Tod Nielsen

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Chris Williams: Tod Nielsen was one of the very first people I met at Microsoft. He was on the team that welcomed Fox software into the company as we joined in July of 1992. Part of the marketing group, it was his job to ensure that we and our product were smoothly melded into the Microsoft fold. His warm, light hearted demeanor calm the nerves of our entire team. As we moved across the country and into the arms of the seemingly enormous company. He became an early and extremely helpful friend and ally to me and the whole Fox team.

Since that time, Todd has had a wide range of experiences. He left Microsoft not long after I did to work at a startup. What followed was a range of ever increasing roles of executive responsibility, including leading several companies. He was the CEO of Borland at a very difficult time, he was co-president of VMware during a period of challenging growth. He was responsible for Heroku as it melded with the Salesforce behemoth.

Today, Tod is the CEO of FinancialForce, a strong player in the ERP space, part of the Salesforce universe. It’s a big job in a competitive space. But perhaps nothing tells you more about Todd than his most recent connection he made for me.

I ask everyone I know for referrals to engaging guests for this podcast. When I asked Tod he immediately mentioned Michael Kennedy, the CFO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. You heard from Mike a few episodes ago. What’s interesting is that they met because the MDA is a customer of FinancialForce. Tod so frequently checks in with his customers, even on the other side of the country, that he and Mike became close friends. That kind of attention to detail and passion for customers from a CEO says as much about Tod as I ever can.

Tod’s diverse experience in building and leading teams has made him a star in his own right. And someone I look forward to talking with since I started this podcast. In our conversation, we talked about his journey and leading in complex times, like the current pandemic. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about managing in the brainpower page. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace.

I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This episode is another of my conversations with leaders, this time with a talented leader and multi time CEO. This is Episode 219, my conversation with Tod Nielsen.

Tod Nielsen grew up not far from Redmond, Washington, the home of Microsoft. He had started his own software business building database applications for local companies, when a friend of his from Microsoft came calling.

Tod Nielsen: So it just so happened that one of my high school classmates got a job right out of high school, right out of college at Microsoft as a recruiter. And her name was Kerry Dzowski, and so Kerry called me and said, Hey, would you you’re the kind of person we’re looking to hire Microsoft. And at the time I, I was at, you know, in the tech world, I have my own dBase consulting business and the like, but I was, you know, overwhelmed by Microsoft was like, why Microsoft is big company when there’s 800 employees there. Can you imagine how big that is? And you know what I really fit in? And so she said, Hey, come to an interview, see what happens. And I, you know, interviewed and was just honored to have the opportunity to join Microsoft.

CW: and when was that?

TN: 1988.

CW: And so what did you start working on?

TN: So I started working on what became Microsoft access. And so, in fact, a funny story, when I first started my career, I was, you know, a young kid. And I was intimidated, as I’ll get out. And my first interview was eight in the morning with Rob Glaser. And so, you know, Rob starts off. And he says, you know, I’d like you to write some code on the on the whiteboard, and then explain to me the difference of doing it and C versus doing it in Pascal. And you know, how things are going to push on the stack or whatever.

And I, of course, have no idea what he’s talking about, zero idea what he’s talking about. And so the question, I answered the question with the following answer, and this is why I’m here today, and why I have a career. Because I looked at him and I said, you know, if my resume implies to you that I can answer that question, it goes to show that I am the greatest marketer on the planet, there are 10, there are 10,000 people that want to be in the seat right now. And I’m here to be Microsoft, because I can know how to market, I don’t know how to write the code, but I know how to talk about and sell its value proposition and get people excited about it.

CW: Rob Glaser who later went on to found Real Networks, the OG streaming audio service, referred Tod to the database groups, where he worked on the product later to be called access, and wound up working for Adam Bosworth, another famous name in tech.

TN: So in that journey, one of the things Adam said is okay, Tod, we don’t really have needs for a product marketer right now. And so, but because you know, the database market and your enthusiasm, I want you to switch into program management, which is a more, you know, technical position, and you’re probably not going to be the greatest at program management, but it’ll be a good experience to grow in your career and what have you. And then when the product is ready to ship, we can then move you back into Product Marketing. And so we did that. And, you know, program management was a very challenging, you know, discipline for me. But I learned a ton. Let me help me a bunch.

CW: Do you remember when you started to manage people? Do you remember when that happened?

