Contrarian Leadership for a Culture of Success
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Episode 27 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio, episode 27: Contrarian Leadership for a Culture of Success.
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth, on the web at www.businessadvance.com, and now − here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated, and right across from me is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. I am so happy to be here with you again today − and if this is your first time listening out there, the purpose of Growth Igniters Radio is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to the next level of success. So, Pam, what are we discussing today?
Pam Harper: How taking the approach of contrarian leadership can result in a culture of success.
Scott Harper: Okay.
Pam Harper: You know it takes both skill and art to lead against conventional wisdom, and today’s guest is going to share his insights and ideas with us. We’re speaking with Colin Day, President and CEO of iCIMS, a company that he founded in 1999.
iCIMS is leading the growth of the talent-acquisition technology movement with a software-as-a-service solution that helps companies gain a competitive edge in recruiting talent. iCIMS has been regularly making the news for years, and they’ve received numerous recognitions and top awards for customer service, innovation, and growth, from all kinds of prestigious global organizations. You can read more about iCIMS by visiting the link to iCIMS site under Resources on the webpage for this episode.
Now, Colin himself has been twice rated one of the top-five forward-thinking innovators in Fast Company Magazine’s Fast Fifty Readers’ Challenge, and in 2007 he was named Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in the Information Technology Software category. Colin, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio, and congratulations on all of those honors.
Colin Day: Thanks so much, Pam and Scott, and I’m delighted to be here with you guys.
Pam Harper: We always like to begin our episodes by learning a bit about our guests, so tell us − what led you to become the founder of iCIMS?
Colin Day: Well, gosh, it’s been a long slog − about 16 years, as you mentioned. I started the company when I was 23, so I’ve got to say I feel like I went to the School of Hard Knocks. I went to Cornell, and I got a degree in psychology, and I think wanted to parlay that into business. I had entrepreneurs all over my family; my father was an entrepreneur − uncles, brother, et cetera, but obviously being as young as I was, I didn’t know what I was good at, what my passions were, what I wanted to do, so I ended up actually joining a recruiting firm right out of school, called Comrise Technology, and I worked as a technical recruiter, so I was actually recruiting people for Bell Labs, at the time − AT&T, Lucent Technologies − and it was the heyday of tech recruiting, ’97-98, right before everything gloriously imploded.
I had a wonderful time, and as much fun as it was recruiting, I really felt that, again, that entrepreneurial spirit was bubbling up in me, and I just happened to have this amazing opportunity sitting right in front of me − which was, we had built an in-house piece of software, and it was called Comrise’s Information Management System − we called it CIMS − and we really weren’t doing anything other than using it internally. So I approached the CEO of Comrise, and said, “Hey, this is going to sound like a totally crazy idea, but how would you feel about spinning a company out, selling the rights of the software to us, and letting us take this thing out to the marketplace?”
I don’t know why he trusted me at age 23, but he did, and not only helped us spin it out, but ended up funding it, all organically with loans, for about two-and-a-half years. So a huge amount of credit to him for trusting a very young and naive but passionate person.
Pam Harper: So the opportunity was it was the right place, the right time, the right thing…
Colin Day: Absolutely. You’ve got to have the mix of everything, and the funding model to back you up.
Scott Harper: Clearly you had great ideas, and in our conversations you sometimes refer to yourself as a contrarian leader, which really intrigues us. But it’s good to know − what does “contrarian” mean to you.
Colin Day: Yes. I feel like I’ve been called a contrarian for a long, long time, and I think it started with my parents basically, because maybe I wasn’t listening to anything they were telling me to do. So I think they used the word “contrarian” a lot.
I genuinely think it is what it sounds like, in just that at the heart of the matter it’s having the will, the courage, to go in opposite direction of where the visible herd is clearly going. With thinking about this a lot more, and how do we apply that to our company, and some of the philosophies, I think what it boils down to for me − and hopefully for other executives within our company − is probably spending a lot more time sort of thinking about and worrying about what you don’t want to be, rather than coming in every day thinking about what you want to be, or what others tell you you should be. So I think at the essence, that’s really the core of the definition for me.
