Being at the top of any team is truly a regaling feeling, but keeping your position also means dealing with loneliness, marketing strategies, and the constant urge to improve. In any CEO experience, a tenacious and curious mindset plays a huge role. Bob Roark is joined by cohost Jamie Zawmon in talking with Patrick Dennis, the President and CEO of Aspect Software. Patrick spends some time detailing what it takes to lead a team, from getting rid of the fear of change and learning how to get out of a messy situation in the most optimal way, to the right way to motivate oneself.
Watch the episode here:
Breaking Down The CEO Experience With Patrick Dennis And Cohost Jaime Zawmon
It’s good to be here.
Thank you for taking time, Jaime and Patrick. I appreciate it. We’ll go right into it. Patrick, tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve?
We are the leading provider of contact center software and workforce management and optimization software for enterprises around the world. Four of the five top commercial banks are our customers, three of the top four telecom providers, four of the top five tech companies, and six out of the six top airlines. You’ve interacted with our software if you’ve ever called Southwest Airlines to book a reservation. You’ve interacted with our software or the people that are behind our software if you’ve ever ordered anything off Amazon, Apple or from Microsoft. That’s what we do. It’s an awesome job. There are about 1,300 people that work here and we do about $300 million in revenue.If you don't have the curiosity bug, it's hard to figure out what went off track in a business. Click To Tweet
Nothing to do. It keeps you busy.
Yes, it keeps us busy.
I’m excited Patrick, that you are a 2020 Titan 100. For those reading, Patrick was selected as one of Colorado’s top 100 CEOs and C-level executives. We featured him in The Titan 100 Book. What I always ask every Titan who we interview on this show is what characteristics do you believe that it takes to be considered a Titans of industry?
Jaime, you asked me this question a lot. For my little niche of what I do for a living, tenacity plays a big role. Much of what I do involves turning businesses around or helping businesses that were at one time struggling. If I think about the arc of my career and what’s helped me be successful, tenacity has played a big role. It’s hard to take on challenges like the ones taken on historically if you don’t have the intestinal fortitude to want to win and stick with it. The second one is you need to be a little curious. If you don’t have that curiosity bug, it’s hard to figure out what went off track in a business. Some combination of tenacity and curiosity has served me well over the years.
I completely agree with your curious statement there. I’ve watched you in interactions for many months and I believe it’s a part of your DNA. I always see you asking incredible questions. It makes sense to me that you would say that.
For those of you that don’t know, I helped Jaime out in a board capacity occasionally with her business. I find the best way to get Jaime a benefit is to ask her questions that she should have contemplated the answers to. That’s been a fun part of our relationship. It’s fun to watch you craft your business based on some of the answers to your own questions. You have gotten to see that in action. That’s true.
Patrick, you have an interesting journey from beginning to now. If you would share with us a little bit about how you got started and what brought you to where you are now with your skillset.
Everybody’s journey is interesting. Mine has twists and turns like everybody else’s. If I were to start with the most important dot on the map, I was an average kid who grew up on a farm. I went to school and had good grades. I thought I was going to go to a big school. When it came time to go to college, my dad wound up having a heart attack and so I stayed in Rochester. All is fine and worked out great but it was one of those moments where the path was going in this direction and it wound up going over here. That got me my first job at Eastman Kodak Company because I was trying to figure out how to pay for college and make it all come together. I worked during college for the entire time. At that time, Kodak company was a good company, and so I got some great training and baseline education from a world global workforce powerhouse brand.
It’s important in my journey that there are these bricks laid with these successful companies. Kodak was the first followed by EMC and then Oracle. That’s what gave me the experience and the confidence to go do bigger and different jobs. I learned M&A while I was at EMC. I learned turnarounds and restructuring at EMC and Oracle. I’ve taken all those lessons from some of those big successful global companies and merged it into my own practice in smaller settings.
The famous line when I became a CEO was I know a gentleman that said, “I’d like you to be a CEO one day.” He calls me out of the blue and says, “I have a great first CEO job for you.” It’s a public company. It’s in Southern California and they need some help. As you remember, “Nobody’s first job is Coca-Cola,” was the exact line. I was like, “That’s an interesting sales pitch. Nobody’s first CEO job is Coca-Cola.” Off to Southern California I went. We did some real work on a company called Guidance Software and turned it around and sold it to OpenText. I took that skillset and moved into private equity.
