At Arista Networks, great technology and leadership inspires us to innovate and continue our mission to reinvent. It’s an ongoing journey to create the right leaders and disruptive technology for market transitions and Arista’s evolution. Today I digress a bit, as I was reading a 2017 Harvard Business Review article on the four key traits identified for successful CEOs. So much of it resonated with me with respect to the Arista way and our company culture. Let’s review how these traits apply to a fast-paced technology company like Arista.1.) Deciding with speed and conviction.
The importance of timely decision making and trying controlled experiments resonates with me. Despite the data-driven era we live in, good leaders must make decisions without all the necessary data and be comfortable with some ambiguity. A clear, crisp extrapolation from available data to a decision is better than sitting on the fence in a prolonged manner. Most decisions can be iterated as you discover more. One guiding principle that motivates my decisions is the correlation of customers and employees with my own instinct and experience. Unwavering decisions are important but sometimes admitting it was the wrong path is equally important. To admit that it is okay to be wrong and course-correct is the true sign of a mature leader. The converse is unacceptable, leading to prolonging decisions or being stuck in analysis paralysis mode, especially in a fast-paced industry.
2.) Engaging for impact.
Good leaders can create great impact. High impact is more likely with low ego leaders making bold decisions. While it is tempting to take the easy way out and make incremental decisions, these rarely move the needle and are unlikely to have the monumental impact that a company may need when they are at a fork in the road. In the 2014 timeframe Arista moved from building point products to providing multiple types of cloud networks (we call these PICs, places in the cloud) with routing functionality for the datacenter and campus. We needed to have an impact on the market transitions we saw before us and re-architect our EOS® (Extensible Operating System) software stack continuously to meet new goals. This meant prioritizing a good foundation over incremental features that drive short-term revenue. This is not an obvious tradeoff, but a crucial turning point. By interacting with stakeholders (customers, internal experts, industry partners, product lifecycle management) we make important decisions such as entering new markets, building new products, prioritizing quality versus time to market etc. It is natural in this process to argue, debate and discuss the pro and cons. Getting all key stakeholders aligned on the same goal is critical. Sometimes that means dealing with opposing views. Keeping Arista’s primary goals ahead of individual views is key. Popular or autocratic decisions are not always long lasting or correct. Instead, brainstorming and gathering different views to arrive at the optimal conclusion is much more effective.3.) Adapting proactively.
No leader can predict everything, so adapting to the way it is, rather than the way it should be, is a key trait. Being open minded is easier said than done, as CEO leaders are inherently swift decision makers with high confidence.
However, setbacks teach us more and treating mistakes as opportunities to learn and make us better is easier said than done. Some of Arista’s best work came when we were in a crisis with our backs to the wall and our conviction being tested to overcome it. More than success alone, it has united the company’s leadership team and has served to build greater strength among our leaders.4.) Delivering reliably.
Every year we host an intimate customer exchange to foster greater connection. Each time, I ask customers what technology they like most at Arista. I expect to hear that it’s our latest breakthrough innovation. Instead, it’s the same answer every year - Arista’s quality and reliability trumps everything else as the #1 winner consistently for the past 9 years!
Leaders cannot ignore the importance of consistency in daily actions. It is boring to be predictable, but I believe in the value of setting realistic expectations to create sustainable results. Reliability is also a key trait in building leaders, the right organization and planning for personnel evolution. As Arista scales to the next phase of growth and maturity, the stakes become higher, as do expectations. Upgrading or fixing poor talent may be crucial aspects of this evolution. Many of my past errors have stemmed from promoting people too soon or taking too long with personnel actions due to comfort, loyalty or my own weakness.
Pursuit of Courage & Conviction
In the rapidly evolving high technology industry, adapting proactively, maintaining integrity, low ego and the constant cultivation of key leadership traits: decisiveness, the ability to engage stakeholders, adaptability, and reliability is the difference between incremental managers and great leaders. I believe Arista is an example of that unique company with the best combination of courage, culture, talent, timing, opportunity, technology and customers. Yet we cannot rest on our laurels and must evolve to the next phase in our organizational evolution, anticipating dynamic changes in the market or technology in a nimble and expeditious fashion. We cannot afford to fall into the typical traps of traditional corporations. Rare leaders touch our lives to leave that indelible mark for generations. Steve Jobs made that individual difference in transforming Apple, and today’s leaders will emerge from around the world to also leave a legacy behind. They share many of these common traits.
Welcome to the new era of leadership and stewardship in the 2020 era!