Believe Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009
Not long after he joined the company in 2004, John W. Combs gave ShoreTel Inc. the equivalent of a sucker punch.

The recently named chairman, president and CEO told the then-$18.8 million unified communications company that the new revenue goal was $100 million. With the room suddenly silenced, Combs — who helped lead Nextel’s growth during the ’90s — assured people that the aggressive challenge was one the company could handle.

His track record helped sell his employees on the idea, and four years later, the company exceeded the goal, posting fiscal 2008 revenue of $128.7 million. After that, Combs found his people a little harder to knock out.

“When it was clear we were going to make the goal, it was not as crazy to say we’re going to hit a billion,” Combs says. “A new hire might say, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ and other people tell them, ‘He is crazy, but we will do it.’”

Smart Business spoke with Combs about why you need to ask who a potential hire’s biggest antagonist is, how you get your people to believe in unbelievable growth goals and why you have to build an A team.

Take the time to find an ‘A.’
You have to attract people to your team that are A players. If the executives at the organization are not A’s, then that isn’t happening. A’s hire A’s. B’s don’t hire A’s — and C’s never hire an A. So if you’re going to build a team — particularly if you’re going to grow something very large very quickly — you’ve got to have people who can do and accomplish a lot more and are more adept than people who are a B or a C.

I personally expect that the quality of the management teams, the sales teams, the engineering teams that we’re bringing in are top notch. There’s a real tendency to say, ‘This (person) seems good. I’m in trouble, and I don’t have any other candidates, and she may not be an A, but let me get her on board right now.’ ... And you say, ‘We’ll straighten her out later.’ And that never happens because you don’t change people.

A lot of people seem to think that checking references is just something that you do as it’s convenient. I personally take time to check references for the people that join my team, and I will spend an hour on the phone with those individuals probing.

I developed a list of questions, which helps to really get at the issues. If they didn’t include their former supervisor, ask, ‘Who was their boss, and what would he or she say about them?’ The one I like the best: ‘This guy Mike sounds like a good guy; who was his biggest antagonist in the organization? Oh, it was the CFO. Well, what would the CFO say about him?’

Or, ‘Give me a difficult situation you were in and how he reacted. Would you hire him again — if so, why?’ And if the answer to that question is yes, you ask, ‘Why haven’t you hired them in your organization?’

Earn support during times of opposition.
There are times when you have to go against the team. ... So being able to stand up and articulate your principles is important, but you better anticipate and handle the disappointment and frustration they’re going to feel.

If you have a strong need to be liked, then this is not a position you want because you have a lot of opportunity to frustrate people. You have to have a clear vision of where you’re taking the business, and you have to maintain that direction through the frustration of people who you really respect.

But being a leader is working through that short-term frustration to show them the way to that long-term success.

When Wayland Hicks was the CEO of Nextel, I ran the largest region of the company, and he and I didn’t agree on more things than we agreed upon. But he had the ability to articulate to me my position as well as I could, and if somebody could do that and decide to do something different, then I felt very comfortable supporting that.

I was surprised at how much passion I would end up putting into supporting his position because he understood my position and decided to go another direction.

Anybody can do that. It’s not a matter of communication skills; it’s based on the investment of time. If you’re in a rush situation, stopping and taking the time to listen to someone and then articulating their position back to them takes a lot of time. But if you do it, then people know that you listened and will support the process.

Use your credibility to encourage lofty goals.
You’ve got to set bold, impossible goals, and you have to be able to convince the team that they’re going to accomplish those goals. When I joined ShoreTel ... I made an announcement to the team that our goal was $100 million, and when I did that, there was literally no oxygen left in the room.

We’d been working for seven or eight years to get to $18 million and to have this person come in and say we’re going to get to $100 million was seen as being pretty radical.

But you don’t send an e-mail out saying we’re going to be $100 million when you’re $18 million; it’s always done in person. They have to understand from you that you’ve been able to reach big goals before.

At Nextel, I was the 34th employee, so it helps to share that track record with them, and by letting them see what you’ve done, they see that you know what you’re talking about.

HOW TO REACH: ShoreTel Inc. (800) 425-9385 or