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How fatherhood helped Adam Miller get serious about helping Cornerstone OnDemand reach its potential Featured

8:00pm EDT September 30, 2012
How fatherhood helped Adam Miller get serious about helping Cornerstone OnDemand reach its potential

Adam Miller could not afford to waste any more time at Cornerstone OnDemand Inc. He had just become a father, and if he was going to spend time away from his first child, he decided that it had better be time well spent.

“I realized while I was out with the baby that we could keep trudging along or we could try to make this into something meaningful,” says Miller, the company’s founder, president and CEO. “It was at that point that I decided we were going to try to really grow the business and not just limp along.”

Cornerstone was launched in 1999 as a technology company and now provides cloud-based talent management software solutions to users in 180 countries. The company grew gross revenue from $10.9 million in 2007 to $75.5 million in 2011.

It’s been a success story, going from 150,000 subscribers to 8.2 million. But it took the birth of Miller’s son in 2005 to get him to realize that, up to that point, his company had not lived up to its full potential.

“You have to say you’re either going to do this or you’re not going to do this,” Miller says. “It was pretty severe. We made a lot of changes to the business in that year. We kept the same basic format of what we were doing and we kept the same product, but we made a lot of organizational changes, and those are things that we would not have done had this not happened.”

One of the biggest changes was a complete replacement of the company’s sales team.

“It was just the wrong people for what we were trying to sell,” Miller says. “We realized to be effective, we needed to be doing solution-selling, and we didn’t have the right skills or people to do that kind of solution-selling.”

So what’s the key to taking the big idea and the significant changes that you have in your head and making them a reality in your business? Miller says it comes down to making sure you don’t blindside your people, even when you’re doing something as big as replacing your entire sales team.

“If you suddenly come in one day and you start acting completely differently and you start making all these changes without conveying why you’re doing it or how it’s happening, all you’re going to do is create massive confusion and create essentially a culture of fear,” Miller says. “People won’t know what’s going on or why it’s happening. You don’t want to do that. You want people to be supportive of what you’re doing.”

Here are some of the things Miller did to get people to support his plan and help take Cornerstone to greater heights than it had ever achieved.

Don’t take shortcuts

It may seem like it takes too much time to sit down and talk with people about your ideas, especially when you’re so charged up to put those ideas in place to see how they work out. But it’s something you’ve got to make the time to do if you want a cohesive team.

“A big part of leadership is taking the time to get the buy-in to support your objectives, even when you don’t have a lot of time and it seems like perhaps a waste of your time or an inefficient use of your time,” Miller says. “In the long run, it’s an excellent use of your time. If you take shortcuts at the beginning of that kind of change or strategic reorganization or reprioritization, you’re going to pay for it over the long term. If you take the time, you get the benefit over the long term.”

That doesn’t mean you have to talk to every last person in your organization. If you have a smaller business and that’s possible, go for it. But if not, focus on the key people who hold positions of influence in your company in the areas you’re looking to affect change.

“Those could be the direct reports to the CEO or those could be people much further down in the organization who have pivotal positions or are somehow critical to the organization, but it’s incredibly important to take the time to get buy-in from all of the key players,” Miller says.

“That is typically the critical mistake people make. They don’t take the time to get buy-in and people don’t understand why changes are being made or feel like the management team is being arbitrary and that leads to lack of support, lack of focus and ultimately lack of execution, which causes the strategies to fail.”

When you sit down with people, don’t just make it about whether or not they like your plan. Talk to them about how it might affect them and use the opportunity to gauge how they feel about their role in the company at that point in time.

“You have to know enough about the person to understand how to have that conversation,” Miller says. “You have to know, what are their personal interests in what you’re talking about? What are their career aspirations? How does what they want connect to what you’re talking about? How does what you’re working on connect to what they’re working on? How do they fit into this model that you’re proposing?”

You’ve got to take the time to show employees what’s in it for them. Don’t just make it about the company and how your idea is going to help your company make more money. Even if you try to have a culture in which it’s not your company, but it’s their company, you’ve still got to make it personal for your people.

“You need to understand the employee’s motivations,” Miller says. “Why would they support the idea? How does it impact them? Does it mean that they have to work harder or less hard? Does it mean they’ll be able to move closer to their career aspiration? Or does it take them further away from that? If you’re talking about reorganization, did one of their peers get promoted and they did not. Do they view that as something good for another person or bad for them?

“There are a lot of different and often competing motivations and perceptions that people will have about something. Trying to walk in their shoes and understand how it’s going to really impact them helps you to better present what you are proposing.”

