As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Polizzi, VP of Global Sales Engineering at Splunk.
Peter Polizzi is a 20-year industry veteran with a proven track record of results in technical go-to-market and customer lifecycle operations. His success comes from a unique and complete range of experiences that span from technically enabling a go-to-market strategy, to the development world-class customer operations inclusive of customer success with lifetime value expansion programs and cloud operations. His abilities have directly contributed to the successfully transformation and growth of leading high-tech companies across mobile computing, cybersecurity, IoT, A.I. and real-time cloud. Peter is currently the VP of Global Sales Engineering at Splunk, a marquee high tech company focused on big data analytics with annual revenues greater than $2B. At Splunk, Peter’s global team of approximately 1,000 sales engineers are responsible for driving technical decisions and outcomes across 18,000 customers of which 91 are top Fortune 100 companies.
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?
In one of my earlier career roles as a consulting sales engineer, I was asked to deliver a presentation to a new customer by the CEO and CFO minutes before the presentation time. It was a pitch that would bring in one of the largest deals in the company’s history. I was very nervous, knowing how important this was to the Company, and it showed. Right before entering the conference room, my CFO pulled me aside and said “There is no one in that room that know more about what we do, than you. Go win this business for us.” I jumped in and delivered it. And guess what? We won the deal! After winning the deal, I was asked to build and lead a team of similar functions. That is how I started in leadership and from that point on, I have continued to take on leadership roles and progressively managed large teams of people. Part of what I love about leadership and the roles I have had, is that I have been able to design in pivots within my career — allowing me to touch every aspect of the customer lifecycle, from application development, to technical pre-sales and from technical delivery to customer success.
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 was working for a large publicly traded company and we were pitching a new solution. Not realizing how narrow the market was and how much this particular customer hated their competition, I kept referring to the “peer group” as a “best practice” of what great looks like when using our solution. Finally, one of the Customer executives in the room said, “if you refer to the “peer group” one more time, I am going to throw you out of the room.” Lesson learned! Learn your customer, their market and know your audience!
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?
I have been privileged to have had several people in my lifetime who I attribute to helping me achieve success and helping me become a strong and productive leader.
My Grandfather was a personal foundation builder who inspired me. He taught me how to live a life of integrity. He had a quote he would always say that has really stuck with me, “when life puts something in your hand, you close your hand.”
I have also worked with several outstanding executive leaders — three come to mind, and each one of them has left a different imprint on me. The first showed me how making history comes by achieving the things that no one wants to do. He also taught me how it’s important to do the right thing even when no one is looking. Another taught me that your people are your most important asset and transparency will build trust to follow you in tough times. The last of the three mentors demonstrated to me how to receive, process and apply feedback.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The mission and vision of Splunk has always been to bring data to every question, decision and action.
Data drives decisions and decisions drives the human race. Splunk has continued on its mission throughout the years no matter what might be happening politically, economically or otherwise. Data has always been at the basis of how I have run my teams, so adopting the company philosophy into everything I do was easy — that everything is to bring data to every question, decision and action.
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 lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The COVID-19 crisis has changed my points of departure on what it takes to be a leader. Winning the trust of my colleagues and the hearts of families has elevated my emotional awareness. My communication and change management strategies have changed. This isn’t something you can learn from reading a book. This is management “by-touch,” sensing what the organization needs, and making sure every interaction is personal — across any medium. You can adjust your message by double-clicking on your altitude, your content and your style to adapt to each identity in your organization, at all levels. Consistency in honest and transparent communications can help your team feel they have a present and a future with your organization. More importantly, you can do this by giving them the support they need to feel safe and secure.
Managing through a crisis is critical to remember the human side. I will remember how asking “how is your family?” has become the norm, and I will remember this time as the moment where a new foundational part of how I lead was born. I will remember this crisis as the catalyst for this and a time when true human connections were built.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My motivation is two-fold.
1.) Conducting business virtually has given me insight into a whole new level of responsibility as a leader, because now you aren’t just responsible for an org chart that you see on paper, but the people behind it, the families who video bomb on the Zoom calls, the kids in the pictures on your colleagues desk, or the spouse you see in the background of each call. Every decision made was always impactful to my team, but now also their families, who now know me, and depend on me too.
