As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark McClain.
McClain is a ForbesBooks author of Joy and Success at Work: Building Organizations that Don’t Suck (the Life Out of People), and CEO of SailPoint, a leader in the enterprise identity management market. McClain has led the company from its beginnings in 2005, when it started as a three-person team, to today where SailPoint has grown to more than 1,200 employees who serve customers in 35 countries.
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’m an accidental entrepreneur, and that’s where my story starts. A lot of entrepreneurs have childhood stories that show how they’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit, but that just wasn’t me. I wasn’t that kid who started a lemonade stand and then realized I could grow my first business in my neighborhood. I was the kid who threw on a baseball cap after school and headed to the park to play ball with friends. Lemonade was something mom gave us before we left for the ball field. It cracks me up now to realize I am a serial entrepreneur and founder since I was never really headed down that path.
Out of college, I got a job at IBM and thought I’d be there until I retired. Then I moved to HP and realized that the corporate ladder path just wasn’t for me. I moved on to smaller companies and figured out that what I enjoyed was building teams and working toward achieving goals together. Ultimately, I took a chance and founded my first company with some good buddies. The rest is history.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that experience?
I wouldn’t call this a mistake necessarily, but it’s a funny story about our infamous candy jars when we first started. We’ve had candy at SailPoint since day one. It was essential in our start-up phase, and it stuck. But every so often, we’ll get somebody who’s like, “Hey, you know what? We need healthier stuff.” So once, as an experiment, we took the candy bowls away.
The result was basically an open revolt. You would have thought we cut salaries 50% across the board. The internal emails said, “Put the candy bowls back! This is terrible! We can’t code without candy.” So we put the candy bowls back to keep mutiny at bay. The biggest takeaway for me was that you must listen to your people — even if it’s just about candy.
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?
Not a particular person, but there’s this concept: rather than having a single mentor, there are multiple people you go to for various reasons. You should have your personal “board of directors.” Someone you go to for career, someone you go to for your family. I practice this, and all these “directors” in my life have made me successful. However, if I had to name one person, I would say my wife, Marj. She was instrumental in helping me step out of my comfort zone and have the confidence to pursue my entrepreneurial spirit. And she continues to be my most important “counselor” (and my best friend).
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, and what was its purpose?
What makes SailPoint stand out from the rest is our commitment to our vision. This vision is made up of internal values and delivering a stellar product to our customers.
The 2008 recession hit SailPoint hard. As a new company, our backers wanted us to make job cuts up to 50%. We pushed back and said, “That’s not how we are going to do it here.” That was a vital culture point early on for SailPoint. We would work on a problem together than do the “easy thing” like making cuts. Our people are everything to us, and that makes us stand out from the rest, thanks to our values and 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 led your team during uncertain or difficult times? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Early on in one of the companies I founded, we had been pursued by a company to be acquired, and that deal got far down the path, but then it stopped. Later, we got pursued by another company; it got further down the path, and then it hit the wall pretty hard. We were so close to grabbing the brass ring, but it got yanked away from us not once, but twice. A lot of people were disappointed. It would have been a huge deal for us to get acquired back then.
That’s when I told the famous “buffalo story” at a company meeting to talk about the two failed deals. It goes like this: in a significant storm, a blizzard that “sweeps across the plains” kind of storm, all animals run from the storm — except one. The buffalo turns towards the storm and goes toward it, running through it as quickly as possible. The buffalo faces the challenge of the storm head-on, and that time inside the storm ends quicker than it does for the animals that are running from it.
This can be applied in life. When you are facing a very dire situation, face the storm head-on, and go through the storm instead of running from it. I told this story at the company meeting after the deals fell through, and people still talk about it as a story that resonates with them to this day about facing your challenges head-on.
No, I never considered giving up. The hard-working people that make up SailPoint motivate me to continue to see challenges through, and we empower each other to keep on in good times and bad.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When things are uncertain or difficult, the most important thing a leader can do is to be transparent about the situation — the problems/issues that have emerged, the potential solutions being considered, and the decisions that have been made to work through the challenges. Nothing is more frustrating for teams facing difficult times than feeling “in the dark.” Leaders must be out front, visible and as open as possible during these situations. Hiding is the worst possible thing you can do when your team is looking for direction.
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?
Part of a leader’s job is managing their team’s emotions, and making sure morale is always top of mind. One of the toughest things any of us does or attempts to do is view ourselves objectively, but as leaders, we have an obligation to do so. The reason? So we can understand how others view our words and actions. There is an absolute necessity of sharing good news and bad and trusting that, by treating people like adults, you win their trust.