Pam Harper: Okay. So Colin, how then has your contrarian approach led to iCIMS’ successful growth over the years?
Colin Day: Yes, sure. I think we’ve had various moments across this sort of 16-years of history where we felt, “all right, let’s take a contrarian approach here.” It honestly started right in the beginning, and I often say the one thing I did not do prior to actually starting iCIMS was really any market research − and I know that sounds crazy, but it wasn’t until I’d sort of spun this out, and we started the company, that I did a quick Google search, − and I don’t even think it was Google at the time, just to age myself − and found out that there were probably, call it a couple of hundred vendors who were doing what we were doing, and so I think the first moment was sort of out of necessity, which is, “My God if we look like all 200 of these vendors we’re never going to succeed.”
It was a very quick exercise in sort of learning how are we going to differentiate ourselves from these vendors, how are we going to stand out from the crowd; so I think the mindset was born pretty much from day-one just for survival purposes. But the biggest example that I can sort of come up with, and this happens in sort of the age-old story in software, is that we started as what most people would like to sort of call a “point solution.” We tackled one thing, we tackled recruiting, and we said this is what we want to do really well through the use of, it’s called, Applicant Tracking Software, and did very well, and we had a whole bunch of competitors who also focused on that.
And as tends to happen in software, everyone started to say “okay, what’s next? You can’t just be a point solution, so what are your next applications, and how are you going to pull it all together,” and soon everyone in the industry started saying “okay, well you can’t just be recruiting. You’re broadly in HR so you’ve got to start doing everything else in HR.” And we saw all of our competitors begin to, we called it, “cross the aisle.” So recruiting vendors started building performance management software. Performance management were building recruiting software. They were adding in learning, and payroll, and benefits. We, believe it or not, thought that my God, to survive we’re going to have to follow suit because it sounds so much more attractive if you can get everything in HR rather than one thing.
And I think we had this moment where we said, “We are going to go down the same path as everyone else. We’re going to be somewhat good at our first application, probably pretty terrible at all the following-up applications, and then spread so thin that we won’t actually be able to become great at any one thing.” And so we sort of asked ourselves where we’re up against big companies do we really have the resources to spread ourselves that thin. The answer obviously was no.
I think it was also backed up by a really strong conviction − and I think this is the benefit of sort of me coming out as a recruiter − was that recruiting does not belong next to employee management, performance management, payroll, and benefits. I can certainly understand how everything about the employee should be lumped together, but recruiting is Wild West; it’s marketing, it’s sales, it’s brand, and so we sort of took those two elements and said, “Let’s go off on our own direction, let’s not follow the herd. Let’s not build out this full HCM suite; let’s stay absolutely focused on talent acquisition, the thing that we’ve grown up in, the thing that we know.”
Timing was enormous, because just when we made this decision was when the impacts of social, and mobile, and video on the internet really began to be felt. And I’m sure you can imagine the how world of recruiting got turned upside down when all of a sudden people don’t want to apply with a resume, they want to use a LinkedIn profile. They don’t want to fly in for an interview; they’d rather do a video screen. And clearly they don’t want to apply on the desktop. They’re going to be on their mobile phone, coming home angry about their day, and wanting to apply for a new job.
I think it allowed us to get back into our wheelhouse, and address these great new revolutions, and sort of emerge as a leader. It was scary; I will not lie to you. We stood up in front of the entire company, and we said, “If you remember the vision − the full HCM − we’re killing it. We’re going to shut down the products.” We actually had customers on them. We said, “we’re going to call them and tell them we’re not supporting it anymore, but we fundamentally believe in this focused vision, and this contrarian vision.”
Scott Harper: So you stood on the precipice, dangled your feet over the edge, and said “no, we’re going to back away; we’re going to specialize and therefore distinguish ourselves.” And that has what has led to your success over the years. Wow.
Colin Day: I think yes, one of hopefully many things out there. But you talked about standing on the precipice. The irony is we’d been all organic for about 12 years, and we had just brought in our first new investor, and the new investor was brought in on this vision of we’re going to do everything in Human Capital Management. So you talk about standing on the precipice − it wasn’t just telling your company, but it was literally going to the investor who’d just invested in you, and saying, “you know what, we’re going to change everything about what we just told you.” I definitely thought there might be a moment there where I might get booted by my own investor.
