6 Rules For Creating The Best Workplace On Earth
"My advice for other CEOs is to pick what you are passionate about and figure out how you can get involved." - Paul Sagan
This week I connected with Paul Sagan, President and CEO of Akamai. Among other things, he shares that good company culture has a foundation of high expectations, accountability, and above all — honesty. He also talks about the toughest part of a CEOs job, reveals who he admires most in the world of business, and gives his advice to other CEOs on how to be a more valuable board member. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Josh James: You started out in broadcast journalism — and you did very well — what drew you to a place like Akamai?
Paul Sagan: It was the founding team. They were young, extremely smart, and they had a big idea: that you could solve congestion on the Internet using math instead of hardware. They were relatively inexperienced in business and I thought I could use my experience starting online businesses to help them fulfill their idea and solve some big challenges.
James: What kind of culture have you established at Akamai, and how did you do it?
Sagan: Our culture is one that is about setting high expectations and then meeting or exceeding them by facing the brutal facts of what is, and is not, working. We’ve established this culture by holding people accountable, and expecting people to operate with complete integrity at all times.
James: CEO succession can be a messy business. What challenges did you have early on as CEO that you did not anticipate?
Sagan: I was lucky that my predecessor, George Conrades, was focused on creating a successful legacy, so it made for a very smooth and relatively easy transition. However, I still encountered some big and unexpected challenges, such as operating during the steep economic downturn of 2008-2009 and having to adapt to technological shifts that required rapid innovation.
James: Speaking of legacies, how well did you know Akamai founder Daniel Lewin? What was it like when you found out he was aboard one of the 9/11 flights?
Sagan: I was very fortunate to meet Danny at MIT when he was (Prof.) Tom Leighton’s graduate student. They asked me to help them start the business they had envisioned. I worked with Danny from 1998 until 9/11, and talked to him nearly every day. When Danny died Akamai had to confront how to deal with this tremendous loss. In addition to being our CTO and co-founder, Danny was in many ways the spirit of Akamai. We dealt with it by coming together to build on his vision of what the Internet could become with Akamai’s help.
James: Difficult times. What’s the toughest decision you had to make since being at the helm of Akamai?
Sagan: The toughest calls you make in the corner office usually have to do with making cuts, cuts that cost good employees their jobs at the company. I’ve had to do that — especially in periods of steep economic declines — and that’s always very difficult to do.
James: Ten years ago, if you had been asked to predict the future of video — how similar or different would your prediction have looked from the reality of today?
Sagan: Online video is as pervasive today as I predicted ten years ago. I came out of the video world and have always believed it would move to the Internet, where it now touches people more often, and in many exciting ways, from mobile to original Web programming. At the same time, the vast majority of video is still consumed the old fashioned way — on TV — so the most exciting growth in Internet video is still ahead of us.
James: How will Akamai evolve over the next five years?
Sagan: We’re focused on four key trends that are shaping the marketplace: mobility, online media, cloud computing, and Web security. We are continually building out our platform to help our customers master these trends so they can ensure the best and most secure experiences on any device, anywhere.
Over the next five years, we have to remain vigilant about providing solutions that help our customers overcome the complexities of technology so they can focus on moving their online businesses forward — and, I hope, always with our help.
James: Okay, let’s shift gears. What business leader do you admire? What do you admire most about that person?
Sagan: My dad, who at 83 still works fulltime as a newspaper publisher and real estate developer in Chicago. And he still does it with as much enthusiasm for solving problems and growing opportunity as ever.
James: That’s what I call inspiration. What has brought you the most happiness on your journey to success? What gets you through the day?
Sagan: Honestly, it isn’t what happens at work that’s been most important in my journey. For me, meaning has come first from my wife and kids and we’ve shared my work successes together.
James: In 2010, President Obama appointed you to the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. Did you have any idea that was coming? What’s the first thought that goes through your mind when you get asked to serve in a position like that?
Sagan: I had no idea that I would be asked. I was honored to have an opportunity to serve the President and the country. I worried about whether I could bring ideas to the discussion that would be helpful to enhance the national security mandate of the group at a time when these risks are real and growing.
James: As CEO, you need to know a little about everything. How do you stay up-to-date with the latest news and business trends?
Sagan: By casting a really wide net. I use lots of sources — from traditional media to online resources, and I also spend a lot of time talking to people in the industry, especially visiting customers around the world.
James: Do you read many business books and do you have a favorite? How about a favorite app?
Sagan: I don’t like many business books, but I have found significant value in the work of Jim Collins.
My favorite app is MLB at Bat, or I should say it was my favorite app until the Red Sox started playing this season.
James: Ha – sorry to hit on a sensitive subjective. You were once senior advisor to the World Economic Forum, consulting on information technology. Who was the coolest person who you met?
Sagan: Nelson Mandela
James: You also serve on a number of outside boards and committees. What value does that bring to you professionally and personally? What advice do you have for other CEOs considering seats as board members/trustees?
Sagan: I think some of the most interesting people are those who are multidimensional and have lots of interests. I hope that by having lots of interests and inputs I’ve made myself a more well-rounded and interesting person.
My advice for other CEOs is to pick what you are passionate about and figure out how you can get involved. For me, I’m passionate about education reform, the future of journalism, civil rights, and the environment, and I’m putting my extra time outside of the office and family activities into these areas.
James: Great advice. Thanks, Paul.
About Paul Sagan
Bio: Paul Sagan is President and CEO of Akamai Technologies, Inc. Prior to joining Akamai in 1998, Mr. Sagan served as a senior advisor to the World Economic Forum, consulting on information technology for the world’s 1,000 foremost multinational corporations. Previously, he was president and editor of new media at Time Inc., a division of Time Warner. Mr. Sagan is a three-time Emmy Award winner for broadcast journalism and a winner of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the technology category. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama to the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. He currently serves as a director at EMC Corp., iRobot Corp. and ProPublica.
Bio: Akamai (NYSE: AKAM) is the leading cloud platform for helping enterprises provide secure, high-performing user experiences on any device, anywhere.
About Josh James
Josh launched Domo in 2011 to help CEOs and other leaders change the way they do business and obtain value from the tens of billions of dollars spent on traditional business intelligence systems. Before founding Domo, Josh was the longtime CEO of Omniture, which he co-founded in 1996, took public in 2006, and sold to Adobe for $1.8 billion in 2009. From 2006-2009 he was the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company.
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