There must be real rigor and discipline to do things. This could be a culture of discipline to agree on things not to do. But also the ability to be focused on what you want to get done. At Conga, this is what we use to manage our thought process, engineering, or any hard decisions we have to make. Great companies have that discipline and rigor to stay focused and keep on track.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Noel Goggin, Chief Executive Officer of Conga, where he is responsible for directing the company’s growth at scale and furthering its leading position in the digital transformation of businesses processes. He is a highly accomplished tech executive with nearly 30 years of leadership and management experience within the software industry that includes CEO, EVP, and SVP positions.
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?
Where I come from, nothing is impossible. I was raised in a somewhat sheltered environment having grown up on a dairy farm. I had never flown anywhere, we didn’t take vacations, and summers and weekends were spent working. This taught me the importance of hard work and the need to get things done.
Prior to starting my career, I went to one of the top engineering schools in Ireland, Dublin City University. I completed my first internship with Retix during my third year and joined the company full-time after graduation. The company had a great start-up feel and was a lot of fun, but it was also a bit of a sink or swim situation. With little guidance or structure — my colleagues and I were forced to figure things out on our own.
I’m also dyslexic, and as a result, I discovered I have a natural curiosity to understand things holistically. As I was traveling around Europe for my first job, the curious and fearless side of me, combined with my ability to be self-sufficient, really helped me to get started in my career and experience success early on.
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?
I’ve dealt with many hardships, but there is one period in my life that stands out. I founded a company called Ecovate in 2000. We were fortunate to receive funding from well-known VCs including Trinity Ventures and Battery Ventures. But shortly after we started the company, the internet bubble crashed and many of the companies we worked with went out of business overnight. All of this was going on at the same time I had my first child.
Some of the VCs trusted us enough to give us seed money to build something new. We created a new start-up, StorePerform, in the retail software space — an industry I knew nothing about. We bootstrapped the company at the same time my second child was born. Shortly after, 9/11 took place, and around this time my Green Card was about to expire. I was earning no money, my wife and I were a few months away from having to leave the country, and I was working in a space I wasn’t familiar with. It was an incredibly challenging time.
Fortunately, we started to sign some big accounts in a short period of time. This gave us funding and allowed us to secure some other big accounts. And eventually, other good things started to happen.
When I look back, of course it was hard and I thought about giving up but my grit and conviction from my farming background drove me to find a way to make it work. And with a bit of Irish Luck, we got our Green Cards just a month shy of their expiration.
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?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my professional life, but one mistake, which is only funny now after many years, was on my first business trip to Italy. I’m a naturally trusting person, so when I landed in Rome I grabbed a taxi. Before I knew it, the taxi driver had turned down a dark alley and took all my cash. I spent the entire day with the Italian police trying to track down the driver, which ended up being a waste of time. I quickly learned to get street smart. Literally.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe people are what make companies stand out, and this is especially true at Conga. My colleagues have incredible passion, desire and bravery. They have a natural desire to stand out and act with a sense of urgency, perseverance, and grit. Even in difficult or challenging times, they maintain that incredible moral fiber and spark.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you look at the pace of change and scope of change side-by-side, the speed is phenomenal, but it can be overwhelming. We’re always on today, especially with our offices now in our homes, and that leads to fatigue. Amid this, people must find a way to unplug, whether that’s through interests like cooking, hiking, or reading a book. People must also consciously take time for whatever refuels them. I personally enjoy quiet time, especially golfing or cooking, to refuel.
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?
There are three people who stand out and have helped get me to where I am today.
The first is Lawrence Jackson, who was on the Board of Directors at RedPrairie. He has always impressed me with his willingness to make time for people, including myself. He has a great track record of success and is an accomplished executive, but also demonstrates how it’s OK to be yourself in business. He has been influential and given me a lot of confidence over the years.
Second, Joe Juliano, who was my former boss at RedPrairie. When I worked with him, he encouraged me to find the answers myself and gave me the trust and space I needed to grow and operate. He never told me the answer, he always wanted me to uncover it on my own. He has had the greatest influence on my day-to-day management philosophy.
Frank Blake, the former CEO of Home Depot, is another mentor who I’ve gotten to know over the past few years. He is incredibly accomplished and has the most intellectual capacity of anyone I’ve ever met. But paired with that is an unreal level of humility. He is so generous with his time and asks for nothing in return. He too has been instrumental in helping me achieve success.
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?
In general, most companies are good companies. They function, they exist and they move along. But the companies that are great outperform their peers — by at least two to three times — over the course of time, not just one or two years. So how do you create sustained growth that outpaces the market? This requires a real sustained pattern.
