Building Inspired Alignment in Changing Sales Team Dynamics
In this episode of The Business Thorcast, Joel “Thor” Neeb sits down with Mark Paske of VMware for this week’s episode to discuss how Flawless Execution brought success to the tech company’s sales team and culture. In a marketplace where the expectations are changing every day, you have to keep your team one step ahead of the competition and rate of change. Understanding the importance of alignment and team communication became the backbone for VMware’s sales team that allowed them to thrive in a turbulent environment.
Snapping into Action
Joel “Thor” Neeb: Hey, everybody. Welcome to The Business Thorcast. This week, we’ve got a great guest here. We got a team member from VMware, a giant tech company that’s got about $10 Billion in revenue, just under, and $40 Billion in market cap. Just came out with their earnings last week, had some phenomenal earnings, it rose the stock price by about 10%, and they’re part of the Michael Dell family. They’ve been navigating some really challenging market trends recently as technologies become a strategic player in just about every industry. Today, my guest is one of the leaders at the forefront of putting that technology in the hands of those industries. His name is Mark Paske. He leads a sales team responsible for a large chunk of revenue for VMware, but more importantly, for leading the business impact for these companies that really have nothing to do with tech, but are using tech as a strategic resource. Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Paske: Thanks, Thor. Great to be here.
JN: Good stuff. Well, you know how this always kicks off. We have to get your call sign out of the way. So I was thinking about it. This one’s not too tough to tell a story about you. So Mark came down to Atlanta and was doing something for work down there. He calls me up and says, “Hey, I’ll be going to Jiu-Jitsu, and I’d like you to come to join me at this place and just go through some training with them. No big deal. You’re not going to have to fight anybody. We’ll do some sparring and work on our moves, and that’s it.” So I go to this place, and by the way, if you’ve never done this, it’s crazy. You are gassed within a minute. You are fighting with all your force against another person. It absolutely is fighting. Even though people aren’t supposed to be going 100%, you’re going against another human being, and they’re trying to get you on the ground and in a vulnerable position, and you’re trying to do the same thing to them. You’re using all your strength, and I certainly was. I’m gassed, and I’m beaten. But Mark, he’s a big guy. He’s strong, and he’s just manhandling [chuckle] the other people. I see, Mark, why you like going to these classes so much because you just crush all these other folks there. How long have you been doing it?
MP: I’ve been training for about ten years now, and I actually started when my son was about ten years old. So we brought him in to get a little self-discipline and a little confidence built up. A college friend of mine, who is a world-renowned trainer and practitioner, and convinced me to jump in the class, so I’ve been doing it ever since.
JN: Yeah. So ten years of Jiu-Jitsu. So he’s obviously very good. He’s teaching these young kids in there, some moves and nothing too serious in terms of the sparring that’s taking place. We’re about an hour into it, and that’s 45 minutes longer than I was comfortable going in terms of my cardiovascular ability, but Mark was holding strong, and he is sparring against this guy. The guy’s probably 25 years old, so Mark’s older than him. The guy’s got youth on his side, but Mark is just crushing him. As he’s maneuvering him around, I hear this loud snap. I heard it from about 10 feet away. The snap was quickly followed by screams from this person. It turned out what had happened to this guy that you were wrestling with, Mark?
MP: Well, he… First of all, you’re not doing a lot to help people want to do Jiu-Jitsu with this story. It’s very rare that people actually get hurt, I can tell you. But yeah, I think he popped a rib, accidentally.
JN: He popped a rib. He was walking on the street, and he popped a rib. Mark moved his body in a position that he was never made to be in and all of a sudden, from across the room, you could hear his rib popping. But to be fair, Mark was not going hard on this guy. It was really a 50% effort at this point; you could tell that Mark was holding back. It just happened to be one of those holds. That’s just the nature of this game, right? That’s… Well, you tell me how often you have seen something like that take place?
