S8E04: When half your leadership team leave, with Alex Shevchenko (CEO, Guavus)

An episode of The Impact Multiplier CEO Podcast

S8E04: When half your leadership team leave, with Alex Shevchenko (CEO, Guavus)

Alex Shevchenko (CEO of Guavus, a big data analytics firm specialising in real-time telecoms network optimisation) speaks with Xquadrant's Founder Richard Medcalf.

We are continuing our season "The CEO Learning Curve". Interesting and inspiring CEOs reflect on what got them the top job, what they've learned over the first few quarters in the role, and what lies ahead.

In this conversation, you’ll discover:

  • The power of "Executive Aikido", and how it applies to COVID and management team evolution.
  • The story of what happened when half the senior leadership team decided to leave the company - and how it turned out to be advantageous
  • Why Alex's principle for dealing with high growth rates is actually to "learn to preserve the current ways" instead of finding new ways.

"I had a time-bomb ticking"

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Transcript

Richard Medcalf
Alex, Hello and welcome to the show.

Alex Shevchenko
Hi Richard, How are you?

Richard Medcalf
I'm doing really well. Thank you and I'm looking forward to this conversation so thanks for joining me today.

Alex Shevchenko
All right, same here.

Richard Medcalf
Well, let's get stuck in so it's been I guess a year or so since you took on the CEO role of Guavas, which is a, you'll tell me better than better than I can say it right, but it's a big data company focused on analytics for in real time in telecoms operators. This is a subsidiary of TELUS and you know, in the year or so I guess, since you've taken on you'd have to go through COVID, you've had to go through a lot of change. So I'm really looking forward to diving in and finding out what was that learning curve like over the the first 12 to 18 months, I guess, in the new role. So thank you for joining me to do this.

Alex Shevchenko
Alright, well, really nice to be here and yes, it's, that's right. I've been with Guavas for two years now. I joined them early October 2019, as a Chief Commercial Officer, and I became the CEO early April 2020. So it makes probably a year and a half now.

Richard Medcalf
And so going from Chief Commercial Officer to CEO in a few months, just tell me about that. Was that pretty much always kind of a guaranteed done deal, or was that something you had to kind of fake your once you got there?

Alex Shevchenko
It was I think it was a plan, right? Let's put it this way but no, no plan is granted right from the beginning. So it has to be delivered anyway. There were some internal and external factors. It probably came sooner than expected but it was also, yeah, it was on a table. Yeah.

Richard Medcalf
And so sorry for interrupting but yeah, I'm interested to find out what was it? What was it that the secured the deal? Right? Because I mean, I asked a lot of people, you know, perhaps get to board level.

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah.

Richard Medcalf
And not all of them are then seen as candidates for the CEO role.

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, fair enough. And probably not, not all of them actually needs to go to the CEO role. And so I would feel more comfortable in another role, right? In my case, well, first of all, it's probably not the purest experience, because it's not like I became the CEO, and then some tremendous skills, maybe made me a CEO. And in a few months, it was, as I said, probably a two step plan. But, you know, we were implementing a certain change of strategy and a company transformation. And as, as we made a few first steps, which were quite, you know, seem to be in the right direction. But it was also becoming obvious that in order to implement a strategy, I do need to have access to all the leverage is that that probably accelerated it. But obviously, the biggest the biggest impact was the external one, the COVID pandemic, you know that it kicked off in March, and I you know, it changed things a little bit. fatalis change things a little bit for for whoever's, and that's where I was asked to step in and take the full control.

Richard Medcalf
Okay, so actually COVID got you the job.

Alex Shevchenko
It accelerated me. For sure, yes.

Richard Medcalf
But it's gonna slow down. And just on that point there, right, because you are already leading a transformation in the business, right? So you were you were doing, you'd already taken on if you like, a challenge, which was going to require you to operate cross functionally. Often, I see, you know, even very senior leaders, they've got their functional hat on, and not their cross functional business leader hat. And I think it's when you're able to think about, well, how do I create change across the whole organization? Oh, yeah. Well, then that's it. You become a stronger candidate for SEO?

