Prioritize people. The talented individuals that make up a company play such a massive role in its success. Employees who are engaged, motivated and totally bought into the organization’s mission cannot be overlooked as a critical factor to a company’s greatness.
Communication is key. It’s important that everyone understands the “North Stars” the company is moving toward, and that the journey to those goals is rarely linear. When corrections are needed midcourse, leadership needs to clearly articulate shifting priorities along the way.
As part of my series about the “How to Take Your Company from Good to Great,”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Sansbury, President and CEO of ASG Technologies, a leading provider of solutions for the information-powered enterprise. He also serves on the Board of Directors. Charles has more than 16 years of experience in strategic, financial and operational leadership. He brings a strong background in technology, and a proven record of driving organizational improvements and delivering long-term growth strategies.
Most recently, he served as COO and CFO of global software company The Attachmate Group. Prior to that, he held senior leadership positions at Vignette Corporation, a provider of enterprise content management software.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thanks for having me. My path started at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, I worked in New York for two years after my undergraduate degree and then went to The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for an MBA. From there, I went into investment banking, working as an associate at Lehman Brothers and a principal in the technology investment banking group at Morgan Stanley. I left Morgan Stanley to work for a client in the software industry, and I have held roles in software companies since then, from senior vice president of corporate development to CFO and COO.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I was early on in my career, I was 34 years old, I was promoted to CFO of a relatively large public software company on September 10, 2001. As we all know, the world changed dramatically the following day. Putting aside the immense tragedy of that day, from a business perspective, the economy crashed and opportunity sets were cut in half because of the economic impact on our customers and our business. I was new to the job, not particularly experienced and there wasn’t anyone to turn to who had experienced this type of situation before — there was no case study for what we experienced. It was daunting, and it involved a lot of sleepless nights.
The company I was working for had been on one of the fastest growth trajectories a software company had ever experienced, and we very quickly had to undo a lot of the aggressive investing that had been done in anticipation of that growth. It was hard, but we got through it. How? The same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. We prioritized projects based on how near term the issue was and started working through the bigger and longer-term challenges, like restructuring. The company ultimately survived and resumed growth, but it taught me that a lot of unpredictable things can happen and there isn’t a playbook for most of them. The best thing you can do when that happens is to pick up your shovel and start working again.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
This isn’t necessarily a mistake, although I have made plenty, but it’s a great example of not immediately understanding the value of good advice. When I first started working in investment banking, I was one of the entry level workers who stayed up all night putting together reports. In that role, you’re lucky if you then get to sit in on the meeting the next day when that reporting is presented by more senior colleagues, and there was a desire to contribute to the meeting because you had done all the work to prepare the analysis.
One of my senior coworkers shared the advice that it’s better to stay quiet and possibly appear ignorant than open your mouth to confirm that ignorance. I didn’t like the advice at the time, but later realized the client wasn’t there to hear from junior staff and learned when to comment, and when to stay quiet.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe ASG stands out in the marketplace because we have a truly company-wide focus on delivering quality products and continuously innovating so our customers consistently benefit from the investments they’ve made in our solutions. We have a saying at ASG that represents our company values — “customers matter, people matter, results matter.” I wholeheartedly believe that if you take care of your customers and employees, the results will follow. We are steadfast in our commitment to our customers’ success and that shows in the continuous improvements we make to our solutions and the level of service we provide both customers and partners.
That focus on customers has been especially critical during the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. We prioritized understanding how our customers’ needs changed as the situation evolved, and we incorporated those needs into our product strategy. I believe it is so important that we communicate with transparency, providing customers with honest and accurate descriptions of reality — being as clear as possible about what we know, what we anticipate and what it means for our customers.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Avoiding burn out is increasingly difficult because of the “always on” nature of technology, but I focus on the idea of reducing your cognitive load and carving out time for yourself. That could mean scheduling an hour without back-to-back phone calls or delegating tasks because at the end of the day, you simply can’t control everything.
For me, it’s important to find time to exercise, that’s what keeps me on an even keel, and I recommend everyone find time to do things for themselves that do the same.
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?
One of the CEOs I worked for after transitioning from investment banking to software taught me that as you get more senior, you have to be very careful to never put yourself ahead of the company. He told me: you should always be conscious that your job, at the end of the day, is to run the company as best you can on behalf of employees, customers and investors. No matter what other distractions come up and what attention might come your way as a result of your position — that is your job.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
From my perspective, a good company has good products, good customer care and is a good place to work. However, that’s increasingly becoming table stakes and improving is a little bit harder. You must have areas where you’re excelling beyond just good enough, from exceptional products or leadership in the market to doing an outstanding job with employee retention and creating great career opportunities.
Improving customer care and product quality are the fastest ways to move the needle, but you also need to have people committed to your company’s mission and the people aspect can be more important than some business leaders realize.
