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Good to Great: Hallmarks of High-Tech Leadership

Jayshree Ullal
by Jayshree Ullal on Nov 3, 2017 3:02:55 AM

You are probably expecting me to write another monthly blog on exciting innovative technology. Today I digress and reflect on recent awards and accolades Arista has received and how we got here. At Arista, we have worked very hard to become a great company. Building a good company takes constant hard work and heavy lifting. Making a great company is an even harder work-in-progress, demanding tenacity, especially in high technology, where disruptions are daunting and challenges are frequent. 

Technology evolution is complex, and changes happen at a rapid pace, requiring dexterous course corrections. An undisputed champion of an industry today can become stagnant in merely a few years. Silicon Valley celebrates successful start-ups, applauding hot IPOS and declaring winners by measuring the net worth of the founders. Companies and leaders go from hero to zero, unable to live up to the hype. A fairy tale existence can turn into a nightmare when companies fade into oblivion if they trip.

Why do we see this cycle repeating itself?

I think it is because our industry and those who judge us emphasize the wrong metrics in the evolution to greatness. Short-term profits, growth, momentum stock price and exit strategies are rewarded instead of differentiated engineering investment and customer quality. This creates a vicious cycle for tactical metrics instead of a sustained principle of doing the right thing. On the other side of the spectrum, larger corporations swing to the safe direction, bask in their past glories and make low risk decisions.

Going from a good to great company takes a monumental series of changes that are not incremental but exponential. A dedicated strategy and commitment to execute upon it defines courageous leadership with a culture of innovation and teamwork setting the tone.

As the late Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

Conviction of Purpose

In the pursuit of greatness, the leader must be unassailable as a visionary and a person of action. It must be someone who not only creates an initial wave of success, but also builds an ever-lasting foundation for future phases. This is easier said than done in practical cases. It often requires one to question the norm and not follow the popular vote. Instead, we must examine the nuances and the opposite of the prevailing view. The ability to question the status quo of engrained habits and even oneself to navigate the right direction is vital.

Change is uneasy. Sometimes you need that re-architecture or significant shift in direction. What destroys many companies is complacence, stifling innovation, denying new trends, blinding people with overconfidence and even arrogance. Most corporate leaders create middle managers for a steady and stable organization. There is nothing wrong with that, except that they often rely on middle managers excessively, whose primary jobs are preventing immediate problems. Middle managers are designed to avoid tactical mistakes. Mismatched CEOs of the 1990s in Apple, Yahoo, etc. taught valuable lessons in choosing leaders carefully without alienating founders. The great leaders foster healthy partnerships with founders as a united team (as we have seen in Facebook, Google, Microsoft) to avoid toxicity and ego at all costs.

Create Turning Points

Every technology company must navigate its phases of success and the first phase rarely resembles the next. Next generation leadership needs thinkers who can identify the risks, find the hidden jewels and build upon them. Leaders empower their teams, and their behaviors are the opposite of linear management. They foster direct communication and access across employees to plan orderly transitions and encourage a hands-on style. Leaders gravitate in this direction, while typical managers do not see it coming.

To quote Scott Cochran in the Herald Journal in a recent September 2017 blog*

“Just because your product sold well yesterday, doesn’t mean it will tomorrow… Being inappropriately risk aversive is a death sentence for your organization.”

Both Adobe and Netflix realized their core markets were changing in the 2010 timeframe. In the midst of rapid growth of their primary key markets, both companies shifted their business model proactively to become SAAS or streaming models respectively. Not only did their CEOs demonstrate their agility and avoid complacency, but they also developed the next phase of growth for the company in the midst of the current one. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of a large corporation’s success (that is a bit northwest of Silicon Valley) is Microsoft. CEO Satya Nadella displayed purposeful vision for developing the public cloud (Azure) offering ten years ahead of market reality, while the company was still developing its first phase of enterprise applications. He created a turning point that took courage and conviction, and it has served the company well in overcoming legacy habits to the cloud migration.

Tech-Time is Real-Time

Tech Time moves at the pace of cloud-years. Every calendar year is the equivalent of ten cloud-years. Navigating high-tech companies in real-time goes beyond incremental shifts. Tech companies and their leaders must adjust to the rapid pace of change. This adjustment transcends skills and familiar business models to distinguish decision-making in “tech-time.” Tech-time is often days or weeks, not years. Anticipating trends, seeing patterns and placing big bets keep the best companies on top of their game. A bold extrapolation without always having every data point is a valuable trait. Of course, it takes an entire village of talent working in unison to make it happen. 2020 Leaders must be instinctive and vigilant in not taking the present course for granted. Expanding the company’s precious assets, out-maneuvering competitors, questioning traditional logic and recognizing mistakes make leaders of the future.

Working towards the right outcome for Arista, combined with a lasting culture makes it personally rewarding. I am privileged and proud to be part of our talented team working on the journey ahead. I can’t wait for the next phase to unfold. Special thank you to my readers, especially our employees, shareholders and customers, for supporting us in the Arista Way!

*Scott Cochran: Don't become complacent

 

Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the original authors, not of Arista Networks. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Arista Networks or any other party.
Jayshree Ullal
Written by Jayshree Ullal
Jayshree Ullal is a networking executive veteran with 30+ years of experience. In 2015 she was co-awarded "EY 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year" across National USA and "#3 IT Industry Disrupter" by CRN. In 2005, she was named one of the "50 Most Powerful People" by Network World and one of the "Top Executives" by Forbes magazine 2012. As President and CEO for nine years, Jayshree led Arista Networks to a successful IPO in June 2014 at NYSE. She is responsible for building a multibillion dollar business in cloud networking and has forged strategic alliances with Microsoft, HP and VMware to name a few.

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