In our first episode chatting to Phill Robinson, founder of the European network for the software industry, Boardwave, we discuss the advice he would give on career planning.
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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we chat to business leaders about the building blocks of their success, and the lessons they’ve learned on the way.
I’m Fiona Moore, and for this last episode of Season 3, we are chatting with Phill Robinson, founder of Boardwave, the European network for the software industry, who has himself had an illustrious career in tech, from Oracle to Salesforce, from IRIS to Exact, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. Phill, thanks so much for joining me today.
Phill: Thank you so much, Fiona. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on the show. Thank you.
Fiona: So I alluded to some sort of highlights there, but something that struck me as I was looking through the various roles that you’ve had during I guess it’s 35-odd years in software and tech is that it’s actually been quite varied. So from starting out as an engineer, moving into marketing, COO, CEO, non-exec roles, looking back at that career, what advice would you now give to others about career planning? How much of that was planning versus chance?
Phill: Well, I didn’t have a plan when I started, so you’d have to say there was some chance involved. But I think that right back to the beginning, I think my mother made me very curious about the world, and very interested in what was going on, so I was always looking at things from a different perspective to other people. I believe there’s opportunity for everybody out there, you’ve just got to grab the ones that come along. So my advice to anybody is if you’re in a job, in a career, in a role, and some great new opportunity comes along, grab it if you can, because it might lead to something new and different and exciting.
I graduated in computer science, I worked at Oracle when it was very small, in the mid-80s, and there was a memo sent around saying, anybody who’s got manufacturing experience, would you like to come and help us program a manufacturing package in California? And I was living in Leicester, which is a long way from California, and so I just put my hand up and said, yeah, sure, I’ll try. And that led me to live in California the first time.
So I think that I’ve really liked what I’ve done for 35 years. I’ve enjoyed working in the software industry. But most of all, I had no plan, and I took the opportunities when they came along, and generally, they worked out really well.
Fiona: Are there any roles that you look back on, I mean, you were CMO at Salesforce, CEO at IRIS, are there any ones you look back on as being particularly formative to you and your career?
Phill: Yeah, I think IRIS was particularly important for me personally, in terms of growth. It was owned by private equity, the piece I was running was a £30 million revenue business at the beginning. This was 2009 or 2010, and I was there six, seven years. And it was part of a bigger group which wasn’t doing too well. We eventually spun it out as a separate company. And I was working long hours to make it work, and I felt like my personal contribution was making a difference, but I couldn’t keep working the hours I was working. I was really stressed, I was miserable, I was, you know, working like, 60, 70 hours a week, and I’m working weekends, and I wasn’t enjoying it, although it was doing okay, it was doing better.
So I was driving along the road one day, it was a winter morning, and I sort of had this epiphany which was if I just stopped working, like, 12 hours a day or whatever it was, what would happen? What would the difference be? Would everything stop? Would everything grind to a halt? Would it stop being successful? What would happen? And I decided to try it, and just to say…well, I wasn’t going to say anything to anybody, I would just start working not 9:00 to 5:00, but maybe 9:00 to 6:00. But not work so long hours, and not be so stressed. And so I started doing that, and actually, it was a revelation, because when you do that, you have to rely on other people to do the job for you. You have to delegate, you have to be confident that they will do it, and do it well, and let them get on with it. You sort of turn from being a manager into a leader. So rather than managing things, and getting into all of the detail, you’re sort of leading by example, and setting the direction, versus, you know, getting stuck in.
So it was a shift from, like, a mindset of managing a team, and managing people, managing a business, to leading a business. It was about 300 people at the time. And that was a bit of a shock for me, because I always thought my personal effort, and really working long hours, and working hard should make a big difference, and it turns out that it was more about leading the company forward, to get out of the way, and let other people do the job for me, and delegating responsibility to them, giving them the authority to do it. And that was a shift for me, and it was a shift for the company, and it worked great because I wasn’t so stressed, I wasn’t working such long hours, and everybody else felt they got more authority and more power to get on with their own job.
So that was like an 180-degree shift in like, 24 hours, and I carried on doing that for the rest of my career, and it’s worked really well. So I think there’s a mindset shift. When you want to be a leader or lead a business, it’s definitely different to being in the detail and managing it. Some of the people I talk to more recently, they used to describe it as being on the balcony versus in the dance. So you’re sort of in the dance, or you’re involved in the detail. And if you’re on the balcony, you’re looking down on the situation, and trying to work out what’s next, and lead people in the right direction, and I think that’s a really good analogy.
Fiona: Phill Robinson there discussing how an epiphany on a winter’s day led to a transformational change at IRIS, from a management-led company to a leadership-led company, and how it helped him not only have a more successful career, but also enabled the company to become more scalable.
In the next episode, we discuss how his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2017 led to some of the best years of his career so far.