I worked with Vector Capital as an Operating Executive. Bob introduced me as the President and CEO of Aspects Software. I bought Aspects Software with Vector Capital in February 2019. These days I partner in private equity to buy companies and do what I do, which is trying to get them moving in a good direction. We’ve been lucky enough to do with this one. That’s the tip of the ways and the journey. It’s been incredible and awesome. There’s a pinch of luck involved in all this. I couldn’t be happier or more blessed to do what I need to do.
They say that everything happens for a reason. That seems to be the same thing for you. I’m curious to know what you think is your most important role as a CEO that other CEOs reading can learn from your experience?
If you’re a CEO, your role changes over the arc of you being a CEO. Maybe when you start on day one, there’s real work that needs to be done around the culture or the values of the company so that you can start to get performance. Later in your journey, you need to be the person that’s thinking about mergers and acquisitions. Sometimes this word gets diluted. People oftentimes say the CEO has to have a vision. That always has the sensibility that it’s a distance that’s far away. My experience has been quite the opposite. The CEO does need to have a vision. Sometimes there’s fog and vision is 3 feet in front of you. Sometimes it’s a clear day and you can see for miles.
The role of the CEO changes with the environment that’s going on at the company and what your objectives are. You have to be the person willing to make those modifications and changes, and lead from the front or the company’s not going to follow you. The most important thing to do in a CEO job is to offer leadership that needs to be aligned to some amount of vision whether that’s near-term or long-term. You’ve got to help everybody march down the path. At its core, that’s the job. You have to be flexible enough to move with it. You have to be humble enough to know when you know what to do but you don’t know how to do it, and make sure you got the people around you to help you when you’re in that phase. That’s how I think about that.
As you’ve gone through your career, you come to various areas, and you’re faced with problems, then you come into a company that is a turnaround situation. On day one, when you arrive at the company, what’s your process over the next end period of time to start trying to assess, pushing your vision out, finding where the problems are, solving and moving forward?
There are some phases and it does start with a drive towards stability. One lesson learned is if you’re in a situation and it’s messy for whatever set of reasons, not reflective of aspect necessarily, this answer is more how you approach situation generally. You first need to figure out how you’re going to make it stable, whatever that means. Financially stable or maybe you have to get the personnel to be stable because there’s too much turnover or the product isn’t working and you need product stability. The first thing, you have to figure out is what’s going to drive stability. You got to get it down to a super narrow band answer, and then you got to go make that happen. Almost nothing else matters until you get that done. When you get that done, you got to flag and declare some amount of victory. I try to call that a battle, not the war. You then pivot people to whatever is the next step.
The next step is universally defined by two things. What they do for your customers and do you understand it? What is the core of the company and do you understand that? Those two questions seem easy. You got to click on that question 10 or 15 times each one of them until you get down to some precise, actionable nugget of what you do for a customer. You got to do the same thing to understand your company. When I describe the situation is messy, my experience is if I said that there are two important things in my office back here, if my office was a big mess, it would be a hard thing to find the two things.It's hard to run a business when you have a bunch of distractions and disruption. Click To Tweet
The reason why that step is important is it’s hard to find those little nuggets when it’s a mess. You got to push and push until you find them. When you pick them up, you can say, “This is what we’re going to do in the next step. We’re going to focus on what we do for customers exceptionally well and we’re going to use this part of the company that’s truly exceptional. That’s where we go from here.” That’s step two. Step three, you figure out after you’re done with step two. Steps 1 and 2 are consistent. Your phase three depends a lot on the company. It’s triage. I have a good friend who is a doctor and deals with skiing accidents because Jaime and I live in Colorado. Those types of things happen. Anthony is one of the people that understand this the best because when somebody gets in an accident, he winds up in the ER. He goes and tries to figure out what happened to their knee, leg or whatever. It’s the same thing for me. When you first show up, you’ve got to figure those few things out that we talked about, and then you make a plan and act against the plan.
You’ve got a lot of experience in this area, a corporate transformation expert. Patrick, I’m sure you’ve experienced lots of crazy stories or things where you’ve come in and seen something that was a mess or a big issue. It landed on your lap and you had to figure out how to navigate that. Could you give us an example or share a story of one of the biggest challenges or issues that you worked through?