Alex Shevchenko
No, no, absolutely. And I did have certain experience like that, right? Because again, just just as a sort of a rewind to the past, for about 10 years, I had certain you know, senior management executive positions on the commercial side, so I was managing sales teams. But you know, in the in the big tech companies that overgrown with some in the beginning, normally their product sells themselves, their engineering companies, but at some point, they reach the point of saturation, there's a lot of competition, so they sort of turn into the sales companies. The product doesn't sell itself anymore. There's a lot of pretty good competition in the market. So it's important to lead the sales. And the company I was working for at the time was actually in that mode and therefore the sales The head of sales, the sales VPS VPS, were basically the ones running the show, and they didn't have other teams reporting to them. So they had to find and develop the way to lead other departments, other silos without having them, you know, under their control. So that obviously gives you a certain set of hard and soft skills. Yeah, so that was helpful in the CEO role, but it also probably allowed me to prove that I would be okay. And even better off having the full control over the thing. Yeah. Plus the COVID.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah. So what happened? So? So yeah, so you have demonstrated that you had, say, this mixture of hard and soft skills, although I often quite like to call them, you know, subject matter skills, and super skills, because actually, you know, whenever there's an issue, you know, why did he just get promoted? Why did he just get fired? It's always on the so called soft skills, right? It's always on the competencies, right, about willing to win hearts and minds. So occasionally, I see from my analytical clients going, Yeah, this is the soft skills, it's like, Yeah, but these are the things that decide whether you can succeed or not, you know, now you're, you know, you're no longer just an analyst, or you're in longer just a sales guy, or whatever it is. So, so yeah, so tell me so your COVID right. So you, you, you start the role, just as COVID is kind of really making an impact around the world and changing organizations of business. Well, that was an opportunity. Did you see it? Was it a threat? You know, how did you? Was it both? How did you? How did you deal with that?

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, it's absolutely one of those threats, not even threats, it was actually an ongoing challenge, right? It was, it was not a risk anymore, it was just there. It was one of those challenges, that was a challenge for sure. And it did make my life much harder for the following 12 months, but at the same time, it was an opportunity, right? And, you know, we always say and they say in business schools or anywhere that you know, turn turn a risk into opportunity turn, you know, problem into opportunity. But here it was the case right? On the one hand, on one hand, it's really difficult to start implementing a new strategy, a new product portfolio, go massively in a business development, when you cannot physically see a customer you cannot even see your team's right, we all have to work remotely over one night for over a few weeks, we have to turn to a completely new mode of operation and learn to live with that. But on the other hand, you know, was is is a lean company it's not it's not big, it's a few 100 employees right? But it's it's it's got big ambitions. So playing some times against pretty big guys, right? And pandemic has shuffled everyone's cards. So it yeah, it did create some some opportunities beside let's admit it right. I'm trying to look on the bright side I'm one of those who have the glass always half full, right. It did accelerate the digitalization various businesses and it did create extra demand for actually what we are working with were delivering right it it was it's important both financially and in terms of moral right so so many people get you know a purpose in their work.

Richard Medcalf
So now we see we are helping right those network to operate better faster and at the end you know also somehow helping all these remote and digital world right so in that way I see it as a as a help right yeah, they created kind of he created some useful chaos right in the sense that you're able to kind of reconfigure things easier perhaps because we get to create new rules anyway right?

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, and let's admit another thing right case when someone like me who has a nice track record of you know successful management here and there and achievements in Sue answers like but yet still has to prove themselves as someone who can manage autonomously on their own bigger organization, the full you know, all around responsibility. It's actually you know, there is always a risk in the first 12 months at least that one may say, Okay, well, we tried it and didn't work right. So people may be cautious may made me say, Okay, well, maybe we put someone to to advise them and you know, what, but at the same time when there is some extremes situation, and the world pandemic is an extreme situation. There is more tolerance in a way that you know, even if things don't go well straightaway it's it's still tolerable it's let's let's give him let's give him more time because you know there's there is an external factor that may be impacting distorting effects and that also another thing is is that for me it was really important to set up set up like a long term strategy and follow it to stay consistent because just just this past experience of this particular company it's been changing strategy quite often in the past they've been a bit opportunistic, you know coming from the startup mode and it's it may be good in terms of you know, catching the opportunities but it also does not help creating you know the the perception of stability among among the employees and staying consistent and you know, never minding some early short term failures without saying I didn't work let's change the course again is helpful in terms of building this perception of stability for me.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah I'm building momentum right building a sense that actually you're going in the same direction and not will lose the progress you've made.

Alex Shevchenko
So yeah, and then and then again, it's easier to justify and explain some short term failures by the fact that you know it's it's it's it's it's the real Black Swan here it's COVID pandemic but let's still stay consistent so it also have no way

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's interesting is this if you have a like a plan that you're working on some key things you're trying to achieve then the ups and downs of the market can be a bit easier to take point.

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, please please.

Richard Medcalf
 What were some of the difficulties that you faced in those that first year or so I mean, obviously there was the external difficulties that yeah, that but like what were some of the particular challenges as CEO that you had to overcome?

