As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Siva Namasivayam, CEO of Cohere Health.
Prior to co-founding Cohere Health, Siva Namasivayam was a founder and CEO of SCIO Health Analytics, which had more than 50 Fortune 500 healthcare clients. Siva’s experience also includes serving as senior vice president and chief revenue officer at EDS/MphasiS, senior vice president of payer services at Dell, and senior software engineer at Intel. He received his bachelor’s degree from the National Institute of Technology-Trichy at the University of Madras. Siva holds a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh as well as an MBA from the University of Michigan.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you grew up?
I was born into a middle-class family in Southern India with traditional values. My father was a teacher, so education was highly valued. We learned the importance of studying well and we learned how to be disciplined. And we made use of whatever little resources we had, which made us resourceful. Also, the schools were competitive, and everybody followed similar paths. I found myself always wanting to do something different to break out of the mold. This was ingrained in me growing up.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I always wanted to do something new and make a difference. When I was a teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I became fascinated with computers. I had looked at all the possibilities computers could make real and I wanted to get involved in that. How can you use computers to make life better? That topic was always fascinating to me. When I was young, India was a country trying to grow and I felt there had to be a quantum leap in terms of industries for people and our society to make economic progress. And I was confident that electronics and computers were the real keys. So, technology was an inspiration for me.
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?
After I finished college, I had a job interview with Intel in which I informed them of all the great things I’ve learned and how computers will make a huge difference in the world. The first project they put me on involved an old product. But I wasn’t interested because I saw myself as a high-level strategist who works only on the big problems. I didn’t want to waste my time on documentation or fixing old code. Soon my manager told me, “You are a bright young man, but you need to understand the basic details of our products before you can apply the big-picture ideas you learned in college.” That was a big shock. I had to recalibrate myself for a year or two to get back on track. Two years after giving me that advice, my manager promoted me.
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?
You can’t have a successful career without some help, and I’ve had help from so many people along the way. My parents are always encouraging me to reach higher. Sometimes, though, a negative event can help you. A friend of mine from college and I had an idea that he turned into a company. I decided to help him, even though I wouldn’t be paid a salary―I had a promise for some money down the road. Soon I made a deal to sell the company to a large U.S. player. It was my first entrepreneurial venture. Unfortunately, my friend downplayed my role and made sure I got little credit. I didn’t know how to play corporate politics, and my friend was good at it. This was a low moment for me, and I quit. The experience gave me resolve, as I went on to build companies, to treat people well and be modest and give full credit to where credit is due. That’s an example of a negative event producing a positive outcome in my career.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
It was rough when I quit my friend’s company because I had not been compensated properly for negotiating its sale, yet I knew I couldn’t stay. It was time to do things my own way, to take a different path. That was a big thing for me. I wanted to make sure my capabilities shone through while being humbler in the process. It was a rough two years in my life, and I had to fight my way back to next venture.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I don’t set the bar too high on day one, but I continually reset the bar. That keeps me going. Here is where we want to be in the next year or two. When we get there, I set the bar higher again. I set the bar higher every week, in a way. Now there are going to be a lot of things you go through in the process of running a company. You lose a great employee, you lose a client, you lose potential investors. It’s all part of the process. One thing I try to do when faced with a setback is learn from it. Immediately I ask what went wrong. I talk to people. I call them up and ask what we could have done better. I always try to find something I can learn. You can always respond to adversity. I look at my parents and grandparents, the tough times they went through in India. I saw them fight every day and do what is right. That is always in the back of my mind. What I’m going through is nothing compared to what they endured.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things today are going very well. Cohere has a great client, a great team, and a good product. We are achieving all the goals we’ve set for ourselves. But we need to set the bar higher. How do we improve the product in the next six months? How can we add two new clients? That’s the bar I’ve set now. I’m going to set more. My last company, SCIO Health Analytics, sold for $250 million. I want to make Cohere Health a billion-dollar company. But more than that, I want the team to be proud of what we are creating and want to make a difference in the life of patients.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have a great set of clients, one of which happens to be a small investor in Cohere. This client, which is a large health plan, has helped us to hone our thinking and better understand our market. Our team also helps us stand out. We’ve grown from five or six employees before COVID-19 to about 150. Even though 90% of our staff members haven’t seen each other in person, we’ve been able to recruit people and launch our product into the market in a big way. That’s because of our people. We have been able to create a purpose and mission for our team. COVID-19 has been a motivator because it has created a huge challenge for healthcare and our employees are determined to meet that challenge.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
First, I try to clear my mind on the weekends. I try to rest on Saturdays and Sundays, spend time with my family, and do totally different things. That is very important. During the weekdays I keep telling myself that the weekend will come.
