• Chris Barbin

The Lieutenants - What Great Looks Like

Save your stress for things that are really going to matter in two or three days. Focus on the big problems not the little problems. Perspective is important.The next Q&A in our "Lieutenants - Lessons, Learning and Leadership" blog series is with a legendary sales leader and huge proponent for women in technology, Susan St. Ledger. Susan is president of worldwide field operations at Splunk, a $1.68B publicly traded company, where she runs all go-to-market functions including marketing, sales and customer success. Susan started her career as an engineer in the NSA and has been the right hand to some of the most successful CEOs in the technology industry. As you might imagine, she doesn't pull a lot of punches. In this Q&A she describes her "direct" leadership style, why her career has been more of a jungle gym than a ladder, and how that has helped her manage stress and understand what great looks like.


In one word, how would you describe your leadership style?

I would say "authentic", although the people I work with might lead with "direct".


What would you say are 2 - 3 characteristics of a great lieutenant?

I think any great leader, no matter what their role is, has to be great at recognizing and attracting talent. Everything comes from that. The second thing is they must be data-driven. You need that to really operate at the right levels and scale, and any lieutenant has to operate at scale.


When it's a tsunami of change like now, what do you do to manage and cope with stress? Aside from the wine you mean?! Seriously, the only thing you can do is focus on the things that you can control, and try to let go of everything that you can't control. To me, if something is outside of your control, it's a waste of time to stress about it.


Now that's easier said than done, and I'm much better at doing that now than I was even a few years ago. It might just come with so many at-bats, but I can also point to a specific turning point for me. I was the chief of staff for Ed Zander and Scott McNealy, and life was stressful. I was working insane hours and living out of a suitcase. One day I was staying at a boyfriend's house and had gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to leave for a trip when I realized that I only had two right boots and no left. I had a complete meltdown. When I got back from that trip, my friend and I talked about it and he asked "does what you got so upset about really even matter today?" Of course the answer was no. It was such a small moment but it gave me a framework for putting things into perspective that I still use today: save your stress for things that are really going to matter in two or three days. Focus on the big problems not the little problems.


Save your stress for things that are really going to matter in two or three days. Focus on the big problems not the little problems. Perspective is important.

During times of chaos, having perspective is important and I tell my team that all the time. For example, right now, we all have inconveniences in our lives, but there are people with real problems. If you're not trying to collect unemployment right now, and you're not standing in food lines, then you have it pretty good. I started my career at NSA and the last thing I did there during Desert Storm was truly mission critical. People could die if the system that we wrote wasn't functioning. Nobody dies if I screw up today.


When it comes to the dials in a business, would you say you are customer-first, team-first, or financial-first?

I would say customer-first because I think that's what drives everything. If you align around customers as your true North, I think that the team works better together. If you are team first only, it's really interesting how you solve friction between your team. But if everybody has their customer as the true North, it's easier to really get to the right answer in my opinion.


It's not just about making the numbers, but it's how you make the numbers.

I am still amazed by how many leaders come up not understanding all of the dials of the business, especially in sales. It's not just about making the numbers, but it's how you make the numbers. The reason so many leaders tap out and don't get to where they need to be is because they don't understand all the dials of a business. Marc Benioff was so good at teaching his lieutenants this. He exposed us to everything it takes to run the business as opposed to focusing on JUST the numbers.


Do you aspire to be a CEO, and if not, why do you not aspire to be a CEO?

The answer is not only no, but hell no. It ties back to my leadership style and being my authentic self. I love go-to-market. I love technology and have a huge voice in our product direction, but I have no desire to run product or G&A functions because it would take me further away from what I love, which is customers and go-to-market. I've actually had women say to me, you're doing us a disservice because you can be a CEO and we need more female CEOs. It's true that we need more female CEOs. However, if I want to stay true to who I am and my authentic self, I don't think I'd be happy as a CEO.


Great lieutenants choose to work with great leaders. What are the characteristics or traits in your CEO Doug Merritt that you admire?

First and foremost, he treats me as his equal, and that's really amazing. He is also incredibly authentic and empathetic. He deeply cares about the people who work at this company. I don't think you'd ever find a more approachable CEO than Doug. The people in the field know him, respect him, and nobody's afraid to reach out to him. He's very humble and I think that's a really unique characteristic for a CEO.


In one sentence, what do you want your professional legacy to be?

She knew what great looked like.


I love that, can you expand on that a bit?

I've had the opportunity to work with great leaders, and true leaders set the bar high. Take Marc Benioff. Marc's bar on everything was so high and he showed us how much better and bigger and more exceptional things could be when you have high expectations. That's a mindset that is impossible to attain if you have not experienced it. Your belief system comes from your experiences.


What advice would you give to others who aspire to be in your shoes?

My career has been a jungle gym, not a ladder. I started on the engineering side, eventually did sales, then branched out to customer success and then back to sales. Sitting in those different seats has helped me tremendously to understand the different dials of a business.


My career has been a jungle gym, not a ladder.

When I mentor people I talk about having a career bucket list -- what are the things you would ideally have if you wanted to be a senior executive. Have you run a P&L? What's the largest span of control you've held both from a revenue and a people perspective? Have you had international experience? Do you understand how to build an ecosystem? Ultimately you'd like to fill up all those buckets to have the right experience.


A lot of people get to a senior role and then just aren't effective, because they haven't really done all the work. So instead of thinking about the next promotion and the next promotion, anytime you're going to make a move, ask yourself, what am I adding to my bucket list? Don't worry about the order in which you do it, but just be conscious of attaining the skills and experiences you need to be great.


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.