Be approachable

It was more of a symbolic move than anything else, but it did send just the right message to his employees. As Miller embarked on his big change plan for Cornerstone, he began by firing himself as CEO.

“I came in one day and said, ‘Let’s pretend that I’m the new CEO,’ even though I was also the old CEO,” Miller says. “But I started thinking about the business as if it was my first day on the job with no preconceived notions, loyalties, expectations, anything. At that point, I was able to really transform the business because everything was up for grabs.”

Miller didn’t want the perception to be out there that he was blaming his employees for the company’s complacency. He wanted them to know that he held himself as responsible as anyone for what the company had failed to achieve.

So his move to fire himself drove home the message of Miller admitting his faults and looking for a second chance to succeed. And it helped make him more approachable in the eyes of his people.

“You need the organization to support what you’re doing or you won’t be successful,” Miller says. “There are some organizations that succeed in spite of their leader. But a true leader is able to get buy-in and commitment to achieve their vision.”

That commitment is achieved when you take steps to make people feel more comfortable about coming up to you and talking to you about their jobs or the business as a whole.

So if you request a meeting with an employee, don’t be mysterious about what you want to talk to them about.

“If you IM somebody to come into your office, it’s like getting called to the principal’s office,” Miller says. “It creates panic. Explain in the IM why you’re asking them to come to your office.

“Spend the time to get to know your people and also listen. Hear the feedback. Understand what other people think about things.

“Some of buy-in is letting them participate in the strategy and participate in the tactics and objectives of what you’re trying to do. At the end of the day, no company is run by a single person.”

You’ll also go a long way toward earning support from your employees if you follow up with them and show that their meeting with you wasn’t just for show, but that it actually meant something to you.

“Follow up,” Miller says. “Check in. Sometimes a check-in can be very quick and simple: a quick email or a phone call or drop by in person just to ensure that the people are still committed and to answer any questions or get any feedback on ideas.”

If you take the mindset that your people are there to help you and your business and that they have talents that can help you, you’ll be a lot better off.

“Everybody, regardless of their position, can have good ideas and have creative suggestions that can be very useful,” Miller says. “So everybody’s input is important. Just because somebody is in a junior role doesn’t mean they don’t understand the business or the strategy or can’t contribute to the business or the strategy. A lot of it is just about respect.”

As much as you focus on respect, you’ve also got to bring your enthusiasm to the office every day.

“It’s impossible to be an entrepreneur and not be an optimist,” Miller says. “So you have to remember the reason you started the business and the reason you’ve had the success you’ve had is because you’ve been able to maintain discipline and stay positive, even when things looked a little more difficult or even when everyone else says no.

“Being able to stay positive is a key factor of success because not only do you have to stay positive, but you have to keep your people positive. If you’re going to have doubts, you should have those doubts in private. Keep people focused on the potential for success.”

Hopefully, those setbacks are few and you have more opportunities to demonstrate enthusiasm and use that positive energy to sell your plan.

“Persuasiveness is an incredibly important job of a leader, to get people to buy in to the strategy and buy in to the tactics to get it done,” Miller says. “I just view that as fundamental to leadership — being able to paint a vision for people and getting them to support that vision.” <<

How to reach: Cornerstone OnDemand Inc., (888) 365-2763 or www.cornerstoneondemand.com

The Miller File

Adam Miller, co-founder, president and CEO, Cornerstone OnDemand Inc.

Born: New York

Education: Bachelor of science degree, Wharton School; Bachelor of arts degree, University of Pennsylvania; juris doctorate degree, UCLA School of Law; MBA, Anderson School of Business; certified public accountant

What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

I was a stock boy at A&P, the grocery store. I was 16. The summer before I went to college, my dad was a controller at a steel company. He had me work in the steel factory so that I knew what would happen if I didn’t do well in school.

It was a very interesting experience. I got really involved on the labor side and became a big advocate for the workers in the factory. I thought that was a really interesting experience. That taught me a lot about everybody being important to the organization.

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

I would probably say my parents, but I haven’t had a single mentor the way I think some people do. My parents have always been extremely supportive and that’s given me both the sense of optimism that is important in being an entrepreneur and the willingness to take risks.

What would you say has been the best part of being a father?

I love being a father. I have three kids, two boys and a girl. My favorite part is watching them learn and being a part of their learning and experience.

Takeaways:

Don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes.

Get feedback on your plan.

Make sure your people know where they stand.