TN: Sure. So when I moved into, when I moved over to out of program management, into Product Marketing for Access at the time, I became a Group Product Manager. And so one of my first hires was David Risher, and had a team of marketers working for me, and, you know, had just great people, it was just learning what it is to lead and to manage. And, you know, in, in those days, I was a domain expert on the particular product, and had helped to build it. And so it helped me earn the respect of my, you know, employees, because they can say, hey, this guy really knows what’s going on. And what he doesn’t know, he’s willing to admit. But he also knows other people that can find out the answer, you know, what he doesn’t know.

CW: Then the next step is managing managers. Do you remember when that first happened for you?

TN: Yeah, that’s that first happened. When I left, the database group at Microsoft, I ran for a period of time, we call the Connectivity Business Unit, which was a nice way of saying it was a substrate of the Exchange group or the Outlook group, basically, Canada. And so I was a general manager up there running that team of development, testing, you know, the, the core infrastructure that it takes to run the team. And, you know, they all the leads had employees and it was, it was a new experience for me.

And the other thing that was a new experience is because it was in Canada, in Vancouver, which is only, you know, 120 miles away from Redmond. I had no idea growing up in the Northwest, that there was such a, you know, cultural divide, and a difference between being a Canadian versus being, you know, an American. And when we made the decision to move the business unit to Redmond, and, and move people out of Vancouver. It was incredible to me how difficult it was because it was only 120 miles of distance. And yet people were asking me questions like, you know, am I going to need to buy a gun? What kind of, and just the whole perception of America is this different, you know, place and so getting people through was very challenging. And so one of the things that I did is I knew that it was key to get a couple of the leaders to say they would move and then we could get everybody else to fall. Because we announced it, we had people, young people 30 days to let us know where they’re going to make the move or not. And, you know, 28 days into it, nobody would. Nobody was committed.

And so it was like, oh, what am I going to do? So I took, I got a meeting with a couple of the key leaders and had a briefcase of cash, and had a chess timer, and went to him and said, you know, you have five minutes to decide, are you going or not and hit the chess timer. And that person was I was like, I have to my wife, I can only family, what am I going to do is like, this cash is yours, if you can say yes. And so use a little bit of extra hardcore incentive to get the first couple of folks to make the leap. And then from that point, it just sort of, you know, snowballed into getting most of the team to move down to Redmond,

CW: I remember you having to going back and forth to Vancouver, every other minute.

TN: Yes, that’s why we eventually decided to move because I moved, I relocated to Vancouver, thinking I could live up there and make that happen. And then, you know, in those days, conference calls, and video conferences were not common. And so in fact, I can probably recall, in my whole tenure at Microsoft, I maybe was on 10 conference calls. And it was it was it is a very in face in person, that’s where things happen. And so I went into driving back and forth to Vancouver, you know, probably weekly. And finally, I just said, Okay, this is, you know, we don’t understand how to do this remote development stuff at this time.

CW: Todd rose to become a vice president, but left to join a startup called Crossgain, just after the peak of the dot com era.

TN: you know, with, bubble, you know, we had friends and associates that were, you know, billionaires on paper. And I didn’t think many of them were that much smarter than I was. And so that way, there’s opportunity out there, let’s figure it out.

But June of 2000, was not the time to do a startup, for sure. And so, I left. And we had a challenging year, because the dot com bubble burst in March of 2000. And the company was acquired by BEA systems in the summer of 2001.

Because I was the CEO of Crossgain, when the startup and then when ba ba cross game, I was their Chief Marketing Officer. In my last three or four months there, I was running, marketing and running development, which is sort of a weird combination. But my my belief in in leadership in general, is transparency and shooting straight with people and tell them, here’s the good, and here’s the bad. And I had built up a solid trust from the engineering team. So they sort of said, Look, if we’re going to be led by anybody, since we don’t have a leader at the moment, we want to be Todd.

CW: One of the things that that we saw a lot of particularly around that time was people leaving the company, leaving Microsoft saying to themselves, well, I’ve run a billion dollar business, so I can do this, and I can be a CEO. But in point of fact, none of those people had had sales working for them. None of those people had had support working for them. None of those people even knew how to pay rent, … none of those people knew so. So an awful lot of people went out thinking I can be a CEO.

You left and thought you could be a CEO. Was that a rude awakening? Was that something you understood? Did you know what you were getting into?