I am a student of Jim Collins and love his concepts on built to last and good to great. His good to great framework gives me a clear model that I can get people organized around. In that he also talks about Level 5 leadership. This is a concept that speaks to me. Frank Blake and Lawrence Jackson are both Level 5 leaders. They demonstrate how you don’t have to be the greatest or most braggadocious person in the world. Instead, humility and a strong will to succeed are key.
Collins also talks about first who, then what. Many companies try to have a great vision, but the reality of a vision is a set of words. Companies must establish a team — comprised of the right people — and align around that. This is a critical first step in setting apart the good companies from the great.
And finally, I’m a big fan of teams. I’ve played competitive sports my entire life and I’ve learned important lessons from that. Less talented teams can beat more talented teams when their teamwork is superior. Decisions, timing of decisions, the ability to execute, and alignment around all of that is really important. Together, those factors make a great company. Teamwork and peer accountability are key principles of the Conga Way as we forge a new path toward a successful future.
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.
I don’t believe there are five things required to lead a company from Good to Great. There are many factors, but the notion of a culture of discipline is critical. There must be real rigor and discipline to do things. This could be a culture of discipline to agree on things not to do. But also the ability to be focused on what you want to get done. At Conga, this is what we use to manage our thought process, engineering, or any hard decisions we have to make. Great companies have that discipline and rigor to stay focused and keep on track.
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?
The short answer is yes, companies should seek to be purpose driven businesses. But there are two dimensions to this. There’s a purpose of philanthropic DNA and servanthood. And there is a dimension of what we do and why we do it, and the purpose of that.
For the first, I believe that we have a privilege and obligation to be generous — whether that’s the giving of time or helping others, whatever speaks to each individual in an organization. Companies like Conga who are profitable and do well, should find ways to do that. They should help the brand, not detract from the brand of the company.
What a company does should also have an impact. There needs to be purpose and a reason for being. And this becomes a part of the company’s North Star.
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”?
Companies go through different chapters. No company grows in a perfectly straight line. As companies’ stories unfold, they require people who will lead and have conviction.
In many cases, creative thinkers and ideators come into play during these moments of hardship or standstill. These tough moments prove a company’s resilience and allow them to see what they can actually do.
I also believe that crises can make companies better. A bit of hardship or crisis can help companies get back to the culture of discipline. It also forces them to assess whether they are doing things for the right reason and to find the right people who have the will to reinvent and bring the positive energy to help.
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?
I believe that tough times are when organizations should move or go harder. If you have a culture of discipline in your organization, you will be able to double down even in difficult circumstances. You must also have confidence in your own strategy.
Yes, organizations must be prudent on cash flow and costs, but crises can help companies identify areas for additional efficiencies across the organization.
The things that are core to your business, the things that will allow organizations to outpace their competition in a crisis, those are the things you must go after.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Culture. I believe culture is the hardest, but the most important part of the job. Developing healthy organizations requires real consistency, focus and energy, rewarding the right behaviors, and coaching in the moment when wrong behaviours are seen. Ensuring the work environment enables people to be themselves, allows them to thrive while reducing hierarchy, and politics — not tolerating bullies and brilliant jerks.
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?
Focusing on the customer is one of the best strategies to increase conversion rates. By showing genuine curiosity and concern about your customers’ business, listening and learning vs telling and selling, helps identify clear pain points and creates a two way dialogue. Talking in their terms allows you to focus on business processes and problems vs features and functions.
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?
Transparency is key. Customers want to work with people who are genuinely concerned for their well-being. This could come in the form of ensuring you can solve their business needs and not overcommitting. This could also be involved during times of having direct and difficult conversations with customers so that they don’t make bad decisions. Doing this with the right bedside manner is always valued over time. For me, it is a critical measure in aligning our interests with our customers.
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?
In my experience, you have to do the tactical things consistently and well before earning the right to do strategic things — the music has to match the dance. It’s necessary to balance the short term with the medium and long term and to do this, you have to go on a journey with customers since their problems are not static. It is a continuum of improvement, learning, and maturation 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?
I have profound respect for founders — it takes real courage, conviction and grit to start a company — there are so many twists and turns in the early stages. The core to this is (a) building your business around the right people, (b) focusing on solving concrete business problems, and © focusing on customers. As startups grow, it’s mission critical to have the discipline to never lose the core of the business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.
I believe there are far too many people unhappy in their jobs today. There is a tolerance for the status quo. Many people operate in compliance mode and don’t take control to make the types of environments that they want. Life is short. It’s important to surround yourself with people who radiate energy vs people who sap/steal your energy. The world benefits more from people who are working on things that they are passionate about and inspiring others to do the same. This helps in one’s professional and personal life.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My LinkedIn profile is Noel Goggin.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!