Alex Shevchenko
Sure well, i would i would i would split them in two main categories The first would be with you know taking any serious new job for the first time which is you know, you you you tend to manage things in your job normally through a mix of experience intuition and you know, analysis and here you're only left with intuition and a bit of analysis you don't have an experience to to found your actions on so relying on pure intuition and at the same time, you know, so that's one category that's that would be the same even if it wasn't it's not the CEO job but any other any job yeah. But that for the CEO and leaving aside the external factors so I won't moan again about COVID we did face You know, the plan for me was to we started building strategy and then again it was a bit new for me in a way that building a strategy for the whole company rather than for a certain direction or department that was that was that was challenged But okay, we did that and we did it in a very short term with the strong senior leadership team around me and then I faced something which probably many CEOs face which was some of those people actually started looking for a new job as soon as I came for two reasons either they were not convinced because they saw a CEO without a great track record of being a CEO coming in or and that's a very normal thing which I believe every CEO faces is that when a previous CEO steps down or leaves the company for some reason, half of the senior leadership team would imagine themselves taking the role and if they see someone else doing that especially someone external so that they can not calibrate and say okay, I respect this decision because this person somehow deserve the job they just decided to leave so the challenge I faced I had a time bomb there ticking couple months into the role you know, I had basically to start replacing half of my senior leadership team and that we had to do without you know, trying to keep the strategy in place. So that was a challenge for sure.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah. So, how did you manage that transition, right that time bomb? How did you do that?

Alex Shevchenko
Try using this using this executive I keto thing, turning the you know, turning the problem into the effort unity, right and it was really bad to see very experienced people which I trusted and we work together on strategy leaving the company. It was also you know, sort of the moment of reflection. Some people may not trust me so you know sort of pinching myself and self confidence but then it was a great chance to promote people and put them in the job and people from inside that would deserve a promotion you know that the higher you go in this pyramid of company the less chance you have to go to the next level because there's less and less seats, yeah, it's a musical chair game and we did have and we always have a list of you know, great folks that deserve to be promoted to be given a chance even at the executive level sea level and I took it as this so I promoted a few people that deserve this promotion and they were really eager to go.

Richard Medcalf
New energy in the team at that point.

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah. So maybe the the new senior leadership team at the time had a bit less experienced but it definitely was not lacking energy that's for sure and that was that's that was something we needed at the time which is a lot of energy.

Richard Medcalf
So I'm fine that was a did it become a strength and having home a large number of new people in the team did you find that actually helped towards that did actually still there's still too many people changing at once?

Alex Shevchenko
Well, they were they may eventually listen to this podcast so I must say yes but seriously seriously yes yeah, that's that that was a strange one once again it's it's probably if it was the fall senior leadership team at once and we you know, it would be like a sport sports team bringing the you know, the the juniors for each position on the field would probably be a trouble but getting a nice mix of experience and you know, new fresh blood actually turned out really well. Yeah, I believe you know, if it was a good moment and I hope for now we've we've managed it pretty well. Right? I also hope that when you bring new people like this, they stay for a while, right? They just got into the job so we have a few years together ahead of us. 

Richard Medcalf
So what's your advice around that point for new CEOs as they're thinking about their executive team and the stability of that

Alex Shevchenko
Well yeah, it's it's it's something where I could probably spend hours answering trying to stay brave and picking the the best of the advice as well Well, for me on one hand, don't be afraid to give people a chance right? And another thing which is probably not so obvious, or maybe it just I was I was blind and it was not obvious for me don't necessarily go you know, I mean, obviously it's nice to work with people that you just like you can be friends and you know in the personal life, but it's definitely should not be your selection point. Right, just just make sure you can work with them professionally. But just focus on what they can do and what they're eager to do. And it's obviously very important to resonate meaning you know if they're great professionals who do not believe in the company vision right and do not share the strategy they can still force themselves into working you know, next to you and trying to deliver the strategy but if don't believe in that if you cannot convince themselves how they're going to convince anyone else so they need to share the the you know the idea right.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah they got to buy into the the the overall what you're trying to achieve.

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, so that makes their eyes glow or at least I hope it does. And in that in that but you know, we are both more or less in the tech industry mainly and it's you know, how fast this industry is so it's a very fast moving there's always young young linings coming after you so yeah, you also have to not get rigid you have to stay forever young right and move quick and be reactive and yes.

Richard Medcalf
Alex, tell me about what's next for guavas then in that in that context of high chain link level for the business.

