My interview with Paul Werner
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Today I’m speaking with Paul Werner. Paul is a 25-year veteran of the tech industry with successful and proven leadership experience in large and mid-cap technology companies serving global customers. Currently Paul serves as the Vice President of Sales for the Western U.S. at F5 Networks — a security and application delivery company.
Paul and I initially met and had the opportunity to work together when he was at Cisco Systems leading the data center sales for the U.S.. What impressed me as I got to know Paul was that in his own way he was leading what I call a modern Renaissance life. He is an avid reader. He loves to travel. He enjoys good food, coffee, and wine with friends. And he is first of all a devoted family man to his wife and two daughters all while delivering significant growth results with his teams. So Paul it’s great to have you on this podcast. Welcome.
Wow. Thanks. That was a very generous introduction.
What did I miss about your background that I should have mentioned?
I’m not so sure about the Renaissance man, but I’ll take a compliment.
I actually referred in my book, Create New Futures, to my experience of working with your old Cisco team in portal five: how to scale and speed up by slowing down. That’s another angle at being a renaissance person and a renaissance team in the way you approach work. How would you respond to that? Do you agree generally with my characterization of you determining to create for yourself an holistic, whole-person life, not a life that is purely and narrowly focused on work results?
I think that’s interesting. I have purposefully tried to position myself so I do have balance in my life. I feel it’s been very important for my family and especially my children to have a very close relationship. I have a close relationship with my two daughters, who are now 17 and 19. We continue to enjoy each other’s company and I think that reflects upon the investment I put in earlier in my career.
My wife and I decided at some point — I’m not exactly sure when it happened — we could do other jobs or move around quite a bit for a career, we decided that family would really become a priority for us. We’ve managed life in a way that we could do that. We’ve been very fortunate in the roles I’ve had and my wife’s flexibility in her career that have allowed us to do that.
It’s interesting that you picked that part up about the reflection. I took some notes after reading Create New Futures. I think that reflection, action, and making sure there is balance in both the action side of life and reflection side of what we do from both our personal and career lives is really important. I know that reflection is something I’m always trying to improve upon. I think in the tech industry, we’re certainly wanting to hurry up, do more, and do it faster. We get caught up in that quite easily. So taking the time to reflect is really important.That’s an area that continues to be ongoing work for me.
Is this a determination that you made early on and decided that you and your wife would be living a balanced life? Or was there a particular point where you felt a little out of balance and decided to re-prioritize and rebalance? There will be people reading this who are earlier in their life journey and career and are thinking and grappling with these questions. I’m interested how you came upon about making this decision.
I went down that path early on, I’m not sure it was necessarily conscious. Early on in my career, I had some outside activities I really enjoyed doing. When I was younger I was an avid mountain climber and I still like to spend a lot of time in the mountains. In order to do that, work was the way I could fund the next trip. We enjoyed traveling while we were younger and that’s something that has stayed with us over the years. I don’t think there’s anything wrong if people decide that they want to place career first, that’s a personal decision. Many people are obviously very successful in doing that. For us, we place a high priority on our own personal health. And personal health also goes into our relationship of mental health as well. Having balance is just something we found has worked for us and our family.
You mention often to me that travel and adventure used to be part of your life earlier on but that you still enjoy traveling. What’s a recent exciting or adventurous travel you’ve been on?
That’s a good question. I think the most recent trip was the opportunity to take my 82-year-old mother to Sweden. She’s of Swedish descent and we were able to visit relatives and travel with her. It was a really fortunate experience for both my daughters my wife and to see their grandma travel and be excited about visiting the place where her ancestors were from. About six months before that, I traveled to Japan to experience culture and actually do some skiing. These are things that excite me and refresh me for work. When I come back from those types of trips I feel like there’s been a big reset and productivity gains when I come back. It gives me time just to distance myself from the day-to-day activities of the workplace.
You work with this idea of trying to find carved time where you are not connected to work; you are in a completely different space, and engaged with different activities. Then the other part of your brain — the sales and leadership part — is really resting and you are completely recharging and replenishing.
