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 Mark Voytek.
Mark Voytek is the chief customer officer at SirionLabs, which is developing an AI-powered enterprise contract management platform. Mark has over 25 years of leadership, management and decision-making experience leading global companies in a variety of industries including healthcare, retail, financial services and manufacturing through business and technology transformations. Mark brings his extensive experience to SirionLabs to ensure that the company is delivering the best possible product to its customers by deeply understanding their needs and finding the right solutions. Mark received his MBA from the University of Connecticut and has been a guest lecturer at several universities including Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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 always had an interest and frankly passion for business. My first job was delivering newspapers and even as an 11-year-old I was on the lookout for new opportunities to earn money by working smarter instead of working harder. I remember seeing a new apartment complex being built along my route and when people started moving in I dropped off a “free” newspaper that had my name and number on an insert in hope that the new occupants wanted the newspaper delivered daily. I picked up about 40 new customers in a few weeks and at the same time I consolidated my route by “selling off” houses that were out of the way. That way I doubled my customer count and halved the amount of time I spent delivering papers. I had an early and an intuitive sense for things like operational efficiency and first-mover advantage that are critical for success in business and I have honed these instincts over my career. Based on that and a few other moments of truth about business and mentors, I knew that business: sales, marketing, customer success, etc. was for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
About a decade into my career, I transitioned from sales to consulting, a world I knew very little about when I started. The manager who led the first two projects I worked on was really set in his ways and insisted that I follow his direct instructions to a T. If he wanted something done a certain way you had to do it exactly the way he wanted — regardless of what the client had requested or what was best for the client. I was constantly trying to balance his unrelenting micromanagement with the needs of the client as I understood them. Whenever I deviated from his plans, he would reject my solution and insist on me doing it his way. Needless to say, there was friction. At one point, he even threatened to fire me from the project. I eventually I found a solution that would work by developing two outputs for each deliverable — one that met his criteria and one that met the client’s actual needs. Over time, he relented and increasingly used my solutions, even if they deviated from his master plan. Though he never admitted that he liked my output better, which is fine as he had a role and I had a role to play. It helped our personal relationship eventually and better positioned our firm’s relationship with its clients while giving me the confidence that I had the diplomatic flair to make it as a consultant. I am passionate about consulting because I like to build things, work with others as a mentee or mentor, and really like to solve business problems with people, process and technology.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
One of my guiding principles is, “Don’t let familiarity with a topic stifle your creativity.” It’s something I think about a lot when I’m working with clients and we start a design thinking session with a blank white board. As part of this, it’s also about considering the need for transition versus transformation or evolutionary thinking versus revolutionary thinking. There are countless stories to support this axiom, but I often use myself as an example when I mentor junior consultants. Years ago, I was a partner running a competency at one of the Big Four accounting firms helping Fortune 500 companies with enterprise cost savings. I had enough experience in the role to consistently deliver B or B+ results on an engagement on pretty much any project or topic and in most cases that would be an acceptable result, but my view is that there’s always room for improvement. I recognized that I could deliver grade A work by empowering junior staff members who were newer to the business and more inclined to think outside the box. These junior consultants were from some of the best business schools in the world and I knew that if I stifled their creativity by thinking I knew better just because I’ve been around longer, I would undermine the quality of the work we were delivering to our clients.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Moments of Truth by Jan Carlson. It’s a book I return to daily. The premise is that every customer interaction is a moment of truth and how you treat customers during those interactions will have a lasting impact. One of the key takeaways from the book is that if you always do the best that you can do and show customers that you’re constantly striving to do your best work it will make a positive difference both in business and in your personal relationship with the customer. Specifically, I often see team members just answer a question from the customer or the prospect — with little thought (i.e. yes or no). My premise is that they should answer the question with purpose, and this will help us be much positioned to advance the relationship, win the deal, increase customer satisfaction, etc.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
SirionLabs stands out for its obsession with customer service and enabling customer success. Everyone at the company is always thinking about how we can help our customers by doing even better at what we already do well — but also not being complacent. At SirionLabs, this often means adapting our Contract Lifecycle Management platform to the specific needs of our customers. One of the keys to our success is understanding that every customer has unique strengths and challenges, even if two customers might seem superficially alike because they operate in a similar industry. We always make sure we deeply understand our customer’s business so that we tailor our product to their exact needs and deliver the best possible experience.
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?
There are four main pieces of advice I would offer. The first is to always treat others the way you want to be treated, both in your personal and professional life. Second, your network and professional relationships are critical to your success in the short term and the long term. Nurture these relationships whenever and however you can. Third, when your customer presents you with a difficult challenge, try to find a solution as quickly as possible. Then, try to come up with a different solution. Then another. This approach will provide you with an end-to-end solution that will go above and beyond what your customer asked for and ensure they are satisfied. Finally, the skills, traits, and accomplishments that will propel you to a Director-level position are not necessarily the same skills, traits, and accomplishments that will vault you into the C-suite. Pay attention to the management tactics and career trajectories of skilled executives. Everyone’s path is different, but you’ll probably find some common skills and characteristics among the leaders in your industry. At the end of the day, please just be yourself.