MP: Almost never. I think I told you when you first came in that, Jiu-Jitsu, for me, is kinetic chess. It’s just playing chess with your body. So it’s about controlling your body and also controlling the other person, especially if you have more experience than them. Occasionally, something random like that will happen, but it’s more about just self-improvement, and self-discipline and a little bit of self-defense too can’t hurt along the way. Huge kudos to you, by the way, for jumping in, because that was a long class. It was an hour-and-a-half-long class. That was a very tough beginner’s class. You held up really well. Then afterward, if I recall correctly, you went over to the gym wall and cranked out a couple of sets of pull-ups, which was pretty impressive. Most people don’t do that after their first Jiu-Jitsu class.
JN: Well, I appreciate that. That was an incredible experience and definitely a bucket list item trying it out and checking it out. I haven’t been back since. It might have something to do with that loud bone crack snap that I heard, but it was really cool to take part in it. So we have to get to the important stuff here, the call sign. Just based off of that story alone, Bone Crusher is, it comes to mind as a perfect call sign for Mark Paske. And anybody who sees him would agree. He’s an athlete, a specimen, and big guy, and I think that one fits. What do you think about that for a call sign, Mark? Do you have a better one in mind?
MP: I think I’m probably never going to hear the end of this, anybody from my high school, college, or work friends listening to this podcast, so I’ll refer them to you.
JN: Well, you may hear the end of it, but I’m guessing they will never take you up on going to a Jiu-Jitsu practice with them after the story. But I will. I enjoyed it, and it was a good experience, certainly was a good workout. Next time you’re on Atlanta, we have to make that happen.
MP: Done. We’ll do it again, for sure.
Mental Chess Players
JN: Alright. So, as you said, you are a mental chess player. Whether you’re in Jiu-Jitsu or you’re working as a sales leader in a crazy marketplace where the expectations are just skyrocketing every single day, you are having to stay one step ahead of the competition, and not just from a competitive standpoint but one step ahead of the turbulence. One step ahead of the rate of change that’s taking place in the market, and then helping your team stay one step ahead as well. Why don’t you tell me a little bit how you’ve seen the market change from a sales perspective over the last–how many years have you been in this role now with VMware?
MP: In this role for about two years.
JN: How have you seen things change just from a sales perspective over the past five to six years in the tech community?
MP: Yeah, absolutely. I started over ten years ago, the week of our initial public offering, and we were best known for kind of a single product, single solution, and in the marketplace still largely have that reputation. I’m sure many people listening to this in sales can appreciate that. Then our business grew. We brought in multiple solutions over the course of time. And of course, the industry is rapidly evolving during that time. So the pace of innovation over the last even just two years, you could go back, as you said, five or six years, has just increased really dramatically that our customers are really challenged to make sound business decisions on technology investments. If they make a decision today, three weeks from now, one of our executives is going to come in their office having read something or heard something that may challenge, and rightfully so, the decision you’ve just made.
MP: Whereas years ago, five or six years ago, you probably would’ve had three or four years to ride that decision out, to see if the return on investment was there. So the pace of innovation has changed rapidly. How technology is being used by our customers to drive their business and not just run operations has obviously changed. These things are all well-known and well-understood in industry. As a vendor, as a partner to our customers, that obviously changes our behaviors as well.
JN: So increasing complexity, increasing stakes for all key stakeholders because now we have, from an IT perspective, the technology that’s not just keeping the email running and keeping people connected, but is a strategic resource for the companies that you serve. And along the way, we see expectations get higher and higher for what this technology can provide, but there’s a challenge to be ready to implement that technology and to implement the change that needs to take place to take full use of it. Is that right?
MP: No question. I think that’s well captured.
JN: What do you see, as you look back over a decade of doing this, and things have changed so rapidly, the expectations are higher for sales team leaders. How does that affect a sales team that’s trying to provide this service but provide meaningful expectations to the customer at the same time?
MP: I think it affects them in that, what our team learned, and largely through our engagement with Afterburner, was the amount of planning that we needed to do before we had even an initial customer conversation on a new topic increased dramatically. So having a much better planning process which really meant that we also needed to leave a lot more time to do the planning itself. Understanding our customers, not only from a technology perspective where we usually sought to understand that their landscape on the IT side, but also blend that in with a real understanding of their business. As we look to increase their profitability by lowering their cost while increasing their revenue, making that jump is challenging. Still is today. And so, but we strive for that and to make a business connection to all the solutions that we would present to them.