Yeah absolutely. I’m not a golfer myself, but I understand the appeal that that is based upon. It really drives you to focus and eliminate a lot of the day-to-day distractions. There’s a lot of competition for our attention in today’s world. We have all these mobile devices, we are bombarded by advertising all the time. But to really take the time and focus on one activity without those distractions, sounds obvious, but it’s a real way to reset. I try to practice that almost on a weekly basis. I like to have some weekend activity that allows me to just shut out a lot of the distractions from the work week and to reset my mind.
That’s beautiful. One last question about the travel experience you referred to. What’s the learning experience from the multi-generational travel adventure with an 82-year-old and your teenage daughters?
The really interesting thing is it was fun to see my daughter’s grandma, my mother, so engaged and excited. She walked with us everywhere, so we had to dial back the pace just a little bit. But she was there with us every step of the way. It made for some really great family time. I was really excited we had the opportunity to do that.
With all that you were able to do and enjoy in life, largely because of your success in your professional career, if you reflect and think about what made and makes you a successful leader of a team, organization, and sales people: how would you reflect back on your journey in leadership roles like these? What has made you successful?
I think I was very fortunate early in my career to have some strong leaders that I was able to work very closely with. It was an informal mentoring relationship. I had very strong leaders, and I think back at the time while I was at Cisco, the leadership was very strong. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a number of leadership programs that the bigger companies will offer. Those were important to my own development. I also think it was important for me to connect on a human level with my employees. People work for me so I want to know something about each and every person on that team. I want to make sure I am able to connect at a human level. If I’m not able to do that, that’s where I feel I failed in my leadership. Those have been some important areas for me.
In these situations and relationships that you sought out, were you active in inquiring or seeking the experience of those leaders? Or was this learning by observation and immersive experience with them and seeing how they reacted to the situation? I’m wondering how focused and targeted you were. Also could you share any examples of leadership trait or leadership behavior that you picked up from those strong leaders that inspired and impressed you that you wanted to perhaps emulate?
I would say the development came from an immersive experiences, that allowed me to work with those individuals either directly or indirectly, observe, and emulate. Sometimes, it was certainly seeking out specific counsel on areas and those people always being available to help coach me. There is one particular person I think of early in my career that, while I never reported to directly, was always available to help coach me and provide perspective, that was helpful.
I had some direct line leaders that, while working on their teams and being immersed in what we deal with in the industry, provided great role models for me. There’s one particular leader I’m thinking of who connected extremely well with people on an individual level. Not only with people that were below him in the hierarchy, but also above him. He had a way about him that was able to connect with multiple people of different cultures — because he was in a global— but he was able to make a human connection and actually be playful in that relationship that made work fun.
This leads to the second theme you identified for your success, which is your ability to build relationships at a human level with people on your team. You take interest in them, in their life, in what motivates and propels them, and in understanding the context that they come out of it. Is this something that came to you naturally? Were you always like this as you reflect back into early stages of your life? Or was there a point that you said, “for me to be successful in sales, for me to be successful in leadership, I have to strengthen and build this capacity to connect with people. I’m going to actually focus on developing my ability to connect with people deeply”? Was that natural and intuitive for you?
As I think back as a young child, I had trouble reading in the very early stages of entry school. But every report card that was sent home by teachers, would have “gets along well with others”, which I think is interesting. Maybe I needed to do that to make up for some other deficiencies in my learning style. So I think some of that might have been innate from a very young child.
But I also remember a lesson I learned while working with a very senior execute at EMC in the early 2000s. At that time I was at Cisco Systems and we had a joint partnership, and it was not easy to find the joint value in the solution or product we are bringing to the market. I had really set off on a track thinking and trying to understand what that joint value proposition would be for both companies. I remember having this discussion with the senior exec there and he said: “Paul, you have it all wrong. The value is in the relationship.” That stuck with me.
Sometimes we get hung up on a certain path or a certain vector. Stepping back and really thinking through what the organizations were doing and trying to accomplish makes you realize it really is in the relationships that we bring together. That solution did finally make its way to market and was successful. But to really step back and think about what’s most important in this joint venture, makes you realize it really is the relationship. That’s stuck with me and continues to drive up and wind its way into some leadership principles.
But wait…there’s more?!
This post has been adapted from Aviv Consulting. Listen here for the full interview and story of Paul Werner and download a PDF of this entire conversation.