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 Raj Verma, the CEO of SingleStore. He brings more than 25 years of global experience in enterprise software and operating at scale. Raj was instrumental in the growth of TIBCO software to over $1 billion in revenue, serving as CMO, EVP Global Sales, and COO. He was also formerly COO at Aptus Software and Hortonworks. Raj earned his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, India.
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?
Though this will probably date me, there wasn’t much of a computer science industry when I was in school, so I didn’t grow up thinking that I would have a career in tech or computers. By the time I got to high school, computer science was just starting to pick up and I liked the idea of this career path because it was logical, predictable and never opinionated (at least most of the time). In college, I decided to pursue a general degree in computer engineering, and I really enjoyed it. I like to joke around that I wasn’t smart enough to work as an engineer, but in reality it’s not what I saw for my life — I knew I wanted to work in computers in the tech industry.
How I got my start as a professional is quite a funny story. One day, I was sitting around with my buddies after we had just finished our college exams. I was known among my friends as the most convincing guy of the group, so they asked, “Why don’t you go interview at Wipro?” Wipro was, at that time, the biggest firm in India. And me, a college student who lived in jeans and T-shirts, said, “I have one pair of dress pants and one pair of black shoes, but yes I’ll do it and try to get a job.” So I put on my outfit and knocked at the door of the Wipro building, asking to speak to an HR person. They probably thought I was crazy, but then an HR representative took me into their office for a conversation.
They asked me, “Would you like to be on the sales side or the technical side? Something tells me you’d be very good at sales.” So I gladly told him that I’d take any job that was available and he took my resume, stapled a note to it and said, “Go to the Bombay office, give it to the HR person there. I’ll send them an email letting them know you’re coming.” I considered myself very lucky since they were recommending me for an interview in Bombay, where I happened to be going that weekend for a getaway with my friends.
A week later in Bombay, I visited the Wipro office and met with the HR team. I can honestly say that was the best interview of my life. It was only supposed to be a 20 minute interview but it ended up being over two hours. At one point the representative said, “You’re great. You’re going to do big things.” From our conversation he knew I was headed to Delhi to visit my parents and he said, “Go to the Delhi office and if they don’t take you, come back here, and we’ll definitely have a spot for you in this (Bombay) office.” And that’s where it all began.
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?
As a young businessman having grown up in India, American customs were very new to me, and this was apparent in my time at the software company PTC. I had to learn to navigate a new social environment as well as a new professional world. Fortunately, I was a quick study, and during that time I learned that even if I had to try things numerous times, I would do so until I got them right. I recognized early on in my career that you’ll never get what you don’t pursue and you will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I have carried that mantra with me through every situation. When given the choice, I will take the shot and I encourage others to do the same.
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?
The person who helped me learn to be the best version of myself was my mother. She is a tremendously talented woman, but life didn’t give her the opportunities that she was very determined I have. Apart from that, she didn’t want any privilege to stand in the way of hard work and the pursuit of excellence. That was definitely something she instilled in me. She also showed me self worth, which I think is a direct consequence of experiencing unconditional love. I think the kindness and care I received at a young age and the feeling that there’s someone in the world who loves me unconditionally made me always feel as if I could take on anything. Without that, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to pursue the opportunities or chances that I was given in life. Opportunities that only happened for me because of these learnings from my mom.
There are also professional relationships that have influenced who I am. I’ve always been attracted to people who pushed me because I think that they have helped me grow. For example, the CEO and founder of TIBCO, Vivek Ranadivé, gave me an opportunity of a lifetime when he hired me. He took a chance on me at a time when I would not have taken a chance on myself and gave me opportunities that very few people get in life. Vivek gave me the autonomy to do my job and nurtured my mistakes instead of punishing them.
Lastly, I think the greatest teachers, and the best people to humble me, are my kids. To them, I’m not the CEO of SingleStore. I am their father who is old enough to have owned a dinosaur and who embarrasses them daily. They make everything worthwhile and keep me grounded in the fact that, ultimately, the only thing that matters is unconditional love and the warmth that you get from family. I truly believe my kids are the best mentors and influences in my life.
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? When you accepted the role of CEO, what was the vision that you had for it?
I didn’t start SingleStore, but I am thankful to be a part of its future. The purpose driven mission of the company is around three pillars, and the first pillar is our employees. For me, it’s about giving the opportunity to someone that I was afforded in life. I believe it’s important to bet on someone’s future potential rather than on their past experience alone, and to give people the dignity, respect, equality, inclusiveness that I always sought, and for the most part, received. That environment for my employees is really important to me.
The second pillar is around value. I believe the way we create value for our teams and our customers is by enabling them to do things that they couldn’t do before, with anything or anyone else. I think one of my colleagues puts it very well. He says, “You can make money by developing a fancier mousetrap, or strive to fundamentally change the way data is consumed and what people do with that data.” I constantly strive for the latter by creating value for customers, employees, and ultimately, my relationships.
