“Find what fulfills you and ensure you’re feeding that part of your mind” with Kelly Herrell and…

“Find what fulfills you and ensure you’re feeding that part of your mind” with Kelly Herrell and Dr. Ely Weinschneider

A healthy mind comes from far more than success. Find what fulfills you and ensure you’re feeding that part of your mind. It could be a love of continued learning, of giving back, of dreaming of new things, or a hobby. It could be derived from your personal relationships. No two people are the same, but the mind of any individual is complex enough to have multiple attributes that contribute to their happiness.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Herrell. Kelly has led the growth of four innovative companies from early stage to market-leading entities, covering a broad span of compute and networking. At Hazelcast, Kelly brings his unique experience of driving high-value innovation, including open-source models, into the infrastructure of the world’s largest customers. Prior to joining Hazelcast in July 2018, he was SVP & GM of the Software Business Unit at Brocade Communications, the result of Brocade’s acquisition of his former company, Vyatta, which pioneered software-defined networking and delivered the most widely used software networking operating system in the world. Kelly has a Bachelor’s degree from Washington State University where he is an advisor to the Honors program and an MBA from Cornell University where he is a guest lecturer.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a tiny fishing village. Perspectives there were very provincial, but I inherently knew there was a “great world” out there somewhere. College gave me a feel for what that might be; grad school dialed it into technology management. I spent the first ten years of my career at large companies, but about 20 years ago I pivoted to entrepreneurial startups. As of now I’ve helped bring over twenty-five tech offerings to market in a wide variety of industries, including both compute and networking for enterprises, service providers, and cloud.

Throughout my career I naturally gravitated to roles and challenges with a greater span of responsibility and control. I’m now in my fifth “young” company — third time running the business — and each journey has been a learning experience that makes me feel like I’m just getting the hang of being a CEO.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lessons did you learn from that?

Only one? I think there might be one every day! Plus, they can be very different depending on whether you are the original CEO or join at a later stage. However, one thing that would be common to both is the topic of “mission” as that is what drives the team to come to work every day.

A good example comes from when I joined my previous company as employee number five (if you don’t count the dog). We were doing something extremely disruptive: Not only had it never been done before, for the past twenty years, the industry did things completely differently and there was a near-monopoly hold on the market from a vendor with a $200B market cap. When we told people we were taking on a challenge at that scale, they looked at us like we had seven heads. I had close friends in the industry who told me that taking the CEO role was a career-ender. But, taking up hard challenges seems to be an affliction of mine, so off we went.

To succeed we needed to attract and retain extremely talented people — individuals who were up for a very strong mission. Storytelling became extremely important, especially for convincing people to take what many would call a leap of faith. What are the deeply rooted dynamics that are creating this latent opportunity? What proof points do we have that it’s happening? And critically, what does the market — and our company — look like years from now? These were the ingredients that framed our mission.

Ultimately the biggest lesson I learned is the importance of harnessing teams to a long-term vision that is broadly consumable and which we uniquely hold. That clarity underwrites a mission that everyone can prosecute and serves not only as an attractant but as a cultural glue that holds people together through the good times and bad.

One experience in particular stands out to me. In 2008, the capital markets collapsed. We needed to raise money, but investors all had their checkbooks shut. I held a meeting with all forty employees and explained what was happening in the markets, that it would be about a year before investors became active again, and that under current course and speed we didn’t have enough cash to last that long. I gave two options: either we would have to let a lot of people go, or we could all take pay cuts — and I would take the biggest cut — so we could buy time. When the vote was unanimous to take the cuts, that was a powerful and humbling experience. I chalk it up to everyone being enrolled in the mission.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Storytelling is number one. Anthropology shows that entire cultures have enjoyed cohesiveness and longevity because of storytelling… but those are historical stories. For companies, stories of the future are key. They need to be lucid and consistent. No one has a crystal ball that works perfectly, so the story framework has to be specific, yet with enough room for variability to accommodate new facts as they arrive.

Visualization is a closely related second. I’m talking about unique visuals, not PowerPoint templates. One of my early mentors had this gift and taught it to me. Before I begin creating a chart, I wipe the space clean and imagine what kinds of lines, contours of force, directionality, and other concepts could come together to make my point. A good visual can stand on the wall by itself while a 30-minute discussion ensues. A great visual unfolds over time as each point is made in order. Visuals command attention and create lasting context.

