CEOs are usually not born -- they are made. And in Silicon Valley, the most common way to make CEOs is to transform a world-class engineer into someone who can build a team that turns a vision into a growing business.
This raises the question of what CEOs actually get paid to do and highlights the important reality that most of them do not excel at all aspects of their job. Next March I am planning to launch an online course - Becoming a CEO -- through Babson X in which I help students understand seven jobs that a CEO ought to be able to do well - from boosting growth to attracting and motivating talent.
Since most CEOs need help to be better at these jobs, I have been talking to them about what kinds of mentoring they need and where they get it.
Here's a story about an engineer who has already made big bucks thanks to a startup he cofounded that went public a year ago. And now he is getting help from mentors to lead a new startup he founded before that IPO.
The engineer in question is Mohit Aron who cofounded San Jose, Calif.-based storage hardware maker Nutanix - which lost $458 million on revenues of $767 million in fiscal 2017 revenue, according to Morningstar. Aron left Nutanix before its October 2016 IPO to found Santa Clara, Calif.-based Cohesity, a maker of so-called hyperconverged secondary storage (HCSS). In April 2017 Cohesity received a $90 million capital injection from Silicon Valley stalwarts such as Sequoia Capital and GV (formerly known as Google Ventures).
Cohesity board member and retired CEO and executive chairman of storage technology supplier NetApp, Dan Warmenhoven - one of Aron's mentors -- was far more optimistic about Cohesity than he was about Nutanix.
His success so far indicates that Aron is a world-class engineer. Here are three ways that mentoring is turning him into a CEO.
1. Hire great sales people
An engineer like Aron might be prone to hire sales people using the same approach that helps him bring on board great engineers. But that is not a good policy -- sales people need to be hired in a different way.
Warmenhoven pointed out in an April 2017 interview that Cohesity's market was large -- $60 billion and its competition is fragmented, including companies like Data Domain which EMC acquired in July 2009 -- snatching it away from NetApp -- and startups such as Rubrik.
Warmenhoven was excited about the chance to mentor Aron, who had never been a CEO. As Warmenhoven explained, "Mohit is a world-renowned engineer -- he developed Google's file system. He is brilliant and was asking for advice on how to be successful as a CEO. He has a great personality, is anxious to learn and has a good heart -- he wants to help his people develop and create products that improve his customers' operations. He will be a great CEO."
Indeed Aron acknowledged his opportunities to develop into a CEO and how Mr. Warmenhoven helped him. In an October 3 interview, Aron said, "Before I started Cohesity, I was an engineer. I don't know how to go to market. Dan has a passion for mentoring. He gives me organizational advice on sales and marketing. He is teaching me the job of the CEO. He was just here yesterday for an hour and a half and two weeks ago as well. He asks deep questions and seems to be reliving his NetApp experience."
One specific area where Aron needed help was in interviewing potential sales people for Cohesity. As he said, "[Dan made me realize] that I was interviewing sales people like engineers. He helped me interview sales people to identify red flags early on and to test for a culture match. He made me realize that I should not check the references that the candidate gives me. I should check with peers and people who reported to him to seek neutral references."
2. Win customers by framing product features as benefits
Engineers are excited to talk about their technical achievements. But executives don't care about technology unless it helps them achieve business goals. This means that an aspiring CEO must learn how to frame features in terms of their business benefits.
Aron also respected Warmenhoven's ability to help him "position the company to potential customers." Warmenhoven explained Cohesity's competitive advantages as follows: "Cohesity's revenue per sales rep per year is about $4 million whereas for Nutanix, the comparable figure is $2.5 million. The difference is that Cohesity has a high-volume product that targets the 70 percent of enterprise storage budgets that go to the core data centers. By contrast, Nutanix delivers specialized solutions to regional data centers, rather than the core."
3. Network to get in front of potential customers
If a company is going to grow, the CEO must identify potential customers and get them to sign up. A key step in that process is getting introductions to decision-makers. Mentors can help with that task.
And Aron was also grateful to another mentor, Carl Eschenbach who cofounded Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMWare - "a global leader in cloud infrastructure and business mobility" -- and served as its chief operating officer between 2011 and 2016 before joining Sequoia as a partner. Aron said that Eschenbach also helped Cohesity with "go to market" - for example, by introducing him to potential customers such as "a large Chicago-based financial institution."
Aron's success shows the value and scarcity of world-class engineering talent. Indeed Silicon Valley's startup scene is set up to provide capital, talent, and mentoring to such individuals. And what makes Aron most exceptional is that he seems to have the intellectual humility needed to see his strengths and weaknesses objectively and to realize that there is no shame in getting outside help to bolster the CEO skills which he needs to develop.