LivePerson President Tony Owens: How Servitude Leadership Builds Collaboration

We interviewed Tony Owens, President of Worldwide Field Operations at LivePerson.


Tony talks about the dynamics which govern the market -- data, AI, and customer/partner/employee engagement.



TRANSCRIPT


Adam Conner (00:10):

Today on Growth Culture, how does servitude leadership contribute to building collaborative sales environments? I'm your host, Adam Conner and that's one of the many questions asked today of our guest, Tony Owens. He's the president of worldwide field operations for LivePerson, having joined from his post as president of Salesforce earlier this year. Today we talk briefly about that move and also address the three major dynamics which govern the market it in his eyes, data, AI and customer, partner, employee engagement. This is Tony Owens. Tony, thank you so much for joining us today. How you doing?


Tony Owens (00:58):

I'm doing well, thanks for having me.


Adam Conner (01:01):

It's a pleasure to speak with you and learn a little bit more about your journey, how you create collaborative teams, and of course on your move to LivePerson, want to learn what that's all about. But before I get into all of that I want to start with you personally, because while the most recent professional news regarding you is your move to LivePerson, I also know that leadership is in your blood. So to start, let me turn the clocks back a few years and even to your upbringing, between your father who served in Vietnam and your kids who are trained pilots, do you think there's a sense of driving a mission forward that's always been there for you and where did that start?


Tony Owens (01:38):

I grew up very fortunate. We didn't have a lot when I was growing up, but I always felt very fortunate. I had a mother that was highly engaged, valued education, valued diversity and exposure of the world. So that was great. My father is a multi-tour Vietnam veteran and I think that he provided a level of perspective and discipline that really helped. And the balance between the two serve to create this idea of purpose. And I think purpose has become more popular now, but growing up in a family where you're purpose-driven and in a culture being spending a good portion of growing up in my life in Hawaii, your purpose is around the community. And so having that as a backbone and growing up in that kind of environment I think has served me well.


Adam Conner (02:34):

I want to talk a little bit about that service to the community in just a second, but the first thing I want to do is talk about the way in which you lead teams. And it's great that you bring up that specific word, because I know that servitude leadership is a large part of your philosophy for growing teams and motivating team members. Now, I first heard you talk about that back in 2013, would you mind updating me a little bit and explaining what's changed about serving a team over the past few years, especially now as things have gotten significantly more distributed and automated in nature?


Tony Owens (03:08):

Yeah. There's actually a book, Servitude Leadership and I'm a huge fan, but I think servitude leadership at large has always been you're in the service of your teams. And I know that that's a transition for a lot of folks when they're going from sort of an individual contributor to management to manager of managers sort of thing. And I've always had this view that either you're managing people or you're leading teams. And nobody's really looking for yet another layer of management, what they are looking for is to be part of a team and for those teams to be led. And that leadership has changed from, I would say a hierarchical matrix to more of a collaborative matrix over time.


Tony Owens (03:52):

From some of the stuff that we were talking about a number of years ago around 2013, I think the difference that's come about is the stakeholders changed, it was people who worked on your teams or in other departments that supported your teams. I think stakeholders has moved to... it's now about your customers, your partners, your employees, and your communities.


Adam Conner (04:20):

And so where has that manifested the most for you? Do you have a couple of stories of how you've witnessed that change firsthand?


Tony Owens (04:26):

Yeah. I think it's provided a broader perspective for helping customers be successful. When you start looking at how do our customers relate to their customers and what is that and get engagement look like, and you start to get a different point of view around that, and then you start to get a sense of how people want to be treated. When you think about interacting inside of your community, if you always feel like your degrees of separation is zero or one, then the way that you engage and interact with people changes. And if you can blend that between your professional and personal life, I think that it makes for a stronger overall stakeholder community.


