I wish someone had told me to go faster. We have driven incredible change in my first year as CEO — moved incredibly fast. For example, in this past year alone, we have completely shifted our go-to-market based on our customer’s needs, we celebrated our first year as an independent company, and we made key investments in our marketing and brand awareness, to name a few successes. Many said to make these changes incrementally, however, if I could have done it all over again, I would have gone much faster. This does beg the question — could our organization have sustained a faster pace? I think yes, and I would have liked to have tried.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Di Donato. As Chief Executive Officer for SUSE, Melissa Di Donato is responsible for all aspects of the SUSE business and its worldwide growth.
Melissa has a proven track record in sales, business operations, and leadership focused on high growth and transformation. Prior to SUSE, Melissa was Chief Operating Officer and Chief Revenue Officer at SAP where she was responsible for the worldwide revenue, profit, and customer satisfaction of the company’s digital core solutions. She also held senior executive positions at Salesforce and was recognized for her contributions to growing global organizations by winning the 2018 Digital Masters Award for Excellence in Commercial Management.
Melissa is highly regarded for her forward-thinking leadership style and is a passionate advocate for workplace diversity. This includes her role as Technology Group Chair of the 30% Club — an organization with the goal of achieving 30% female directors on S&P 100 boards by 2020. She also holds prominent positions in other organizations, including Notion Capital, and is a trustee for charity Founders4Schools.
Melissa is SUSE’s first female CEO and completed her education at American University, Kogod School of Business, graduating with an MBA in International Business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
From an early age, I have always been motivated to make a mark on this world through positive change and innovation. I once said to my mother: “I don’t want to die a nobody. I want to leave a mark. I want to do something. I want to change the world.” With this mentality, I have aimed to drive impact and positively affect those around me in everything that I do.
After taking the advice of a mentor at university, I headed into the IT industry. As one of a handful of female software developers working on SAP’s previous ERP system, R3, I went on to implement the solution globally. I have held a variety of leadership positions at IBM, Salesforce.com, and most recently at SAP where I was the Chief Operating Officer for the company’s ERP division.
While I did not set out with aspirations to become a CEO, I strongly believe that every role that I have had has led me to be CEO of SUSE.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
SUSE has an incredible culture — one that is rooted in the ethos of the open-source community. We pride ourselves in not taking ourselves too seriously and having a bit of fun along the way. Central to this is our love of music and transforming, SUSE-fying, if you will, popular hits into music video parodies.
From my very first day as CEO, I made it my mission to challenge our employees, daring them to test the status quo and to think differently about how we solve our customer’s business challenges. SUSE’s employees took this challenge to heart, and in turn, dared me to star in SUSE’s next music video parody.
Throughout the recording, I had my first taste of SUSE’s vibrant and rich culture — it was so easy to embrace, and in turn, helped me make an instant connection with our global workforce. I was also able to live a childhood dream of being a rock star — it was an incredible experience!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on as CEO, I received a tweet from an ex-employee who expressed that SUSE has taken leaps and is now a better company than he had experienced. To acknowledge his opinion, I made a mistake with word choice — replying that we are “no longer” what he experienced. Of course, the implication of “no longer” means something else; it insinuated that I concurred with his perception of a different SUSE… a SUSE I don’t recognize.
What resulted was an outpouring of messages on Twitter and in my mailbox from people across the company — people who love the company enough to speak up and defend our brand. Concerned colleagues from all levels reached out to see if they could help me experience SUSE better. “What can I do to support you?” they asked. What started as a mistake ended up giving me a deeper experience of our culture. Through this mistake (it’s not exactly a funny one), I realized that our people are not afraid to speak up. And better still, our people are not afraid to rectify a problem when they see one. Very early on, this episode turned me into an even bigger fan of the people I serve.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I mentioned earlier that every role that I have ever had has led me to be CEO of SUSE. I started my career as a user of open-source software and spent most, if not all, of my career as a customer of open source. This unique perspective has enabled me to shape our go-to-market and better serve our customers’ needs. Having the opportunity to use all of my experiences with the added responsibility and accountability for our employees, and our bottom line has been incredibly intriguing.
