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“Self-awareness”, Kash Shaikh of Virtana and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Leaders need to create a culture of emotionally intelligent leadership at scale across the entire company or business. This requires understanding that the crux of low emotional intelligence is destructive language that may tear down people — not encouraging their growth or ability to thrive. I encourage leaders to eliminate phrases devoid of emotional intelligence — they make you […]

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Leaders need to create a culture of emotionally intelligent leadership at scale across the entire company or business. This requires understanding that the crux of low emotional intelligence is destructive language that may tear down people — not encouraging their growth or ability to thrive. I encourage leaders to eliminate phrases devoid of emotional intelligence — they make you seem like a command and control tyrant, not an emotionally intelligent leader.


As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kash Shaikh, President, and CEO of Virtana.

Kash has more than 25 years of experience in the data center and the cloud industry. He has experience in transforming all aspects of the business. Kash has a track record of improving results in small and large Fortune 100 companies by making necessary strategic calls to drive profitable growth. Kash joined Virtana from Dell Technologies. More recently, at Dell, Kash was the Global Vice President and General Manager of the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions business, which included technology partner alliances. Under his leadership, this Solutions business grew by 28% to 1.77B dollars.

Before Dell, Shaikh served as Vice President, Global Marketing and Business Development at Ruckus Wireless (acquired by Brocade), Corporate Vice President Platform Marketing and Business Development at Riverbed Technology (acquired by private equity firm, Thoma Bravo), and held executive leadership roles at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Earlier in his career, he held marketing and engineering leadership positions with Cisco and Nortel Networks.

Kash also serves as a Board member of Ignited, a non-profit that provides learning opportunities around STEM for teachers. When he is not working, Kash enjoys modern minimalist home designs, traveling, learning new things, cycling, and coaching his 12-year-old daughter Zara.

Kash holds a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from NED University, a master’s in Electrical Engineering from Wichita State University, and an MBA from Boise State University.

Kash is an avid social media user. Connect with Shaikh for real-time industry insight on LinkedIn and Twitter.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in an underdeveloped and unprivileged country and environment. My personal and professional journey took me from a childhood without running water to becoming the CEO and President of a Silicon Valley based cloud technology company. My parents were hardworking people who worked hard and stretched to help us obtain a good education in private schools.The education helped me in getting accepted into the top engineering university in the country, NED University.

The unprivileged environment I grew up in has ingrained the underdog-hungry winning mindset and strong work ethics that I learned from seeing my parents, who went through hardships to send us to private schools. My childhood shaped my perspective and personality to provide me with a great deal of personal drive. However, the humble and serving others first model from my parents developed my emotional intelligence. I cherish the friendships and relationships that were formed during my education and professional career.

I came to the US as an immigrant 20+ years ago to earn a master’s degree. Then built my career here in Silicon Valley — the land of opportunity. Time and hard work have allowed me to take on multiple leadership roles; in those roles, I learned a few things about servant leadership and emotional intelligence. While I admire the amazing successes of so many talented people in the technology and business world, the greatest professional and personal reward that anyone can attain is creating an environment where talented professionals can thrive, innovate, and make the world a better place.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

As a child, I always liked to figure out how things worked and would take things apart. This curiosity led me to consider a career in technology because no other sector impacts our daily lives as profoundly as innovations in this sector. My passion for tinkering eventually led me to start my career as a software engineer. Once I understood the basics of that role, my innate interest expanded to explore and learn other functions.

Early on in my career, I was working with product management, and they were quite engaged with sales and customers. I loved learning about how customers were using our products to solve their problems so I asked the Director of product management if I can have a role in his team and he gave me a chance. It was a natural evolution to move from how things worked to why they mattered.

Then I moved to marketing leadership after a few years. Then I picked up business and corporate development functional leadership along with marketing- it is essential to fully comprehend the challenges that customers face to truly be effective in selling a product or service. Every time I took a chance, I gained new experience and learned new skills across various functions and various size companies. Then eventually I ran all the functions in General Management P&L ownership roles at Dell and now as a President and CEO.

My belief is that significant time in the trenches in key business functional leadership along with a good deal of time with customers is required to be a successful leader. This requires excellent listening skills and trust building with internal teams and external customers and partners. I observe, listen, learn and discuss before I make decisions because nobody knows everything and I learn something new every day.