JN: Let’s talk a little bit about what you can do as far back in 2016 when we first met. A little over two years ago now, we had a conversation about the change that you wanted to drive with your team. You had a great sense of urgency around equipping your team to respond to the complexity, the increasing complexity in the market. What did that look like? What was the pain point? Describe to me what you were facing as a sales leader then?
MP: Sure. There was a number of things. I knew that we needed some help and was very glad to have connected with you and the Afterburner team at the time. A couple of things were happening. The obvious initial changes and tectonic shifts that were going on there were in play and in motion for us. In addition to that, we had combined several geographies within our eastern US Division and combined a couple of sub-segments, so really the size of customers that we were dealing with, because our go-to-market strategy, we realized, is very similar regardless of what customer size we were dealing with, and similar opportunities with technology investment and similar challenges as well.
MP: So we really tripled the size of our team in that one shot. We really wanted to do a great job of planning for how we utilize our resources, how we go to market, and how we engage our customers, and to take a much longer-term perspective on it and get out of that single solution motion and more into a multi-solution motion with an emphasis on the business outcome. We knew we had a lot of planning that we had to do. We knew we had a lot more people in our business, a lot more components to orchestrate, and so again, planning and having a process by which we continued to refer back to our plan, which we then learned was the flawless execution process, came to us at a perfect time.
JN: So you’re dealing with some customers that have increasing needs, they’re looking for larger more holistic solutions. You’re saying we have to plan more to go take care of this. If I’m a sales guy on your team, I’m saying, “I’m not really signed up for this. I showed up so that I could sell legacy value. I know tech. I can articulate features and software to a customer, and tell them how it’s going to save them a little bit of money, and we make our transaction, and we move on. Why am I being thrust into this new more focused general role for the team?”
MP: Yeah, I actually think we had both ends of the spectrum. I think we had really high-end tacticians. They were awesome and had built careers at executing highly disruptive singular solutions, and that’s what our foundation was as a company. I don’t want to undervalue what the people who built the foundation of our company and the solution that we are best known for, but we also had people in our midst that were great solutions sellers and were already business-aligned. So our objective was to take the best of both worlds, mash them together into our new definition for how to go to market successfully.
Combining the Cultures
JN: So you bring these two cultures, that are very different, together. They’re no less successful on either side. One group is successful at scaling things with minimal effort to maximum impact, the other group is successful at creating more of that customized special snowflake type solution, but it’s tougher to scale that en masse. What do you do when you combine them, and you want to take the best of both worlds? How do you make one plus one equal three instead of one plus one equals one and a half as they’re becoming diluted?
MP: Well, one of the critical first steps, for me personally as the leader, was to check your ego at the door and realize that you don’t have all the answers. In fact, you probably don’t have most of the answers. So, to leverage the strengths of the team was going to be important, and that first big group meeting that you came to, there were 50-plus people in that room, so we had a lot of leaders in addition to the individual contributors out in the street doing the hard work. Having a great planning and execution cadence, which comes step number one, how do we create an environment where all the critical voices are going to be heard, but also, let’s make sure that we don’t make this mistake of having a great meeting where we have a lot of good ideas, we have a lot of inspired alignment, but then we really fail to execute because we missed the opportunity and we haven’t prioritized, and we don’t have a good execution rhythm. I think we had all of those things at play. How do we cultivate and percolate the best ideas forward? How do we give accountability and ownership to people, and how do we do this over and over again so we can sustain success?
JN: Love it. You’re singing from the Afterburner hymnal, that’s inspired alignment and disciplined execution, and as we’ve said in the past, vision without action is just daydreaming. We’ve been at sessions before where we see teams plan and come together, and they get aligned on what they’re going to go build, and it’s all exciting, but then they go back to their day jobs, and e-mails jump in the way, and they got fires to put out and other challenges, and it just gets lost in the shuffle. People resent being brought together and do this great planning and getting their hopes up for what they’re going to go accomplish when they’re never held accountable on the other side of it. How did you do that? Now you got this aligned plan. You said, “Alright, team, we’re going to have to come up with a way to work better together,” but then you’re going to hold them accountable to it. How do you do the back side where you have disciplined execution?
