As part of my series of interviews with influential business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kumar Srikantan. Kumar Srikantan is President and Chief Executive Officer of Pluribus Networks. Previously, Kumar was VP/GM of HW Engineering for the Enterprise Networking Business at Cisco where he was responsible for the HW engineering execution of Cisco’s Enterprise Networking portfolio. Kumar brings 25 years of diverse leadership and operational experience in the technology industry that spans development, marketing, and engineering across computing, silicon and communications industries.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
While I started my career in engineering, I was always open to exploring different types of opportunities. Early on in my career, a recruiter confused me for someone else and contacted me about a role outside of my field. I ended up talking with this recruiter, and they encouraged me to interview for the role. It was a bit of a leap of faith, but I took their advice and ended up getting the position, which changed the course of my career overnight. Suddenly, I’d moved from engineering to product management, and into a completely different technology field that I had to get up to speed on quickly.
Throughout my career, doors like this have opened, and I’ve always given it a shot. When I was approached about the CEO position at Pluribus Networks, I was 50 years old and had spent my entire career working with large global companies. Taking the leadership role at Pluribus, a growing startup, was a new dynamic for me. My view is, no harm, no foul — let’s talk. Making career moves like this requires taking a risk, and you have to make a rational choice, but when a door opens, you should give it a shot.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lessons did you learn from that?
When I joined Pluribus Networks as CEO, I was not an early stage founder. There was a culture already established, and it was important to embrace this, but also recognize that we would need to shift to a growth and execution culture. It’s a transition all growth companies go through, but how and when you bridge this chasm is important.
Joining from Cisco, I also had to adjust my own mindset of how work is done and the expectations of the CEO role. This is where agile thinking comes into play. Being hands on, but also recognizing that I have a finite amount of time. All our stakeholders look to me to set the pace and be accountable. Embracing that responsibility, making decisions and driving the business forward is what I’m focused on.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
As a first-time CEO, it was important that I talk to other CEOs and seasoned board members and listen to their experiences. The CEO job is not a traditional role, and you need to understand things like: What are the boundaries — how far can I/should I push things?; Where do I need to be assertive/where do I need to gain permission? I think seeking out and being open to guidance helped me tremendously in my early days as CEO.
Another factor that has helped me be successful is having an inquisitive mind. As CEO, you have to encourage everyone to be open to finding new ways of doing things and taking risks. It’s human nature to revert back to our comfort zone and pursue the old way of doing things. When everything is new and exploratory, the linear path you previously followed is no longer useful. If you reject the idea of “this is how we do things” and instead ask people to find the best (non-linear) way forward, they rise to the challenge.
I also like to take a clinical approach to addressing problems and be assertive with decisions. As CEO, you have to make fast, decisive and sometimes unsavory or tough decisions that you think are right for the company.
What are “5 Pieces of Advice You would Give to New CEOs?”
- Do your due diligence on the company: You need to know the company inside and out. Don’t be shy about asking the board to show you business metrics and financials. You need complete transparency before accepting the job, especially if you’re joining a startup company.
- Ensure you have a trusted advisor: Whether it’s a founder, an investor or a board member, you need someone in a leadership position who you trust and can lean on to get a grounded view of the company. Don’t ever take a role where you don’t know the founders, the investors and so on. You need a level of trust with the company and the leadership.
- You’re the captain of the ship: As CEO, you are solely accountable for all outcomes. Ultimately, it all rests on your shoulders. When things go well, you will get an unfair share of the credit. Similarly, if and when things go wrong, you get to take the hit as the CEO. What you need is an enormous amount of resolve and the right mindset to navigate through the ups and downs while inspiring people to continue believing in the mission.
- Make fast decisions and take risks: It’s important to make decisions sooner rather than later. Especially when it’s about addressing bad news or challenges, it’s always better to resolve matters quickly and have a plan to move on. You also need to be willing to take calculated risks all the time. Risk taking is the name of the game.
- The CEO job is a marathon, not a sprint:. While there are prominent examples of companies that had great success in the form of explosive growth or high-profile M&A, the fact remains that in the majority of cases it takes several years to build a company with a viable, sustainable business model. Therefore, as a CEO, you need to plan to be in it for the long haul. There will be highs and lows, and you need to have the mindset to set the pace for everyone and the resolve to stay the course.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One of the golden principles to keep in mind is that things are never as good as they look and things are never as bad as they seem. If you have the right attitude and focus, things have a way of working out. You have to modulate the ups and downs and roll with the punches appropriately.
It’s also important to take time off from work, meditate and exercise. No matter how hard it is to step away, you need to take time off periodically, rest and enjoy time with family. There is a lot to be said about the value of meditation and exercise. They’re great stress busters. And get a pet! I have two dogs, Daisy and Rambo. They’ve been great additions to our family and spending time with them helps lower my stress.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are two people who have been instrumental in coaching me and guiding me over the years. The first is Paul Koontz, currently General Partner at Foundation Capital. Paul was the one who bet on me earlier in my career and gave me the break to move from an engineering to a product management track. He helped me start on a new path that has led me to the role I’m in today.
The other person is Jayshree Ullal, CEO, Arista Networks. I worked with her for a number of years at Cisco and even though Pluribus competes with Arista, she’s remained a great mentor and friend to me. There is much to learn from her successes, but especially in how she has navigated Arista Networks’ progress, made hard choices along the way and overcome adversity, always while keeping the best interests of the company on her mind.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Pluribus is delivering a very compelling open networking solution for a broad array of businesses. The opportunity is huge, but there are many challenges we need to navigate. My goal is to set Pluribus on a course to be successful for the employees and the stakeholders who put their faith in me.
Personally, my focus is on helping ensure my two children are on the right track. I have one in college and one following shortly behind.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
In today’s business culture, there is so much talk about Millennials and Gen Z and Gen X. To me, the unsung heroes are people who take risks and innovate when they are older. There are a number of startups with first-time leaders in their 50s and 60s. I myself joined Pluribus as CEO at the age of 50. There is a tendency to think you should only take risks early in your career and play it safe as you get older. I’d like to help change this mentality. You can build a company at any age. Age is just a number and you should always be taking risks.
If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
There are so many people out there carrying risks associated with things like heart disease. This is a systemic issue that reaches across all age groups and demographics. My career has been a rollercoaster, and I’ve learned that managing stress and taking care of yourself is incredibly important. I’d like to contribute to this area and help people become educated about how to take better care of themselves and balance stress. If your health is not there, everything else is irrelevant. Health is wealth.