People bet on me throughout my career and gave me chances, and I’ve always given my best shot to learn and make it happen. When I was approached about the CEO position at Virtana, I was running a fast growing 1.7Billion dollars annual business at Dell Technologies. Taking the leadership role at Virtana, a growing and established yet a much smaller company, was intriguing. My view is, the higher the risk and the higher the reward — and I told the Virtana Board of Directors, let’s talk. Making career moves like this requires taking a risk, and you have to take calculated risks, but when a door opens and someone is willing to give you a chance, you should give it your best shot.

My parents sacrificed greatly to provide me with a stellar education to give me a real shot at living the American Dream. It instilled a strong work ethic in me that I balance with carefully calculated risks to grow as a business and technology leader. My approach is to inspire my teams to think big picture and manage risks prudently. The cloud industry is a crowded and competitive space, we all need to inspire and trust each other to deliver the products that enterprises really need to unlock the benefits of the digital age. It is the biggest IT challenge of this decade, managing the cloud is increasingly complicated, and our team is striving to make it as simple and easy as possible.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

A couple of people have been instrumental in coaching, sponsoring, and guiding me over the years.

The most significant is Bethany Mayer, former President and CEO of a public company and currently an independent Board Member at Box, Marvell, and few other companies. I worked for her at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for several years, and even though we have been at different companies for the last seven years, she has remained a mentor, sponsor, and friend. There is much to learn from her successes, but especially in how she has navigated from marketing and product leadership roles to general management, CEO, and then an independent Board member, always building diverse high-performance teams, acting as a servant leader by mentoring people while keeping the company’s best interests in mind.

Corporate America has long held a reputation for a lack of gender and racial inclusion at the executive levels. Bethany’s rise to the top levels of the executive suite is especially meaningful for me as an immigrant and a person of color. Her formidable skills, tenacity and resilience have inspired me throughout my career. As a C-level executive, I have always been mindful of bringing diverse talent to our team. Diversity is a competitive advantage where ideas come from various perspectives which makes us a better business on every measurable level.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

One of the mistakes I made earlier in my career is not taking as many risks and focusing on larger companies with more prominent brands. For example, in Silicon Valley, small start-ups become unicorns in a few years, and some of my friends made fortunes taking risks early on in their careers with lucrative exits. While it can have a significant downside as only about 10% of start-ups are that successful, however, if you get the right role, at the right level, working for the right boss at the right company, there are a lot of upsides. Also, if you get the right executive plan, such as change of control and good reason clauses, you are gold.

The first similar significant risk I took was when I was a Vice President at HPE and decided to try smaller companies; it paid off because the two companies I joined got acquired back-to-back. Lesson learned that if I could start my career all over again, I would take more risks, not just pick more prominent brands, pick the right boss and the right company. Engineering as a profession encourages a step-wise and logic mindset; also my humble beginnings made me crave stability. A few decades of business experience has taught me that working with the right people at the right time matters far more than the name of the brand that you are working for. We all need to trust our intuition more.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Take more calculated risks and acquire diverse experiences across multiple functions. In addition, not just pick more prominent brand companies, pick the right boss. A boss who can mentor and sponsor you not only in your current job but can act as an advisor throughout your career. As I encourage my own daughter, figure out your individual talents and passions and surround yourself with inspiring people. The journey will be on the right path.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book Servant Leadership by the late Robert Greenleaf, is one of the most influential leadership books for me. Servant leaders practice listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. The idea is that staffers, as led by a servant leader, become healthier, wiser, freer, and more effective and valuable. Additionally, these employees are more likely themselves to become servant leaders. Great examples in history include Abraham Lincoln and companies like Starbucks. It was especially eye opening for me coming from an authoritarian society like Pakistan. In a free and civilized society, everyone rises if they are given the best tools to do so. The American economy is driven by innovation and creativity so the focus should always be on how to best develop the talent to execute on great ideas.

The second book is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Harvard professor and businessman, the late Clayton Christensen. It has helped shape my big picture strategic thinking about the company and product strategies. It expands on the concept of disruptive technologies and the dilemma most of the successful companies face to retain a market leadership position.

My passion outside of work is minimalist interior design. Disruption is what creates new categories and reimagines new industries but it has to be simple and functional to be truly beautiful.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Give someone a fish, and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.