Also, I think authentic leadership is a big part of it. I’m basically the same person whether someone is talking to me as their CEO or to me as their neighbor. I think, I talk, and walk my values so there are few surprises. People are astute; if they think the leader is wearing a facade, they will trust that person less. A leader without trust is not a leader, and that will evidence itself by people voting with their feet.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1) Boundaries. The CEO role will take everything you allow it to, and then some. Managing an organization and a board are time-consuming efforts, and you will also find yourself deep into projects with team members as well. Early mornings, late nights and travel will dominate your calendar if you let it.

In a previous company, in order to be with international customers and remote teams as much as possible I flew a total of 300,000 miles in one year. (As a reference point, it’s only 25,000 miles around the earth.) One day somewhere in Europe I called my wife in California to check-in, as it was her nighttime. She told me our two-year-old had just cried himself to sleep. When I asked why, she relayed his exact words, “I lost my daddy.”

I cut the trip short and hit the brakes on my travel going forward in order to avoid damaging my family. Now I have set certain hard boundaries around my life: I’m home for dinner, at school events and games, and keep time for my family.

2) Compression Depression The CEO position is in a unique place. The organization is a triangle with the CEO at the top. However, there’s an inverted triangle above the CEO, and that’s the board. The two triangles are balanced on a single point: the pressure zone of the CEO. Both groups are looking to you for leadership, and the conversations with each triangle can be very different. Many hard board-level conversations are not appropriate to share with the organization, and vice-versa. That can put a ton of pressure on the CEO and really affect your psychology.

At one company we were getting traction in the market, but later than we’d planned. The R&D team was making good progress solidifying the product but there were still challenges; the outbound teams were learning how to build the pipeline but were still frustrated. The team’s sense of mission was strong, but as the leader, I needed more from everyone. However, because of timing we were deeper into the cash burn than planned. So, while I was driving the team hard and celebrating their progress publicly with them, in private board meetings I was excoriated by some of the investors who were insistent that I lay off people to slow the burn.

My wife was the only one who truly appreciated the toll it was taking on me. It’s critical that you care deeply about your company; it’s also critical that it doesn’t take you down. I’ve learned a CEO needs to wear a psychological, Teflon suit so less of that pressure sticks to you.

3) Money Is Amoral Money is neither moral nor immoral; it exists for the sole purpose of multiplying itself. The CEO needs to understand how the supply chain of money works in order to understand and predict investor behaviors. This dynamic applies to large money managers investing in public companies, and especially for private equity and venture capital.

In the latter example, the money they’re investing is not theirs; it belongs to their limited partners who have placed their money and trust in these VC and PE firms. The limited partners expect a healthy return, and if they don’t get it, they will change to a different firm. Therefore, the continued success of a VC or PE firm is a function of the sum of their investment outcomes.

That pressure on the firm carries down to the managing partner on their team that is assigned to your board of directors. At one of my companies, we were just starting to get traction when a VC on the board began agitating that now was the perfect time to sell the company. It was very distracting and made no sense to me; from my perspective, we could keep building value for a long time. I later found out that his VC firm had liquidity problems and selling us would effectively raise cash for them.

It’s not to say that kind of behavior is typical. Some, in fact, can be exceptionally strong partners to work with. However, a CEO must never forget that ultimately, the role of a managing partner, and the team he or she is part of, is to maximize returns for their firm.

4) Thrills and Skills Very few individuals have the range of expertise to perform a role at any stage in a company’s life. When interviewing people, I quickly try to ascertain if they are a “jungle,” “dirt road,” or “highway” person.

Very early-stage companies are faced with a lot of vagaries and lack of pathways. A “jungle person” can be dropped into the middle of a jungle and carefully find their way back out to the edge. That is a unique and valuable skillset. The next stage is a “dirt road person” who can navigate very bumpy terrain, but at a faster speed than the preceding skill set. Finally, there’s the “highway person” who would get lost in the jungle, be uncomfortable in the bumps, but can really find the extra gears in the transmission and scale things aggressively. It’s the rare individual who is equally strong at all three phases of growth.

Not only have I hired the right skill set at the wrong time, but I’ve also taken too long to change skillsets when progress demanded it. In both cases, I kicked myself because I later realized the opportunity cost of those decisions.

5) Temporal Focus The higher up the organizational ladder you climb, the further out you must shift your focus. While the CEO needs to ensure plans and actions are implemented this quarter and the next, it is critical that you also are constantly thinking and planning one to two years ahead. That long-term requirement is very difficult to maintain if your daily operations have you underwater.

In a previous company I led, we were penetrating our initial market. Progress was being made, but I found myself deep in marketing and sales operations, reviewing product release plans, and hovering over the spreadsheets that built up our financials. On a long-needed vacation, I raised my head above the water and found myself drawn to reading about various trends and uncovered a potentially explosive growth-market that was related to, but different, from our current pursuit. The new market would take two years to develop but the purchasing power within it was enormous. It required a different engagement model and a lot of long-term business development. The market did develop, and we earned multi-million-dollar contracts that accelerated our revenue significantly.