TN: I know, my first gig a Crossgain was certainly a eye opening experience for me. I i was i was i grew up in Microsoft, where I was, you know, coddled, if you will, or having infrastructure and had everything in place. And, you know, at Crossgain our first office was, you know, in Bellevue, and was, you know, this funky little space and, and yeah, I was just like, Wait a second, where where am I? And so it took a while to, you know, get comfortable and because of the economy and what was happening with the dot com bubble, it just became a challenge.

CW: It’s the multiple roles thing that I think people don’t get out of the CEO they don’t understand. I mean, the fact that that you’re the one person you know, it’s this buck stops here thing is overplayed, but it’s really, in fact, quite true.

TN: It is true that the advantage I have my first one was at Crossgain. My kind of partner in Microsoft, Adam Bosworth was there as well. And he was a founder. And so, and in those days, and we were only 25 people when I joined. And so that was mostly development and program management. So it wasn’t a sales, there wasn’t a big organization. And I had Adam to work with on the technology side and what have you.

And so it was up to a relatively easy transition, because it was more like just running a product group, you had to deal with things like, you know, finance, and G&A, and real estate and stuff like that, which I didn’t have to deal with Microsoft. But I could be more experienced with that, or more comfortable with that, then, if it was, you know, enterprise sales, or what have you at the time.

CW: Crossgain was sold to BEA systems and Todd followed, but he left before too long. Then he got a call from an old friend, Greg Maffei, the one time CFO of Microsoft.

TN: And then Greg Maffei called me up and said, Hey, I’m going to take the job as one of the co-presidents of Oracle. And it’s likely Larry’s going to be leaving, you know, at some point, and I’ll be an heir apparent, because I’m a real software guy, and I need a right hand person, and you’d be great. And so Greg kind of gave me the comfort to say, Okay, I’ll make this move. And so for three months, Greg and I were in Oracle. And then that was my premise of joining Oracle. And then three months later, or Greg leaves. And so now I’m just like, Whoa, what am I What am I doing here?

CW: Your parachute is gone.

TN: Now, what’s what’s happened. And, you know, Charles Phillips, was a great guy is a great guy was it was a great leader and mentor. But I just, you know, without the comfort with Greg, I was just not comfortable that there was a future for me at Oracle.

And then at the same time, I got a phone call from a recruiter about the CEO opportunity at Borland. And Borland in those days, it was a public company, and I didn’t have my public company CEO stripes. And so I figured if I could get that job, that would be a great opportunity for me to to take, even though Borland’s heyday was more of the mid 80s, you know, the mid 90s. And then when Phillipe left in ’95, it sort of went on a wandering soul in the in the desert, trying to figure out, you know, what to do.

And for me to join, it became the opportunity of, it’s kind of a no lose situation, because I can be bold, I can make acquisitions, I can do things. And if I’m not successful, I can say, Hey, I tried everything, and the patient was just so sick, I’m sorry that it’s gone. And if I turn it around, I could be a hero. So it gave me a chance to sort of be confident enough to to, you know, be bold and work with the team and figure out what what the right direction is.

CW: So was it your legendary marketing prowess that talked yourself into that CEO job? As you said, you didn’t have your CEO stripes? How did you get that job?

TN: Well, one, I don’t know who the other candidates were. But clearly, I knew a lot about Borland because they are my primary competitor. And so when I was at Microsoft, and so when it came to saying, okay, who can we have as a leader, I had clearly leadership capabilities.

And I knew everything about Borland, from the history books, in fact, a funny story when I joined, I was telling some story about Borland in the early 90s. And one of the employees raised her hand and said, What enablement session did you go to to learn all of this? You know, I’ve been here for eight years and I didn’t get all this. I’m learning stories from you about varroa mite. And it’s like, well, I saw it from another side of the, of the fence.

CW: So when you were at Borland so here you are you walk in, as you said, the patient was, you know, open on the operating table. That’s a leadership challenge aside from you having to learn the CEO chops side of it, but that’s a leadership challenge. So what is what is your thinking on? Yeah, as you walk in the door, what are you thinking about how to get this team you know, off the operating table?

TN: Yeah, the team was was really just needing a vision or a direction and based on the pieces we had I put together working with you know, the the marketing person and the head of products a direction on Hey, we’re gonna focus and really double down on what we call time, the application lifecycle management space, I made the decision to spin out the tools business, and we sold it to another organization, they acquired the people and the IP, and then we will focus on application lifecycle management.

CW: Eventually, Tod turned the company around enough to find a buyer. He was working on closing that deal when another old friend from Microsoft, Paul Maritz came calling. I too had worked with Paul at Microsoft, not only as a manager, but later as his HR director.

TN: So the the acquisition of Borland we started the discussions kind of in the summer/fall, if you will, of 2008. And the deal wasn’t quite signed. But my friend and mentor, Paul Maritz in July, became the CEO of VMware. I met with Paul and, you know, when he became CEO to congratulate them, and he, he said, Okay, I haven’t really been I was at Microsoft with you. I’ve been on an eight year philanthropy/enjoy life journey, you know, tell me what the CEO has to worry about. And so I was running through all the different things that the CEO worries about and Paul was like, Okay, I hate all of those things. I like, you know, product strategy and direction, but I don’t want to deal with that other stuff. So we come join me and be the chief operating officer at VMware.

CW: And that had to be fun because Paul’s fun to work with.

TN: Yeah, Paul’s. Paul’s incredible. It was, it was an incredible experience, I learned a ton. The other thing I learned it was interesting at VMware, is this was after the financial crisis. So at the beginning of 2009, you know, the world, you know, VMware stock, when they went public in the spring of 2008, it went up to like 117, or 120, or something like that. And then, you know, six months later, or something like that, it was down to 15 or 16. And so it just and in the valley, when your company stock stock goes up, and then goes down, rarely does it go back up again. And so getting employees to believe that, hey, this is a valuable thing. And and we’ve got real asset here, took a bit of time to, to, for people to believe that going the changes we were making was even more important.

CW: Right. But they ended up doing okay, right?

TN: I mean, if we did, we had a great, we had a great run, when I when I joined the beginning 2009, they finished 2008 in about doing about 1.8 billion in revenue. And when I left in 2013, they were doing over six in revenue, and the market cap went from, you know, 8 billion to 50 billion. So it was it was a great experience.

CW: The ride and VMware offered many chances to learn about leading in both bad times and good. It exposed Tod to a small company called Heroku, who is at the forefront of development for the cloud. Once again, a phone call from a leader got Tod his next gig.

TN: And then in 2010, Salesforce bought Heroku and announced it their big conference Dreamforce. And so when I left VMware, Marc Benioff and team gave me a call and said, Look, it’s your manifest destiny to run Heroku. And you know about this, so why don’t you come join, you know, the team and lead this effort.

And at that time, they, you know, Heroku had been at Salesforce for a couple of years. And they were, you know, there were two cultures there. There’s the Salesforce culture, which is …

CW: very old school

TN: old school enterprise customer centric, let’s go. And there’s the complete new school with the cool kids. I mean, the average age of the Heroku team was 27. And they were, you know, very hip and on top of things, and the culture is just clashed.

And so I spent my first six months trying to build bridges between the Heroku team and the Salesforce team because the Salesforce team had, you know, had basically said you arrogant kids that Heroku will we’re writing you off. And so I think every presentation I did for the first six months I said I’m sorry, you know, let give me a clean start. Let me put it an olive branch out let me do something together build this, but was interesting.

What was interesting is it took me a while to burn the tree. Rest of the Heroku team and the millennials, because they were first concern is this guy, just some Salesforce corporate schmuck, that’s gonna, you know, try to ruin us. And, you know, I spent a lot of time with each of the employees, I had a one-on-one with every employee in my first hundred days to really understand where they were. And this is my first time managing millennials. And it’s a different world. I mean, they would tell me things like, hey, Tod, I need a Purpose Driven Life. And, you know, I’ll give you 40 hours a week, and maybe 41. But I gotta know, what’s the broader bigger purpose. So I’m, you know, making an impact, which is great. But in my day, you know, in the 80s, at Microsoft, you know, we would sleep under our desk, and there was no Purpose Driven Life was my purpose is the company.

And that’s what the focus and so it’s a different kind of spin as far as getting them excited about customer impact and how it goes and, and how to really influence the world as well as providing them opportunities to do you know, social philanthropy and stuff like that.

So it was, it was, I learned a ton about how organizations can’t just be old school, what I say goes, make it happen. Because, you know, smart people, they have a lot of choices. And, you know, no one would say this to me directly, but basically would be like, Look, if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to go to the startup next door, and they will. And so it was a bit of the How do I get people excited about what’s what’s happening. without, you know, losing or whatever.

CW: You know, vision has always been sort of the underlying thing, I don’t know many people who were sleeping under their desk at Microsoft, because they thought they’d become a billionaire, I think they were sleeping under their desk, because they thought they were gonna change the world.

TN: For sure. Absolutely agree with that, for sure. And it’s just the mindset changed now where they, they wanted to see the impact and make it happen. But they also had other aspects of their life they wanted they cared about Salesforce has a philosophy that they call their 111, where every employee where they give 1% of their employees time 1% of their equity 1% of their revenue to charitable organizations. And it’s really been a powerful way to get, you know, the employee population at Salesforce activated and impacting the world in ways beyond just software.

CW: Yeah, I think that’s one of the interesting things about the CEO role. In that, I think one of the things that most people don’t see who look up at a CEO, is they don’t realize that in many ways, the CEO is the, like, when you were talking about the relationship of Heroku and Salesforce, I was thinking of the it was a Damon Wayans? Who did the the Obama anger translator, you know, so I’m thinking of the CEO, though, is the interface to the outside world, whether outside world is the parent company or the outside world? And and where do you think the balance for a CEO? Does it change? Is it pretty constant? Is the CEO always 50/50? inner focused, outer focused? Is it? What’s that balance?

TN: That’s a great question. I think it partly depends on where the, honestly, the CEO, what his comfort zone is, I think a good balance is certainly 50/50. Because if you err too much to just external, you can end up being disconnected or out of sync with your, your team or your employee base. And so I like to kind of be realistic and pragmatic, and connected to my team, as well as paint a vision and a story to the future.

One of the things that I find is a lot of, you know, leaders in the world today, they may have a vision, but it’s nowhere at all connected to reality. And so they’re employed population or, you know, people that know the company will look at it and say, there’s a huge disconnect between A and B, you know, what planet are you on? And I really try to be realistic and, you know, honestly assess, hey, here’s, we’re great, and here’s where we’re not.

You know, another just, you know, technique I use is, I encourage my employees to try new things to innovate, to to go, and if they’re going to fail, that’s fine, just course correct quickly. A lot of CEOs play that. I’m going to throw my phone and I’m going to scream and yell if you got something wrong. And I will leave If you get something wrong, that’s okay, as long as you learn from it, and you’re able to course correct quickly and move it to the right here to the next path.

CW: The roll Tod had is the leader of Heroku, inside Salesforce was called a CEO. But in some ways, that’s a misnomer.

TN: It was a little bit funky in that they would call it I think the titles they have today, as they call them CEOs of those particular units. I like it’s a little bit of a funky world. Because at Salesforce, you know, products leaders really don’t own as much as a CEO does in an organization, because Salesforce is a very matrix organization. So development, you know, sales, product management, program management, they all report into their functions, and then the cross functional kind of overlay are these product leaders.

And so it Salesforce, I had to learn how to be successful and a motivator. Because if I wanted to do something with the product, but the dev team who reported to somebody else said, No, we’re going to go this way, because our work manager is saying that there’s a conflict and I would generally lose. And so it was a matter of how can I rationalize and work through that. And to be honest, I struggled in that organization, because I didn’t, I was doing so much via influence and relationship versus being able to say this is the direction, let’s go, right. I eventually ended up leaving Salesforce

CW: Got it. But you didn’t leave the universe. So you wander in the wilderness a little and someone comes along and says, here’s this Financialforce thing. Is that how that happened?

TN: Yeah, that was the one thing I did, that I’ve learned is, you know, I’m not a startup person. So I’m not a three people and a dog kind of leader, I, so I had this this mandate of, I’m going to go to a company that is at least $50 million in revenue. And the reason I picked that 50 million is because at 50 million or above, you generally have a product direction, you have some customers, and you just need to figure out how to scale and how to do processes. And that’s what I I’m good at.

What surprised me is when I left Salesforce, I was fortunate that there was a number of press articles that said, you know, towards leaving Salesforce, and so I had a lot of inbound calls. And in the Bay Area, I was getting, you know, five or six calls a week, but maybe one a month was more than $50 million in revenue. They were all little small companies. Others, were like this will be great come, you know, come here. And it was just like, No, no, I don’t want to do that.

And so finally, a friend of mine, Mike Rosenbaum said, Hey, I’m on the board of Financialforce, you need to come to this company, they’re in the ecosystem, you know them. And you’d be great. And, you know, Mike really helped convince me to take this role.