Last but not the least, I think what we do to uplift and provide a voice for people who don’t have a voice is crucial. Social and cultural responsibility is a huge part of SingleStore’s mission. For example, on June 19, we had the opportunity as an organization to educate the company on the importance of Juneteenth and the Black Lives Matter movement. We brought in Milan Balinton, executive director of the African American Community Service Agency (AACSA), to give a presentation and share his perspective on the current discussion around the need for Black Americans to be treated better within our society. After that, we gave employees the rest of the day off in hopes that they used the time to serve their communities, further educate themselves, and commit to inclusion and advocacy. For anyone interested, we also offered a full day of talks, workshops, and study groups to educate company employees on African American history and related issues. The programming that employees created for this celebration continues to be a source of great pride for me, it made me proud to be part of SingleStore.
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?
I’d like to think that all leaders and CEOs have an agenda for how they’d lead in uncertain times, but the truth is there is no deliberate plan. Especially when you’re also going through what you’re going through in the trenches with the team. In leadership, the crisis finds you.
In any uncertain situation, I think calm is contagious. Telling people and helping them believe that everything will be alright is the most important job as leader. You have to remind your employees that you’re in this together and that their interests are at the forefront of leadership’s decision making. Since the start of the pandemic, the SingleStore leadership team has given employees a space to ask questions. Another important piece is fueling a sense of camaraderie, especially during such separating times. For example, it is suddenly essential during the remote work environment brought on by COVID-19 to find new ways to engage people. And our remote onboarding strives to really connect people by using multiple forums and touch points to get remote new hires more personally engaged with other employees on a one-on-one basis. A program that is working well for us is “I Donut Know You,” which pairs employees for casual chats across departments and organization levels who do not directly interact in their everyday roles.
Another important factor in leadership is anticipating that plans will change. As I’ve always said, bright people change their minds, and change their minds very often. When they get empirical evidence that negates their previous belief, they’re open enough to accept it. An example of this is how I never thought work from home was a productive way to run your business. And thought I’ve said this countless times, my entire mindset changed when it was the only option left. I still do believe that offices provide the best ability for organizations to be effective, but I’m learning that we are still doing great work while apart.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have personally never felt like giving up. Certain days are absolutely harder than others, but you learn to push through for what is important to you. I think the motivation comes from growing up and knowing that people around me who were more talented and physically able than me never got the opportunity that I received. I know it may sound cliche, but when it gets hard, I think about all those people that I loved growing up that never saw these opportunities and I push through for them. I owe it to them to make the most of these privileges that life picked me to fulfill. Pressure is a privilege afforded to a few.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of leadership during these trying times is staying calm and ensuring that your leadership is allowing people to be the best that they can be. To do what is right versus what is popular or what someone else is doing. Knowing you will be wrong at times and accepting it with humility and embracing the learnings.
Frequent communication with your employees so that they know you have their back is also incredibly important. A lot of leaders don’t have the ability to have tough conversations with respect and transparency, and I think that those conversations are needed right now.
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?
As I’ve mentioned, no CEO or business leader can truly plan for uncertain times. But I do believe that strong leaders do what they can to fuel connectivity and security among their employees when times are tough.
When the pandemic hit and things were uncertain, we (SingleStore leadership) took a hard look at ourselves and our employees and tried to come up with ways to ease the tension the pandemic brought, while also giving employees a sense of security. Our anchoring logic was our employees first. My team and I sent out a letter to all employees instituting a pledge that no one would lose their jobs in the first 90-days of the pandemic — joining the ranks of larger tech firms such as Salesforce and Amazon. Along with the pledge, we also offered employees a chance to submit any and all questions they had. We also started the ‘Here to Build’ program that consisted of an increased cadence of company all-hands meetings. We noticed that this helped build employee awareness and instilled trust.
This time was also the tipping point for the Black Lives Matter Movement, which changed the way we as an organization communicated. We realized that despite what some companies were saying, there was nothing political about this movement — there is right and wrong — and with that in mind we made the decision to speak up and put ourselves as an organization out there.
I believe that our transparency at our Juneteenth event helped to keep morale positive by giving our employees the sense that their interests are at the forefront of everything we do and that we’ll continue to push ourselves to be and do better as a community and organization.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s important as a leader to not coddle your employees as you owe it to them to be real and transparent. For me, these times have called for tough conversations with families, employees, customers and communities. And the only way I’ve been able to get through them is by having open and honest communication.
Additionally, I’ve learned that this time is difficult for everyone, including our customers. I’ve had to learn to get comfortable with just picking up the phone and saying, “This is what I’m facing. What are you facing? How can we support each other right now?” This has helped me create relationships and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The pandemic has caused all business leaders and organizations to throw out the business 101 handbook and lean into what you know. For example, when our entire workforce and business went digital, I knew it would be a constant journey that I needed to learn to navigate with my employees and I had to be okay with trying something, failing, and trying something new. I would be presented with new evidence almost every day, which would help me improve the decision that I made yesterday. Through it all I strived to be open and honest with employees.