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?
This is a tough one — I’m not sure there’s a particular piece of advice that I wish I never took. Something that comes to mind is an adage from a colleague who told me “it’s more important to be respected than it is to be liked.” Respect is certainly critical in business, but so is being personable, which usually goes hand-in-hand with being liked. No one wants to be led by someone who uses intimidation and bullying to command respect. The means matter as much, if not are more important, to the end result.
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?
- Listening. A lot of people think leadership is mostly about telling people what to do, but in fact it’s usually just the opposite. I think focusing on listening to your colleagues and customers is key to success as a business leader. It enables you to make key decisions that will have the best outcomes for everyone.
- Empathy. I always try to remember that my colleagues and customers have complex lives that I may know little about. The key is to always approach the people you’re interacting with in business as people rather than just customers or colleagues. This fosters empathy and ultimately leads to better business and interpersonal relationships.
- Curiosity. Since I’ve started my career, I’ve made it a point to never stop learning. I don’t try to be an expert in everything, but I do try to deeply understand new topics when I encounter them. This allows me to ask better questions, which can lead to better solutions.
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?
C-level executives drive vision and strategy so that the company and its employees can achieve key business objectives. They help elevate the entire company by setting a high bar, driving change, and empowering their colleagues to soar beyond what they thought they could accomplish.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that C-level executives are always engaging with people. In reality, being an executive can be a bit lonely. The same water cooler chats don’t occur, as a C Suite executive everything comes with a filter from the people in the organization. Also, it’s hard to find people that can relate to what you’re going through. I work hard to listen differently and engage with all levels of the organization to learn and to stay connected.
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?
A big one is when leaders try to change the culture of a team before they understand it. I’ve seen that happen on multiple occasions. Good leaders tend to ask a lot of questions, engage with team members at multiple levels, and encourage their colleagues to work on things outside of their comfort zone. This helps establish an understanding about the team culture and the strengths and weaknesses of individual members. Based on this information, a good leader can give constructive feedback and implement changes that bring out the best parts of the culture while scrapping the parts that aren’t working as well.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
This often depends on the specifics of the company, but I think leaders sometimes underestimate the value of people as individuals. They’re focused on quantifiable results and spend time with on the team “heroes,” rather than giving all the team members the tools they need to develop and progress. Personally, I tried to mitigate this tendency by adopting a concept called “Invert the Pyramid.” This involves giving staff members and senior consultants responsibilities that would typically be delegated to a manager and then holding them accountable for a deliverable. It requires trust and active coaching so that they are learning and don’t make a major mistake, but every time the output has been great. When leadership expresses confidence in their team like this, it pays dividends in terms of company morale and improves the quality of its work. This is another example of working smarter not just harder.
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.
- Praise your team members and give them the credit first. Leaders love to take credit for accomplishments, but it’s always a team effort. I try to elevate my team by giving them the credit and accolades rather than focusing on my contribution.
- Challenge the team to think better by thinking differently. This comes from the book I mentioned earlier, Moments of Truth. Don’t just answer a question, answer it with rigor and diligence. Think about how the person receiving the information will interpret it based on how you present it and the answers you come up with.
- Cover for your team members. No one wants their team members to make mistakes, but that’s part of life. When it happens, I think leaders benefit a lot by taking the heat from higher ups rather than pointing fingers. This is true even if the leader didn’t have anything to do with the mistake. Take the blame, protect your team, and turn the mistake into a learning experience through active coaching and guidance. The key is to ensure the same mistake doesn’t happen again.
- Empower your team. There’s a tendency among executives to try to control the output of their teams through micromanaging the details of large projects. It’s a natural urge — you’re ultimately on the hook for the output and you want to make sure that everything is just right. Not only is this a recipe for executive burnout, but it often produces inferior results because it doesn’t give your team members opportunities to grow. Empower your team by giving them responsibility and trust them to execute on the goal.
- Great ideas can come from anyone. There’s a lot to be learned from people with more experience than you in a given area, but sometimes a deep familiarity with a subject can have the counterintuitive effect of obscuring unconventional — and perhaps better — solutions. The best leaders create an open atmosphere where everyone on the team is encouraged to think hard about problems and come up with their own solutions.
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?
There are a few simple elements of building a vibrant company culture as an executive. First and foremost, always raise people up and never call people out with negative comments in a public forum. Do your best to be accessible and transparent; it’s the best way to build trust in a growing or large organization. Hire great people and help them become even better through coaching and guidance. This involves holding them accountable and trusting them to deliver.
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. :-)
Workplace Pay it Forward: one good deed flows to another random person you may or may not know in your organization.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn.