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ZINNOV PODCAST   |   Intelligent Automation

Hidden Figures – The Leaders Behind Automation Technology ft. Chris Huff (Part 1)

Chris Huff
Chris Huff Chief Strategy Officer Kofax

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast – Hyper Intelligent Automation series, Chris Huff, CSO, Kofax talks to Praveen Bhadada, Managing Partner, Zinnov about his journey of choices, micro-risks, technology, and leadership. Chris’ unique journey of being a Marine, a Management Consultant, and now a Chief Strategy Officer at Kofax, one of the leading automation players, has helped him continually reinvent himself, rethink leadership and be a part of space where he can influence the future of technology.

Chris in this podcast shares his evolving leadership style and how it has enabled his journey. He talks about creating seamless employee-consumer relationships and restructuring business philosophies. “Leadership is something we cannot take for granted,” says Chris – as he talks about supporting the new workforce, increasing outreach, and reinforcing the importance of soft skills, such as curiosity and critical thinking, to overcome the challenges of the digital era. Tune in to this episode and know more about Chris and his magnificent journey as a Hidden Figure ‘The Leaders Behind Automation Technology’.

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Praveen: Hello, everyone, and a very warm welcome to yet another interesting episode of the Zinnov podcast, Hyper Intelligent Automation series. I am Praveen Bhadada, Managing Partner at Zinnov and your host for today. For several months, we have been talking to the stalwarts of the automation industry to get their perspective on the market, the rising trends, the defining technology innovations, and many more things like that. But in this podcast today, we will be taking you behind the scenes and shed some light on the real heroes of the automation industry. Yes, we are talking about the leaders themselves. Who they are? How have their individual journeys impacted their role within the automation space? And how have their responsibilities transformed over the years given the massive traction of the automation industry? With that, allow me to introduce today’s guest, Chris Huff, Chief Strategy Officer at Kofax. In his role as CSO with Kofax, Chris develops and drives the company’s global strategic initiatives, intelligent automation, thought leadership, and cross-functional horizontal integrations. But outside of his professional capacity, there’s so much more about Chris, that has played a significant role in his journey to the very top. Through this podcast today, we intend to probe Chris on what does it take for a leader in this modern era to keep pace with the changing dynamics? And always stand tall in the face of adversities. Welcome to the show, Chris.

Chris: Hey Praveen thanks for having me.

Praveen: Perfect. So now let’s just quickly begin the session. Chris, I’m very, very intrigued about the career you’ve had so far. You’ve had many unconventional, diverse, illustrious, career roadmaps so far. I believe, serving as a major in the US Marine Corps, to becoming a management consultant to serving as a CEO, at a high growth startup that had an exit, to now donning the hat of a CSO in a fast-growing company. You truly embody range, Chris, if I can say so. I would love to understand and get started on this podcast, by really asking you on some of the common threads that have tied all these experiences together for you. And made you so effective in your current leadership role. Give us a little bit of a background on who Chris really is, and what has been the journey so far?

Chris: Wow, no softball questions out of the gate here. And I like how you position it as unconventional and diverse. That is a very tactful way of saying, what the hell were you thinking while making the decisions, that you had made? It’s been an amazing ride. And I think like most, it’s a lot of both, effort and luck. So, while I have plenty of fight left in me, I can acknowledge them closer to the end, than the beginning. And when I look back on the road that I’ve traveled; I take great pride in being a lifelong learner above all else. Because I think from that comes intellectual curiosity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration skills. All of these soft skills are needed, especially in this rapidly changing technology and digital era. And I found that these intangibles have been helpful, not just in this digital economy, where we’ve got this rapid sort of ingestive data. It’s all disparate in terms of how you can get smart about things. And so, the onus is not just on getting the data, but on drawing the connections. And I think that’s the value, or the common thread that has really helped me throughout my career. The fact that I have been able to draw connections around a bunch of these different disparate data points. And then having the courage to have a voice and make decisions that maybe few others are ready to get behind, and not just get behind, but hear. Because some people will listen, but are they really hearing what you’re saying? To be able to hear people and then get behind it, does take a level of leadership. Especially, in terms of how you inspire people to line up behind your ideas. And I think that’s what sort of helped me, as I’ve moved along. But then, there’s the luck side of it. And the luck side of it is that I’ve been extremely lucky to have a number of amazing mentors in my life. Great people that have believed in me, spent time helping me grow, provided me opportunities, and recognized my efforts. So, looking back on my career, I would say the common thread for me, was with the very first leadership trait that they teach you when you become a marine officer. And that is, know yourself and seek self-improvement. These traits have shaped what most would describe as my servant leadership mentality. It has helped me grow tremendously as a person, both professionally and personally. The servant-leader philosophy has led me into so many new and exciting situations, and inevitably put me on a path of pursuing more impactful initiatives in life and finding purpose. And the byproduct of that is the unique chapters in my book of life, that you so eloquently pointed out, were unconventional and diverse.

