World Reimagined

Defining Leadership in a Broader Way: Interview With Zane Rowe of VMware (VMW)

Zane Rowe

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced businesses of all kinds to rewrite their playbooks. Employee engagement and communication, customer service, supply chain management—it’s all been redefined in this new virtual environment. Central to this seismic shift is a new definition of leadership that is emerging. In this series, Nasdaq will be speaking with today’s leaders about how they’re reimagining their role as they guide their organizations through this pandemic. We’ll see what that transformation looks like and how it is helping them prepare for the next normal.

Today, we’re speaking with Zane Rowe, chief financial officer and interim CEO at software company VMware (VMW). Zane was named to the top spot in February. We spoke to Rowe, 50, about what it’s been like to lead the company during the pandemic, how his leadership style has evolved, and why he’s so proactive about asking people for feedback. Some excerpts from our interview:

How has the past year changed the way you think about leadership?

I think it’s taught me a lot about empathy, humility, and compassion. When you think about how we led over the past year, how distant we’ve all had to be, yet how close, it’s amazing. Through Zoom and Teams, we’re meeting family, pets, and friends. That’s never happened before. The line between work and home life has never been as blurred as it’s been over the past year.

So as we look to the future, I think we’ve reached an inflection point where the definition of leadership is so much broader. For instance, I’m part of A4S, which is Accounting for Sustainability. It’s a number of CFOs that focus on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) efforts. And as we were going into the pandemic we were concerned that companies would pull back on their efforts in this area and what’s happened is the exact reverse. They’ve leaned in because the pandemic has highlighted the need for this broader stakeholder mission. 

Do you think about leadership differently now as the CEO compared with the CFO role?

There are lots of similarities among the roles, so I don’t think so. I believe the bigger issue is that leadership overall is changing. Whether it’s finance, or operations, or anywhere else in the company, it’s really about all the stakeholders and not only the employees.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I like teams, I’m team-oriented. I like the collaboration that takes place in teams and the speed with which you can get things done. My style is to include a diverse group of people that have a shared set of values and see where we can go.

Employees have been working remotely for over a year and will probably do so in some form for the foreseeable future. How does that rewire the way you, as a leader, define success?

There’s no doubt that we’re going to have a combination of leading people in person and virtually. I think the new definition of success will be how you pull that together to be effective as a leader in motivating everyone no matter where they are. All of us have years of experience motiving people in person, stopping by someone’s office and just talking. We all know how to do that. How leaders accomplish that in a hybrid model is going to be very interesting. And exciting.

How are you managing to stay connected to employees now?

We’re doing far more pulse checks with employees, just checking in with them to see what’s on their minds. We’re very aware of the toll the pandemic has taken on people. The old definition of work is gone because people are doing everything at home. So we want to make sure that Zoom calls aren’t happening over the weekend and that people have a break. We mandate days off and it’s really frowned upon if you’re sending emails on your days off.

You’ve been in senior positions for much of your career. What’s the leadership lesson that’s been the hardest for you to learn?

Any lesson that involves changing behavior. Most leaders have had some success in getting to where they are, but that same recipe doesn’t hold true forever. You need to adapt and change and that’s hard. Before the pandemic, I used to stop in different cubicles and just talk to people. It’s a little harder to do that on a Zoom call. So I’m challenging myself to become a better leader in this environment. I mean, you could have done a good job for 10 years, but that’s no guarantee that it will be that way for year 11.

Do you have to work harder as the CEO to have people be candid with you?

Wow, I don’t think so. It’s still early days and people are still being quite candid with me, so I guess that’s good. I have been pretty proactive and have asked people, ‘hey what are some areas that I should be leaning into more?’ Asking for help encourages people to be more transparent with you. If you position the ask in a certain way, people want to step up and help.

Rapid fire:

  • A fear that I’ve gotten over in the past year is…that companies wouldn’t be able to innovate and grow during the pandemic. They can.
  • A strength that I’ve gained in the past year is…a strong appreciation of our team’s grit and ability to succeed.
  • A skill that I’m working on is…how to have a bigger social media presence! I’m not on Twitter and I’m not active on a lot of social platforms. But I’m open-minded.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune,, and in a variety of other print magazines.

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