Adam Conner (05:08):

Agreed. Now, I also know that part of motivating teams, I will get back to your beliefs on what governs the market and that customer relationship in a moment, but I know also when it comes to the way that you motivate team members to perform and outperform, get to that outlier performance it comes down to pursuing things that are bigger than yourself. Now you've moved on to the next chapter in your professional journey with the move to LivePerson, so I need to ask did that have something to do with it? Why join LivePerson and what is pumping you up after these first few weeks of being part of the team?


Tony Owens (05:44):

There's a handful of things that I look for in professional opportunities that I've had and 10, 11 years ago I saw it inside of Salesforce, the better part of the previous 10 years I saw it inside of Oracle. And there's a handful of things that I think about. One is I've always felt that data is what's going to govern the economy for the rest of my professional career and I used to think that even before 2000. But I think 2000 beyond that's what's going to be what companies value just like you might've valued a commodity like, let's say oil in the previous 100 years. I think data is that new oil. And so I always want to be around data. And the things that you see around data are going to be heavily laden with artificial intelligence, machine learning. And that's the wave of data that I think that we're going to be in for quite some time.


Tony Owens (06:43):

The second thing that I've always looked for is being close to the customer, dealing with technologies that keep you close to the customer and helps your customers with their customers or consumers, depending on what type of business model they're in. I look for companies that are going to be in that space. And the third thing really I look for, and this sounds strange now, Salesforce now versus where it was 10, 11 years ago, same thing with Oracle, let's say 2001, 2002 type kind of timeframe to where it is now is the company's undervalued. And when you have a big fractured market, a big addressable market in front of you when you have challenges and or opportunities that are within your control so that you can move on those markets, those are things that I look for and LivePerson had all of those things.


Tony Owens (07:37):

The convincing factor for me if it has those three things that fit the framework is how do I feel about the people that I'm speaking with at that company, because it gives you the texture of their culture. And it's almost like you're looking at a menu, it needs to have all three things in the first column, the A, B and C that I just listed off and it has to have culture as well. So it has to have all three of those things as well as culture.


Adam Conner (08:04):

I do want to come back to culture because I know that you were involved in more than just the commercial operations at Salesforce, I want to see how that's going to graduate in the LivePerson. But this is a fantastic transition because your opening statement upon joining the team at LivePerson was that you, quote, believe three major dynamics govern the market, data, AI, which is what you said, and customer, partner, employee engagement. On this podcast we talk a lot about building that collaborative environment internally before going to market with that collaborative environment externally. And so focusing on that last dynamic for a minute, what are some of the best practices you've learned when it comes to creating the most collaborative environments possible?


Tony Owens (08:45):

I think anybody who's playing in this kind of space, you're in a team selling model. And you almost have this primary team that you've defined, go to market teams around, and this is how we're going to go capture the opportunity. And from a technology perspective, you might say, okay, we're going to have an account executive, we're going to have a technical pre-sales person and we're going to have a customer success person maybe involved as we finish out the sales cycle and transition it over. And I think it's important that you have not only all three of those groups together in the pre-sales phase, because you need to be thinking about customer success even before you're closing the sale, but there's other people that you need to start involving. You need to start involving executive sponsors that are earlier, you need to involve some of the product team earlier inside of these sale cycles.


Tony Owens (09:39):

And I've been pretty amazed by what our product team is able to produce in a timely manner and how they rally around the customer. But you're in a team selling model and making sure that you have enough time to balance between you need everybody's opinion because people bring different points of view to the table around these things, you need to be coordinated and then you need to execute in the best interest of the customer. And sometimes people think that that will slow them down, but I think sometimes you need to go slow to move fast and over time that plays out in a strong team selling model.


Adam Conner (10:23):

Yeah, I resonate with that strongly. I've started my career in tech sales and was not as used to that collaborative environment. Very much enjoyed it, but often found that it felt slow due to what I perceived as noise of opinions, several of them distributed widely across parts of the org and all expressing different opinions. So as part of that team selling model where you need to execute something where everyone's on the same page how do you get through that initial noise of all those opinions? Is there a secret sauce that you have to ensuring that everybody's voice is heard but then ultimately the right voice is chosen?