The reason it resonated with me is, it is aligned with the philosophy of servant leadership. If you give a person a fish, the person will be hungry again soon. If you teach the person how to catch a fish, they will be prepared to survive for the rest of their life.

This past year has been incredibly challenging for every industry around the world. We have all had to learn to ‘fish’ a new way and the reality is that we will have to keep learning and looking for new ways to ‘fish’ better to survive and thrive. We are all in this together and can collectively build our resilience muscles to emerge from this crisis stronger, wiser, and more connected to each other.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

As CEO and President, my duties include running the company, driving the next generation SaaS unified observability platform, and preparing our go-to-market team to help our customers in their journey towards the public cloud. However, a big part of my role is to remove friction and complexity for our customers, partners and employees. It is my job to ensure that every person has what they need to excel — to position our company as the leading cloud optimization platform for digital transformation to improve the quality of life for everyday people. I must make the complex very simple.

My long-term goal is to develop the next generation of engineering and business talent to lead Virtana to the next level of growth and to encourage them to create the next great thing- even beyond this company. The digital divide gap is profound between countries like the U.S. and Pakistan- ideally this will become smaller during my lifetime.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let us now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

I recently stepped into my new role at Virtana. However, I did not physically step in — I virtually stepped in, as did many starting jobs in 2020. As I begin, I do it with two ears and one mouth.

I am spending the first 90 days on a “listen, learn, and observe tour.” Virtana’s team members, partners, and end customers have a treasure trove of the knowledge I need to do my job, so I am listening while creating and delivering upon the vision of our company. I am listening to our talented team members to understand how they view their role in the company’s success as well as their own.

I ask the toughest question: “What do you like and what don’t you like about Virtana?” And I really do want to hear the answers.

Managing virtually is, oddly enough, both harder and easier. Harder, because we are not face-to-face. Easier because we are not on planes, trains, and automobiles with wasted time. So, the opportunity is to use that time gained to be in more virtual team meetings, more one-on-ones, and use the gift of that time to make every connection count. In order for me to be an effective business leader, I have to continually refine my emotional intelligence skills to inspire my team to deliver great results.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to be aware of, control, express one’s emotions, and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. This term was created by professors Peter Salavoy (Yale) and John Mayer (University of New Hampshire), and popularized by Dan Goleman in his 1996 book: Emotional Intelligence.

According to Daniel Goleman, there are five key elements to it:

  1. Self-awareness.
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation.
  4. Empathy.
  5. Social skills.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Intelligence or IQ is the intellectual ability to manage ideas, knowledge, and thoughts.

Emotional Intelligence or EQ is the ability to recognize emotions, understand their powerful effect, and use that information to guide thinking and behavior and manage relationships with other people.

As managers, high emotional intelligence guides us to manage ourselves and others well. To be more effective in 2021, we must be self-aware and recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions to positively influence the emotions of others with empathy and listening.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

In an instant in 2020, managers had to learn how to motivate and connect with most of their team virtually. In 2021, it will be more of the same. These new pressures fray our emotions, stretch our intelligence, and test our patience. Honing emotional intelligence skills including empathy, kindness, listening, asking probing questions to understand, giving and receiving feedback, meeting deadlines, dealing with challenging relationships, how to act in a resource-constrained environment, managing change, and dealing with setbacks, failure, and yes — success.

To lead distributed remote teams, leaders need to clearly define the goals and focus on measuring the goals and avoid focusing on activities. Leaders need to make sure there is a clear dashboard of objectives and key results. Leaders also need to make sure they continue to communicate why these goals will lead to a better place and say it seven times, seven ways.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.

An emotionally intelligent person can make decisions based on the needs of the situation. An emotionally intelligent person is aware of his values and principles and can manage his emotions.

In a meeting a few years back, where there were more than 10 participants, I was leading the meeting, and one of the functional leaders got really upset about a priority and deadline. She started yelling at me and said my boss does not know anything about the business. I stayed calm and said that “I hear your concerns; this is probably not the right forum to discuss my boss’s issues. Let us take this offline.”

She dropped from the conference call. She called me later in the evening and apologized for her behavior on the call. She shared how stressed she was to meet the deadline, she also had personal family issues that made her stressed, but she appreciated that I stayed calm when she was angry. The lesson learned, be kind; you do not know what the other person is going through in their life.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Emotional intelligence in business is the ability to understand your emotions and those of others. By honing your emotional intelligence skills, you can gain an edge over others by successfully working with difficult people and resolving complex problems.

