Jim Heppelmann is the CEO of PTC, a technology software company with 6,500 employees in 30 countries. Jim was named one of “7 IoT leaders to Watch in 2017” by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, he was recognized as “IoT CEO of the Year” by PostScapes, “Technology CEO of the Year” by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and he received the CAD Society Leadership Award for his work with the Internet of Things. Together with Harvard Professor, Michael Porter, Jim has co-authored three highly influential articles on the transformational impact of the Internet of Things on business.
David Cote is the former Chairman and CEO of Honeywell and author of the bestselling book, Winning Now, Winning Later: How Companies Can Succeed in the Short Term While Investing for the Long Term. During his time at Honeywell David fixed a toxic work culture and grew the company’s market capitalization from around 20 billion to 120 billion, delivering returns of 800%. Currently David is Executive Chairman of Vertiv Holdings Co, a global data center products and services provider. He is a member of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group on Foreign Relations and the Conference of Montreal.
Both Jim and David have had unlikely paths to being the CEOs of two well-established, global companies. Jim grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota as one of eight children. In college he studied mechanical engineering with an emphasis on computer-aided design.
It was actually one of his older sisters who inspired him to attend college and study to become an engineer in the first place. After she graduated from college and got her first job she was already making as much as their parents, and Jim was amazed by that. So engineering brought him to college, but once he got there he fell in love with computer science. He studied at the intersection of where software meets engineering.
David nearly quit high school, because although he was good at school, he hated it. He ended up sticking with it and became the first one in his family to graduate high school. David was accepted to the University of New Hampshire, but decided he didn’t want to pursue college so he went to work as a mechanic with his dad in a small garage.
After that job didn’t pan out he went to Michigan to work as a carpenter with his uncle, but learned he wasn’t good at that either. So he enlisted in the Navy for six years on a nuclear submarine. The day before he was supposed to swear in he called the chief petty officer and asked what would happen if he didn’t show up. And although the chief petty officer made it sound almost impossible to get out of, when David realized cops wouldn’t just show up at his door and arrest him, he made the decision not to go.
After that David decided to go to college, but after two years there the Assistant Dean of Students told him he could no longer live on campus because he was too much of a troublemaker. So, needing some money, David decided to get a job working second shift while going to school, which he did for 6 months, when a buddy of his invited David to come work with him on a fishing boat in Maine.
Because he was spending so much time on the boat he ended up doing very poorly in school, so he decided to quit. He ended up getting married and one month later his wife was pregnant with their first child. David says this is the moment he realized he had to do something, he had to get direction and stay focused. He was scared he wouldn’t have enough money to raise their child. And from that moment on he had a purpose and a focus that has brought him to where he is now.
David’s advice on how to lead in tough times
Leaders today are definitely leading through difficult times, and David has led through his share of challenging times as well. He says one of the toughest times was the great recession of 2008-2009. And he knows how it feels to be in the middle of a crisis and feel like it is the worst one ever. But it is important to realize that while these recessions are unique, there are certain actions that we can take regardless of the situation that can help organizations to survive it.
David’s advice for anyone leading in tough times is:
- Don’t panic
- Make sure that you keep thinking independently
- Never forget to put the customer first
- Be thinking about the recovery even while you’re in the middle of the recession
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What to do if you feel stuck in your job
Some people may read or hear David’s background story of what he went through before he became CEO of Honeywell and they may feel like they are in a similar situation where they feel stuck in a job. Maybe you feel like there is not a clear progression forward in your career. David gives his advice to people in this situation, some things that helped him get to where he is now.
And he breaks this advice up into a few different points. First of all, you have to have performance, and your performance can’t just be okay. You’ve got to be like the top 10%. Where you went to school makes a difference for your first job, after that it is up to how you perform. Be a standout in all you do.
You also need visibility. If you are performing very well, but the person who can do something about your career can’t see it, nothing will happen. So make sure you have visibility. But you have to be careful with this one because you don’t want to go around tooting your own horn or wearing your ambition on your sleeve. It is a delicate balance.
If you have a boss who doesn’t feel that you are performing as well as you think you are, this is where you have to be self aware and figure out is there something you can fix or do you just have a bad boss, which David says happens less often than people think. So learn to be self aware and realize when there is something you need to fix. We all have issues, and it’s important to know what they are.
Achieving work-life balance as a CEO
As the CEO of 6,500+ employees, Jim seems very relaxed and happy. He doesn’t seem stressed out at all. One thing that has helped him with this a lot is having a work-life balance. He not only leads the organization, but he also makes time to spend time with his family, take care of the animals on his farm, and cook. But that wasn’t always the case.
Jim says when he first became a CEO he burned the candle at both ends, he tried to do everything on his own. And overtime he learned that was not sustainable. When sharing what he learned he says, “what I should do is focus my energy where I really bring a lot of value to the table, again, which tends to be around product strategies, marketing strategies, marketing messages, competitive strategies, and so forth. And let somebody else manage the financial plan, let somebody else manage the professional services margins, and things like that because I don’t need to do that and I don’t bring a tremendous quality to it, you know, nothing super unique or special. And at the end of the day, you’ve got to pick your battles, there’s just not enough time for a CEO to be in charge of everything. So I got a lot happier after I realized I should roll with the punches and just really add value where I think I have the most value to add.”
This is such great advice for all CEOs, don’t try to have your hand in all the cookie jars. Don’t take everything upon yourself and don’t think you have to have all the answers. You will get burnt out that way. Surround yourself with people who are good at what you are not good at and rely on them.
Three ways to battle entrenched thinking
No matter what industry you work in, you may find that people around you are entrenched in old ways of thinking, especially if they have been in a certain role for a long time. People don’t like change, it’s just a fact of life. So how do you change that? Jim has three ways that he battled entrenched thinking inside of PTC when he first joined.
- Make change part of your company branding–Create a company culture that likes change. Part of what Jim did to change the culture was he adopted some slogans like Take a Fresh Look. Everything about the company should embrace change and discourage getting complacent.
- Lead by example–Live out the values you want to see inside your organization. If you want employees to embrace change, you must first be the one to embrace change. Make sure people know it is not about making one change and then staying there, it is about constant change. The point is to try to be that company who changes all the time, you can’t pin them down, because they’re too busy changing.
- Celebrate change–Recognize individuals who step out and do something different, even if what they tried didn’t work.
Jim and David may not have thought about being CEOs growing up and in their early careers, but it goes to show that no matter what your past looks like, you can achieve greatness. Every leader has their own unique path to greatness, every individual has their own unique path, to unlock the potential of who they are. We all deal with our own challenges and obstacles, but it is important to remember that your past does not dictate where you can go and what you can achieve.
If you have a growth mindset, meaning you believe you can continue to grow and develop throughout your life through dedication and hard work, then you can achieve great things.
So what is your story going to look like? I hope these two stories from David and Jim motivate you, inspire you, push you and get you to realize that you can build and shape a future that you want to have for yourself.
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