June 24, 2021
In this interview, Ruby speaks to Lionel Chmilewsky, CEO of Corero. Lionel shares his insights in joining the company as their new CEO in the middle of a pandemic, via a fully virtual onboarding experience. We also learn how Lionel has been engaging with his customers, partners and employees that are based all over the globe, and what he will be mindful of moving forward.
Hello, everybody, I’m here today with Lionel Chmilewsky. Lionel joined Corero, a cybersecurity specialist, approximately a year ago, in the middle of this pandemic. He had a couple of conversations with the primary board, and then he joined the company. Now he must be doing something well, because the performance is definitely going in the right direction. How has been the virtual onboarding experience of the organisation that you’ve joined?
Thank you Ruby for inviting me today to share this unique experience. It has been a very interesting experience. I joined the company having met only three people from the company, and then started May 1st. Since then, I haven’t met all of my colleagues, so that is unique.
The other unique thing was for the first time in my 25 years of career history, that I’ve worked from home and now for a full year.
At the same time, because people were using more of the internet, the demand for cybersecurity solutions grew very significantly. So I had to deal with two phenomena; one was working in a different environment, not meeting with people, and then having to deal with these needs that was growing.
When you work in a different environment, you need to adapt yourself, you need to adapt the way you work with people to that situation. So the difficult part of it was that people can start to feel isolated, start to disconnect with people.
So the very first thing I did was to put a series of initiatives in place to make sure that the communication flow was going on. So we did a number of things, we did some formal meetings with the senior management team. And I did the one-on-one meetings with each of my senior management team, and also all the senior management team as a team. We did meetings with the employees, and we increased the frequency of that. It used to take place every month during the pandemic, we did that every week.
At the same time, I had to go rapidly on the learning curve, to make sure I understood the business, to make sure I understand the customers, the differentiators, the processes, which made it very exciting, but also hard work at the same time.
But we grew very nicely in 2020, the team continued to work very well together, so that was a very positive experience. It has created a very different behaviour amongst the team, helping each other to make it work.
The last thing I wanted to do, is I really want to thank all my colleagues for their contribution in my onboarding. They did a great job in sharing information and communicating and in working as a team. So thank you again, to all the great colleagues of Corero.
Starting in any company as a CEO, is a tough gig, especially when you’re trying to go through the onboarding. So it’s really interesting to hear what you’ve done to get the internal culture right to make it work for you and make the experience a positive one. What I would be keen to understand is, how have you adapted your working style to get the similar engagement with your customers and partners? Because there’s quite a rich community that works with Corero to deliver solutions, as well as your customers that you deliver solutions to, how has that changed?
We have a very diverse base of customers, base of partners, and different types of employees – sales oriented, technical oriented, people who have been with the company for quite a while.
When you’re starting at a job, you need to understand what’s the background, the history, the mindset of the company. We really made sure that the company was very customer centric, so the first thing I said to all my colleagues was, We are all in sales.
I wanted to make sure that there was one goal, which was to have a customer focused approach to the business, despite the fact that technology is very important, because this is what brings the differentiators.
So I shared my values when I started the business, I made sure that I was very clear about this customer centric approach to the business. We’ve done our homework trying to understand the situation, the background with customers, trying to spend more time with them.
The other thing is to give yourself the discipline, so spend more time going into the details. It’s all about communication, it’s all about recurrency of the communication, and it’s all about broadening with who you’re communicating.
I spent lots of time reaching out personally to some people, to build that relationship or to start to build that relationship. So I connected with people directly on LinkedIn, people I knew from the past, but also some new people and started to build that relationship.
We have people we’ve been working with for many years, we have partners like Juniper, like GE, that we’ve been working with for many years, but we have some new people so we have to make sure that the relationship was there.
Corero is a truly international company. I think you’re based in Paris, your headquarters is in the UK, and you’ve got a pretty substantial outfit in the US and global customers. So different time zones, lots of things happening, what will be your top priorities when travel can happen again for yourselves? What impact do you think that’ll have on your business?
Well, my first priorities will clearly be to meet face to face with people. So obviously I’m going to start with my teams, and whatever is going to be permitted first. So I will have to be in London where we have the headquarters of the company and we have employees there.
I have to go to Boston where we have all our marketing, operations and IT, and I have to go to Edinburgh where we have R&D. So I will need to catch up, make it up for the time I didn’t spend with them and try to understand more about them to get the non-business things as well because that’s important.
When you do videoconference, you are all about the business, you are all about the points you need to discuss, and the agenda. And you meet the other part of getting to know someone, which is more of a social getting to know each other, to become more operational and more efficient, so I am clearly missing that part.
