My Interview with Mark Dodds
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This episode, I’m speaking with Mark Dodds. Mark is the global vice president for solutions sales and Dell EMC. He has a broad range of leadership experiences and has led cross-functional teams in the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and the Asian Pacific theater. He has 27 years of industry experience with American Express, Microsoft, and Dell EMC. He is a former Special Forces soldier and he contributed to a number of technology startups. During his time at Microsoft, he held several senior leadership sales and marketing world wide, including global leadership of the market public sector business and leadership of especially sales and technical organization with focuses on new and emerging products and innovation.
Mark has extensive interests outside of corporate life and has participated in many extreme sporting events including the Eco Challenge, several iron man triathlons, and the marathon Des Sables, known as the toughest foot race on earth. It’s 250 kilometers, and made of six stages over seven days. Mark currently lives in Seattle with his wife and two children. In this conversation we reflect on one of the largest transformations in the tech industry on what Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, looks for in a leader, and on how you bring very smart people to create super results. I spoke with Mark about his experiences in elite environments in the Army, in extreme sports, and in business. We also discussed the beliefs and behaviors of enlightened parenting.
I initially met Mark on a flight from San Jose to Seattle. Like two other conversations at 36,000 feet that I described in Creating New Futures, Mark and I found ourselves in an extraordinary conversation. This interview is an excuse to pick up our conversation. Mark it’s great to have you here. Welcome.
Aviv, thank you very much for the invite. I’m delighted to be here. I’m sure there are some fantastic people that have had these conversations and I’m hoping that I’m able to add something of value to the people that consume them. I’m delighted to be with you.
You’ve just been traveling. How are you today? Where have you just been traveling to?
You know I’m going through what I think is probably the biggest corporate transformation in the history of the I.T. industry. Michael Dell purchased EMC Corps for $67 billion. And what that they created was a company of 140,000 people with a very broad range of technologies and offerings. But what it also resulted in was a very, very complex exercise in how you bring two large companies together. I’m currently living through that. It’s a fascinating set of experiences to see how bring those cultures together.
What that actually resulted is a huge amount of time on airplanes. I’ve been traveling around the world. I’ve been to Europe, and have spent quite a lot of time in Texas. I’d never been to Texas. I’m spending quite a lot of time in Austin at Dell headquarters, and I’ve been along the east coast in Boston as well. As our conversation highlighted when we met, we spend a huge amount of time on airplanes and it’s usually the place where you meet most interesting people.
Indeed it is. In that initial conversation, one of the things you spoke about was your passion to building your teams. You currently in an exercise like this. What inspires you and what excites you when when you face a complex challenge like the one you are experiencing right now?
I think there’s something very special about working for big companies. By that I mean one of the great things about working for a large organization is you meet a huge number of very talented people. There are lots of people inside of corporations that are not talented. But in my view, you meet a huge number of very smart, very innovative, very energized people. The key to getting the super results is when you bring them together and you give them that very individualistic mission. Each one has a very important part to play in the jigsaw and when you put all of those pieces together the results can be outstanding.
I think right now what excites me is a couple of things. The first one is different leaders have different styles. There is one key question that I will ask any leader in any organization that I meet, whether I’m interviewing them or whether I’m just speaking to them. I ask them to give me examples of where they have people that they’ve recruited that have been successful. By that I mean they’ve been promoted, they’ve moved, they’ve achieved their career goals. One of the things that excites me is to see great people achieving career goals. I don’t mean that in the glib sense or the corporate or political sense, I’m just talking about the realities of what it is to lead people and see them achieve their personal goal.
I think that is something that has been with me from a very young age. From in the army, all the way through to corporate life. Currently I’m looking at the team and talent we have in this new organization and I speak to them about their 3–5-year window. What is your 3-year aspiration? What is your 5-year aspirations and how can we achieve that? I’m starting to see some real changes in the way that people are thinking about their career aspirations first. And I think I can help them achieve that.
I think the second thing — and probably if Michael Dell were here he would say this is the first thing — is that we are building technology. We’re trying to change the way we think about building solutions and delivering them to customers to add value in a little more accelerated fashion. I think that is a very interesting challenge for the entire tech industry. When you look at how much money gets consumed in technology, one of the biggest challenges in my view is how customers get real value. How do they get value from the spend? How do they look at the outcomes that they’re looking for? That is not always clear in the I.T. industry. There are many examples of where people have spent huge amounts of money and not got the value that they’re looking for.
My second thing is that is I’m excited by the fact that we’re doing something new inside the company to build solutions and to build a team that is innovative, entrepreneurial, and thinks differently. Then ultimately to build solutions that provide the customers with a quicker route to the quicker with the return they have. Those two things are great things.
Let me rephrase some of the things you just pointed to because these are very important topics and can be should be mining for more insights. The first thing you talked about was how we often find in large companies a population that’s very bright. But the challenge that I find is that you can often bring around a table a group of very smart people. I’ve often been in these situations and observed a group of very smart people and they seem to more often than not produce collective stupidity. They are quite dysfunctional in the way they choreograph their conversations. That’s my area of passion that’s my area of focus because I find that I’m able to help pull those talents together in a whole new way. Give me your experience and your comments on this. At a table it’s quite rare to produce a collective wisdom that delivers a throughput that’s greater than the sum of individual parts.