People often think greatness is defined by how your income statement looks. A lot of companies are revered or thought well of because of their revenue and profitability, but aren’t necessarily great places to work and don’t provide a great customer experience. I believe great companies strike the balance.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- First of all, it’s critical to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. For example, a good company with more products than it can count should narrow in on its products that drive the most value for customers, receive the most positive feedback and have strong ROI to get from good to great.
- Don’t mistake novelty for progress. Businesses tend to overvalue things that are new and innovative, and undervalue the importance of improving upon things that already work. Making incremental improvements can be really hard work, but it shouldn’t be overlooked for “pie in the sky” innovations that aren’t a logical extension of what you already do really well.
- Change or go extinct. Great companies are constantly evaluating their revenue trajectory, product relevancy and position in the market and are at the ready to pivot when needed to ensure continued success.
- Prioritize people. The talented individuals that make up a company play such a massive role in its success. Employees who are engaged, motivated and totally bought into the organization’s mission cannot be overlooked as a critical factor to a company’s greatness.
- Communication is key. It’s important that everyone understands the “North Stars” the company is moving toward, and that the journey to those goals is rarely linear. When corrections are needed midcourse, leadership needs to clearly articulate shifting priorities along the way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
All great businesses should have a purpose that drives everything they do. There are multiple benefits to keeping a central purpose at the heart of the business, including:
- Keeping teams unified in their approach to both short-term projects and long-term goals
- Developing great brand reputation, with that purpose becoming something the company is known for
- Boosting morale, with employees understanding they’re working toward a common goal
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
There are internal and external drivers that could contribute to a standstill. External factors could be a recession, or a situation like we’re in right now with COVID-19. In those situations, you have to focus on the things you can control. That typically means making sure your current customer base is happy and determining where there are opportunities to grow within that set. You have less control over the timing and duration of standstills caused by external forces, so it’s really about weathering the storm strategically.
Internally, if competitive positioning deteriorates, you do have more control. However, it’s hard to quickly change the trajectory of business from flat or declining to growing because there’s momentum that contributes to both growth and declines. I recommend leaders in that position pick two or three logical avenues they can go down to drive growth and opportunity. They should be goals that are complementary to existing products or services. It takes time, but consistently working toward those goals over 12–18 months often pays off. People usually want to see results in just three to six months, but you have to commit the time to see these initiatives through. After all, if you quit too early, the outcome is guaranteed.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In difficult times, I focus on what I can control for and accept that the realm of what’s possible has changed because customers are facing the same hardships in their own marketplaces. By focusing on what’s going on within our figurative four walls, improving product quality and customer engagement become the priority. The existing customers who know you and have trust and faith in your products and services present the best opportunity for ROI on the constrained resources you are able to invest in a difficult economy.
Urgency is also paramount during a difficult economy. I strive to never delay in making decisions in times of trouble — reacting quickly to a changing environment can make all the difference in preserving business continuity.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The people aspect of running a company — and providing consistent communication around direction and strategy — is definitely the most underrated. It’s extremely difficult to maintain consistent direction and communication across more far-flung and geographically dispersed companies. That has become even more difficult in the current remote work environment, and it’s challenging to keep a large group of people going in the same direction, understanding their goals and priorities.
I’ve found it’s important to have conversations about goals, priorities and company updates myself. That used to mean traveling to our different offices around the world and having face-to-face conversations. You absolutely cannot rely on company-wide emails to get a consistent message across over time. I don’t think there’s a true replacement for those in-person interactions, but our video conferencing technology has improved and provides an alternative for now.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Providing a great customer experience from the first touchpoint is essential. In my experience, making it very clear that customer views on our products matter has been a great strategy — prospects immediately understand what kind of company we are and how they can expect their feedback to be valued.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Customer service is essential. Companies should be proactive in reaching out to customers and anticipating their challenges and needs. I’ve found one type of situation that helps strengthen customer relationships is actually how you respond when things go wrong. When a product doesn’t work, you’re late delivering something or a customer experiences an outage, even if it’s not your fault, handling customer feedback should be a priority within the company.
At great companies, customer feedback is an executive-level priority. When senior leadership is invested in customer care issues, it shows customers you’re in the trenches with them.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
One of the biggest opportunities companies have to wow customers actually comes when something has gone wrong. Obviously, the goal is to avoid that happening in the first place, but the reality is mistakes happen, timelines get pushed and sometimes products don’t work the way they should. How companies respond when that happens and the level of ownership they take for problems — rather than placing the blame elsewhere — really resonates with customers and builds trust over time.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the most common mistakes I see CEOs make is believing that they are the only boss, failing to understand that they still have bosses themselves. The truth is, the org chart doesn’t end at CEO. Those bosses come in the form of a board and investors, who CEOs must answer to. Even at the most senior level, you still serve at the pleasure of the board and investors. Failure to understand that as a CEO is perilous.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!