The corollary to that, however, is tempering news, both good and bad, to accurately attenuate it. Being transparent, I found, is the best way to inspire, motivate, and engage a team. The world is rarely black and white. Good leaders temper both ends of the spectrum because the extremes — good and bad — never last for long.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
You’ll never be taken seriously as a leader if you don’t do the things leaders do. And leaders do important things like defining strategy, ensuring the right people are in the right seats on the bus (to quote Jim Collins), and making sure the whole team is aligned through regular, effective communication. In fact, many of these tasks are things that only the leader can do. But one of the most important things leaders do is face risks and challenges in the business head-on. The longer you wait to address such priorities, the greater the threat they’ll pose.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders can only control what they can control. Here’s what I mean. Life is unpredictable. Business is unpredictable. If you lack trust that someone you’ve hired to take direction from you and produce a given result can or will do so, as much as I hate to say it, you’re probably not a leader — because leadership is about trusting the process. It’s not about holding on to control; it’s about letting it go. Letting go of doing things yourself and developing the trust that together as a team you will figure it out.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Having values is, in my view, the number one principle to help guide a company. I can say with absolute confidence that having values will not prevent your new company from making mistakes — and plenty of them. They will, however, keep everyone pulling in the same direction and ultimately create a culture that you, your customers, and your employees, investors, vendors, and board will appreciate and aspire to uphold and deepen.
Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid those mistakes?
Leading can often be fun, but sometimes it isn’t. The best leaders understand and accept this. They consistently resist the temptation to do anything other than lead by not making the following mistakes: having a lack of effective time management, micromanaging due to a lack of trust in their people, and avoiding difficult conversations or communication.
First, leaders must recognize the importance of their time and ruthlessly prioritize what they spend it on. Second, they must resist the urge to do something just because they can. Third, they must develop trust in their subordinates by giving them the space to make mistakes — and ultimately, to figure things out. And fourth, they must choose to over-communicate what’s going on to the team, and ensure they have the difficult conversations required to face issues head-on, make tough calls, and decisively move the business forward.
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?
When the mortgage crisis paralyzed the economy several years ago, other new companies fell like dominoes. But not SailPoint. I like to think that was due in no small part to our frugal approach. Early on, it’s crucial to have people who understand the mission and are committed to achieve a successful outcome. Cushier offices may ultimately be a result of doing so, but they’re not what make success possible.
SailPoint newbies who walked into the office I shared with my cofounder immediately got that message. The few who didn’t were bound to get it soon enough from one of their colleagues: “Really, you’re going to complain about your office? Have you seen Mark’s?” This is a textbook example of leading by example — something we hear a lot about but see much less frequently. So if you say it, show you mean it. Don’t take a limo; rent a cheap car. Don’t fly first-class; fly coach.
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.
I’m going to go with four here because these four values — innovation, integrity, impact, and individuals — helped guide SailPoint in uncertain and turbulent times.
1. Innovation: Over time, many companies get into kind of a dull, repetitive pattern, where their innovations tend to be far less effective. Others do a great job of staying innovative, and we figured out pretty early that identifying innovation as a primary mission would allow us to constantly reinforce it, to reinvent our best solutions when they require it, and to keep us on the lookout for new opportunities to innovate. And, the secret sauce to great innovation is listening carefully for the “pain” in the client’s world, so you can develop an effective solution to address it.
2. Integrity: Something else we noticed about big companies was their tendency to overpromise and under-deliver, to not follow through on what they say they’re going to do. That’s a failure to deliver, pure and simple, even when (and if) delivery eventually occurs. A lot of people see integrity as synonymous with honesty, whereas I consider honesty just table stakes — the price of admission. Without honesty and the trust it fosters, there is no relationship; I don’t care if we’re talking business, personal, or otherwise.
But we take integrity further. We see it as consistently making and following through on our commitments. It’s a higher bar, and here’s why. If I promise you something and don’t deliver, I’ve destroyed trust. If I consistently under-promise and over-deliver, however, you’re really going to like working with me, because I’ve earned your trust not through my words but through my actions.
3. Impact: Large legacy companies are often loaded with people who are just taking up space and collecting a paycheck. It’s a significant issue, and it goes hand-in-hand with integrity. We’re still talking about overpromising and under-delivering, but internally. Effective workers know the difference between busywork and producing value. They find nothing more frustrating than coworkers who stir up a cloud of dust and confuse it with progress. Everybody in the organization must be clear on what success looks like, and self-starting employees are often clear on that, right out of the gate.
4. Individuals: This is the one thing that has changed the most in my 35 years in the business world. More and more, companies get that every employee is a “whole person;” that if we want the best out of them for our companies, we must treat them as the whole people they are. We treat people like adults. Indeed, at SailPoint, we can shorthand our entire culture to just that: “Treat people like adults.” Tell them what you want them to do, give them freedom and resources to do it, then mostly stay out of their way and let them get the job done.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Colin Powell is one of the most impressive people. A great example of humility with great leadership qualities, and he inspires me to no end. His quote, “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work,” sums up just about how I feel about approaching work.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can check out my SailPoint blog here and my Forbes Technology Council blogs here. You can also follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.