• Chris Barbin

The Lieutenants - The Shift From Achievement to Legacy

I started this Lieutenant blog series four months ago to highlight the leaders behind the leaders. The people behind the scenes who don't always get the spotlight but deserve much of the credit for a company or organization's success.


Mike Epner is one of those quiet warriors. A guy whose humble confidence and ability to listen and guide have impacted me personally as well as hundreds of other leaders. After 20+ years in technology services and two successful exits, Mike came out of "retirement" to join Traction on Demand, a 13-year old Salesforce services firm based in British Columbia, Canada. Since joining as Traction's head of services, he has helped grow the business from 300 to 1000 employees, while pushing the company's community engagement and philanthropic initiatives. In this Q&A, Mike talks about how he learned early on the value of teamwork, why it's more important than ever to speak up, and when legacy became more important than achievement.


How would you describe your personal leadership style in one word?

Probably humble. A good lieutenant has to put his or her ego secondary and really focus on the objectives of what it is you're trying to accomplish, whether that's the company mission, or supporting the CEO, or making leaders in the organization more effective in their roles. My job is to free up my team and my CEO's time to do the things they're really, really good at. If you're a CEO, that might mean coming up with new ideas and directions to take the business, or going out and raising money, or canvassing the market for M&A.


When you think of other great Lieutenants, what characteristics come to mind?

You have to be confident. Being humble does not mean lacking confidence. You have to know the objective and push back when needed.


Being humble does not mean lacking confidence.

A lieutenant has to observe and counter with alternatives, but at the same time not push back on everything. It's about understanding the priorities of the business at any point in time, separating the personal or emotional side, and choosing the right battles. I'll use COVID as an example. There is so much uncertainty in the market and everybody is worried about the financial side of the business. It's a lieutenant's job to understand what's happening across the business, think through the near term and long-term implications of certain decisions like hiring or making a new investment, and provide the counsel to say, "Hey, you know, maybe this is not the time to do that."


How do you see your role shifting during times of change and crisis?

It's more important than ever to not be quiet about the things that are important. This is relative to the company and to the counsel you're giving your CEO. The criteria for responding has changed, and you have to be a lot more aggressive than you might have been in the past. Take Black Lives Matter and the current issues that we're experiencing with racial injustice. You have to listen to what the organization is telling you and be open to the fact that the right thing to do now may be a little different than how you've responded in the past. It requires having direct conversations with people about how they're feeling and what they're hearing. It means looking at what other organizations are doing and using that as guideposts for what to do (or what not to do).


It's more important than ever to not be quiet about the things that are important.

When it comes to sensitive issues, you have to be open to change, but also stay consistent with who you are as a company. For example, 80% of our organization is located in Canada. I'm in Dallas. What we're experiencing here in the U.S. is different than what is being experienced in Vancouver or Toronto or Montreal. In Canada, First Nations (the indigenous people of Canada) is much more visible as an issue. While BLM is just as relevant, you just have to make sure that you're communicating in a way that indicates you're sensitive to those issues as well. When you do communicate your point of view, be direct and clear. And honestly, the organization needs to hear that point of view not only from the CEO, but from other executives as well.


Lieutenants like yourself are constantly triaging. What are your tips to personal stress management or for staying organized?

Personally, I don't get overly stressed about things. I think maybe it's just a product of experience. In this role there's so much happening that you can't internalize everything that's going on and you can't take all of that weight on your shoulders, or you won't get anything done.


My biggest tip is to have your own set of trusted lieutenants. I have an amazing team, but they bear a lot of the responsibility and sometimes the stress associated with this job. In times like these where we're faced with an unpredictable pipeline and so much uncertainty, it helps to know that you can fall back on people who are paying attention to every deal, every metric, every piece of data that rolls up into how we're performing as an organization.


It's your job to take the input and make decisions on it, but when you have a system that works and confidence in your people, it relieves a lot of the stress.

It's your job to take that input and make the right decisions, but when you have a system that works and confidence in your people, it relieves a lot of the stress. It's not something that just happens though. You have to build your lieutenants. You have to know their strengths, and build up your team so they can take on more and more of the decisions. I try to make sure there are multiple people who can take my role if I'm not there.


That's interesting. In Silicon Valley, I find there's a bit of a hero mentality. Was there a turning point in your career where you realized you can't take everything on yourself ?

Yes, and fortunately it happened really early in my career. I was working in the medical device division of Kodak at the time and the company had run into some regulatory problems with the FDA. The business literally came to a stop, and getting it back on track fell on my shoulders. I built a team really quickly of five lieutenants and we pulled it off. We met every day, looked at what we needed to accomplish, how we were doing against that and delivered. We had the business back on track within four months, which was frankly unheard of at the time. I saw what a cohesive team could accomplish. Without that, everybody is out running their own plays.


I saw what a cohesive team could accomplish. Without that, everybody is out running their own plays.

What would you say is your most significant career accomplishment?

When I look back on my career, the thing I'm most proud of is that all of the folks who were my lieutenants at Appirio went on to be senior leaders at their next gig - CEOs and SVPs. That's cool. To have that kind of impact on people and their careers. I took a long sabbatical after I left Appirio, and when you take time to look back on what you've accomplished, no one really cares what your title was. What you want to talk about are the people who you impacted and affected.


Something about Traction, and your CEO Greg Malpass, drew you out of your sabbatical/retirement. Can you talk a little bit about what that driver was?

When I retired I realized how much I enjoyed making an impact on people's lives and careers, and I wanted to do more of that. There were two things that really drew me to Greg. First, was his commitment to giving back. He'd been in business for 12 years and it wasn't just about the bottom line. The majority of the conversations we had were about how we could use a company to do good in the world, whether that be the career advancement of employees or how we could impact the communities around us.


My career has shifted from what used to be very much about achievement to legacy.

A great example is Traction's small town initiative, which aims to bring jobs to small and rural communities to stem the urbanization of talent. We opened an office in a rural community of British Columbia. There was no good business reason to do that other than to bring jobs to a place that doesn't have much tech. These types of things were a huge draw for me. My career has shifted from what used to be very much about achievement to legacy. From "we grew X percent and delivered X, Y and Z" to "what will we leave behind when we're done with all this."


I've had the opportunity to work closely with you at a number of companies, first Borland, then Appirio, now as Chairman of Traction. I've seen first-hand how good you are at developing people, while creating super tight cohesive teams working towards a common goal. That's leadership. What's the secret to this?

First, don't ever be threatened by your team. Some people don't want to hire people better than themselves because it makes them look worse. I think our job is to make our teams better than we are. To make them want to stay but also ready to go on and do great things. When you have a great team, it doesn't make you irrelevant. It makes you look better.


Don't ever be threatened by your team...when you have a great team, it doesn't make you irrelevant. It makes you look better.

Second, pay attention to people and their "whole person." When you start getting into higher levels of management, a lot of stress comes with that. As a leader, you're adding more and more responsibility on top of people, and there are no more hours in the day. You can't work your way to success, you have to manage and prioritize. Pay attention to that with people. Pay attention to their stress levels, coach them through how to manage the workload, and help them manage the priorities until they learn how to do it for themselves.


You can't work your way to success, you have to manage and prioritize.

Lastly, just be true to who you are. If you fake it and try to be something you're not, your team will pick up on that and they won't trust you. I'm the exact same person at home that I am at work.


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.