Scott Harper: Wow.
Pam Harper: But having the courage of your own convictions, and the vision, and certainly being in the right place at the right time as far as everything that would support this, was a powerful moment for you.
We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Colin Day, CEO of iCIMS, about some of the lessons he’s learned in leading a contrarian culture for success. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper, and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, on the web at www.businessadvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth, and if you like what you’re hearing spread the good word. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, select episode 27, and use the share links for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, at the top right of the page to tell your social media communities all about us.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Colin Day, CEO of award-winning iCIMS, about leading a contrarian culture for success. Colin, how can people find out more about iCIMS, and about you?
Colin Day: They can just go straight to our website; it’s www.icims.com.
Pam Harper: That’s great. Lets get back to our discussion. We’ve been talking about how you came to found and grow iCIMS, and how you stood on the precipice, and took the company in some new directions. Let’s go deeper.
In your experience, what would you say is the most important aspect of leading a successful culture that supports your contrarian approach to business?
Colin Day: I think, honestly, it comes down to transparency. I think taking a contrarian approach often starts with a gut call, and it’s really hard to make a gut call, because most people want to make a metrics-based call, and what you have to stand up and say is, “Guys, I just do not have the metrics but I’ve got a very strong feeling that we may need to go in a different direction.”
I think we’ve been big believers that, if you’re going to operate with a gut call, you better be willing to be totally, totally transparent about the communications, the successes, the failures. I’m not saying metrics doesn’t play a place. We clearly every time we make a contrarian decision, we will stand up in front of the company, and we’ll say, “Guys we don’t know yet if this is a right or a wrong decision, but here are all of the metrics in terms of how we look at the business and analyze the business, and I think we’ve got a really fundamental belief” − and this comes from our CFO, not necessarily from me − “that we’re not always going to be right, but we’re so intensely metrics-focused that we will know when we’re wrong.”
We’ll know where we’re wrong, and we’ll have a willingness to pivot. I think that kind of transparency, sort of coupled with metrics behind the scene, creates I think what a lot of people often call a sort of “authentic leadership,” which is, okay there’s trust here. I think particularly if you’re going to be the contrarian, if you’re going to make a gut call, go the opposite direction, you better hope that there’s authenticity at the top, and that people sort of buy into these calls. I think those are, again the transparency and the metrics focus, probably the two biggest for us.
Scott Harper: Okay, and you obviously, you’re not following the herd; so how do you reinforce innovation to continue your successful growth, and stand out?
Colin Day: We get asked a lot “are you the innovator?” And innovation is such a strange word, because I think most people associate innovation with “new.” “Oh, wow, they’re so innovative, they’ve come out with new ways of doing this or that or whatever.”
I think we’re not too concerned about being first to market, or most to market, or cheapest to market. I think we’ve told everyone in the company, “guys, we want to be best to market.” We only want to come out with a product or service if we believe it’s the best in the marketplace.
I think what we try to do is get people a little less focused about new-new-new, and a little more focused about how do we make what’s already out there the best in the marketplace. One of the things that we’ve thrown out, and I think has been adopted quite well, is one of our core competencies is Kaizen. It’s a Japanese term − sort of change is good, constant improvement − and it’s our way of trying to get everyone focused in on we’re not looking for the big-bang new product that no one has ever seen. We are looking for people who can come in and just continuously tweak, and automate, and improve on processes, products, systems − even people, that are already in our company.
I think it allows us to continue to be very innovative, but in a sort of controlled, experimental fashion where we’re not making massive, massive mistakes, but lots of small, measurable tweaks where we can continue to improve over time.
Scott Harper: It’s like compound interest; each improvement builds on the next one. Pretty soon you’re a heck of a lot better than you used to be.
Colin Day: You’ve got it. That is definitely the hope.
Pam Harper: How then do you and your leadership team keep conventional thinking from creeping into your organization? Would there be that danger?