Yeah. You know you cover some of this in Creating New Futures. I would recommend people to listen to this podcast that has an interest in building out great decision structures in their own businesses. Read the book. I’m not saying that because I’m on your podcast. I just read the book, I read many, and I really like the way you deal with some of this. A couple of things spring to mind. The first one is I had the absolute honor of listening to Mark Kelly recently, who is a former fighter pilot and astronaut. His wife was shot in Arizona by a gunman. He talked about our collective decision-making with this, how they do that with NASA, and how he applied to his private life. He had seven doctors in a room all proposing something different in terms of the medical solution to the problem. What he did was he went to the most junior person first and said, “Do you believe this is the right thing? Do you believes this is the right solution?”, and then he went through it all the way through to the senior surgeon and they agreed to a solution. What he said was that you can create collective stupidity and make collective decisions which are clearly poor if you don’t have a structure inside of your decision-making that allows everybody to have an equal voice.
I learned a lot from that speech and I learned a lot from just reading around how NASA arrived at decision-making. I think the most important thing that I’ve come to conclude outside of having smart people at the table is that there is no substitute, absolutely no substitute, for recruiting smart people. That is an absolute. It’s a start point. You have to have people who can think differently. You have to give everybody an opportunity to be able to express their ideas, express their thoughts, and to challenge senior people in a way which is 100% normal and natural within the culture.
When I went to Microsoft — I had left the Army I went to American Express and then I went to Microsoft — in the meeting rooms they had a sign that said ‘if two of you are thinking the same thing then you shouldn’t be here’. That’s a thought that has stayed with me for most of my career. You have to give people the opportunity within the culture of your teams, your group, or your organization. In terms of the leadership style that you deploy, you have to be very confident in your own ability because in order to get to the best solution people have to challenge you.
I see a huge number of leaders in corporate life who do not like to be challenged, and that is very dangerous for both them and the company in my view. So one, the culture of enabling challenge within your organization. That includes that the best ideas should always win. Secondly, I think giving people a platform and a confidence to speak is an imperative. That sounds very obvious. It sounds very obvious that many of the group decisions that are clearly wrong that are made by senior leaders are made because the smartest people in the room may be the most junior. They often don’t get the opportunity to speak or don’t have the confidence to speak up or oppose an idea presented by somebody more senior. So culturally if you’re going to be a successful, in my view those two things are key. Pick smart people and then give them the platform to speak regardless of what the hierarchy is within the room or at a meeting.
It’s important for smart people and for real people to speak up. As you said, this must be built into the culture. But also it needs to be built into the maturity of the leaders. These are the kind of confident, mature — psychologically and emotionally — leaders that are free of the need to always be the smartest person in the room. In fact, they invite and attract strong people around them. Not only tha, but they foster and promote the brilliance such that they become better themselves.
I absolutely agree with that. I was listening to something from Satya Nadella yesterday. I’m a big fan of Satya Nadellea. Having grown up in the Microsoft world, I’ve seen many senior leadership styles from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer. Now I’m outside Microsoft, but I still work with them very closely. What I saw with Satyna Nadella is when I asked him how he runs meetings. He said, “I listen more, I speak less, but then I’m decisive when I need to be decisive”. I think that is a lesson that every senior leader in the industry could take and deploy. It would be more successful as a result. Anybody that’s reading this will probably know this resonates with them. You go to a meeting and you’ve got a president in a meeting and some SVPs and VPs and so on. If you really boil it down, the people that are not as effective as they could be will spend more time communicating speaking and driving ideas in that meeting than anybody else. When you analyze and synthesize the whole meeting and you look at what’s been achieved what you realize is you’ve really taken on board many of the ideas of the most senior person. I think Satya Nadella’s idea of ‘talk less listen more, but then be decisive when the time comes’ is a great model for any senior leader.
His first ever communication after he took the CEO role at Microsoft addressed the idea and the themes of self-organizing type approach that allows for the best innovative ideas to come forward. I do believe that’s a very important idea and a very important insight. You cannot run a very large enterprise with many tens of thousands of people and create velocity of innovation without creating an environment for people to find each other and to bring forward their best ideas in the context that’s emergent inside the big overarching corporate agenda. So when I saw this first message I think just a few days after he took that role it was very clear to me that he was bringing a completely new philosophy to Microsoft.
He is. The other thing that I picked up on in his interview yesterday was they asked him what he looks for new hires and it resonated with me. What he said was he’s looking for people that bring clarity. He didn’t say simplify. But I think he meant it. He looks for the people that can clarify, he looks the people that can simplify, and he looks the people that can energize. I think that those three things are absolutely key.
A lesson I picked up that’s been with me now for 10 or 12 years was from Chris Capossela, who is actually now the CMO of Microsoft. He said, “I start each year by thinking about my priorities by getting clarity around what I want to achieve as an organization and how am I going to do it. And then ultimately how I should apply my time. So I’m going to apply 30% of my time to customers, 30% of my time on innovation…”He went through and really looked at his available time for that year and applied time to different priorities. This sounds very obvious but actually when you think about personal activity and personal effectiveness, what happens is once you’re in this maelstrom of corporate life — email, telephone calls, meetings and so on — it is amazing how quickly you can lose sight of what’s really important.
But wait…there’s more?!
This post has been adapted from Aviv Consulting. Listen here for the full interview and story of Mark Dodds and download a PDF of this entire conversation.