Tom Mendoza joined the world’s second-largest storage technology company NetApp Inc. in 1994 as sales head. He became company president in 2000 and was made vice-chairman in 2008. Apart from his role on the board, the 62-year-old Mendoza lectures on the power of corporate culture and leadership across the world to people in diverse organizations such as the US Marine Corps, the US Military Academy at West Point (USMA) and at chief information officer (CIO) forums. In 2009, he was co-recipient of the Morgan Stanley Leadership Award for Global Commerce along with NetApp chairman Dan Warmenhoven. Having led teams from the age of 26, Mendoza, who was in India last week, spoke to Mint about innovation, leadership and how to create a great workplace. Edited excerpts:
You began your career as a sales executive. Now you’re NetApp’s vice-chairman. What has it taught you about leadership?
I thought of being a lawyer when I started out but the expenses to train (as) one dissuaded me from doing so. I was around 20 then, and warmed up to the idea of a sales career because you get to build relationships with customers and gain their trust. Four years later, my boss fell ill, and had to retire and my team members started looking up to me for answers. I did not want the job of a team leader but decided to take it up because of the circumstances. It was then that I realized that I had the skill to pull people together and gain their respect.
When I came to NetApp in the early 1990s (1994), my dream was to create a company culture that revolved aruond the values I treasure. Hence, at NetApp, we do respect performance but we also treat people with respect and appreciate their work. We believe when times are good, you should spur employees to achieve more and inject tension because complacency can kill businesses. But if an employee is doing his best but is struggling to achieve results in difficult times, one must support such employees. Most companies do just the opposite. That’s not good leadership.
So what then is leadership?
Leadership is the ability to have people galvanize around a mission to perform at a level much greater than they would have done individually. I believe a leader is someone who can make a team believe in the mission and motivate the team to sacrifice, give up family time to make the mission successful. Being paid for a task should not be the only motivation. Leaders and companies should put people first since that’s the only thing companies can control. At NetApp, we believe people should know what the mission is and why it is worth fighting for. For instance, the US Marines do not make much money but they believe the task or mission is bigger than them.
Authenticity is the foremost attribute. Leaders must live what they say. Second comes courage since it takes great courage to lead and not so much to follow. Third is being selfless which means that the good of the people who work for them comes first. A good example of that is the general of an army. Soldiers know that when the general says “Go over the hill”, he would have done the same. Fourth is articulating the vision which tells employees the “why” of the mission. A leader also has to protect team members from those higher in the hierarchy, and not transfer the pressure to those below. Moreover, if your company is treated as a great place to work for, it’s also good for business since clients like to buy from companies that have passionate people on board.
How do you train leaders at NetApp?
While we have ongoing programmes on leadership, I would like to highlight one particular programme. Eighteen months ago, we took around 120 of our sales executives from across our offices to USMA (also known as West Point), legendary for leadership training for war. It gave the attendees a whole new perspective that their work was much easier compared to that of the US Marines.
At NetApp, we focus on inspiration, innovation, preparation and passion. Employees have to see it (passion) in you to follow you. We also push our employees to go further. Six years ago, I met (Israeli president) Shimon Peres and I recall asking him in a one-on-one meeting, “What’s your biggest challenge?” He replied, “We take 18-year-olds and put them in the armed services. In six months, we have to prove to them that everything their parents said they couldn’t do, they now can.” That’s the mark of great leaders.
But how do you identify the leaders from managers and laggards?
We conduct a “lifeboat” exercise which envisages a situation where you can retain only a few people while the rest would have to go. Who would you keep? We realized that in many cases, many of those we would want to retain have no formal titles. Yet, these executives who have no one reporting to them, are almost indispensable to the company and have great potential. Companies have to recognize the contribution of such individuals and compensate them accordingly instead of forcing them to manage people and raising the likelihood of destroying the potential of such people. Leadership is also understanding that people don’t care what you know. Rather, they want to know that you care. Only then they will follow, not because you have a title that forces them to follow but because they do not want to let you down.
How should leaders today account for the rapidly moving technology treadmill that can upset the best of plans?
Companies should listen carefully to customers. This applies to technology, especially, since companies can be caught unawares by market trends such as cloud computing (Internet-based technologies) or big data (dealing with the volumes of data generated and making sense of it) because these technologies can change customer buying patterns.