Chris Butt, CEO and Founder of Cognisess: Microsoft Roadshow 2017 Takeaways
Just over a month since taking part in the Microsoft Global Startup Roadshow 2017, the dust has settled enough for me to take in the lessons I learned after an extremely valuable — and busy — 5 days in Seattle and California at the end of April.
The opportunity to mingle with, and learn from the executives from the highest echelons of Microsoft’s organization, and share the stage, training sessions, customer introductions, and networking opportunities with 14 top Microsoft Accelerator alumnus from across the globe was an extremely useful, and also grounding experience.
As a CEO, the Roadshow offered insight into how to navigate the ecosystem of a global enterprise like Microsoft, the advantages of partnering with of such an organization, and the possibilities it could offer for a company like my own.
One of the presentations which really struck a chord with me was by John W Thompson, the chairman of the board for Microsoft.
As an MIT graduate with a 45 plus year career in the leadership of the world’s leading tech companies including current chairman of Microsoft, former chairman and CEO of Symantec and former VP and General Manager for IBM, it is clear than John Thompson is a man who knows his stuff about the software industry.
From the outset, Thompson gave a bird’s eye view of evolution of the software industry from its early beginnings to where it is today, and in doing so offered real context to how the industry has changed, and the effects this has had on the realities of effectively managing businesses in this field.
While discussing the incredible level of maturity we have reached in the software industry today, Thompson regaled us with stories of successes, bumps in the road, and straight out failures which have made up his own personal journey. Rather than simply playing the ‘poster boy’ for success in Silicon Valley, he offered a more realistic picture of the trials and tribulations of managing global companies.
Thompson retold his experiences building a company which expanded too quickly and had to retrench when it couldn’t raise further funding, leading to pressure from investors to scale down or close. He spoke of how emotional a time this was for him as a leader, and how it brought him to tears letting valued team members go.
The fact that most startups fail is somewhat of an elephant in the room in the tech industry, but Thompson’s message was a positive one: to trust your instincts, to really become a part of a company and care about its stakeholders, and that resilience is important but that it is even more important to be realistic.
As the current CEO of a growing company, with a long career in the world of startups, it was a breath of fresh air to hear such an honest appraisal from someone with so much experience.
During his presentation, Thompson focused on the realities of being a CEO, of being a chairman, and of being both at the same time.
Normally, once a company goes public, a board of directors will elect a chairman to act as the main link between the interests of investors and shareholders, and the CEO of a company. However, while becoming less common in recent years, in many companies, the CEO, who holds the top management position in the company, also serves as chairman of the board.
Thompson told an interesting story about how when he was first asked to be CEO for Symantec, the board offered him the position of both CEO and Chairman. Unsure as to whether this was the right step for the company, or his career, he called upon various contacts for advice. Unanimously he was told to accept both positions at the same time.
The advice which Thompson was given by his trusted contacts was that you will never fully understand the gravity of the position, and you will never understand how it feels to be at the helm of a company, until you take the leap into the position of CEO.
There is only so much you can do to prepare for this, you are either ready or not and the truth will soon tell.
Building a business is not easy, and if you are doing it right, it never will be.
When I left the intense Microsoft Roadshow and travelled 6000 miles back to Bath, UK where my team is based, I stepped back into an equally frantic world of taking on staff, projects, deadlines, meetings and searching for funding.
This was when I realized just how valuable Thompson’s presentation had been to me as a CEO.
Without being negative, or bringing people down Thompson offered a well needed dose of reality. In openly discussing the ups and downs of managing a company, he told us “ I understand the pressure you are under” and brought home the point that however good things seem to be going, in this highly changeable and competitive industry, there are dangers out there, and you are not there until you are there.