Colin Day: We always worry about that, and I can say quite genuinely I never pictured our company being the size that we are; we’re about 500 employees. We’re doubling in size every two-and-a-half years, which is just crazy to think about right now, and there isn’t a day when I don’t come in and think about how do we keep the culture, how do we make sure that we’re not diluting the quality of personnel.
One of the programs that we’ve put out there, and I think it’s meaningful but it’s also quite emotional − is a lot of companies, again, will focus on the new, so they’ll get employees thinking about the way that we’re going to recognize you is if you come up with something new − build a new product, help us with a new vertical, a new geography, maybe a new lead-generation source. As I mentioned before, new isn’t really everything for us, and so we decided to come up with something once-a-year − we give out $5000, and it’s called “The Not-To-Do Award.”
Pam Harper: The “Not-To-Do?” Okay.
Colin Day: The Not-To-Do Award, yes. The Not-To-Do Award, and essentially it’s recognizing and rewarding an individual within the company who, for lack of a better word, has sort of killed off, eliminated, or automated the stupidest thing that we’d been doing the prior year. I think it infuses into the culture, and people look at that award and say okay, well that’s what’s respected, and that’s what’s being recognized and rewarded, and so they tend to see that when we bring people in who want to make an impact they don’t come in daydreaming about what could be; they come in thinking about what is, and how to improve it. That’s been enormous for our culture.
Pam Harper: It actually serves as a way to keep you aligned, and at the same time it’s a contrarian approach to innovation itself − the classic definition.
Scott Harper: It focuses resources.
Pam Harper: That’s what I’m saying. It’s alignment.
We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back we’ll continue our conversation with Colin Day, CEO of iCIMS, about leading a contrarian culture for success. Stay with us…
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper, and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Colin Day, CEO of iCIMS, about leading a contrarian culture for success. Colin, how can people find out more about you, and about iCIMS?
Colin Day: Sure, Pam, so again: www.icims.com.
Pam Harper: Okay. Let’s get down to specifics. What are three pieces of immediately actionable advice that you could give to our other CEOs who are listening who want to take this contrarian approach to leadership? What’s your first piece of actionable advice?
Colin Day: Sure. I think the first thing that I would definitely recommend is, if you know you’re about to take the contrarian approach, develop a rock-solid pitch around “why.”
I think a lot of people will focus on what are you doing, when are you doing it; but what the company really wants to align on is the why, because at the end of the day when we decided to go focus just on talent acquisition we were putting them in an awkward position. We understood that they were going to have to explain to all of our customers, who thought we were doing one thing, why we’re not.
I think it really is important when you’re doing this. The “what” yes, is important, but not nearly as important as the why. That pitch that everyone can rally around is just critical.
Pam Harper: The “why” gives people that confidence that they’re going in the right direction. Is that right?
Colin Day: Yes, exactly.
Pam Harper: Okay. Let’s go onto the second piece of actionable advice.
Colin Day: This is one that I’m not going to take credit for, but I have learned over the last four years is incredibly important, which is once you’ve got your why, you really have to gain that sort of corporate alignment all the way through the organization, and it is all about constant − and I would call it not even “communication”, I would call it “over-communication”.
I used to be this sort of young, brash CEO who would say “hey, I’m going to say it once, and it makes sense so everyone should just line up behind me.” I think over time you certainly recognize if you want something to settle in you’ve got to say it seven, eight, nine times. Particularly in a rapidly-growing company, when you think again that we’re doubling every two-and-a-half years, that every time we’re standing up there there’s a solid percentage of your company that’s brand new.
Pam Harper: It’s true.
Colin Day: I think we’ve honed our skills a bit, in terms of over-communicating messages to make sure that everyone recognizes what we’re doing.
Scott Harper: In communicating, Colin, do you also seek feedback and input in shaping whatever it is you’re doing, from the company itself?
Colin Day: Absolutely. We’re big believers is top-down and bottom-up kind of coming together, so what we tend to do is we have an annual strategic-planning process where we really go through everything about the company, and we start at the top just to look three or five years out, and we basically bring it to all levels and get them involved to get their buy-in.
We essentially say, hey, at the end of the day when we put together a P&L and a plan, we’re not the ones owning it. All the managers will own it; all the directors will own it, so we firmly believe in getting them involved, in getting their buy-in. Absolutely.
