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 leading CEOs 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.
We’re starting with Vincent Pilette, CEO of NortonLifeLock (NLOK). In November 2019, this Tempe, Arizona-based consumer cyber safety company—formerly known as Symantec—sold its enterprise cybersecurity business to focus on the consumer and small business markets. At the time, Pilette was the company’s CFO, but was soon named to the top spot. Little did he know that a mere three months later he would be leading the new enterprise through a global pandemic. We spoke to Pilette, 49, recently about what it was like to adjust to his new role, how he assembled his leadership team in the midst of the crisis, the role empathy plays in this job, and why being in a bad mood is such a big deal.
You spent most of the first year as a CEO running a company during a pandemic. Can you describe what that was like?
I was a CFO for 10 years and I used performance, energy, and data to push my team to perform better. Then suddenly, I found myself as a CEO. I wasn’t preparing for it. But what I found is that I had to redefine almost every aspect of my leadership style, and I had to do it while leading the company on an entirely new path. Then you add the third dimension, which is three months after we became NortonLifeLock, we had the pandemic and everyone had to start working from home. We had to rebuild everything—how to work at home, serve customers, deal with security. It was a lot at one time, but I came into the company very open to learning. There were so many things I didn’t know, so it was a process for sure.
How did you think about connecting with employees during this time?
At the beginning I didn’t find it very difficult. We were all putting our adrenaline into making this work and everyone was energized. And we were all finding the benefits in this, like being able to go for a walk with your kids in the middle of the day and then come back to work. And then about 10 months in, the fatigue sets in. I’m eagerly waiting for the environment to reopen even though it will never reopen as in the past, but it will find its new normal. Over the past year we launched seven new products compared with the two we typically do in a year. The ability to do that came from everyone engaging much more because everyone made the extra effort.
What was your leadership style as a CFO and how did that have to change to be an effective CEO?
I like to think about it as a push versus pull type of style. When I was CFO I used more of a performance oriented leadership style—leading through data and metrics to push the team to perform better. As a CEO, I have to create more of a pull leadership style. I have to convince senior leaders to embark on this journey with me and that has meant I had to slow down and really listen a lot more. Hear the different views that people have and accept that they may be right and not me. I’m finding the CEO role is a lot more about the people than it is the data.
Can you talk a little more about that? What is the role of empathy in leadership?
I discovered empathy 20 years ago when my wife told me I didn’t have enough of it! The ability to understand someone else’s feelings, and how people feel about your leadership style and the decisions you make is incredibly important as a leader, and it comes with experience. As a CEO, it’s even more important because you have to drive people to your decisions.
How does empathy help you do that?
It makes you listen more. And it’s not just listening to people who come to you. It’s seeking the opportunity to listen. As the CEO, they really only want to show the good so there’s a little less desire to open up and really talk about what’s happening. I have to ask a lot of questions and create opportunity for people to open up to me. I’ll give you an example. Just yesterday I saw a LinkedIn article by one of our lab managers so I booked time with him just to say, ‘Hey, I really liked what you wrote.’ But in the course of that conversation he started opening up to me about how our most recent acquisition was affecting him and his team. Those kinds of conversations are 10 times more important to have as a CEO than as a CFO.
Can you talk a bit about the most difficult leadership lessons you’re learning?
I’m finding out that the good habits of a CFO are the bad habits of a CEO. As a CFO, you examine the data, you move fast, you develop a plan and lay out the ROI on the investments. They look at you as the expert in the field and an advisor to them and to the CEO. So you move fast, and you are data and performance driven. And if I’m grumpy one day, well that’s ok. It must be part of the role of CFO. However, as soon as I’m grumpy one day as the CEO, everyone is saying, ‘What’s wrong? Is the business in trouble?’ It’s a whole different world. Employees need the truth, but they also need to see that I’m optimistic for the future—which I am, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this role.
Because of the pandemic are you looking for different qualities in your leadership team?
Everyone in their job at the C-level is in that role for the first time in their career. With that comes both strong humbleness and awareness of the things they don’t know. But at the same time I want people who feel empowered and lead without waiting for direction or a pre-determined path. I want people who are in the self-starter mode. I’ll give you a good example. My chief marketing officer was new to the function and without me putting some metrics or some objectives out there, very quickly determined that there was some confusion in our brand. So she came up with a new framework to streamline our brand. In all of that I was more a member of her team than her CEO telling her what to do. That self-starter ability is really important to me and what I am looking for. I also made one promise to my CFO. I said every time you’re talking about CFO stuff, you’re allowed to kick me out or shut me up! I want to de-learn the CFO role and empower her fully.
Have you changed your views about having that talent work remotely?
The first person we hired was the CFO. Natalie [Derse] joined us without meeting anyone in the company in person—including me. Everything was virtual. We hired a few leaders that the team has not met yet. What we thought a year ago about how to find and hire talent as been totally reset. I have not met my chief revenue officer in person yet and he joined in July. And yet I feel like I know him and I feel like I can call him every day. Before the pandemic, I don’t think I would have believed that this could work, but now I absolutely see that it can, and it is.
- A fear that I’ve gotten over in the past year is…our ability to grow fast in the middle of a pandemic.
- A strength that I’ve gained in the past year is…understanding that virtually you can achieve the same, if not better, results that you had when you thought the physical world was the most important thing.
- A skill that I’m working on is…learning how to get buy-in, listening, and slowing down. Learning how to make room for other views.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.