Lewis Black joined Actian in November 2018 as CFO, moving into the CEO position this past fall. He’s worked in tech for more than three decades for an assortment of leading telecommunications and software companies, including AT&T, Lucent, Avaya, Citrix, Nexmo, and Vonage.
As Lewis closes in on his six-month anniversary as CEO, we sat down with him to talk about his career, the executives he looks up to, and his love for the game of rugby.
How did your previous finance leadership roles prepare you to lead a technology business with over 3,000 customers worldwide?
The preparation came from a variety of positions over a long time. I have always tried to connect the dots across businesses to understand the downstream and upstream impacts of actions. As a CFO, I was responsible for the investment strategy of the company. I had to know where to invest the next dollar and have a detailed understanding of each function’s drivers, how to scale each function, and where the bottlenecks may occur. Thus, to be a good finance leader, you have to focus across the entire delivery and value chain.
My operational approach to finance has pushed me into cross-functional leadership roles, first as Co-President of a construction company and then as the General Manager of the Nexmo business within Vonage. Actian is the third business leadership role I have had where I was ultimately responsible for the business result.
What’s been the biggest challenge moving up from CFO to CEO?
As a CFO, you are there to guide the business. As the CEO, you are in charge of strategy, execution, and business results. The critical difference is accountability for the outcomes while being responsible for the employees, customers, and vendors. It is like moving from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. There are more factors to consider in each decision and more consequences for getting it wrong. As CEO, you are front and center: you need to own the strategy and be visible to the employees, and you have to focus on elevating and raising the game for the whole team. In simple terms, you need not just manage, but lead.
Who stands out as important influencers in your managerial career?
I am lucky to have had many influencers who have shaped how I think and work with people throughout my career. In one role at Citrix, I experienced the management styles of two very different but equally impressive leaders, both of whom have gone on to achieve great things by becoming public company CEOs. Working with these two leaders dramatically changed how I think about management and leadership and my view of leaders’ roles in business.
Both leaders epitomized humility and believed that they were there to support the employees. It was my first exposure to “Servant Leadership,” where the leader’s goal is to serve the employees’ needs, supporting their success rather than the reverse. They got the best out of their teams by inspiring, empowering, and helping them. As a result, innovation, productivity, and engagement were off the charts.
I also learned that you do not have to be the loudest in the room to be heard. Test understanding by questioning from different angles and validate by drilling into detail. If you disagree with a proposal, help the presenter by asking questions that guide them to the correct conclusion rather than just telling them what the answer should be. The room will reduce its volume to hear you when what you are saying has real value.
You’ve talked often about your love for rugby. Do you see any intersections between rugby and the world of business?
Absolutely. I played rugby in school and love the game. There are many parallels between rugby and business. Both are team sports where you need to have a clear strategy, everyone needs to know and play their role, the team needs to work seamlessly together, and most importantly, back each other up.
Interestingly, the biggest and strongest teams don’t always win. At the rugby World Cup two years ago, Japan shocked the world. They beat both Ireland and Scotland despite a significant weight deficit. But they played with such passion and commitment, and they had a game plan that leveraged their strengths while exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses. They tilted the playing field to find the win. It was impressive, while painful, to watch!
In business, you don’t have to be the “biggest” to win. But you have to know where you have advantages, play to your strengths, have each other’s backs, and relentlessly execute to “tilt” the competitive landscape in your favor.