CW: And so that was what, three years or so ago,

TN: I started in beginning 2017.

CW: So what are the what’s the vision? What are the challenging things that you’re trying to get done at Financialforce?

TN: Yeah, that’s, that’s a great question. One of the things I looked at, because I, this is my first, you know, journey into applications per se. I’ve been as you know, system, software developer kind of person my entire career. And so this was the first role where I didn’t, I didn’t have the domain expertise, where, you know, you could put me in a dark room with system software problems, and I can navigate my way through it, and I understand the ins and outs. But in, you know, ERP software, I’m, you know, a fish out of water.

And so that was a challenge. But I knew that, before I joined Oracle was acquiring our primary competitor, NetSuite. And since I knew that Oracle doesn’t necessarily have a love relationship with many other customers, I thought, hey, there’s probably an opportunity here for us to figure this out.

And so, you know, started the journey to really meet with employees and customers and get the right leaders in place that can kind of scale and, you know, evolve the company where the direction is. And the good thing about Financialforce is, you know, when I joined in 2017, I spend, you know, the previous 10 years really being an early adopter and driver in the cloud. And the most of the application world, we’re still concerned that the cloud is you know, crazy. I don’t want to be part of this. You know, what’s going to happen with hackers and what have you, and things we’re pivoting such that the world is beginning to see that you know what, unless I’m going to spend millions of dollars securing my own data center every year, I’m better off just going to the cloud and to not be in the cloud is kind of like putting my money under my mattress.

CW: Right.

TN: So Financialforce has this great opportunity where there’s, you know, everybody, every company needs a financial system. And, you know, it’s the legacy is on premise systems, be it from Great Plains, or Solomon, or you know, what have you. And so there’s a great opportunity to, you know, move those folks over to the cloud.

And you know, now I meet with, you know, multiple CIOs that will say, they’re building a cloud-only infrastructure. And if you would have told me that 10 years ago, I would have said, you know, maybe 20 years out, but there’s no way people are going to have a cloud only infrastructure in 2020.

CW: So here comes Tod Nielsen, Tod, walking in the door, been doing tools and system software for decades and walks in to this meeting full of people who are application software people, and how do you win? How do you win their trust, particularly when you can’t speak their language?

TN: Yeah, so I couldn’t speak the direct language. But I was exposed enough because I worked with many companies in my career, that were building, you know, accounting systems on top of system software that we had had. So I knew enough about requirements as far as, you know, performance and scale and things like that. So I could be credible. And given I came from Salesforce, and Financialforce is built 100% on Salesforce. That gave me some additional, you know, credibility, I was able to leverage.

CW: Did you spend, what, six months trying to cook or was it fairly easy to get people to listen to you?

TN: Um, it, it’s, it took some time, of course, you know, people are going to listen to the CEO and offer respect. But to earn that trust took it took a little time.

So what I did in the case of Financialforce, it turns out that we’ve got about 200 or so employees in this little town in the UK and Yorkshire and a little town called Harrogate. We’re headquartered in the US. But a majority the development all happens in in Harrogate.

And so my first year there, I went and spent three months in the fall where I moved my wife and I basically relocated to Harrogate, to spend time with the people. And that immersion, if you will, into their culture and appreciation, and to be honest, my wife, Allison, she would move to Harrogate. She’s like, this is, you know, I love this place. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, they’ve embraced her, and she’s embraced them.

And so that really went a long way for folks to say, Gosh, this person cares about the company and cares about us because he’s willing to uproot his own life to spend time with us.

CW: We then changed topic to the latest challenge facing all leaders these days, the pandemic. Tod and Financialforce are already used to working remotely, being based in the US with development teams in the UK and the Seattle area. How does he see the pandemic facing them?

So your company’s already remote? Or at least in some dimensions? How do you see this whole thing shakin’ out? With work from home?

TN: Yeah, you know, some of my employees refer to it as we don’t work from home, we live at work.

And, you know, it’s obviously been a shock to the system at first. But I think as time has gone on, we’ve gotten used to it and what’s made it possible is, one it’s not something this isn’t Tod’s experiment, where I was saying, Okay, this company’s gonna work from home, and the rest of the world is in its, you know, its own course, this is affecting everybody globally, you know, customers and everything. And so because everybody’s in it together, it sort of forced everyone to say, Okay, let’s figure out how to make this work.

