“Listen — and be genuine in doing so. Don’t approach leadership like you have all the answers — no one does — so it’s critical to have a team with diverse opinions and creating a place where they can share those freely is crucial. Everyone’s thoughts matter and if you don’t remember that, it will be more difficult to succeed because you aren’t getting the most out of your team. As a CEO, you’re not only there to lead, you’re also there to listen, support, encourage and make the tough decisions when you need to.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing John Hernandez, CEO of Selligent Marketing Cloud, a marketing automation platform that enables B2C brands to engage consumers across all critical channels. More than 700 brands across retail, travel, automotive, publishing, and financial services rely on Selligent, including leading brands like Asda, InterContinental Hotels Group, and ING. John has spent more than 25 years at several of the world’s most successful technology companies directing growth strategy, global expansion, and organizational and client service excellence. Prior to joining Selligent, John was the COO of Salesforce’s Service Cloud, where he was responsible for business and product operations, as well as incubating key market adjacency solutions for Salesforce’s multi-billion dollar customer care Service Cloud business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My mother was from a Northern European immigrant family who migrated from the East Coast to settle in Santa Clara County. My father was the first U.S. born child of Mexican immigrants. My paternal grandfather owned a grocery store in Mexico and kept the store open during numerous hard economic times by working on and off in the U.S. and sending money back home to his family. He played a major role in keeping the small town fed and the locals employed, in addition to providing for his family. In 1942, he received a draft notice while working in the U.S.. He was not selected to serve but stayed and became a naturalized citizen. He was allowed to bring his family to the U.S. on a special visa thereafter, and ended up selling their store in Mexico.
The key values that continue to live in our family are a strong work ethic, family first and the drive to succeed. Because of my grandfather’s sacrifices, hard work and quest for opportunity, his children (my father’s generation) thrived: my father went on to become a senior insurance executive at several large commercial insurance companies. His siblings went on to succeed in law, education, business and management.
I was raised by parents who, not only wanted the best for me, but taught me to want the best for myself — understanding that education and hard work are the only way to get there. Growing up, if I wanted something outside of our budget, not only did I have work for it and contribute in some way, I also had to create presentations to get the support of my parents! I distinctly remember creating my “sales pitch” for when I wanted to make a significant purchase by presenting it on an easel and butcher paper in the family living room. It was the first of my many ‘board room’ experiences.
Another very important part of my life that taught me ton about leadership was sports. I played competitive baseball for many years (and have the lingering back injuries to prove it) so having a team mentality has been a large part of my life. Baseball taught me how to interact with, and influence, different, diverse people. Not only did it light my competitive fire — something I carry with me in business — but the value of team over individual success. Team sports have taught me a lot about how to coach and mentor people in ways to build camaraderie that are genuinely rooted in encouragement, versus a tyrannical approach to leadership. I am fortunate to be working for a company that counts Steve Young — legendary NFL quarterback — as an investor and board member. We often talk about dynamics of a team and how locker rooms and companies mirror each other. A lot of our conversations center on encouraging individual talents, recognizing and dealing with the bad apples, and how attitudes impact everyone and everything.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are a few but two that stand out: Relatively recently — around the time of our recent company kickoff event in Amsterdam — I posted a picture of our event on LinkedIn and it quickly started gaining Likes and Comments — far more than I expected. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the picture included Kevin Evans in the background — who is our VP of Corporate Development and Strategy at Selligent. Kevin and I worked very closely together during our time at Salesforce and when he left to join me at Selligent, he was greatly missed there. One comment came from a former Salesforce colleague and good friend — along the lines of “thanks for rubbing it in.” We all had a good laugh about it — that’s when you know you have a talented team!
Another recent one involved the re-launch of Selligent Marketing Cloud. We were under serious time crunch. The team worked tirelessly to align quickly, accelerate the product roadmap, develop the added AI capabilities and refresh marketing messages — and we had to hire the right folks where we needed them. It was probably one of the biggest and most exciting undertakings I’ve had in my career. Fast forward to the day of the launch and…I get the flu. I had to miss the entire event, including my opening speech to launch our new brand. But the team didn’t skip a beat — everyone carried it through, and our CMO presented on my behalf; it was a massive success. This goes to show that when you build a strong team and take care of your people, everything will work out.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
A philosophy I like to follow is the VSEOM model: Vision ▪ Strategy ▪ Execution ▪ Obstacles ▪ Metrics.