2.) The drive and the need to innovate is the second motivation. Every day I wake up thinking of a new way to do something that is a first. I like firsts. As a leader, I want to make history. I want to leave my own legacy.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to lead from the front! People need to see and hear you. You have to be visible in order to communicate and you need to be able to communicate on different levels. Push aside everything you learned from an MBA program and touch people where it matters to them most. As a leader, you will also have to make some tough decisions. In times of crisis, like we are all living now, these decisions need to be decisive and early. Balancing between people management, crisis management and decision management is a delicate balance. Successful leaders have the ability of doing it all.
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?
The best thing you can do as a leader to keep people motivated and boost morale is to keep your team focused on their purpose. It is easy to fall back in your seat and get overwhelmed, but if you are consistent with your mission, if you are visible in supporting to your teams, and you maintain a constant connection with your employees, only positive things can come out of that.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is early and truthfully.
And, you have to frame it out under three lenses: 1. what does it mean from a business perspective 2.) what does it mean from a people or personal perspective and 3) and what are the expected outcomes of these decisions
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You must create it; you must invent it. You can wait to see what comes your way — or you can drive to where you want to be, with the variables you can predict and control. We all know there is going to be a new normal. Remote workers will be more of the mainstream then an anomaly and we know that our ability to travel will be limited. We know that our customers will more than likely be impacted for a long time. So how can you impact that environment now? You need to start planning for that new normal as soon as you can.
In addition, we know that data and the way we manage information remotely will be paramount. How can we create our own narrative, with the information we have, controlling our own controllables, to navigate a new world over the next in 3–9 months? Also, hiring for the future can become an issue. HR managers and leaders need to plan for an ecosystem that has a bigger reach — beyond the office space and geography borders we have been traditionally used to.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stick with your guiding principles! Every company has a fabric and a culture — a North Star that should not be altered based on every changing market and socio-political conditions. I feel lucky to work for a company that does that and excels at it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Strategy du jour: Companies pivot in and out of different positions and strategies based on a fad, trend or news items.
- Absence of Leadership: It is easy to get pulled into a million meetings and not have time for your people. But the absence of visibility can be equated to the absence of leadership during difficult times.
- Lack of Communication and Integrity: It is critical when there is uncertainly that leaders continue to do what they say they are going to do and say what you do to give people a sense of grounding, direction and consistency. With consistency of message and constant communication, employees, customers and investors will feel more secure during turbulent times.
- Playing it Safe: Most companies hit “pause” during difficult times not realizing that their competition is doing the same. Instead, it’s the companies that take a growth mindset approach in investments and strategies that come out of the gate the fastest when times eventually stabilize. It is these same companies that make history and never look back.
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?
If what you are selling adds value, then that value should be enhanced during difficult times. At Splunk, the data visibility we provide enabled organizations to pivot quickly and thoughtfully into new motions and strategies. Growing is difficult during normal times, nonetheless challenging times however committing to your mission and vision, it adversity becomes an opportunity versus an obstacle. How is your Company innovating and operating during these times? Those same innovations and solutions can apply to your customers. Using your company as a case study can be helpful to show success. When you take a look at leveraging the gap not only in your own business, but in your prospects and customers business, it allows you to have different levels of conversations that can yield new business opportunities.
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.
- Stay the course on the strategy that made you successful prior to turbulent times. Do not compromise your culture and mission. These times too shall pass.
- Invest during the crisis while everyone else is on “pause”
- Lead. Be visible. Over communicate and engage your teams at multiple levels
- Take some time for your own intentional “airplane mode” to stay balanced. There is a reason why “you should put your oxygen mask on first”
- Start planning for the new normal and leave enough tolerance for the unknowns.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes, which is very applicable right now, is “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This was said by Alan Kay. It has always allowed me to try and stay ahead of the curve and to think about what is next.
Of course there is the quote I already mentioned from one of my mentors, my Grandfather. His words remind me to take advantage of every opportunity and to appreciate what has come my way.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow me on the Forbes Council and at Linked in @Peter Polizzi.