MP: Well, I think, the first thing we did with your help was we picked what the priorities were, and we could have listed 30 things, and all 30 would have been right, but we picked the top three things. We said, “These are the things that are must-do. These are non-negotiable, for success, for going forward.” Then we picked leaders. We realized that each of these missions needed to have a strong leader, someone who was going to be able to pull together the people on a repeated basis with a great execution rhythm and communication plan. We assigned these volunteers, and kind of a paradoxical statement there, but we asked for people to come and lead these things, but we knew we had these three missions that we needed to get done after surveying the group and having a good collaborative session around it. Once we had the leaders in place and the missions defined, then it was, “Okay, what do we do from here? Exactly how do we want to go about tracking the execution of these critical missions?” That’s where the planning began and where you and I and the rest of the Afterburner team and my team came together.
JN: The challenge that we have to throw out there too is that you got a remotely dispersed team. You, like most teams today, are spread out across multiple time zones sometimes, and if they’re traveling, it’s even worse. You’ve got to make sure that you can still have transparency and accountability across those vast distances, and they still have day jobs and other things that they’re focused on. How do you get them to tackle an additional project that’s critical to the future they want to build and create that execution rhythm for the team?
MP: Well, you said it earlier, you have to really define the “why.” Do people understand why we’re doing this? To keep the why front and center in all of our communications. I think that everyone has a general sense there, their excitement about being at VMWare, being a relevant solution vendor to our customers, maintaining relevancy through several generations of the company. They understood the ground level, but why is it important to have the urgency now. That was important to define and continue to communicate out to the team. But then the way of the missions; why are those three missions important? That was really up to the aces for those missions, was to keep that front and center and to make sure that the people they were engaging were equally able to communicate and disperse that down throughout the entire organization. Communication became really a very powerful tool for us, regardless of whether or not we’re in the room together, we are on the phone, or we are on WebEx.
JN: Yeah. I think the why was particularly critical for your team at this time because right now, everything’s going great with VMWare, but perception-wise, back in 2016 when we first started talking, the stock price was at 47, there was a lot of questions about where the organization was going. Was it going to find its second act of innovation? It had a great innovation platform and foundation that it had created, but the jury was still out on whether or not they were going to make this pivot to provide more holistic solutions to the market as the market was demanding. In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and say, “Yeah, they did it. The stock price more than tripled at this point,” but the challenge you were facing was a lot of turbulence, a lot of uncertainty, and yet you were able to drive focus on the critical few with your team. I like what you said there because you provided that why front and center. Every time you talk to your team, you re-emphasize the why. It’s hard to get folks to do that. Leaders always say, “The team already knows why. I shouldn’t have to explain to them for the fifth time why we’re going to do this.” Why was that important to you and how did you see through the turbulence if that was going to be something that was going to be a beacon for the group?
MP: I think it’s important because when the teams get down to doing the work on a daily basis and they get buried in the minutia and the details, they will get inundated and overwhelmed, and to use a phrase from your world, the task saturation. Task saturation can absolutely bury people, and it does if you allow it to creep in. The why was essentially a checklist of reminders as to what it is that we’re trying to accomplish and what this tremendous opportunity is that’s in front of us. But a little bit of fear in there too, which is, “Hey, we’re like every other technology company. We’re probably closer to being less relevant than what we want to admit, and it’s our job to maintain our relevancy edge.” And especially in our world, where things continue to change rapidly with the evolution of Cloud. Anybody selling on-premise solutions in the Cloud era has to maintain an edge of relevancy. We’re fortunate we have great leaders and a great board of directors that continue to invest and innovate in the right ways. Our job in the field is to go and execute against that vision. So making sure that people understood that higher purpose was out there as a reminder, and then also helping them, and permitting them to prioritize, so the task saturation impacts them as little as possible.