Alex Shevchenko
So, you know, I haven't moved to California recently I started doing what every Californian should be doing is surfing, you know, right I'll use that so there is a huge wave coming. And that's that's that's a perfect wave to surf right but with a big wave. You need to make sure that it doesn't turn it upside down. But this one is awesome for us. It's it's probably the best opportunity we ever had. It's called 5g right. So the 5g and the the you know the digitalization, it leads for the other industries as well. For us is an amazing chance basically because what we've been doing for 15 years you know, building solutions helping operators to auto Meet the network operations is now a must in the new it I mean, it's it's there by standard, but it's also there by common sense, ie the network is becoming so complex, you need to have some, you know, real time analytics of all the amount of data coming through the systems. So that's, that's where we're gonna end up and then in a longer prospect, because I, I really like to work on at least five year plus plan, we see how we can actually, you know, move out or extend outside the telecom space, because we figured out that so many algorithms, so many solutions we build can be applied to non telco data and can help people in other areas as well.

Richard Medcalf
Yes, exciting. So you got the growth of the actual core business in Telecom. And then you've got these other ideas that are beyond right, which opens up a whole new wave of possibility, as you said, Absolutely. What are you going to need to do differently? yourself as CEO, right, because we always have a success formula that gets us to a certain level and that we can deliver at, and at some point, it kind of becomes their comfort zone? And what's the bit beyond your comfort zone? Yeah, where you can to thrive in this next phase?

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, well, I can think of two things here. One is basically just trying to find, you know, inner reserves to see, I mean, the ambition is to grow the company big time, like multiply it in sizes, right. And that means that I need myself to find a way to learn to manage a big organization, if I want to stay there managing it. These are, you know, basic words, but in more practical way, there's, and that's another thing, which is, it's going to be a challenge for me, right, but it's not the case, I need to change, where it's actually I need to somehow save and preserve my current ways of doing things, right, because I mentioned that in this in this particular industry, you have to stay forever young, in a way right because it's there's plenty of startups, many small new organizations where they're reactive, and so on. And right now, we've been an assaulter you know, somehow like, punk rock management style, with the leadership team, which is young, what some of them just young by age, other just young by soul, right, and being being reactive, and quick and, and proactive as well, rather than conservative, but then you know, we all tend to become conservative, we get the experience and experience helps us but it also builds some, you know, narrow tunnel vision ran, I want to avoid that, I want to always challenge myself to better sides think out of the box. So it's gonna be a challenge. Once you once you grow, you know, you tend to move to the experience, experienced lead decisions from the intuition analysis lead, and I want to keep the balance somehow, that's going to be a challenge.

Richard Medcalf
I love this idea of staying young and and continuing to look at, you know, the title of the podcast impact multiplier, right? You know, you want to modify the business model for your own, your scope of, of influence, and impact. And he was working with a CEO of a very large tech company is in his 60s now, the discussion was, and he was the one really, you really got excited by this this question, which was, you know, how do you have more impact in the next five years, as you perhaps wrap up your career than you had in the previous 20 years? Because that's an exponential game, you know, you've got all the experience and resources and knowledge and connections and everything else. How do you combine all that to do something extraordinary? And it sounds like you know, we in the business view, you know, you've got the market is on your side, right? You've got all these tailwinds. And so to say, it's like, how do I actually keep riding the wave? Taking the opportunities?

Alex Shevchenko
Yeah, we just need to make sure that you know, these tail winds do not smashes smashers that we move fast enough to catch them and it's it's going to be a fun game for sure. I guess that like I said, the first year of the CEO experience was you know, learning learning to swim being thrown out in the river. But that was actually a great you know, once you once you survive, though, that you actually have a lot of new experience but then you're totally right. I mean, surfing this new opportunity, which is going to be huge, but we also will have to face all the problems and risks of fast growth, right? It's going to be a next huge learning curve for me and my leadership team. It's worth five business schools. You know, her six, I believe that and Yeah let's see. Oh no, sir.

Richard Medcalf
Perfect Radek thank you so much for sharing these. Yeah this story this insights and some of these really interesting challenges is going through COVID team changing and all this it's a fascinating insight. If people want to find out more about you, or about gravitas where do they go?

Alex Shevchenko
Well they can definitely hit the Guavas website it's www.guavus.com and that's where is a little bit of my biography as well as my leadership team and yeah, we can also search LinkedIn for it there's plenty of information there was does update their news pretty often.

Richard Medcalf
Okay, well, it's perfect. Hey, Alex, thank you again and look forward to hearing the next story of of the beach experience right you first of all, you didn't drown and now you're gonna start surfing. So I'm looking forward to seeing this very California.

Alex Shevchenko
Thank you very much, Richard. Thank you.

Richard Medcalf
Take care. Bye bye.

**Note: This transcript is automatically generated.
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