I’ve used this model a few times in my career to synchronize goals across regions and functions. I’ve found it to be a great bottoms-up approach to ensuring that all teams feel like they have a voice and are aligned to support the bigger corporate vision.
Upon joining Selligent, I set off almost immediately to get to know each of our regional offices. We have 10 worldwide and I felt that it was important to introduce myself personally and take the time to understand each office and the people there, how they operate, communicate, what challenges they have and best practices that other offices may be able to adopt. What I learned during that global office tour was invaluable to me as a leader, but I also made sure that it resulted in something tangible: a clear path towards creating an environment for better collaboration, communication and cohesiveness.
When I returned from that tour, I knew that the VSEOM exercise would be a valuable approach. We started the process by ensuring that every team across the entire organization was represented. I worked closely with team leads to identify participants — both managers and individual contributors — to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. These folks were asked to provide specific feedback about their own roles and how they relate to other functions in the organization. We collected these responses and got all participants together for a few days, dissecting the many issues that were surfaced.
What was eye-opening was the similarities already present across all departments — both about the things that we were already good at, and things that we needed to improve upon to reach our next level of growth.
At the conclusion of the three-day VSEOM exercise, we developed execution paths that were tailored to each function. That output was then cascaded down to every single employee to develop their own functional and personal goals with metrics to support Selligent’s global vision.
The combined tour and VSEOM exercise was validation to employees that I listen and genuinely care about what each of them have to say — and that their voice matters. It was an avenue to create a culture of empowerment balanced with accountability. I realize that for most people, more time is spent at work than at home so I want to ensure that they are happy and proud to work at Selligent and that we are aligned with the goals that we set for the company. It was a real team mentality — we are all in this together and we are responsible for helping each other. I’m very happy with where we are now in terms of collaboration and synchronization.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
It doesn’t matter if your company is large or small, collaboration can be very difficult. Selligent is a global organization. We are small enough to be able to work nimbly, but big enough to suffer the typical challenges associated with working across many different time zones. So, we need a tool to be able to handle our load but keep us agile. It was really important that we used a single video collaboration platform for quick communication. Not only did we reduce travel costs but it allowed us to engage, debate and make decision at unparalleled speed, flattening our global footprint.
Another surprising lesson I’ve learned is how an effective leader adjusts communication styles according to region. Unknowingly, my personal communication style was received in Europe as overly positive and excited;I admit I like using words like ‘awesome’ and ‘phenomenal.’ Although I’m truly just passionate about the work we are doing, it was perceived and received differently in other countries. I have since taken a slightly different approach and become more mindful of how I communicate by taking into account who is on the receiving end. It has also taught me that representing a global organization accurately is important, and that being ‘too American’ is definitely a thing.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
First is to listen — and be genuine in doing so.
Don’t approach leadership like you have all the answers — no one does — so it’s critical to have a team with diverse opinions and creating a place where they can share those freely is crucial. Everyone’s thoughts matter and if you don’t remember that, it will be more difficult to succeed because you aren’t getting the most out of your team. As a CEO, you’re not only there to lead, you’re also there to listen, support, encourage and make the tough decisions when you need to.
Another piece of advice is to hire people that are smarter than you. You will not know how to do everything better than everyone else. If you think you do, you have a very big problem on your hands. Bring people in who are great at what they do and from whom you can learn.
Also, don’t have a siloed view of what market you play in. If you hire smart people who have value — regardless of their area of expertise — it has the ability to expand your addressable market and boost your ability to succeed so long as you stay focused on a higher goal. Diversity of background is important as it provides perspective and allows you a broader view of the world and your target market.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
This ties back to listening and creating a positive working environment. What also helps tremendously is to work towards making sure people feel that they are contributing to something bigger than just ‘the day job.’ People usually do their best work when leadership creates paths to success, career growth and opportunity. And it’s also our job to help people see their own blind spots so they know what to work on without judgement.
I personally feel everyone at Selligent — no matter where they fall on the org chart — deserves to have strategic conversations with leadership so they can not only see the big-picture, but be a key part in achieving company goals. In order to do that, managers and employees need to be able to communicate so they can work as a team to identify a problem that needs fixing and develop the solution for it.