For the CEO to ensure there is enough time to view the future and plan accordingly, there is no substitute for hiring exceptional direct reports who have the capability to run their respective operations smoothly. If you can work with them on an exception basis you have set yourself up for longer-term focus.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I love the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano.” It means “healthy mind in a healthy body.” A CEO especially needs to break that down in the way that best fits them.

A healthy mind comes from far more than success. Find what fulfills you and ensure you’re feeding that part of your mind. It could be a love of continued learning, of giving back, of dreaming of new things, or a hobby. It could be derived from your personal relationships. No two people are the same, but the mind of any individual is complex enough to have multiple attributes that contribute to their happiness.

A healthy body is a direct function of diet, exercise and sleep — three things that can be very difficult for a CEO to control, especially when travel is involved. It’s not rocket science, but it does take planning and discipline. Healthy bodies give us the energy that our job requires.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

When I was almost 30 years old, I took a job that had me working with an exceptional human being about twice my age named Jerry Murphy. Earlier in his life, Murph had a job collecting bad debts; he worked on an assembly line in Detroit and did a stint in the Army. He had barely finished high school but was deeply read in philosophy; he was later a published poet and a metal sculptor. His world view was simply magnificent, and his passion for life was immense.

Through a series of flukes, he became a strategist in the large-scale computing industry for firms like IBM. His brilliance was evident by the fact that he was extremely successful at his craft, yet he had never turned on a computer himself. He used to say he’d never use one until they became intuitive.

Murph taught me how to think differently about business, how to explain what’s going on not with bar charts but with pictures that showed lines and contours of force. Everything was about how to express what is driving the future state of the market and industry. His teachings were transformational for my career, and our close friendship was a thing of beauty.

Murph also had an ability to piss off senior executives, which one day led to the reason he ended up at a different company. There he developed a similar relationship with a woman; he knew us both so well, he demanded we meet. He was right. Sharon and I have been married for twenty years.

While all of that was going on, Murph found out he had terminal cancer. He lived with us to the end. I tell people that story and they say they’re sorry and that is a wrong perspective. The stories are fantastic, hilarious and deep. It was a joy.

I owe so much to Murph, both in business and in life.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally, I’ve been branching out. For my “healthy mind” I’ve taken to giving back at the college student level by serving on the board of the Honors College at Washington State University and mentoring/lecturing at Cornell’s graduate school of business. I’ve also taken up aviation and am working to complete my private pilot’s license this year; that’s the beginning of a never-ending learning journey.

Professionally, my current CEO role at Hazelcast is fascinating; it’s complex, but the tech is awesome, and the timing is right. I am very focused on positioning the company for outsized growth and success. This is my fifth young company, and I want to continue helping with the creation process but from more of a distance. I’m an investor and advisor in multiple companies now and would like to take on more of those type of roles including serving on boards for larger companies.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

Ideally, I hope that I am expressing valuable lessons that I’ve learned to people I’m close to. Those could be colleagues or family members.

It seems to me that there is a balanced way to live your life that allows for the pursuit of success while being mindful of what really matters to you. Both life and work should be enjoyed, with positive emotional health in both good and bad times — because we all get both.

I would hope that others can learn from me, as I’ve learned from those before me, and pass it on.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

It would be immensely healthy if there were a unified movement that addressed the rapidly growing divisiveness. It feels like there’s no middle anymore, both nationally and internationally. It’s my sense that individuals and nations would rather run to something than from something, yet all indications appear that we are doing the latter.

To me, the internet is a major force behind the cleaving of cultures. In some way, it’s probably also part of the answer. The information freedom of the internet is the digital equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press; we no longer looked only to the priests who had the few available books to tell us how to interpret the world, plus we could publish new views. That really shook societal structures, but they advanced and stabilized.

The scale of it now is mind-blowing, and everyone’s shouting. Right now, we are either spiraling out of control or rolling through a turbulent period toward a better future. As an optimist, I think it’s the latter. But we need to get divisiveness under control and re-establish a middle.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

As I alluded to, the importance of a healthy mind is important for any professional. In the past, I attempted to be active on Twitter, but that became more of a distraction. LinkedIn is typically the only platform I pay attention to on a regular basis because it intersects my professional interests and my desire to continue learning. People can find me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kelly-herrell/

Thank you for all of these great insights!


“Find what fulfills you and ensure you’re feeding that part of your mind” with Kelly Herrell and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.