Tony Owens (10:57):

I don't know that I would call it a secret sauce as much as I try and put it inside of a ledger that on the left hand side I say this is the science associated with what we're doing and this is the art that's associated with what we're doing, and the science gets better over time. We know if we do more discovery work with our customers, with our technical pre-sales teams our win rates go up. We know that if we have a customer success person as part of the pre-sales phase, we know that our transition from pre-sales to post-sales success goes way up and their time to value goes up. These are the things that you start to learn and you start to build muscles around that become just more and more part of the science that's out there.


Tony Owens (11:45):

And then the questions that I would expect leaders on our team to be asking the broader team that gets involved are more the art. How do you think that we should be positioning certain assets? Hey, you get to talk with customers that are in this particular industry, what are they talking about the most? The art aspect is stuff that you can shape or stuff that is more like news to the situation versus something that really needs to change inside of the science. And so I try and put it between those two. I do think that the best teams that we have, the ones that consistently perform at a very differentiated level, they're better at asking questions of their customers, of their partners and other team members that are employees of the company, or they ask better questions than they have answers.


Adam Conner (12:38):

Well asking great questions is always a good thing, that's why I get the opportunity to do it here. This is something that I value highly, and to me that is that art. Of course, two of the three pillars that are governing the market, as you've stated that data and AI, it seems to weigh the scales at least more heavily over the last 10 years towards that science. So we all need to sprinkle a little bit of art in there. And however people can innovate I think is incredibly important, whether that means doing something different as a salesperson or bringing in other parts of the org. You mentioned product, I think it could even go more broadly than that over the next 10 years.


Adam Conner (13:13):

But my next question is really based in that core sales team and here's why, because you came in, your presence has been celebrated at LivePerson, and Rob, your CEO mentioned on the most recent earnings call that LivePerson as a result plans to more than double the number of quota carrying reps and other go-to market resources just over the next six months. Now, this is fascinating to me because it means just by pure math the majority of the team that's going to come under your purview is going to be basically new blood. So my question really is how do you plan to mold that team where the majority of the folks are going to be coming in brand new and the people who probably have the most institutional knowledge won't make up that majority?


Tony Owens (13:55):

It's a great question and it's not a new experience actually. When you think about some of the companies that I've had the opportunity to be part of, we were growing pretty dramatically, organically, as well as doing acquisitions that would spike our capacity. And if we just put it sort of as the account executive or that first line salesperson as a pivot point and ratios to all these other supporting organizations we can just map in. But the number of account executives that we were bringing in has always been high over the last 20 years. Doubling in a shorter period of time, that would take place when we would start to do some of the acquisitions.


Tony Owens (14:39):

So it's not a new muscle, but it's important that you get the muscle, right. Because I've seen a lot of our customers, I've seen a lot of our partners try and do it and they haven't done it as well as I think that they could've. And that is being very mindful that you are growing as a company and that's why you're doing these things and making the existing employees feel value. This isn't about replacing them or this isn't about something that they didn't have, it's about we didn't have enough to service the marketplace. And one of the best ways to look at are we servicing the marketplace in total is as we've added more and more AEs does the average productivity per AE go up, stay the same, or go down? If it goes up or stays the same we were underserved in the marketplace. If productivity goes down and it's not just a short term drip while we're releasing product or anything else, a short term dip, then you might be overserved in the marketplace.


Tony Owens (15:33):

We're noticeably underserved in the marketplace and so it's important that we add AEs. And you look at the sizes of territories of our existing employees and they're more than anybody could handle right now, so we're very underserved. But it's important to point out to the existing employees that this isn't about a new skillset or a different skillset at this point, this is about we don't even have enough capacity at the current situation to allow us to be as successful as we could be as a company. For the new people coming in, you need to make sure that they understand and we've painted the opportunity.