But It’s also OK for people to move on. You’re not always going to be the best place for everyone and you have to support the path of your employees — sometimes that path is with the company and sometimes it’s not. There’s also the‘Broken windows’ theory. Sometimes you have to show people the door, for the greater good. ‘Broken windows’ are the bad eggs — they can bring the company and other employees down — and if you don’t address it as leaders, it could let everyone else down. It also shows others that your leadership is weak if you are afraid to confront an issue or problem employee. You have to do what’s right for the collective, even if that means taking an employee out of the workplace.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
1. Be a good listener. First and foremost, I listen a lot and work on building a team that’s made up of different people with diverse insight and opinions. Inevitably you will have a lot of debate and discussion — which is good, because that gives leadership a way to move debates into decisions. Selligent Marketing Cloud is a global company so we have the benefit of having a diverse team. We make it a point to encourage everyone to share their opinions. When people know that you’re listening, they’re more apt to speak up. This was the most apparent shortly after I joined the company and toured each of our global office. It was a time dedicated to listening, I did share my thoughts though as a leaping off point for them to open up, not for me to share a vision or really even for the employees to get to know me. That is far less important than me getting to know them. After the tour, I wrote up my thoughts as a reflection of my time spent with them — and as I mentioned earlier, I published it to our company blog. It was great way for me to listen and learn and turn that into tangible strategies for making SMC better tomorrow than it was yesterday. It also allowed employees that never met each other to see the commoninatly in their feedback and challenges they needed help with.
2. Welcome debate and diverse opinions. The only way a company will grow and succeed is if different people bring different value to the table. If we are all of the same mind, it is extremely difficult to generate the best ideas and execute great work. Shortly after I joined Selligent, it was apparent to me that the company wasn’t doing as good of a job arming individuals with the training they found valuable. There were a lot of different opinions about what was wrong with the current system and content being shared. Folks also had ideas on what could be done to improve it. We listened intently and created an entirely new platform with relevant, updated content to meet the needs of those who would most benefit.
3. Decision-making is essential to success. But often, decisions are really only made by upper management and that doesn’t always trickle down in the best and healthiest of ways. This goes back to the VSEOM model: a bottoms-up approach of setting a company’s vision. It’s important to allow anyone who wants to have a say, have a say. Through the VSEOM exercise, we allowed our teams to get a seat at the table, empowering them to be part of establishing our vision for the company — and the corresponding strategies and decisions that need to be made to achieve that vision.
4. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree. As a leader, I also have to understand that not everyone is going to agree all the time. If that’s the case, it’s usually because people either don’t feel comfortable sharing (which is the CEO’s job to fix) or aren’t completely honest in their opinions. Even if people don’t 100% agree, coming to a consensus is important and having the expectation that people will get behind the final decision is critical. Selligent’s heritage was in marketing automation and it was perfect for the existing marketplace. But when I joined, the industry had shifted a bit more towards an omni-channel approach, putting the consumer in the middle of everything our clients do to drive a true customer experience. There was internal debate for months about the trajectory of the company and while not everyone agreed, in the end, everyone stood behind the decision and committed to working towards it. There was no room for rogue players and if we were to succeed and pull together the relaunch as planned, everyone had to be on board.
5. A healthy environment is comprised of empowerment with accountability. Everyone has skills that they bring to the table. When you hire people that are smarter than you at what they do and make sure they feel empowered to make decisions, you can build momentum very quickly. Even when wrong decisions are made — it happens — expect accountability and give people the room to pivot quickly. It’s the ‘fail fast” theory. As a leader, you have to get people comfortable with making decisions and making mistakes while quickly learning from it — all in a trusting environment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My father — who is of Mexican heritage — met my mother at a Catholic youth center. At 21 he proposed to her after receiving permission from her parents. Not everyone was supportive of it because at that time, marrying between different races or religions was still frowned upon. As a child of a mixed marriage, I faced a bit of discrimination and ridicule. As a result, I’m sensitive to bias of any kind and sometimes pick up things, whether they may or may not even be there. My kids (who are 15 and 12), on the other hand, have grown up in a time and place where diversity is more commonplace. They have a healthier outlook on right and wrong in that regard and stand firmer when they see mistreatment of others and themselves. In today’s political climate, it’s something we’ve been talking about more as a family and has reinvigorated my own role in creating a positive, diverse and culturally-sensitive working environment to the best of my ability. I always aim to bring more people into Selligent that represent every race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. If they are smart, hard-working and driven, they are welcome here.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I get this question a lot: “How do I advance my career/get promoted?” My answer is to find a problem that nobody can solve and fix it. It’s the fastest way to visibility and demonstrating your problem-solving abilities, which is ultimately everyone’s task.
Originally published at medium.com