As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Ettling, CEO of Unit4.
Mike Ettling is a CEO, Investor, builder of world-class teams, champion of diversity and continuous learner, and is passionate about people. From his first leadership role in the Boy Scouts, to exec positions in the tech industry, his career has revolved around elevating, engaging and enabling people. Mike joined Unit4 to get the market as excited in its unique approach to enterprise tech as he is. Unit4 is building systems that change how people experience work and the impact will be huge. Outside of work, he is a family man, a Liverpool supporter, and a proud South African.
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 grew up in South Africa — in Cape Town as a boy, and later in Johannesburg. It was the ugly days of apartheid South Africa, but many of my experiences shaped my approach to leadership and the importance of people and purpose. Being brought up in a society where it was appropriate to question authority has certainly shaped me as a leader and gave me my entrepreneurial view of the world. My career began as a founder and entrepreneur at two of my own businesses. I’m a qualified accountant, but early on I realized the impact technology can have on all aspects of business and financial management and so began a lifelong passion for how technology can transform the workplace and empower people to realize their dreams.
From my first leadership role in the Boy Scouts, to executive positions in the technology industry, every chapter of my career has revolved around three central themes: elevating the physical and financial welfare of people, engaging employees in meaningful work and enabling talented individuals to reveal their full potential. The three most recent chapters of my career certainly reflect my journey of continuous learning about people: “Paying People” as CEO of NGA HR, “Engaging People” as President of SAP SuccessFactors, and now truly “Enabling People” as CEO of Unit4.
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?
I remember flying to the USA from the UK for a full day of interviews for a senior role I wanted. I packed a suit directly from my dry cleaner. The morning of the interview, as I was getting dressed, I discovered that the dry cleaner had mixed up the trousers and jacket of two identical suits of mine, one navy blue and one black. I had a suit with black trousers and a navy blue jacket. It could have turned to panic, but I decided I would just be so engaging that nobody would look down and notice the different color trousers. And I also had a Plan B, that if they did, I would explain that this was the latest London fashion that simply had not got to rural Pennsylvania yet!! And yes, I did get the job.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
What Got you Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith is a book I think every leader should read. It made me realize that we are always learning, and success is determined more by our ability to adapt and change our approach than by what happened yesterday. We have to be open to new ideas, new concepts and new people. I believe successful leaders do this very well, but it requires egos to be left at the door!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I see so much opportunity for businesses that operate as people-based organizations. That’s what excites me as the CEO of Unit4. People in business are more purpose driven than ever. They don’t want to come to work and be restricted in what they can achieve because of inadequate and aging systems and technology. Companies want their work technology to provide support like consumer technology — seamlessly, with less complexity and delivering a more meaningful and inspiring experience. Unit4 customers don’t make products, they deliver services for universities, professional service firms, non-profits and governments. Our vision at Unit4 is to transform the way people experience enterprise technology so they can work more purposefully. That’s our purpose, and our people live by a set of clear values: people first, choose curiosity, make an impact and be genuine. I love these brilliant, simple statements. They make it crystal clear that we are a people-first company and we are in business to help our customers help the people they serve.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
People-First! Part of my job as CEO is to align culture, leadership and technology in a way that allows my employees to be themselves and spread their wings. Only then, they can help our clients help their clients. A true people-centric mindset is one that organizations adopt from the top to the bottom of their workforce to encourage real purpose. That way, you’ll attract people who share the same vision and values. And such an organization, where everyone has the same sense of direction, can achieve amazing things.
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?
As a leader who traveled weekly on a global basis the variety of that lifestyle, different location every day, different people every day is a constant source of energy. Settling into a rhythm of switching from Zoom to Teams, same location, no physical interaction meant totally finding different ways to stay energized. Also now being a regular fixture in the household took some adjusting to for myself and my family. I found energy in really focusing on my fitness and physical training. My mantra has been that now is the time to set more goals and not to stagnate because of lock down. I set new fitness and health goals and over the last 2 months have achieved them.
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?
Right now, top of mind is the well being of our people as we start to come out of lock down. For example, everyone will feel differently about going to the office, so we’re supporting them to work for home as long as they want to and see a dramatically different workplace in the future coming out of all this.
Many companies will be deep into scenario planning right now. We’ve taken a different approach of building strategies to achieve our planned growth no matter what happens in the coming months. We don’t want to get bogged down in one scenario and get it wrong. Often, businesses default to either offense or defense strategies, but it’s important to employ both to support growth. Functions from across the business are engaged — sales, professional services, customer support, marketing and HR — and making changes now that will minimize impact from the recession.
Like all businesses, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to reflect and review our long-term strategy. Crisis can provide opportunity by considering how things can be done better and differently. Investment considerations to facilitate growth will be different now to what they were pre-crisis.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus 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?
I think this pandemic has brought to the fore all that is wrong with major news networks and social media. By the end of March, I stopped watching all the major news networks and resorted to seeking out the facts myself from reliable sources. Most of my family resorted to reading from a limited number of sources as opposed to news networks. I believe that major news networks have politicized a health crisis, increased the fears of people and basically acted totally irresponsibly … something which corporates who feed these beasts with advertising should evaluate when we get through this.
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?
Maintaining customer loyalty and trust is essential, especially during times like these. Every interaction is an opportunity to demonstrate value. Enterprise software vendors need to think about their strategies for customer success. Can you develop new ways of working with them? Find new ways to drive revenue? Is it time to assess customer satisfaction and service levels?
Another opportunity is for us to re-architect the workspace balance WFH with the option for employees to enter collaboration spaces fostering the relationship building we thrive on, without putting pressure on them to be used for 9–5 work. People still need positive environments to engage, socialize and collaborate, but we have an opportunity now to build a better way of working.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
COVID-19 will transform our daily lives in several ways. Firstly, it gives us a new perspective that the world is fundamentally unpredictable. For most of the current five generations in the workforce, this is the single most impactful event in every generations’ lives. We’ve found a renewed appreciation for family and loved ones and what’s important in life. We’ve also learned that people can drive change, and by acting together, we can drive big change.
As we start to recover from the pandemic, companies must take the right precautions, and support people to continue working from home if they want. We have to look at workplace environments and take lessons from this time. Hygiene habits will change forever. We’ll see a new approach to global travel and a move to working from home as the default for many.
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?
We’re already seeing increasing interesting in migration to the cloud as organizations support WFH and new working models. An immediate challenge for leaders is to ensure they have the right systems to modernize processes to make them more resilient in the future. We will support our customers to deliver digital transformation faster. Remaining flexible, finding new ways of doing things, and staying close to customers are top of mind. We are as focused as ever on flawlessly delivering the solutions to our customers that will help them grow and be successful. While we’ve been focused on protecting people and business continuity, we’re also looking at which areas of the business to invest in like product innovation and marketing. We won’t stand still and play defense.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The shape of the recovery will be different country to country. CEOs need to consider focusing on those countries recovering the fastest — it won’t be a consistent global recovery. At the same time, they must ensure a robust response and thorough and sensitive communication at all stages. What we must do is be optimistic and act with conviction.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela 1918–2013
Nelson Mandela knew how to be his authentic self and believed wholeheartedly in people and purpose. His ability to communicate with people’s hearts and not just their minds was extraordinary. He’s a great inspiration.
How can our readers further follow your work?