as given: open office plans, international travel, and face-to-face meetings. All of these are unlikely to come back as they were. But what will the new-normal look like? I think it’s still too early to say, and we could see companies that have taken hard stances today retreating from them in a few months.
From a social perspective, though, I don’t think we can dismiss the high levels of discontent that many people are expressing with the pre-COVID world and their desire to not go back to what was “normal” before the pandemic. In some instances, this is because people have noticed significant changes while much of the world was under lockdown, such as cleaner air in their cities. In other cases, facing a global health crisis has made people more aware of their surroundings and strengthened ties with their neighbors and local communities. I think we’re going to see a lasting change in social connections that focus on belonging, compassion and purpose.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Sitecore itself has been able to continue operating without significant disruption during the pandemic. We’re not immune to the realities of the current economic environment but, operationally, we already had the systems in place for remote work, which was an extension of our normal business practices. When we think about rebuilding or restarting, our focus is on helping our customers get back to full speed and strengthening the digital side of their business. For some, the imperative is to revive their customer base as the economy rebounds. For others, they may have to figure out how to operate in new ways. In either case, companies need to understand what customers will value, post-COVID-19, and develop new use cases and tailored experiences based on those insights. So we’re helping to guide our customers on how to build a digital-first business — one that enables them to develop relationships with their customers, based on an understanding of their customers’ challenges and aspirations — so that they can emerge stronger from this crisis than when it began.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
During the last major recession, a study by Harvard Business Review found that companies that reduced costs faster and deeper than competitors did not necessarily flourish. In fact, they had the lowest probability (21%) of outperforming the competition when conditions improved. However, businesses that titled aggressively toward investment during a recession fared only slightly better, with a 26% chance of becoming leaders after a downturn. The companies with the highest probability (37%) of breaking away from the pack were those that invested in marketing and R&D, while also reducing costs selectively by focusing on operational efficiency.
The moral here is the importance of finding opportunity amidst difficult constraints, and I believe that we’ll find this holds true as we emerge from this pandemic. But the question is where should companies invest, particularly in marketing? I think the answer is in developing a customer-focused mindset that prioritizes empathy and understanding customers in their moment of need. If nothing else, COVID-19 has changed how we think about the human experience, and that extends to how companies build relationships with their customers. Every organization must become an expert at understanding how they can connect to their customers’ values, establish trust and help drive their success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was young, my dad impressed upon me the importance of taking personal responsibility for my decisions and their consequences. And another saying that has stuck with me over the years is the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The two might not seem connected but, as a CEO, I can’t think of any greater responsibility than to build a workplace that supports our employees and empowers them to do their best work. To fulfill that responsibility, it’s important that I define a vision for our company that people can intellectually and emotionally attach to, and also set the example to operate our business with honor, integrity, authenticity, and openness. Doing those things establishes trust, and directly influences a company culture that unites everyone in the company to make decisions, respond to challenges, and take actions that helps everyone, professionally and personally.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I try to keep an active presence on social media, particularly LinkedIn, and would be happy for anyone who is interested to connect with me and continue the conversation at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markfrost/. Likewise, you can find Sitecore at www.sitecore.com and through social media: