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 Vijay Kurkal, CEO at Resolve Systems.
Vijay Kurkal serves as the Chief Executive Officer for Resolve where he oversees the strategic growth of the company as it helps maximize the potential of AIOps and IT automation in enterprises around the world. Vijay has a long history in the tech industry, having spent the last twenty years working with numerous software and hardware companies that have run the gamut from mainframe to bleeding-edge, emerging tech. Before joining Resolve, he held leadership positions at IBM, VMware, Bain & Company, and Insight Partners, playing a critical role in accelerating the growth of a wide array of technology companies and introducing state-of-the-art product lines. Vijay has a passion for helping IT organizations achieve digital transformation by embracing new technologies and for bringing innovative solutions to market. He frequently speaks and writes about topics related to the journey to automation in modern enterprises. Vijay’s own foray into technology began with a degree in electrical engineering from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, followed by an MBA from Columbia University.
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 have spent my career working in B2B tech. I have an electrical engineering degree, as well as an MBA, which gave me a great knowledge base of how technology and business coalesce. I held leadership positions at IBM, VMware, and Bain & Company before joining Insight Partners a few years ago. Insight is a leading global venture capital and private equity firm with more than $30 billion in capital commitments; they invest in high-growth technology and software companies.
In my role as an operating partner at Insight, I worked with a variety of scale-up companies but focused much of my attention on infrastructure software companies given my background. That is how I first crossed paths with Resolve, where I currently serve as the CEO. During due diligence and the investment process, I saw the potential for the IT automation and AI market to really explode and made the move to join the leadership team. While automation has been around for a while, it’s now experiencing a true renaissance and Resolve is well-positioned to lead as this next era of automation is unfolding. It’s an exciting time to be in this space.
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?
One of my big asks, when I became CEO, was for us to stop behaving like a big company, and instead roll up our sleeves and reconnect with our startup roots to bring more agility, creativity, and cross-functional unity to the business.
We had a leadership summit the second week of January in our new Campbell office, which was in the final stages of being remodeled. We discovered there was no heat in the building, so the entire executive team was crowded around a bunch of space heaters figuring out what our 2020 plan would be. It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for us to get creative and learn to keep things moving forward under imperfect circumstances, which seems very fitting given the turbulence that we’ve all experienced this year.
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 spent about eight years at Bain doing consulting work, and I am grateful for the career-changing opportunities it provided for me. The Bain network and reputation are very strong, especially when it comes to building trust and collaboration. As Bain alums, people believe in your abilities. Through my Bain connections, I’ve been connected to great opportunities throughout my career, first at VMware and later at Insight Partners, which eventually led me to Resolve.
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?
Resolve has gone through a variety of incarnations over the years. Before my arrival, the company had a great platform that was opportunistically sold into different segments of the market or to different personas within a given segment. When I took over, I asked the team: “What is our mission? Where does Resolve fit in?” Fundamentally, we’ve always been in the business of solving problems and making life easier for IT teams, but now we have clarity and focus around fulfilling this mission by delivering best-of-breed IT automation and AIOps solutions.
Regardless of industry, today every organization relies on technology to drive their business, which means that IT is fundamentally holding everything together. Behind all of those exciting applications and technology-enabled solutions is a very overworked IT team. Sometimes it’s a bit of a thankless job to be in IT operations. If anything goes down or if there’s an outage or security breach, these are the folks that are immediately in the firing zone.
With our ability to leverage AI-driven insights to automate IT tasks and processes, Resolve can make ITOps more efficient and agile. By helping IT teams succeed, we help global 2000 companies improve their business outcomes. That is what we strive to achieve. With the pandemic and the IT challenges it has introduced, it’s now more important than ever before to support these teams and recognize the complexity of their jobs.
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 put a lot of trust in my team. Resolve has a fantastic executive leadership team that is very motivated, driven, and extremely qualified in each of their respective functional areas. My role is to give them the space to do what they do well, while removing any obstacles they face. A big part of that is making essential, cross-functional decisions quickly and avoiding indecision. Many organizations struggle with indecision and get stuck having the same discussions quarter over quarter. Resolve’s leaders are proactively and creatively solving a lot of problems, but if there are any org-wide or cross-functional decisions that need to be made, it’s my role to make those calls with their input so that we can keep moving forward. That’s a very big part of my DNA and I strive to empower my team, trusting that each leader is an expert in their area and giving them the support they need to succeed.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I absolutely never considered nor will ever consider giving up. It’s just not in my DNA, which comes in part from my upbringing and roots. I grew up in India in a middle-class family where I had to go build something on my own because I really had nothing to fall back on. My only choice was to work hard and make something of myself.
I’ve always been incredibly competitive and one to go out and win — I don’t take a loss or “no” for an answer. In every stage of my life, I’ve always pushed for more. After high school in India, I went to college in Singapore, which was very uncommon, but I got a full scholarship to do my engineering studies there. Then, I took another uncommon leap and went from Singapore, where I was working at IBM, to Columbia to do my MBA in New York. I have been here ever since. I’ve never followed a standard path, and everything I’ve achieved I had to push hard for. Giving up is not an option for me. It’s just not how I operate.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
First and foremost, an element of courage. There are so many things that can disrupt even your best-laid plans. Whether a situation is controlled or uncontrolled, there will always be things that you need to react to, sometimes with great consequences. Through no fault of your own, there will be situations that you need to grapple with, and you need to have the courage to wake up and fight through them.
Through all the turbulence, it’s also important to remain calm and listen more. I know for a fact that I don’t have all the best ideas. I brainstorm a lot with my executive team, board members, and other industry experts. It’s in these exchanges where oftentimes the best ideas emerge.
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?
I think it’s very important for a leader to give a top-down vision of what they believe the future will hold for the company. This is especially true when the future is uncertain.
Right now, we’d normally be kicking off our planning process for 2021 with an executive offsite. However, given the pandemic, that’s not an option. This year instead of starting with a blank slate, I laid out a vision, or a marker, for what I think our 2021 growth and investment trajectory might look like. I thought this would help get the planning process started as we tackle it remotely — especially knowing that everything is subject to change at a moment’s notice right now.
We plan to monitor and adjust our plan agilely, but if people feel completely uncertain about the future, we can’t make thoughtful decisions about hiring, our product roadmap, or go-to-market strategy. It’s critical for me as a leader to lay out that vision for the future of Resolve and give the company something to rally around.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct, but empathetic. I’m very transparent when it comes to communicating difficult news and openly lay out the facts behind why something happened or why certain decisions were made. If employees feel I’m not transparent or I’m sugarcoating, I lose credibility, so I’ve always been very direct.
That said, it’s important to be empathetic at every turn and be mindful of the personal and emotional impact of the decisions we make as a leadership team. I strive to create an environment where our employees feel valued and heard. If I have difficult news to share, I always want to do that with empathy and bear in mind that each of our team members has a personal investment in the work they do every day.
Once the news is delivered, I focus on the path ahead and on the future. I want my team thinking about what’s next versus what just happened, so it’s important to ensure that there are no lingering questions in order to refocus everyone’s energy on moving forward.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to make the best decisions you can with the information you have at that moment. Inaction and indecision can be really harmful to a business. So you have to be comfortable making decisions and providing direction, knowing that you won’t be right 100% of the time.
Hopefully, good leaders make more right decisions than wrong decisions, but you can’t belabor your decisions or you’ll get stuck. I think it’s important to have an approach of failing fast — to acknowledge when you’ve made a bad decision and try to get back on track quickly. In challenging times, good leaders continue to course correct and know there will be a few mistakes made along the way — which are also opportunities to learn.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Never give up! You have to be resilient and continue to push through the challenges.
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?
As I mentioned, I’ve seen many organizations struggle with indecision, which is detrimental to a growing business. If a leadership team keeps having the same conversations over and over without reaching a decision, their teams can’t move forward. Stagnation hurts growth-stage companies. Resolve’s leaders take decisive action in their functional areas, and I make decisions quickly in cross-functional situations to ensure we are continually making progress towards our goals.
Another common issue I’ve witnessed is being afraid to admit when you’ve made a mistake in a crisis situation. Some leaders get defensive and double down instead of admitting their mistake and changing course. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes, especially in unprecedented situations, and good leaders are comfortable admitting that sometimes mistakes will be made along the way.
Finally, it’s important to really value your employees. They are your greatest asset. When times are tough, it can be easy to lose sight of this. Even if you have to make difficult decisions or trim budgets, it’s important to think through the impact to the people behind your business and pick the best possible outcome for them under the circumstances.
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?
Resolve is very lucky that our products offer a solution to many of the IT challenges created by the pandemic, so we have fared better than many software companies this year. Our customers are increasingly looking towards automation and AIOps technologies to alleviate the pressures on IT that have resulted from business processes rapidly shifting to digital channels, entire workforces going remote overnight, and the increased need to offer great digital experiences as consumers and employees rely more heavily on online services. IT teams are inundated right now, and automation not only provides some immediate relief, but also sets the stage for long-term success.
That said, our customers are dealing with unpredictability in their own businesses, budget pressures, rapidly changing priorities, and increased need to prove the value of their investments. Our goal is to understand these dynamics and come up with creative, flexible solutions that can make it easier for them to do business with us even during challenging times. We strive to be good partners to our customers, drive open communication so that we understand what they are up against, respond quickly to address their questions or concerns, and think outside-of-the-box to see how we can help them succeed. Our success ultimately hinges on that of our customers — and I’d add that it never hurts to enjoy doing business with one another, so developing strong relationships is key.
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.
Listen More: In the past several months, I have learned a lot from my leadership team, board members, and other CEOs. I’m always seeking additional viewpoints and ideas because I know I don’t have all the answers.
Have a Clear Vision & Plan: In times of uncertainty, it’s important for a leader to establish a clear vision for the future and relay that to the team in order to inspire, guide, and help the company to continue moving forward.
Be Decisive & Eliminate Obstacles: As a CEO, it’s my responsibility to make decisions and clear as many obstacles as I can in order for my team to continue doing their jobs effectively.
Stay Plugged In at Every Level: I don’t believe in hierarchical structures, and I want employees at every level to feel comfortable picking up the phone when they have a question for me. Especially in difficult times, employees might not want to raise a concern in a public forum or with their managers, so this just gives them an opportunity to hear directly from me. It calms them to ask questions and hear that we have a plan.
Never Give Up: Be ready for your best-laid plans to go awry, especially right now. The reality is that we’re all constantly adjusting, but if you have that “never say die” attitude, you can look for new opportunities, even in times of turbulence.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As Vince Lombardi said, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” You can’t underestimate the power of persistence and pushing hard to achieve your goals.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I encourage readers to check out the Resolve blog. I’ll also be launching a Forbes Tech Council column in the near future.