Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Mark McClain, CEO of SailPoint

I spoke to Mark McClain, Co-Founder and CEO of SailPoint, about his best leadership advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Mark: I’ve always considered myself more of an athlete and that’s probably the school-age image that most people in my life today would have of me. What would come as a surprise to many of them is that I actually played the tuba from grade school all the way through college. I come from a musical family. My brother is a professional guitar player. Unfortunately, I never owned a tuba and just used school instruments to play, so I quit as soon as I graduated from college.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Mark: A lot of entrepreneurs have childhood stories that show they’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit. That just wasn’t me. I wasn’t that kid who started a lemonade stand and then realized I could grow my first business in my own neighborhood. I was the kid who threw on a baseball cap after school and headed to the park to play ball with friends. It actually cracks me up now to realize I am a serial entrepreneur and founder, since I was never really headed down that path.
Out of college I got a job at IBM and thought I’d be there until I retired. Then I moved to HP and realized that the corporate ladder path just wasn’t for me. I moved on to smaller companies and figured out that what I really enjoyed was building teams and working toward achieving goals together. Ultimately, I took a chance and founded my first company with some good buddies.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?
Mark: I’ve always liked the concept of servant leadership, as opposed to taking a more traditional top-down, militaristic approach. And an important part of that approach lies in fostering a culture that encourages collaboration and celebrates bringing the best out of the individual. Look at Southwest Airlines, one of the nation’s largest (and arguably most successful) airlines. It’s a company that wholeheartedly puts its business in the hands of its employees and, as a result, they’ve established a track record of incredible customer service.
I firmly believe that a company’s success is directly tied to its core values. At SailPoint, we have four core values that drive every decision we make, and they’ve proven to be scalable as we grow. SailPoint’s core values of integrity, innovation, impact and individuals continue to drive our business decisions more than 12 years and nearly 1,000 employees later. At SailPoint, we define innovation as developing creative solutions to real challenges, integrity as delivering on the commitments we make, impact as measuring and rewarding results – not activity, and individuals as valuing every person in the company.
These values epitomize our corporate culture, and I believe they’re what sets us apart and has enabled us to go from a small startup to a global success. We even share them with our customers and partners at our annual conferences around the world. We want anyone who interacts with our company in any way to have a clear understanding of our core values and to hold us accountable to them.
Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?
Mark: SailPoint has grown from less than 10 employees to almost 1,000 around the world in a relatively short span of time. It’s always been important to me to hire people who are good cultural fits and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration as we scale from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Ideal Team Player. We look for people who are hungry, humble and smart. It’s not hard to find talent that hits on one or two of those qualities – it’s easy to hire really nice people that aren’t that good at the work, or really talented people that are jerks. But finding someone that has the full trifecta is more of a challenge. When you define what your values are and stick to them during the hiring process, you’ll find that you’ll start attracting the right people – and, more importantly, you’ll retain them.
My advice is to recognize that you’re working with “real people,” not just robots with skills that we need to complete a task. I sometimes refer to the “whole person” when I am interviewing potential candidates or talking to new employees. I want them to understand that we value them as a person, not just an employee. That means we care when they’re hurting or facing difficulties at home, and we want them to feel supported when they need extra help to get through a challenging issue, whether at work or at home. When people feel valued, they bring their very best, and that’s all we can ask.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?
Mark: In my free time, I most enjoy spending time with my wife, kids, and grandkids. On a personal level, I really believe that balance is important for a person to be the best version of themselves in all aspects of life. This fundamental belief has had a big impact on the way I run my company and on the culture we’ve built.
I like to think of everyone’s life as a pie chart – there’s a slice for family, friends, hobbies, professional life, etc. Where most people get it wrong, though, is they think the objective is to maintain equal proportions for each slice. And they wear themselves out playing a losing game. On any given week, the slices of that pie chart will fluctuate. Maybe one of your kids is sick one week, so the slice for work needs to decrease a bit while you focus more attention at home. And maybe another week it’s a particularly busy time in the office – that week the family and friends slices may take a hit.
The secret to “balance” in life is to embrace the healthy imbalances. We all need to give ourselves a break – and give our employees and our coworkers a break, too. I know that my employees see this mentality reflected in the way we treat working parents and in our open vacation policy (for which everyone from the top down actually does take vacation and encourages others to do so). And I know that we’re all better people for it. 

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