World Reimagined

Why Realism and Persistence Matters: Interview with Alan Trefler, CEO of Pegasystems (PEGA)

Alan Trefler, CEO of Pegasystems (PEGA)

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 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.

Today, we’re hearing from Alan Trefler, founder and CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Pegasystems (PEGA). In 1983, long before most companies were talking about digital transformation, Trefler started Pega as a way to deliver innovative software to companies that would digitize their operations, making them faster, more efficient and responsive to customer needs. We spoke with Trefler, 65, about how he needed to rethink his leadership role in the early days of the pandemic, the good that’s come out of this time, and why work is going to be hybrid going forward. Some excerpts from our conversation:

You’ve been in a leadership position for a long time, but never in an environment like this. How did this past year redefine leadership for you?

I needed to be very intentional about communicating and giving people avenues to talk back and share what’s on their minds during this past year. We needed more transparency because people were just not in the office working, but rather at home. We had people who were not well equipped to be able to work from home because of space considerations or not having the right hardware at home. We needed to very quickly rally and fix that. In India, we got a collection of small vans that went home to home to bring the right set of equipment to people because they had been working in the office from desktops and not laptops. And they didn’t have them at home.

How did it affect how you dealt with customers?

For the first 48 hours during that second week of March 2020, it wasn’t clear to me how we could flip all these interactions we were used to having one-on-one with customers and prospects into a more virtual method. Particularly those that involved brainstorming and collaboration around white boards and other settings. But by the time we were 72 hours into it I was really impressed by how the team had flipped the script and were in a position to very substantially engage with clients.

What did you learn through all this?

That these new forms of engagement could be extremely empowering. Historically, we would have what we called a catalyst session where we would have a small team, maybe three to five employees, work with a team of five to 15 clients for two days to two weeks to re-envision some of their critical business processes. To be able to reconsider how they wanted to work, how they wanted to engage with customers, and interact with each other. It would routinely take a couple of weeks to a couple of months to set up one of these sessions because we had to get everyone in the same place. With all of this moving to virtual, it suddenly made it easier to do these rapidly and it reduced a lot of the impediments to getting the right people in for the right part of the engagement. That’s when I thought that instead of worrying about the lack of in-person interaction, we should emphasize the empowerment of being able to bring the right people together at the right time.

How did you see your role as CEO changing through all this?

I wanted to make sure people’s heads were in the right place at the beginning of all this. There were a lot of questions they were asking and not a lot of great answers. In those early days of the pandemic, I talked to my team about the Stockdale Paradox. [Admiral Jim] Stockdale was the longest standing prisoner of war in Vietnam. And he was famous because he built a culture where the men in captivity with him were able to maintain hope without undue optimism. People who were overly optimistic would operate with high effectiveness for a while, but then get worn down by disappointments and ambiguity. Stockdale said the people who made it, and set the right example for others, were the ones who said, look we’re going to be brutally honest about this situation. We’re in a tough spot but we have confidence in each other, ourselves, and we’re going to persevere. So we’re not going to let the reality of this tough spot grind us down. The people who brought that combination of realism but a commitment to persistence had a much better track record than the folks who were unduly optimistic or were pessimistic.

Did you think it was your responsibility to model that with your employees?

Yes, to role model it and to teach it. To show that we had confidence that we would persist. We couldn’t predict the way everything was going to work out, but we could do the best that we could. Many of our teammates were really being brutalized by the current environment—someone at home lost a job, they were having a tough time at home. I didn’t minimize any of that, but I did say we would persevere and we were able to make a commitment not to lay anybody off, which was very reassuring. I mean, our travel coordinators saw their jobs literally disappear, no one was traveling, and so we found opportunities for them to contribute in other ways.

What’s been the most challenging leadership lesson to operationalize?

There’s probably a list of them. One of the things that’s challenging is that when you’re extremely busy you need to be constantly looking to bring in fresh talent. The business needs to grow from the experience of others. And so one of the critical lessons I’ve had to learn over the years is to not become insular, to look at the company with a set of outside eyes. It’s very common for companies, especially in times of stress, to really become focused internally at exactly the wrong moment.

What do you think the workplace is going to look like now that things are opening back up?

I do believe the world is going to be pretty hybrid going forward. Some of the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic are good ones. Last night I was talking to folks in Australia, this morning I was talking to folks in Germany. It’s very empowering not be constrained by the physical limitations of being in person.

Some CEOs have said that people need to be in the office, in person, for true collaboration and innovation to take place. What do you think of that?

I think that’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at the world that became staggeringly old-fashioned in the last 15 months. People who don’t have confidence that their folks aren’t doing the right stuff unless they can stare over their shoulders are not going to either attract the right talent or get the right results from them. They’re going to be at a tremendous disadvantage.

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

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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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