One of the temptations while navigating business is to constantly think about work — and it’s magnified during the pandemic. Try to avoid this. I have a number of friends where we’ve agreed to not discuss work. Instead we talk about kids, family and life in general. This helps us foster balance, which in turn creates the mental space needed to deal with hard things later.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Metcalfe.
With a diverse background in the tech industry, Keith Metcalfe is a seasoned software executive with over 20 years of experience across large organizations. Keith has extensive knowledge in enterprise software, identifying strategic trends and celebrating the importance of data, business intelligence and innovation. As a developed expert in SaaS and CEO of Traction Guest, he sees an opportunity to transform visitor management with emerging technology to significantly improve physical and data security worldwide.
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?
My interest in finance and business developed really early. In the ninth grade I shadowed a stock broker and bought my first stock from him. (It quickly crashed.) At University I studied abroad in Asia and earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce. Afterwards, I joined a finance firm — with the same stock broker that sold me that first stock in ninth grade! It paid off keeping in touch with him during those formative years. I trained to be an equity analyst and worked with technology companies in Singapore. This is where I discovered tech…or perhaps it discovered me. I switched careers, becoming an IT project manager with Seagate Software. Seagate Software became Crystal Decisions and there led a team of support developers who were responsible for engaging with Fortune 500 companies around the world.
SAP was my next move. I became a support manager running a 50-person department spanning multiple cities. I realized that if I ever wanted to run a software company, I needed to learn sales. So, I stepped into a sales role to learn the ropes. After some time at SAP, I joined some entrepreneurial services companies to get experience in fast growing organizations. This set me up for success and led to where I am today as the CEO and co-founder of Traction Guest. We’re a leading provider of SaaS technology used by enterprises across five continents and dozens of industries to ensure the physical security, health and safety of their employees and visitors, wherever they are, whether in an office or working remotely.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader?
At Traction Guest, our cloud expertise goes back to our roots. The company was incubated by Traction on Demand, a leading cloud consulting and application development company. Founder Greg Malpass has positively impacted my career. I admire him as an entrepreneur and leader. I’ve known Greg since the “early days” and we regularly talk about how to grow the company. Another seasoned entrepreneur whose influence I value is Norm Francis, CEO at Boardwalk Ventures, and a member of the Traction Guest Board of Directors. Norm has extensive experience growing global software companies and continues to be a great mentor.
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?
Once I found tech, I knew it would be my calling. B2B tech business is all I’ve done for the past 20 years. I was a proponent of cloud computing nearly 16 years ago — so, very early on. Once the vision for Traction Guest was established, Greg Malpass taught me how to build a company with purpose. Norm Francis taught me how to build a company with excellence. We asked ourselves, “How do we create something that customers need and that we’ve done well and we’re proud of?”
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Know why you want to do it. If you know why, it helps you do it better. It also provides fuel when obstacles block your path. That “why” will help you better understand why you’re facing hurdles in the first place. Rather than seeing them as insurmountable challenges, it’s a good reminder that you signed up for this — you’re prepared for obstacles to come your way. Make it enjoyable and fun to work through challenges, deconstructing them to solve each one. This is how one builds a sustainable business.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected entrepreneurs, is a powerful read. He provides a very transparent view on what it’s like to build a business. Building things isn’t always perfect. Hard things happen on the road to greatness.
I’m also a big fan of Geoffrey Moore. I appreciate his analytical view of how to create businesses. He’s so data driven, making his points based on research instead of just spouting opinions. He’s popular for “Crossing the Chasm” and has written a number of other intriguing books. “Zones to Win” is another favorite of mine, which provides guidance on how to measure the success of a business unit or a completely new business that is born inside a larger organization. It’s helpful for knowing when to invest, when not to invest and what strategies to deploy.
“The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture” by Scott Belsky is also a great book. He encourages readers to get settled with the simple fact that the trajectory of any business goes up and down. If you’re able to successfully weather the middle years, it should point up. His advice on what challenges to expect and how to address them head-on is relevant for any current or aspiring entrepreneur.
All three books are similar in the sense that they address measuring effort and needing to know when to deploy a different strategy. While “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is prescriptive, “The Messy Middle” says that the “messy” parts are part of the challenge and should be fun. The “mental gymnastics” you go through to solve a problem help you understand your purpose.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
It’s a pivotal moment for Traction Guest. Everyone is figuring out how to re-engage and reconnect amid a global pandemic. Our technology fits squarely into this new world. People are social primates and everyone knows that reconnecting is important. But we can’t connect in the same free-wheeling way that we were used to. By facilitating safe, secure visits to workplaces, our software helps people connect with confidence again. With the majority of the world in a fearful state of “fight or flight,” we can be the beacon that gives people a mechanism to interact again. It’s a meaningful calling for us.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Be memorable and make a difference.” I believe everyone wants to make a difference in the world and to have a positive impact on those around them, so why not do it? Even when under pressure — when it’s easy to get caught up in the moment — it’s important not to forget this guiding principle.