I can’t afford to get rattled. As a leader I need to project confidence and energy. If I appear burned out or tired, my employees see that, and it has a negative impact on them. I also encourage our employees to take time off when they need it and come back refreshed. Other things I will do to relax include reading books or watching movies.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As I mentioned earlier, education is very important to me. One thing I do is help kids in a nearby town with their education. I like to motivate students to pursue a college education and I’ll even help them with their applications. I’ll ask local schools if there are promising students who lack resources, and I help them. My son, who just graduated from Yale, does this with me. It goes back to how I grew up. I believe in the power of education to lift people.
That’s one example. A second example is what we’re doing at Cohere. When I was running SCIO Health Analytics, I was really focused on success. With Cohere, I am driven more by a mission. Our goal is to keep the patient at the center of what we do every day so we can play our part in helping to save a life or reduce suffering.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
One thing people don’t tell you about running a company is that it’s a sales job. You have to sell to clients, investors, and employees. It is all about communication and confidence. For me, with a background in strategy, that was a rude awakening. It was something I had to learn how to do.
The second thing I wish I knew before leading a company was to let people do their jobs. I’m a very detail-oriented person, which sometimes causes me to micromanage. However, as a CEO you cannot do everything. You can’t be superman. I used to get too deep into problems and solutions, which caused me to lose sight of my day-to-day responsibilities as the person running a company and to get burned out. So, I learned that while I should set goals, I also should hire the right people and let them do their jobs. Guide them but don’t do the work for them.
That leads to the third thing I wish someone had told me before I started a company. You eventually realize that roughly 5% to 10% of employees are 80% responsible for your company’s success. It’s critical that you recognize who those people are and help them do what they do well. It’s about optimizing your human resources.
A fourth thing I wish I knew is that I don’t need to have all the answers. It’s more important that I know and ask the right questions to guide employees to the answer. Which gets back to having good people you can trust to arrive at the right answers and make the best decisions. To ask the right questions, however, I need to be knowledgeable. I need to understand financial issues, legal issues, marketing, and other aspects of the business. But I need to be curious, look at all the sides of the problem and ask the right questions — so that the team can then come up with the right questions.
The last thing I wish I knew is that being on top can be lonely at times. There are so many confidential things that one has to keep in mind―good things and bad things―about employees, performance, and other issues, that it is very difficult to balance everything and make decisions.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
It has changed a lot. I built a team of people equally good or better than me. They are leaders in their own sphere, and they bring a consensus to decisions. This is why we’ve been able to hire some very good people. That has really helped the company. I give credit where credit is due, and I am humble. We are a humble company.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
You can only truly learn from experience. Reading helps you to know you are not the only one facing a particular problem or challenge, and that they can be solved. That is both encouraging and inspiring. But real value comes from experience.
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. :-)
This would involve education. I would love to get a bunch of volunteers around the world to offer free tutoring to students, donate their time and learn what the students are going through. This can be done through the power of the internet and teleconferencing. You can teach the students something and they can teach you something as well. I tell my kids, if you want to learn about Iceland, connect to someone in Iceland. If they want to learn about the culture in Iran, they should connect with someone in Iran. This is how we break down barriers and bring unity throughout the world.