Second thing, as I said, we are customer centric. So I want to spend time with our customers, people with whom we build a relationship, I want to spend time with our partners. We did spend lots of time virtually, but it’s different when you’re face to face.
Third thing I want to do is amplify my business development activity. So go and meet with people that you know, are not existing customers, but might become future customers or partners.
How has the business remained on top in measuring the balance between efficiency, mental wellbeing and over productivity?
The danger is to believe that everybody will feel as you feel in such a situation, and not take into consideration the fact that people might have different working from home environments, people might cope very well with being isolated, some other people might not accept that. So you need to take the fact that people will react differently in such a situation.
It’s extremely important, first, to take the pulse of the company, of each individual, of teams, to make sure that you are doing the right things and you’re not missing something that could be serious.
So all the meetings we put in place, all the communication that we’ve increased, we spent lots of time in explaining the strategy and reporting on the progress made against the strategy.
It’s very important for people to feel that they are part of the global team, that they are contributing, that they are getting report on how it’s progressing, and so we really increased that communication around the business, and around the strategy to make sure that people were not left alone.
The other thing, as I said, is to measure every day, every hour, the pulse and how people are feeling either directly or through your management. The very first question that I asked my senior managers when I do the one-on-one with them on a weekly basis is always How is your team?
I think we are asking the questions, we implemented a few initiatives to make sure that people could work in a more efficient manner, but also comfortable manner. I insist on helping them to have decent IT devices, decent infrastructure, to be more flexible. You need to adapt your management style and your strategy in this situation.
So if people have been working very hard from eight to five, nonstop Zoom video conferences, you need to take that into account and make sure they have some time to breathe, to think about the other things.
Obviously, there’s certain things that the virtual environment has engendered and positives that have come out of that. What things do you think you’ll be keeping going forward as we come out of lockdown?
We all learnt that we could work differently, and sometimes less efficiently, but sometimes more efficiently.
For example in the past, we were catching a plane whenever there was a meeting with a customer or with a partner, and spending couple of hours or tens of hours on the plane commuting. Quite frankly, we learned that we could avoid some of that. I’m not saying all of that, but avoid some of that by doing a conference call and efficiently.
So I think the lesson here is that I believe we found the happy medium between doing it too much, and not doing it at all.
I think we’ve had time to measure what was working, what was not working. We’ll be more efficient on our trips, we will be more efficient in meetings, we’ll probably be more efficient in sticking to the points. Many companies, when they go to meetings, they start to talk about lots of things when you know that you have only 30 minutes on the conference call.
My final question is: as a CEO, what are you most mindful of when you’re leading an international organisation within a virtual setting? Considering we’re going forward, we’re hoping everyone slowly comes out lockdown, we are probably going to be up for a hybrid setting hopefully across Europe and across the globe. What are you most mindful of?
I think the first answer to the question is, you need to take care of people, especially when you’re working in such a challenging environment.
At the end of the day, the success of the company is all about people, you need to have a good product, you need to have good customers, but this is all built by people. So you need to take care of your people, you need to make sure that they are comfortable in the environment, you have to be flexible when you know there’s a change of environment, you need to make sure that you are communicating enough with your people.
People have the impression that they are communicating, because they know the background, they know what’s behind, but sometimes you need to spend more time to explain this in detail. And you need to be mindful of that when you’re working in challenging environments.
Number two is you need to be a guide to your people. So some people cope very well with that ongoing environment, but some people need help. They need direction, they need guidance, they need explanation. So that’s where the CEO but also the senior managers need to be there for their teams. They need to build a framework that’s going to make their team more comfortable.
Third point is there’s no one size fits all, and you need to make sure that what you’re doing is in line with the situation, you need to make sure that not everything has to be taken for granted.
You need to challenge yourself, your management style, your strategy, to make sure that this is flexible, that this is more than reactive, that it is priority. So you need to anticipate those things.
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the ability of people to adapt themselves to either favourable or difficult situations. You need to take that into account. I’ve been extremely surprised by the reaction of my teams in front of the pandemic. If you look at the performance we did well, but it’s never a done deal. Once you’ve done well, you need to do well again and again, you need to build that sustainability and recurrency.
I’ve been very impressed by the mindset of the of the people and by the team spirit. When you are in tough times, you really see the team building up together.
Thank you very much. That was really insightful. I’m sure there are going to be CEOs out there, as well as other individuals listening to this, finding some of those words of wisdom very useful.
It’s been a pleasure to actually spend time with you and actually talk to you a year on having placed you in Corero, to see that you have managed to navigate yourself in very choppy waters and come out the other end heading in the right direction. So long may it continue. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Ruby.