Tony Owens (16:11):

Now, if you put a box around that, there are things that you have to do while you're building these teams out and pivoting these teams together and that is you need enablement, you need a career path, you need partners that you're bringing in so that you're in a more team selling model. All of those things have to be done at the same time and they have to be sequenced. And I think the thing that folks underestimate and where I do try and spend the most amount of time is this is a people business. People usually stay or go because of the leader that they are reporting to and they follow leaders as well. And so it's a very heavy people business and you need to over rotate your time to that, especially in these transitions and transformations that are going on.


Adam Conner (17:02):

Sure. Hey, people leave managers not companies, I hear that all the time. But to go to the flip side of that, now that you're adding all these AEs, what do you look for in one?


Tony Owens (17:12):

It's always how to understand how they approach their customers. I ask them a lot about how do they acquire customers, how do they maintain customers, how do they grow customers, because I constantly want them in the customer's point of view. And I notice it even inside of the language when they talk about this is how this customer was successful using our technology, this is how this person was able to grow their career at the customer because they were successful with these projects. When they're using that type of language then I know that they're going to fit in the team dynamic that we're creating because they're looking outside in. Bluntly, if I start treating it like a drinking game and I'm ticking a box for every time they use the word I, me, and my then I know it's a problem, because then they typically look to be the heroes or the all-stars in the team selling model.


Tony Owens (18:08):

And the thing that I've always put out there is if I had the choice of a whole bench full of Wade Boggs or a whole bench full of Reggie Jacksons I might want one Reggie Jackson, but really I want as many Wade Boggs as possible. I want somebody who consistently hits the ball and plays in a team dynamic, not somebody who hit a couple of home runs in the right month, which is important when you do do that, but also one of the most strikeouts as a percentage of that fact. So I look all the way down to the language they use inside of it and I think of does this person understand the art and science of it? Now-


Adam Conner (18:49):

Sure.


Tony Owens (18:50):

... once I get all of that down, and that's a lot for reps at various levels to be dealing with, I start asking them what's important to them. And if I find out that everything is about business and so forth then I get concerned that they might burn out earlier. And really I want those employees for an extended period of time. I want to know that they're going to come here and grow their careers and that they have ambitions to move up the ladder.


Adam Conner (19:16):

But at the same time that they're able to build that team. They can be the Boggs, which I think is a really nice way to put it, yeah. As a beleaguered Orioles fan for my entire life, having the home run king and Chris Davis go on to have the most strikeouts and in MLB history in a single season is indicative of that. I'd rather have somebody who gets on base as opposed to that lone Wolf across the board.


Adam Conner (19:39):

But I know that a lot of team collaboration is more than just commercial, it involves getting involved socially as well. At Salesforce I know you did this very well, you were involved with efforts like the Salesforce Women's Network and BOLDforce, which for the listeners, Salesforce's Black Organization for Leadership and Development. How do you intend to bring parts of that in as well? Not from Salesforce, but now at LivePerson, how do you intend to foster that structure of equality within your own team?


Tony Owens (20:04):

We're very fortunate that we had a lot of sponsorship and support in that area. And I think it's a place that we have an opportunity to bring that into LivePerson and put similar programs in place that allows us to grow areas at which we better serve the community, that there is diversity, that there is inclusion.


Tony Owens (20:26):

I think that people need to understand that a diverse organization has a massive benefit professionally and personally, and I'm not sure everybody understands that, and that you get this breadth of ideas. And if you could have the most diverse ideas and that you create a forum where people can use their voice, and you do have introverts and extroverts and studies around that, but that diversity of opinion and thinking really gives you the best positioning that you can take. It's also great on the other side of things that it's just the right thing to do. The place that I got to previously was I kept hearing rhetoric, but I didn't see very explicit actions on how you go and solve some of these challenges. And so now I don't have to go through that learning curve, I just know some of the decisions that we need to make as a company and I feel like I have great support here to go make those things happen.


Adam Conner (21:28):

I look forward to watching that too. And for now I want to leave with one question about advice, because just as there are folks probably listening to this who would love to join the team, there a