As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Parker, CEO of Masergy.
With more than two decades of leadership experience in the high-tech industry, James Parker joined Masergy as CEO in 2018. He leads the company’s vision and strategy execution and has a track record of building high-energy, high-performing leadership teams that have successfully delivered profitable growth through multiple technology and business transformations.
Prior to Masergy, James served as Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Tata Communications, where he led sales, marketing, service management, delivery and communications. He previously held SVP positions at CenturyLink and served at Microsoft’s Enterprise and Partner Group for more than 13 years. James holds an MBA from the University of Toronto — Rotman School of Management.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks for having me, Carly. I never planned to be a CEO. Early on in my career I was a software developer and thought I would continue down a technical path. However, my pivot towards business leadership was driven by my curiosity about what technology was actually enabling for the business. This notion of major technology shifts underpinning business model transformations was extremely compelling to me. I was drawn to roles that offered a deep learning experience on “transformation,” which enabled me to live and work in a number of geographic regions and shift sectors from software to managed services to telecom. The companies varied in size and market presence, but the common theme was leading transformational change with incredibly talented teams achieving ambitious outcomes. I can certainly say that it has been an amazing adventure so far — and it continues with Masergy.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Masergy is doing very well, and it has a clear track record of strong top- and bottom-line growth. Our backdrop is the network market shifting to new services, and Masergy has expanded its portfolio to capitalize on that shift. We are accelerating our growth by scaling our new services. Initially, the thinking was to focus on the go-to-market. But in reality, to achieve effective scale, grow profitably, and deliver an amazing customer and employee experience, a much wider scope is required. As such, we had to figure out how to maintain our momentum while also creating new opportunities for growth.
Everyone is going to face inherent changes as your company grows, so the real questions you grapple with as a CEO are how much are you going to change and how fast? With these decisions, you have to trust your teams with the information they’re bringing you and know that they’re equipping you with the best materials to determine when it’s the right time to pull the trigger.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I believe the diversity of my experiences in terms of business sectors, roles, and countries in which I have lived are at the core of my success.
Getting outside of my own comfort zone and taking on a number of international experiences as part of my career was instrumental in building my knowledge of the business world in terms of understanding global ethics and varying norms. People universally understand what good values look like, but how those values are expressed can change depending on where you are in the world. So regardless of where you find yourself in your career, it’s important to stay grounded in your own standards and values, even if the environment you’re working in doesn’t necessarily share those same values. The diversity of backgrounds in my career continues to help guide me when it comes to making strategic decisions in this role.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1.) Authentic communication is the most important part of the job — What you say externally, and how you communicate with the people you depend on most, will ultimately determine how well you perform in a CEO role. When questions arise, everyone is going to look to you for answers. You need to be confident in your approach, give them a vision to follow and hold everyone accountable for achieving it.
2.) Discover how to unlock your organization from undue burden — Figuring out how to reduce needless processes and let your organization’s innovation flow (i.e., “unlock”) only happens when you move the whole company forward, not just individual functions. You have to ask yourself how you’re going to evolve the culture by getting rid of the things that are no longer helpful while also retaining the core elements that make your operations work.
3.) Get help from everybody — At Masergy, we are not shy about incorporating different perspectives to get the best results. As CEO, the buck stops with you, so the challenge becomes aligning these differing perspectives to yield the optimal outcomes.
4.) Have your own style — Similar to communication, you have to have a personal style that’s approachable, engaging and unflinchingly authentic. Your personal conviction around your product lines, your passion for the job, the energy you bring to meetings, and belief that your vision is shared by your company and its customers is what ultimately cultivates a great product line and employees who will provide amazing customer service.
5.) Hire great to delegate — Steve Jobs said, “We don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do, we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do,” and I think that resonates with a lot of businesses who have a healthy talent acquisition strategy in place. Bringing passionate, proactive people on board makes it easier to give them ambitious tasks and know they’re going to execute.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Ultimately every career should center around working in an environment where you can apply knowledge in a satisfying way. In my mind, “thriving” means you go to work every day with a genuine, earnest interest in the work that you’re doing and execute it in a way that leaves you satisfied at the end of the day. Environments that inhibit people from achieving a sense of satisfaction from their day-to-day work are the places that allow negativity to snowball with their employees and cause them to burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s hard to name a single person because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many incredible professionals, but failure has been one of the most valuable teachers I’ve had in my career. It’s important not to be afraid of failure, even when you’re in the midst of a nightmare situation. You’ll move past it and recognize what you could and couldn’t control, and that will help you fine tune your mental compass to navigate future situations. Eventually you learn to harness those experiences to help you make better decisions going forward.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally I want to continue to grow as a leader, being a better coach, and inspiring others in the pursuit of their passions. Personally, I have this drive to give back, to help others as I have been helped through my career. I don’t know yet how this will take shape, but I do know it will be with emerging leaders and new professionals that are looking for support and mentors as they enter and progress through the early stages of their careers.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That’s a big question for anyone to answer, but I think mine involves creating opportunity, whether that’s more opportunities for my employees, for my leadership team, or for my family. At Masergy, I want people to be able to look back on their time here and say that it was the most fulfilling job in their career because they had opportunities to learn and grow that they simply would not have gotten elsewhere.
You are a person of great influence. 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!
Figuring out how you create opportunity is a beautiful thing. People can empower themselves to have more opportunity and success if they’re placed in the right environment. So I would encourage people to think about how they are creating opportunity for others and themselves to achieve better things.
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