When I was running Guidance, one of the tricks was we needed to do some major restructuring at the company and that was going to be complicated. To make a long story short, we went up in this thing called a Proxy Contest, which means somebody from the outside world thinks they can do a better job running a company than management. All of a sudden, everybody starts to accumulate all these shares and it leads up to a vote. Somebody is either going to vote you in or out when you go through this. I oftentimes say that it is like the most well-funded divorce that’s ever happened because there are businesses involved. Everybody’s got money. Somebody else has had lawyers, putting out information every single day about you, your business, and why the business should be taken over by somebody else. If you think about that, that’s terrible to begin with.
On top of it, you’re running a business. At Guidance, we went 8 for 9 on revenue quarters, and 9 for 9 on EPS quarters. We did that all while we were in the middle of a proxy contest with external pressure from these people that thought they could do a better job. There are many lessons learned along the way. That goes back to this idea that you have to be tenacious and you can’t give up. You have to have the will to win. A lot of people around me worked hard during that time in some unusual conditions to get out of that mess.
This may be a little nugget for everybody, it turns out if you’ve ever owned a stock, you get to vote and you get to turn in your vote. If you ever have to split your vote, you have to go take the second half of your vote and you have to deliver it in person. No one does it anymore. When you get into some of these unusual situations, you find that there are some good arcane processes and details that still exist in the United States business framework. This one was a challenge because it’s hard to run a business when you’ve got a bunch of distractions and disruption, and you’re dealing with some old practices that nobody knows about. In the end, we won and that’s all that matters. That was an interesting and hairy time.
Whether you’re selling your business or doing what you were doing, you have this incoming, some plan and unplanned. You’ve got the rest of everything you’re supposed to accomplish on the course of the day. What did you do to shift from incoming to focus? Was there a technique that you use or something you learned?
There’s a strategy here. Those two things are not necessarily at all alike in terms of what work that needs to be done. Bob, you’re an old military guy. Think about these two battles that have to run concurrently. If we’re going to win the war, we need to win these two battles. The team that was working on the outside work, we structured to go win the outside work. We had a team structure for effectively running the company. To some extent, I knew I was going to have to participate in both of these. I had almost like a co-CEO on each side of that ledger. I took a guy named Barry who was at the time, my chief financial officer. He runs the core operation day in and out, while Michael, Alfredo and I worked on what needed to happen externally.
Barry trusted Michael, Alfredo and I to get this part done, and we also trusted Barry to keep an eye on the operation. We had to go distributed to do both of those things at the same time. It’s a great example of why, at some point as a CEO, you need to make sure you have people around you that are better than you at whatever it is they do. When these critical moments come up, you need to be able to draw on the team. If the team isn’t there already, you’re not going to have time to build the team then. You’ve got to build the team in advance of the time when something goes haywire, which is a big lesson learned. These days, I have a new management team in place within the first week. That’s an important step to be getting on the right path, whatever that means, in whatever business and situation it is.
Every question that we throw at you, Patrick, it seems like you always have these well-structured game plans for how you’re going to block and tackle every single situation. Where do you find the motivation?
It’s funny, you meet and you look around your team, and they all have different things that drive them. For some people, it’s their family. For others, it’s monetary compensation. What I’ve found for me is I keep trying to accumulate experiences that other people haven’t had. I don’t know why that switches me on so much. Every time something gets knocked down that was on my list, I’m going to try to find something else. A couple of examples already came up like I wanted to be a public company CEO someday, check. I want to sell a public company one day, check. We used the word waypoint in the precall. Every time I get to one of those waypoints, I set another 1 or 2 out there. Usually one is ridiculous, but it keeps you moving toward whatever that goal is.
If you would have said when I was born on a farm that I was going to be a public company CEO and sell a public company one day, that waypoint felt way out there at that time too. It’s an unlikely outcome from Rochester, New York to that. I keep setting them and all of us Coloradans like to hike. We’ve all experienced this on a big hike where sooner or later, you look up the hill and say, “I got to make it to that tree, then I got to make it to that rock.” The next thing you know, you’re on the top of the mountain. We keep trying to set the waypoints and stay on the march. You got to stay humble because I’m in no immediate danger of being Jeff Bezos. There’s always somebody that’s done something better than you, or bigger, or whatever. If you stay humble along the way, you can get further down that path.
If I was the CEO of Coca-Cola though, I’d be looking in my rearview mirror.
