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Executive Insights

As CEO of StreamServe, Chris Stone is in the business of clear and consistent messages. StreamServe's software allows businesses to produce bills, invoices and other documents that maintain and reinforce the company's brand identity. The company is all about removing confusion, so it's no surprise that when it comes to internal communications, Stone is a firm believer in staying on message.  

Previously at Novell, the once-dominant networking software company, Stone has ample experience in the importance of clear communication. While at Novell, he tried—and, unfortunately, ultimately failed—to instill a simpler message. "There’s so much ethereal stuff in the software business," says Stone. "In software, every word has “ility” on the end: interoperability, agility, maneuverability. It’s ridiculous." His message must be taking hold at StreamServe, however; the company grew 60% in the U.S. alone in 2006.

Question: StreamServe was founded as a Swedish company before moving its headquarters to the U.S. Was the company’s management style and culture different from what you had been accustomed to? What are some of the challenges of leading an organization with a workforce from another culture?

Chris Stone: The cultural differences were significant. The Swedish/Scandinavian region employs a much more socialist, consensus-based management style. That style derives from the region’s political structure. Just to give you an idea, maternity and paternity benefits in Sweden are 18 months, paid by the government. So it’s a very different philosophy. They have a tendency sometimes to run businesses, particularly small businesses in the tech sector, as more lifestyle-oriented companies, as opposed to the American business ethic, which is about bottom-line profit.

The challenge I faced was coming in as a—for lack of a better term—“ugly American” to shake things up and focus on a few things, rather than lots of things, and make decisions quickly rather than let committees decide. At the same time, I didn’t want to alienate anyone. It’s a very, very fine line to walk. You have to spend the first 90 days to six months understanding how they operate and think and going along with it. I also had to become participatory with more people, instead of just ruling from above. I made a point of talking with people from all levels of the organization, from midlevel managers down to individual contributors. I’ve learned a lot. Any leader or CEO should always be learning, and admit it.

Q: You have a management system you call the “rule of three.” Can you tell me what that is and how it works?

Stone: Simply put, human beings can really only comprehend three things at once. The same goes for leaders. Don’t think you have to juggle 50 things at once. Focus. Everyone of my staff can tell you that I only have three things on StreamServe’s agenda at once. We only have three partners, three major projects, and so forth. If you ever ask leaders what they’re most concerned about, if they give you three issues or goals, they’re following the model. If you get a spreadsheet with 210 tasks, that company is in trouble.

Q: In articles and interviews about what need StreamServe fills, you hammer one point home again and again—you say that StreamServe fulfills “the last mile of enterprise document presentment.” Is that a deliberate tactic? In other words, in terms of articulating a vision that unifies the company, do you think it’s important to have a clear, powerful, consistent statement that’s reiterated again and again?

Stone: You have to be very specific so that your customers know exactly how you think and what you do. It unifies the company, and it also unifies the customer base, because customers learn who you are. I think it’s important to remember—and this isn’t unique to the software business, but in any business—that by just about the time we’re bored of repeating our taglines and our vision statements, that’s just about the time when most customers have just figured it out. We all have a tendency to change strategies, change statements and change visions at the wrong time. The longer you stick with it, the better off you’ll be.

Internally, it’s a rallying cry. In my career, I’ve worked at many companies where midlevel to low-level employees don’t know what the company does. Everyone is always asking, “What’s the strategy?” You need to put that conversation to rest. A consistent statement externally and internally helps solve the problem. This is all about getting your employees to be more productive and boosting their morale. It isn’t just paying them more, it’s making them feel as if they are contributing to the cause and success of the company by making sure they know what that cause is.

Q: During your time at Novell, you pushed to change the perception of the company from “the Netware company” to “the secure identity management company.” In terms of changing the internal culture to support that shift, what were some of the lessons you learned?

Stone: There was significant resistance at Novell because of the entrenched culture there. In the mid-eighties, Novell was bigger than Microsoft. It had 80% market share. Networking equaled Novell. Then Microsoft passed Novell and the biggest product, Netware, began to decrease in revenue at the rate of about 20% per year. That was the reason we needed to make the shift. We couldn’t compete in that marketplace. So we had to change the mindset.

The problem with internal culture is that it is so hard to change. You can’t teach change. That’s one of the lessons I learned at Novell. The chairman at the time was trying to change the culture by hiring external consultants to come in and teach what a culture change is. The lesson I learned was that you can’t teach culture. It happens—it just plain happens.

To make that change happen, you have to replace certain people, move different resources in and out off projects, and make some difficult decisions. One of the things I did at Novell was move an entire team from Netware to a different project. Huge animosity came out of that, but it was the only way to get the change to happen. You really have to make some hard decisions to get that culture to change.

Q: At Novell, you were a big supporter of the open-source software movement, which is much more collaborative and less centrally organized than traditional software companies. Has the open-source movement influenced you in terms of how you approach leadership?

Stone: There’s a big misperception about the open-source movement that it's de facto mob rule. In truth, it requires more leadership. You’re managing resources from all over the world. They’re not in your building. They’re over the Internet—in Brazil, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Mexico City. In the open source world, you never meet these people. You don’t see them. It becomes a very different management style. You’re not giving a speech in front of them telling them what to do. You have to be very quality driven and passionate about execution.

Q: I’d like to ask you about your philosophy of “focusing on quick wins to ensure things actually get done.” Can you elaborate on that?

Stone: In the software business, there’s an old quote: The number of people you put on a project is directly correlated to the time it takes. If you put more people on a software project, it will take longer. So don’t keep asking for more people—do something very quickly so that you prove you can do it. It shows you have an ability to deliver. If a leader doesn’t have an ability to deliver, why bother? Anybody can manage. Leading means delivering. That’s why I think quick wins—simple first time implementations—are important.

Q: You played in the band Aerosmith during their early days. Did playing in a band prepare you in any way for the challenge of leading a company?

Stone: (Laughs.) That was a long, long time ago. I think it prepares you in some ways. Musicians are a different breed. They have a tendency to be a bit more analytical, a bit more quality driven, a bit more patient. The most important way it prepared me, though, is that I can stand up in front of an audience and still feel comfortable!