Tinkering with perfection Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Sam Cece, chairman and CEO of StrongMail Systems Inc., has an irresistible compulsion to tinker with perfection. It’s served him well with StrongMail, a quickly growing technology firm that focuses on e-mail infrastructure software.

Even after his 80-employee team exceeds its goals, Cece is quick to remind the team that it can’t rest on its laurels. The next big idea could be right around the corner, and to stay alive, StrongMail needs to keep its fingers on the market’s pulse.

“One analogy I use all the time is, ‘Hey, I know that there’s a really smart 13-year-old Russian kid in Russia that’s going to come up with something that’s going to blow this world away,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Cece about how he fights complacency in the ranks.

Q: What are some pitfalls leaders should avoid?

No. 1 is complacency. I look at this company and its emerging market like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. You’re trying to find the exact right combination to get enough airlift to make the rocket ship take off.

If you think you have the cube figured out, and say, ‘This one side is almost all red, there are a couple of yellow and blue squares, that’s good enough’ — that’s a fatal flaw.

I don’t like complacency or leaving everything the same. In the three years I’ve been associated with this company, I’ve changed things in a major way at least three times.

I set expectations with the entire company. We’re going to change things. Sometimes it’ll be great, sometimes it’s not going to be great. We’re going to break the system, we’re going to flex the system, but we’re all going to come out of the chute better.

If you think you’re here to sit in your cube and do data sheets all day, it’s not going to happen. We’ve got a company to build and a market to make. That’s going to require us doing different things.

Q: How do you motivate or empower employees?

By giving them full responsibility for their areas of expertise.

I have a very strong philosophy on changing things up. For example, a few months ago, I changed up some organizational areas to get a fresh set of eyes on things.

People will look at that as a new challenge. If I’m an athlete, I’m typically a running back, and one day, the coach says, ‘You’ve got a pretty good arm; let’s have you play quarterback the next two quarters.’ There’s something very invigorating about that. Not only to learn something, but to take something you’ve not managed before and look at it with a new set of eyes. I’ve always found it a very invigorating and motivating thing to do with people in an organization.

Q: How do you attract quality employees?

The people you’re looking for, there’s no job board for them. All these people that you want, these successful people, are not necessarily looking for jobs. It’s my job to go out and talk to them, to outline the vision and get them to get excited about joining the company.

If you look at any successful person — whether they be an engineer, a PR person, a marketing person — those people who are very good and skilled are people who are passionate about their jobs, they are really heads-down and not looking for another job. Certainly, if you can get them to buy in to the vision, especially of the future of what we think e-mail can be, that’s when people say, ‘Hmm, maybe I should take note and see where the market is shifting, and let’s see where the new opportunities are.’

Q: How involved should leaders be in the day-to-day operations?

A leader should get involved. I like to change my focus. My job as chief executive of the company is to make sure the company is moving in the right direction and chasing the right hill.

I like to focus on different areas throughout the week. For instance, this week, my CFO is thinking I’m a pain in the butt because I want to drill down and understand the financial issues and come up with some alternative ideas there. Next week, I’ll look at the marketing and PR side.

So, I like to change my focus, but I’m not a micromanager. I won’t bust in and say, ‘Hey, did you ship that box, and did you do that data sheet, and did you update the Web site and did you write that press release?’ I don’t have to say that to them. But I will drill down on different sections of the business, and I think it’s important to do that — especially with all the crazy stuff that’s happened in the last five years in corporations.

We are (venture capital)-funded, so I feel that I’m a steward of that money and that investment, and I have a great deal of responsibility to ensure that I understand every facet of the business.

HOW TO REACH: StrongMail Systems Inc., (650) 421-4200 or www.strongmail.com