For example, the ability to deliver bad or difficult messages without getting angry is an art that EQ goes to the heart of. Whether you are speaking with an employee about a performance issue or letting them go, if the employee gets angry, emotionally intelligent leaders can defuse the employee’s anger or inappropriate response and objectively focus on the issues and the messages.

People with high EQ can:

  • Form healthy friendships or relationships.
  • Work as a team
  • Objectively communicate their needs and desires.
  • Recognize and regulate their own emotions.
  • Avoid regretful actions or words spoken in anger.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

People who are good at controlling their emotions are also good at working with other people, and getting other people to work with them tend to get more work done. They have good reputations since people like working with them.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

Leaders can use emotional intelligence to improve mental health, reach goals, and develop fulfilling relationships. People with higher EQ are likely to have a high quality of life than those with lower. A higher EQ can improve lifelong physical and mental health even more than academic ability. Emotional intelligence can be used to help improve the health of others. For example, people with a high EQ can observe when a coworker is feeling stressed. They can use this awareness to assist the person, perhaps by recommending that coworker to take a break. Or someone who can manage their anger and emotions does not get frustrated as others with lower EQ, which will lead to optimal mental health.

OK. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

Emotionally intelligent leadership, unlike hierarchical leadership requires leaders to ask empathetic questions and accept answers that can be unusual. Leaders need to focus on creating specific objectives (or goals) and measure key results (OKRs), focusing on measuring if the teams are meeting the objectives as opposed to tracking the activities. They need to ensure functional teams are working towards common goals and have the resources they need to achieve the goals. Leaders also need to clearly communicate and continue to reinforce the goals, as they say seven times, seven ways.

Leaders need to create a culture of emotionally intelligent leadership at scale across the entire company or business. This requires understanding that the crux of low emotional intelligence is destructive language that may tear down people — not encouraging their growth or ability to thrive. I encourage leaders to eliminate phrases devoid of emotional intelligence — they make you seem like a command and control tyrant, not an emotionally intelligent leader. These include but are not limited to:

  • Be kind, avoid, “I don’t have time for this.” Consider, “Let’s talk later when I have time, and we will do what we can to help.”
  • Create a fail-fast culture, and avoid finger-pointing. Don’t ask, “Who approved that idea/decision?” Consider, “How can we make this decision work.”
  • Don’t’ start with suspicion; start with trust and respect — and people will wow you.
  • Eliminate the word “I.” As the saying goes, “there is no I in the team.” Example: Instead of the phrase “because I said so,” consider “how can we get you the support you need to make this a success.”
  • Be inclusive, avoid statements like “That is a bad or dumb idea.” Consider this: “Your idea is a good starting point. Let’s build on that.”
  • Avoid pointing fingers and take responsibility. Don’t say, “This is not my/my team’s problem.” Consider, “Let’s see how we can be of help.”

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

Who taught me how to identify and manage my emotions, how to recognize them when they arose, and navigate my way through them? The answer is No one, not at least in Schools or Universities. Just like no business school teaches you about servant leadership or even basic selling. Have you heard about a “sales” specialization in MBA?

I hacked my way through it, navigating the landscape, or learned from my mentors on the job; it should be taught in schools. I believe emotional skills should rank as high in importance in education as math, science, and history.

Social and emotional learning programs can immediately improve mental health, social skills, and learning outcomes and continue to benefit students years later.

OK, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I strongly believe a leader exists to serve their people. Those served should ideally become freer, wiser, more autonomous, more capable of becoming servants or whatever they aspire to do.

The old, heavy-handed, ‘I-am-the-boss-and-you-will-do-what-I-say’ hierarchical leadership style relies on intimidation and excessive control to achieve results. This command-and-control style may get results but typically at the expense of employees losing confidence, voluntary attrition, resentment towards leadership, and lack of employee growth.

I think all companies should make it a requirement to hire leaders only who believe in servant leadership. It will help the world become a better place.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. Top three reasons:

  1. Customer obsession
  2. Inventor and pioneer
  3. Long-term visionary

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please consider following me on LinkedIn, Twitter,

Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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