I wouldn’t know how to do it. When you’re CEO, you are relentlessly hit with Forbes articles or Harvard Business School reviews. There are always these case studies on CEOs that have done amazing things. During my first few years being a CEO, I would look at those and think to myself and you do a natural comparison. You think, “I’m nothing like that person. Is that what I’m supposed to aspire to do?” In one stage, HBS came out with an article about CEOs and said that there are archetypes of CEOs. That oftentimes the ones that are what I would call a run CEO, Coca-Cola for instance, those are the people that you see in mass media and are almost more celebrity-like in their role.If you stay humble along the way, you can get further down the path to success. Click To Tweet
That is not at all what I do. I got comfortable with the fact that my archetype is to help companies get themselves back on track. One of the trade-offs is I’m never going to do any of that stuff. I’m never going to run Coke. I wouldn’t know how to. No offense to the current Coca-Cola CEO, most of those large company CEOs could never do my job. I found my little lane and I figured out how to do it. It’s got its own set of character attributes. Most of which I enjoy because I like a new challenge and to keep a fresh pace. There’s a lot of movement that’s happened in my career. I couldn’t imagine doing it in another way though.
There’s an old thing in the military. There’s the combat commander and then there’s the garrison commander, and they are not the same thing. They’re appreciated in different environments.
That’s part of something we didn’t touch on. There is a natural time for me to no longer be a CEO in a company. If I do my job well, then we’ve put a company in a place where you need something different than what is my core skillset too. That’s part of the arc. What makes me a little bit different than some of the folks, and I say this with the utmost respect, it’s a hard job. If you’re given Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, you’re a steward to that brand or that company. When you use the word steward or stewardship, there are a lot of sacrifices that go along with that and the expectation that happens over a long period of time. My level of stewardship is different. I’m in the emergency room. I need to get somebody safe. As much as the skillset is unique, and you people are being sweet and kind drawing that out, there’s a time where that skillset ends and the company should go in a direction with somebody that has a higher level of stewardship than I have.
It’s a different phase of the S-curve.
I love hearing you talk because tenacity is all over it, the curiosity that you have, and leaning into change. You’re comfortable with the change. It’s all of these things combined that make you a Titan of industry. We appreciate you being here with us. One last side note here, any passions that you have outside of what you do in your company because we know that that’s your passion?
I do enjoy cooking. If you get stuck in my house for dinner on a Sunday, it’s not terrible. I enjoy racing cars. I spend less frequently since I got to Colorado. I do enjoy watching automotive racing and participating whenever I get a chance.
For people to find you on media, how do they find you?
It’s my name, @_Patrick_Dennis on Twitter.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing portions of your journey, story and wisdom. I’m looking forward to hearing much more news about you conquering the next thing as well. Jaime, anything that you would like to add before we close?
For those of you that are interested in learning more about Patrick’s story, you can visit www.Titan100.biz and you can check out all of the 2020 Titan 100. You can find Patrick’s profile there. You can read his bio, his profile on our website. You can also go to our page to download a copy of the Titan 100 Book or you can purchase a copy if you’re interested in that. We’re excited to continue to bring stories of Colorado’s top 100 CEOs and C-level executives. These incredible Titans of industry. Thank you for being here with us, Patrick. It’s been awesome interviewing you.
You guys are great. Bob, thank you for the time. Jaime, it’s always good to see you. I appreciate you guys carving out a couple of minutes for me.
You guys take care and we’ll talk soon.
- Aspect Software
- Titan CEO
- The Titan 100 Book
- Vector Capital
- @_Patrick_Dennis – Twitter
About Patrick Dennis
Patrick is currently the President and CEO of Aspect Software a Vector Capital owned company. Previously as an operating executive at Vector, Patrick consulted with founders, boards, and private equity partners about strategic planning, restructuring, growth and capital requirements.
Patrick was recently the President and CEO of Guidance Software which was ultimately acquired by OpenText. Patrick served as Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at EMC’s Enterprise and Mid-Range Storage Division and Cloud Management Division. He was responsible for long-range planning, mergers & acquisitions, and the divisional strategy for those businesses. Prior to EMC, Patrick was the Group Vice President for the North American Storage Sales organization at Oracle, leading the go to market strategy for Oracle’s commercial business in North America.
Earlier in his career, he held leadership and technical roles at Eastman Kodak.
Patrick holds a B.S. in Information Technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology and is a member of the American Economic Association.
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