I am also very much a people person, and in this role, I am able to engage with our customers and partners around the world, in addition to our passionate and innovation-driven employees.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Balance. Being a CEO is a balancing act. You have to balance the expectations of many diverse and important stakeholders like your board of directors, investors, employees, customers and partners, and communities, to name a few. Each decision I make has many moving parts that could affect these stakeholders in a positive or negative way. Some seemingly small decisions could have a profound impact on the company, whereas some small decisions could be just that — small.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
With any role, there are certainly downsides, and this holds true for being a CEO. I have to be ‘on’ all the time and available whenever needed; there is less ability to shut off. This can be especially challenging if you have a young family or are a primary caregiver.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth that I’d like to dispel about being a CEO is the assumption that you are the boss, and you have ultimate control over the direction a company takes. This could not be further from the truth. As CEO, while you are the “boss,” you are not making unilateral business decisions. As I mentioned earlier, there are balances everywhere from input received from your board of directors to the insights your leadership team and employees provide, to the feedback from the customers you serve, amongst so many others. Each plays a key role in decision making and is a great resource for any CEO.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
A successful executive must have thick skin and be willing and able to take the good with the bad. It may very well be likely that the best day of your career could be followed by the worst. Executives must be able to celebrate every win and success and learn quickly from failures — there will be many of both.
I’d say having tough skin is even more important if a person aspires to be a CEO. Oftentimes, decisions are made by other leaders in an organization, as they should, but the negative ramifications of those decisions will come back to me as CEO. Successful CEOs have to be willing to take the heat and continue to drive their business forward.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
In my experience, females are better leaders, and their teams do better, when they are empowered and trusted. Have faith in your teams — the more trust and confidence you have in them, the more they shine.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am a passionate supporter and believer in mentoring. In fact, every role that I have had across my 20+ year career has had something to do with the advice or direction of a mentor, including in my decision to be CEO of SUSE.
Looking back now over a year, Franck Cohen was instrumental in recommending me to be CEO of SUSE. I met Franck during my time at SAP while he was leading the company’s ERP business. As Chief Operations Officer for the ERP business, Franck and I developed a very strong working relationship. He believed in me and pushed me to take the next leap in my career as CEO. I would not be CEO today if not for Franck’s direction, mentorship, and support.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Well, I don’t have five, but I do have three:
- I wish someone had told me to take a holiday before I joined! This seems self-explanatory, but taking the time to reset and refresh your mind ahead of a new role and journey is key for any executive.
- Energy management. Obviously, time is always constrained when running a company, and there are always many priorities and deliverables that must be balanced, but understanding where I should focus my attention, and what I should weigh in on has been critically important. I wish I knew this sooner. Understanding this has enabled me to have a clear mind and focus my attention where it is most needed.
- I wish someone had told me to go faster. We have driven incredible change in my first year as CEO — moved incredibly fast. For example, in this past year alone, we have completely shifted our go-to-market based on our customer’s needs, we celebrated our first year as an independent company, and we made key investments in our marketing and brand awareness, to name a few successes. Many said to make these changes incrementally, however, if I could have done it all over again, I would have gone much faster. This does beg the question — could our organization have sustained a faster pace? I think yes, and I would have liked to have tried.
You are a person of great influence. 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 have a young daughter and I want to ensure that when she enters the workforce in 15 years’ time, that she will not face some of the same challenges that I have faced as a woman in technology. This is part of the reason why I am so passionate about getting more women into the technology field, in leadership positions and onboard seats.
Regardless if my daughter chooses a career in technology, I want to do everything in my power to ensure she has the self-confidence and inner courage to be or to do whatever she wants in this world. This extends beyond my family and to girls around the world and particularly in the U.K. where I live. To help address this, my husband and I recently started the Inner Wings Foundation where our focus is to build confidence and bravery in young girls with the mission to empower young women and create a more gender-balanced world. We are just getting started, in fact, this is the first I am discussing it with anyone outside my team. Stay tuned!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
While there are many people that I’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, these days, I’d be very interested in sitting down with Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle. Not only was she Oracle’s first female CEO and instrumental in the company’s M&A activity, but she has an incredible personal story. I’d love to sit down with her to understand her priorities as a CEO and how she is driving change at Oracle.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.