I’m thankful to my leadership team who helped inform my decisions so that we could collectively create the best action plan for our employees and our organization.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that has guided me throughout my career is the importance of working with a diverse group of individuals. Fundamentally, when you try to maximize one outcome you minimize another and most of the tech organizations have maximized the outcome of building great technology — which, in turn, minimizes diversity in the workforce. Now, what does it take to build great technology? Great engineers. And just by virtue of that trade, those roles are 80% male and 20% women. As a father of two daughters, a big part of the legacy I want to leave is having greater opportunity for women in tech and across all industries. And though it might take a while for that change to happen, promoting women and giving young girls a role model to look up to will help them visualize themselves in those higher level positions.
At SingleStore, I’ve also been lucky enough to work closely with my leadership and HR teams to hire diverse candidates with all backgrounds. We’ve been able to clearly define roles and interview processes to ensure that we’re comparing candidates on an apples-to-apples basis and doing evaluations fairly. I’m passionate about driving change and diversity in the workplace.
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?
A common mistake I see business leaders make is allowing their employees to feel badly about themselves during these tough times. My employees are my priority, but I also want to mentor them and remind them that we are in this together and we both have to work just as hard — or harder — to get through to the other side. I believe in a collaborative team spirit where we both pull our weight and help each other grow.
Another mistake I’ve seen has to do with having a closed mindset that doesn’t allow you to change your mind. Every day will bring a new set of challenges that you have never seen or experienced before. Worrying about whether you made the perfect decision today is pointless because you made the perfect decision for that moment based on the information you had. If something comes tomorrow that contradicts your decision, well then you change your POV.
Lastly, I think it’s a big mistake to not do something because ‘it’s not the right time.’ Innovation doesn’t always have great timing, so you should do something when you are ready and when you think it’s right.
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?
As a leader, my goal is to keep my employees safe and informed, and to do what I can to support our customers as they work through challenging times. There is nothing more important than protecting the health and well-being of our employees. When the pandemic started, we put our employees and their families first. We then went to work controlling what we could with a focus on building the best product, taking care of our customers and being the best versions of ourselves. The path has been hard, but it’s also been satisfying to see how we are coming out stronger than ever before. I always choose to put our people first and will empower everyone with the shared goal of doing the right thing and doing them right.
I once had the honor of having a chat with Richard Branson and always take with me some of the insights he spoke about. One of his examples was around philanthropy due to his history in philanthropic pursuits. He said, “the philosophy really is this simple: If you had a white sheet of paper and put a dot on it, that first dot would be around taking care of yourself — by practicing self-care, exercising, and to care for your immediate family. Now, once you’ve done that, draw a slightly bigger circle, which is your extended family, your friends, your community, etc. Once they are looked after you draw a bigger picture. Now that could be your state, that could be your county state, your school, your colleges.” The point is, you always draw a bigger circle.
Now, we are not IBM, at least not yet. But we draw our own circle and keep extending the size of the circle as we move along from an employee responsibility standpoint because the only thing that matters to me is their wellbeing, having their backs and giving them a platform to succeed.
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.
- Put your employees at the forefront of everything you do. For me, the only thing that matters is the wellbeing of my employees, addressing their concerns, and giving them a platform to succeed. Whether it’s our ‘Here to Build’ program, our 90-day Pledge, or our emphasis on diversity, we make sure that our employees know that they and their families are our first priority for every decision we make for our organization.
- Frequent and transparent communication. Though challenging at times, this step was vital for us to ensure that our frontline management teams kept employees and customers up to date on all SingleStore was doing to help them meet their goals. It’s important to me to always respect the person at the other end of the screen, and the only way to do this is by having open and honest conversations.
- Calm is contagious. I’ve mentioned this before, but calm is truly contagious and demonstrating calmness with every interaction is at the core of leadership. Reminding your workforce that you are with them and have their backs goes a long way.
- Keeping the mindset that pressure and leadership are a privilege. There’s no giving up for me and I expect the same attitude from my colleagues. This gift we’ve been given of having jobs during the most difficult of economic times is a privilege — one that a lot of people don’t have right now — and you have to do your absolute best to try and make a difference. You owe it to yourself and those around you to be your best.
- There is not a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to leadership. It’s okay to change your mind if something’s not working. Though difficult at times, changing your mind in a position of leadership makes you stronger and better able to navigate tough situations. It shows those that are looking to you for answers that you did your best to come up with a solution in that moment. And if something else comes along that sounds better for the greater good, then you pivot and try something new.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stresses create successes” is always top of mind, especially during the pandemic. This time has been challenging for all, but has also brought greatness that wouldn’t have happened without us pushing ourselves to make it happen. It’s understandable that some business leaders don’t want to stress out or over-exert their workforce, but the right amount of stress allows people to grow. These short resources have made people more agile and innovative, and has also aided them in becoming the best versions of themselves.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow SingleStore on Twitter, Instagram (@SingleStoreDB) and LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/company/SingleStore/).
You can also check out our website to learn more about the company and our clients: www.SingleStore.com.
You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/raj-verma-941b465/