Scott Harper: So when you talk about communication, you’re not just telling; you’re listening, and shaping, and co-creating, and now everyone owns it, and it’s my idea as well as yours.
Colin Day: You got it.
Scott Harper: We’ve seen that work year after year after year. It’s really good. How about the third piece of advice, Colin?
Colin Day: I think the third piece of advice probably goes back to something we were chatting a little bit about earlier, which is, if you’re going to take this contrarian approach, and you’ve got your why, and you know you’re going to have to now over-communicate it, just know your metrics for success and failure.
I think at the end of the day you’ve got to instill confidence that, even though you’re making a bit of a gut decision, you will scientifically inspect whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision. We’re huge on transparency. It’s a company that, believe it or not with all the successes we have, tends to focus on what’s not going right, or what could be improved. I think there’s a great deal of respect when we stand up even in front of the whole company, and we walk through our financials and our metrics; we always make sure to hone in on where we’ve missed, the pivots and changes that we’re planning for, and why we think we might be able to hit in future quarters.
Pam Harper: Again those metrics become so important. Is there a timing issue with the metrics, too, especially when you’re doing something that’s really contrarian − like, would you do this more often?
Colin Day: It depends obviously on what you’re doing, and how quickly you can collect data. When we decided to just focus on talent acquisition, we essentially had to say, “Guys, we’re going to lose all the revenue that we had estimated coming out of employee management software, and so we’re going to have to double down, and we’re hoping by being great at talent acquisition you’re going to see a higher close rate, a higher deal size because we’re better at it, and hopefully higher satisfaction retention.”
What we try to always lay out is what are the early-indicating metrics that will sort of give us earlier confidence that we’re pointing in the right direction, but ultimately in a SAAS business you’re really there for retention, and that can take years to bake out. So you’ve got to also make sure that you have the patience to wait for the sort of longer-term investments in hopes it will pay off.
Pam Harper: It’s balancing the immediate return, and then looking into the long term, and being able to see that. Measure it. Balance it.
Colin, any final thoughts on contrarian leadership for a culture of success?
Colin Day: My big one would be I guess pretty obvious, but just be ready to believe in your convictions, and stand by your convictions, and do so even when people are telling you you’re crazy or this isn’t what’s happening in the industry. I always use an example that we may have a few things where we’ve always said this is what we’re going to be as a company, and we talked about pure SAAS, and focus on talent acquisition, and focus on service; we also threw out a fourth one which is this little, unknown word in the world of software to service, called “profitability”.
Pam Harper: Ah.
Scott Harper: Yes.
Colin Day: We said, guys, we’re going to be different; we’re going to be contrarian. I know everyone raises gobs of money, and burns through it like nobody has ever seen, and grows really fast, but just doesn’t make money. I said it’s going to be very important for us to make money.
Behind the scenes, that’s a learning experience. I lost my funding two years into creating iCIMS, when the dot com happened, and ended up having to shrink from 30 people to eight people, overnight, and realized right then and there how important it is to actually have a viable, profitable business.
We have been profitable for 13 years. We have had investors, and analysts, and bankers come in and say you’re crazy, no one else is profitable, profitable means you don’t believe in your own business, you should be throwing it all into growth, growth is the only thing that matters. There wasn’t a day where − and it sounds crazy − but that we weren’t told because the contrarian position, you’re not doing what is supposed to happen in software as a service.
All you need to know is, fast-forward − 2008, 2009, a big economic downturn, and all these companies that were propped up with gobs of money and losing money suffered greatly, and we continued on. I think it just comes down to stand true to your convictions. If you believe it’s right it probably is right.
Pam Harper: Excellent advice. Colin, thank you so much for being our guest today on Growth Igniters Radio.
Colin Day: Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much, Pam and Scott.
Scott Harper: Okay, and thanks for listening to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper, and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes, or open a conversation with us, go to www.growthignitersradio.com, and select episode 27.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper …
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper …
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to discuss with your team:
Scott Harper: What conventional wisdoms are we willing to challenge to accelerate success, and how will we get our people behind them?