Forming the Right Habits
JN: Yeah, what I really liked about that experience with you two years ago, is that you said, “I’ve really believed that VMware has the tools to succeed and find their second active innovation,” but you created a burning platform for the team. You showed, I don’t know if you remember this, but you said, “Here’s the Christmas tree of products that you’re selling right now,” and it was all different colors because everything was in a different state of being sold. Some were doing well, the legacy items were selling very well, but you’re running into the typical innovator’s dilemma trying to sell the new products, and the team really didn’t have a lot of interest in selling the new products because they’re good at selling the old. You created a really compelling why. You said those products… “The old legacy value won’t be here forever. It’s we have to make the pivot now, or the market’s going to pivot without us.” You created that sense of urgency for your team that allowed them to succeed. Those are the first three missions. What was the result of that from your perspective, both from a culture as your mashing these two different teams together, as well as from an ROI and a sales numbers perspective?
MP: I think as you cautioned me going in, and it turned out to be true. We bit off more than we could chew. We really were a little aggressive with our plans, and probably would have been better served to be a little bit more deliberate and a little bit more patient with ourselves. But we did burn a lot through the process. First of all, the first thing we learned is we had tremendous leaders on the team. When we gave them a framework to work within, their leadership attributes actually accelerated, and they rose to the challenge beautifully. Most of the people who were involved have taken on additional responsibilities since then, and their leadership was really on display there, which was great to see.
MP: The Second thing is that the team responds to the type of discipline that you bring, and discipline not in a directive way, but the discipline of staying true to the priorities and giving them the freedom to prioritize. We learned that as we gave our teams the clarity of the purpose that we all had which was given to us by our leaders at our company. Our CEO, Pat Gelsinger, an amazing leader in our industry, and we’re fortunate to have him here, and I know you’ve had an opportunity to work a lot with him as well. Just transcending that, cascading that down to the team, giving that strong group of leaders and empowering them, having the tight communication cadence, and then, just again, having the discipline to stay true to our priorities, and not to allow task saturation to creep in.
JN: Yeah, phenomenal. I will say, you guys were successful on all your missions. It was a challenging path for your teams, but I was really impressed with how they stuck to it. All three missions were successful by the end of it in terms of the objectives that you guys set out. We don’t always see that to be the case, so I was impressed with how you carried them through that challenging period. Then since then, you guys have really adopted this new rigor behind the scenes of planning first, holding the team accountable, and then what’s the all-important piece that you guys also add to make sure you’re learning from the past?
MP: Yeah. The debrief process has become a religion for us, and we’ve been able to take the flawless execution process and apply it to pretty much everything we do. If it’s just a simple meeting or going in for a 30-minute meeting with somebody, we do a plan, we do a brief, we go and execute the meeting, and then we always do a debrief. The debrief has become just part of the fabric of what we try to do every day. The biggest part of it for us, the debrief is great, and we get, we’ve all trained ourselves to give very candid feedback in a non-emotional kind of way, and we’re all able to own up to things we would do better the next time.
MP: But the real key here is the commitment to being impeccable going forward. That means a whole other level of discipline which is, “Hey, if we did own up to a mistake, are we really committing to not making that mistake again, whether it’s a planning on mission and a more strategic endeavor or something as tactical as just a sales meeting or a customer conversation.” That discipline, I’d say, we’re still learning because another level of task saturation creeps in. When you go and do a debrief, you’re essentially giving yourself some additional assignments afterward. You have to make sense of those things and then reprioritize again. So being honest with ourselves after at the end of the mission, having the leaders step up and speak up about what we could do better, but then, make that commitment again. That’s something that we try to do.
JN: That sounds a little bit like extra meetings then we need to do, a planning session and then a briefing and then a debrief, and I’m already really busy. What’s the payoff here and how is that messing up my already very busy day if I try to implement this?
MP: Well, I think what we learned from you guys was if you run the meetings right, you don’t need a ton of time, and it is important to do. Start with the basics. Start and end on time, and that alone gets people to the meeting and showing up. I can tell you when you guys were running meetings when we first started the mission planning, and people showed up on time that had never shown up on time before, simply because you said we start and we end on time. And a little bit of fear factor. I think you had a Navy SEAL that was on your team that was present at most of the meetings so that maybe that contributed to it. I think being disciplined and being respectful about how you use people’s time. And part of that’s just being prepared and jumping in right away, so they know when they show up, the meeting is going to start on time, and it’s going to run on time.