As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
The first strategy that has helped me is looking at every problem as an opportunity. Inside every challenge exists the chance to approach it differently, more efficiently, more intentionally and more quickly. If you look at problems like a puzzle, they become engaging. Historically, leaders who take this view create great innovations even in the face of seemingly insurmountable tribulations.
Second, practicing mindfulness is key. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of the day to day. Creating separation is so important to see the bigger picture. Schedule time for mindfulness, whether it’s meditation or physical activity. I run and cycle to clear my head.
Third, I find it’s important to maintain the perspective of ‘relative struggle.’ I may be facing a challenge but it can be relatively meaningless in the face of the struggles others are going through.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
A good friend of mine worked in software for about a decade. He switched gears to counseling, where he focuses on the evolution of the brain and neuroscience with a specialty in trauma resiliency and recovery as part of human existence. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we brought him into our company to talk to our managers about the impact of global uncertainty on people’s resilience. He shared strategies for helping our team become more resilient and stay in that state longer.
Another approach that optimizes for high-stakes situations is working with people who have experience doing what you’re doing, who understand what you’re going through. I surround myself with smart, successful people — like Greg and Norm — who have been through the ups and downs of business many times and listen carefully to how they managed themselves and others through stress and pressure.
Lastly, one of the temptations while navigating business is to constantly think about work — and it’s magnified during the pandemic. Try to avoid this. I have a number of friends where we’ve agreed to not discuss work. Instead we talk about kids, family and life in general. This helps us foster balance, which in turn creates the mental space needed to deal with hard things later.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I strive to practice meditation daily to center myself. I ask, “What is my state of mind? How is my breathing? Am I being resilient?”
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Being intentional with time is super important. My calendar is completely booked every day. However, I consistently schedule an end-of-day to-do list and time for a few tasks. I also try to allot time for some moments of reflection throughout the day. If my schedule allows, I take a half hour lunch. Sometimes I’m able to take a break from the computer and enjoy a walk with my wife or pick the kids up at school.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
I recommend prioritizing 1:1 meetings with your team members. I do these biweekly. It’s a valuable opportunity to connect and gauge where each person is personally and professionally. I ask them where they are on a scale of 1–5 as a catalyst for discussion and to guide how I can help them perform at their best.
On the personal front, exercise is my non-negotiable habit for peak performance. I currently have an accountability bet with a friend where we commit to working out three times per week. I’m required to do either a 45-minute run or an hour on the bike. If I fail, it’s a 50 dollars penalty. It’s not really about the money, but neither of us wants to disappoint the other. We text each other on Sunday night to hold each other accountable for the week. There have been times where I’ve gotten on the bike at 10pm on Sunday! Without accountability, it’s easy to lose focus.
Sleep also needs to be a top priority. It’s easy to forgo, but I immediately feel the effects of not being rested. In addition to looking for ways to increase sleep, I attempt to create a healthy boundary between work and family life. I can’t say that I always succeed in this respect. When work life blends with home life, it’s extra important for me to put the phone down and spend quality time with my kids and my wife.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
When you work on projects that align with your passion, Flow comes more naturally and obstacles don’t seem as daunting. Life will throw you obstacles. That’s ok. Trying to predict everything in life is not just stressful, it’s impossible. You can’t let the fact that you can’t see all the future variables put you in a defensive mode. I’ve found that by actively staying in a more fluid state of mind, I’m able to find Flow more often.
The decision-making framework I use also helps me stay in Flow. I’m a fan of the parallel thinking framework where I make a decision, document why that decision was made, look at the pros and cons, understand how to measure it and then revisit it later.
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 feel very strongly about making a difference for those affected by domestic violence so they can rebuild their lives. It’s one of the biggest problems facing society today. This is important volunteer work for me, and we also support this cause through corporate philanthropy. I have personal exposure to this through my network and have seen how this can affect not just women but their kids and their kids’ kids, creating a multi-generational problem. Our company partnered with Dixon Transition Society, a local group that aims to reduce the impact of domestic violence by providing shelter, guidance and hope for women and children who are fleeing violence.
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 in the US, 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 🙂
Geoffrey Moore. His books are ground-breaking, and I was really inspired at an in-person talk he gave. I’d love to take him to lunch and go deeper on his perspective on the future of commerce and the business skills that will be required to succeed.