I know, you know, my belief before this happened was SAAS software in order to sell SAAS software for any company, you know, any value more than $10,000 you have to meet in person and you know, shake the hands and, and and do that. And I think we’ve all learned in my head of my Chief Revenue Officer says, hey, look, we’re all in inside sales now. And so we all got to you know, figure this out.

And, and so, it’s been leading an organization through this, because one of the things that you know, leaders are good at is knowing a direction and saying this is what’s going to happen, and then leading through the milestones of how it happens. Well, the crazy thing is, you know, in our world, you know, when this COVID thing happened, we didn’t know what what next week was going to be like, you know, we shut their offices down March 12. And I literally thought we were going to be back in the office April 10. And so, you know, one of the lines I came up with is that last week’s worst case scenario, is this week’s plan of record.

And so there’s, you know, for the first three months, it was just like, Oh, my gosh, what’s going on. And to ease my employees, I started holding these all hands meetings every two weeks, and was very transparent with them on what we knew and what we didn’t know. And that sort of gave them a sense of comfort and gave him a sense of, Okay, this is a he’s not taking us on that journey blindly. But we’re, you know, we’re on this with them.

And then, you know, I’ve seen some really exciting things where my, my leaders have done things like, you know, they have virtual happy hours. We know one team had bring work to kids day. And so they would have, you know, a little thing with the kids and just trying to really understand and embrace and appreciate the complexities people have from working from home with families and kids and all the challenges there and trying to be flexible so that I can be successful.

CW: It’s, it will be interesting to see what happens in a… I mean, the the building software from home thing, I think a lot of people can sort of figure out how that’ll work. And that might work. The The, the whole sales and marketing side of the world, boy, that that gets thrown a pretty serious loop here. As you noted, I mean, enterprise software or enterprise sales have any kind of always been around a conference room table.

TN: Yeah, absolutely. But now I think people are used to, I mean, five months into this, I think they’re used to the Zoom interface. And what I find is, if we’ve met in person before, you can easily get things moving, if you haven’t met in person at all, and you’re establishing your first connection, then it’s a little bit more challenging.

But you know, it’s, it’s it think about, you know, what it’s going to take to get back into an office, and then be comfortable that you’re going to have customers in or vendors in to see you, and what’s the safety…, and there’s a whole bunch of logistics to figure that stuff out. And so I think many companies, or at least in the tech sector, are saying, we’re just going to work from home for the rest of this year. And we’ll see what happens and and make the best of it.

You know, what’s funny is I was on a panel with a bunch of CEO friends of mine. And we were asked a question about productivity. And all of us have different ways to measure KPIs and productivity, but every one of us said that our productivity of our development teams has actually improved. And I think part of it comes to generally, developers are more introverted. And as such not being in an office where they’re distracted or bugged by other people, gives them a chance to just focus and work on, you know, the challenges in front of them.

You know, one other funny story about on the sales side, is one of the things we’re finding now is customers that have historically been challenging to meet with in person, because of their schedules, or what have you are now easier to meet with. And so, you know, one of the things I’ve had to look at in our sales cycles, is the fact that they’re meeting with person X and having an engaging, you know, hour long conversation. They’re there, in my opinion, inappropriately moving something further along in the sales cycle, saying, look, you know, in the old world, this would be a stage four. And I’m like, Yeah, but in this new world, yes, you had an engaging conversation, but it’s still stage two, you know, it’s going to take there’s more steps we have to go through in order to, to get to the you know, the final deal close.

The advantage now of you know, our system plus Salesforce as you get this full 360 degree view of front office and back office being together. And so being able to, you know, double click on an invoice all the way through to the beginning opportunity and see that thread really provides, you know, insight and visibility into your customers that you probably haven’t had before. And so there’s some real benefits to the vision that that mark is on and you know, Marc is he often says these statements are your connect to your customers in a whole new way. And sometimes people think oh, that’s just you know, marketing but we You actually drill into you, you realize, gosh, there’s some real substance and some real innovation in you know in the in that vision.

CW: Tod Nielsen became an effective leader and CEO by facing an interesting array of challenges. Throughout it all he demonstrated thoughtful leadership, and a big heart. I’d like to thank him for his time and for sharing his experience with us.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my website,

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode we’ll continue the series on communication. I hope you’ll listen. Until then please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.