Hit the Nail on the Head
JN: I think just having, just kind of the discipline with communicating with each other and respecting each other’s time. But I think, more importantly, you don’t need a ton of time to do it. You don’t need long protracted meetings to do a debrief. It can be a matter of just minutes, and it doesn’t have to be extremely formal either. On the bigger missions, the bigger strategic things, you probably want to do that. But on the smaller things, just make a point to do it. I think many people do it, and they probably do it in smaller groups, and it’s not always visible. I think; hopefully, it’s part of the culture of our team on a consistent basis as well. But again, it doesn’t take a ton of time to do it, and it’s so valuable and so important to do.
JN: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more, and you hit the nail on the head when you said it’s part of the culture. That’s really the win. If we’re just adding more meetings to our day, then we’re losing the battle, because our days are really already busy. What I would listen for, for a team that’s crossing the chasm and becoming a learning organization, is not when they have more meetings on their calendar but when something happens, and they say, “Hey, let’s go debrief that real fast. Let’s go step behind closed doors and debrief it.” The other person isn’t scared that their job’s on the line. They go in there and with an open mind, and they have a conversation about how they can do it better the next time or scale the success if it went well.
JN: That’s really the victory that you’re looking for where it’s part of your culture with the team and not just a meeting you go to. The meetings are short anyway; we take no more than 15 minutes with any of these updates sessions, so they’re ridiculously short intentionally. I hate meetings. It is not the object to open up brainstorming sessions every time you get together but to create that execution rhythm that’s sustainable. So, Mark, I’ll turn it over to you for the last word. You’ve done incredible things with your team, and VMWare has done incredible things over the last two years. What advice would you give to anybody else who’s looking to get their team focused on a goal and hold them accountable it and try to navigate a complex market environment?
MP: I think when we first met, I was explaining to you why I wanted to have you and your team be a part of our team, and that starts with the quality of the people that you surround yourself with. First and foremost, whether they’re directly on your staff or they’re consultants that you work with, I want to be around world-class people who have world-class objectives. And not just inside work but outside of work. I think that having world-class people around you that are talented, motivated, that live full and balanced lives, that’s important. That’s a really key part of the ingredient to be successful, not just one time, but over time, so building a culture of awesome people. Then stick to your guns. Be disciplined. Don’t let yourself get distracted, and that takes real discipline and sometimes constant prioritization as a leader.
MP: Are you ignoring things that are important for the sake of just sticking with the original plan? Or are you really taking the time to contemplate, do we need to alter our plan? Are there some pop-up threats here that we need to take into account and adjust our plan accordingly so that we can continue to be successful? How you do that is your execution rhythm. Have a plan, whether it’s flawless execution with Afterburner or something already in place that’s close that’s working for you, continue to do it, continue to engage the people who can add value to your team who want to be a part of the winning formula. Then last, I would say, and we just came out of a leadership meeting the last couple days, don’t forget to have fun. We spend so much time at work, and we all are passionate about what we do. If we’re lucky, we work for companies that have a great mission that we all are behind, but you have to have fun while you’re doing it. I know you guys at Afterburner brought the discipline to us, but we noticed you brought some fun too, and we picked up on that, and we try to do that as well.
JN: Awesome. Yep. When you do it right, work should feel like focused play with a great team. I’ve said it many times in the great quote that you guys have heard already, which is, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” And you certainly raised my average, Mark, whether it’s teaching me Jiu-jitsu or trading texts back and forth about workouts that we’re doing. It’s been great to call you a friend over the past two years and watch you lead this team to success. Great stuff.
MP: Likewise, thank you for the partnership, for the friendship, and we’ll look forward to seeing what your next adventure’s going to be. Maybe we’ll see you on TV sometime soon.
JN: That’s right. Well, a week from today, American Ninja Warrior will be airing, and we’ll see how that ended up. Then very shortly after that, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with your CEO, Pat Gelsinger, so looking forward to that adventure as well.
MP: Awesome, I’ll try to keep up with you.
JN: Great stuff. Well, Mark, thanks again for joining us today on The Business Thorcast.
MP: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.