Praveen: Right. No, that’s amazing Chris. I think the three things that you talked about connections, leadership, and luck, are really important. Everyone has their own relevance in the way individual careers kind of unfold. And personally, I take a lot of inspiration from people who have been successful in different settings and adverse situations. The scenarios that they had to deal with. People like Andy Grove from Intel, Bill Campbell, who has been a coach for everyone in Silicon Valley. Ben Horowitz, who has made some very smart decisions on future investments, and so on. Is there anybody in your last 20 -25 years of career, that you look up to? And you have taken leadership lessons from? Who do you go to for coaching? Who inspires you? Give us a little bit more detail on who has influenced the shaping of your career at different stages of your path?

Chris: That’s another great question. I love how introspective these are. I would agree, Andy is definitely a class of his own. I think just philosophically, leadership is something that we cannot take for granted. It’s a privilege to lead and manage people. And while I admire a whole host of business leaders from, Warren Buffett’s and his long game thinking to Bob Iger’s ability to deliver premium experiences; based on the military background, Sun Tzu for strategies and principles, like respecting your enemy (our competitor in this space), finding opportunity and chaos, using the element of surprise to outmaneuver competitors. All of those are very important. And I think I draw on those as I move forward when it’s relevant. But my greatest idol that has shaped my leadership style has been my mother. So, I was raised by a single mom of five. And I’ve never seen so much passion, loyalty, and perseverance, and that never quit drive. And I think that my mother’s work ethic allowed her to juggle five kids and at times three jobs. Could you imagine raising five kids and trying to manage three jobs? I mean, those were some complex situations. But she managed to use her critical thinking to decompose these very complex situations, and rapidly find success through straightforward strategies, such as not letting good be the enemy of perfection and just get started. And if you need to recalibrate on the fly, then so be it. But just get started, finish and tackle the next problem. So, I think that I use these teachings as guiding principles to my everyday approach to life. And I’ve got several examples that we could get into if you wanted to. But I think that’s more important to me than anything, that is having an a la carte menu. And it all gets back to improving. I’m assuming you’re just a well-read individual and that you’re just a lifelong learner constantly absorbing. That’s what this comes down to – Being mindful of the different leaders and the different leadership traits and philosophies that they exude. And then properly pulling on those when needed, given the complex situations, we all find ourselves in. But to answer your point, there is a true north, and my mother has served as my true north in the work ethic and all of these very deep traits that she instilled in me from the outset.

Praveen: Love it. That’s brilliant. So, if your mother were to give an assessment of you today, what would her opinion be of you today, Chris?

Chris: So, I would hate to speak for my mother. But since you have asked, I think that if my mom were to sit down and give me an honest assessment; I think she would remind me to continue being humble and help others. Mentoring, it’s something that we all need to take time to do. The gift of passing on knowledge provides the recipient the most valuable gift in the world. And that’s time. And that’s what my mom always strove to create – time. Because again, while she was balancing very complex situations, the outcome that she wanted to create was more time for her kids. And so, I think that’s what I do. And I think that’s what we do through mentoring. Those that we mentor gain time through shared knowledge because they can make better-informed decisions without needing to traverse the already traveled minefields. And who of us Praveen, doesn’t want more time?

Praveen: Absolutely! And I can, with confidence, say about you, Chris, I mean, at least from a Zinnov perspective, and personally for me, you’ve always come across as a very humble human being. And, of course, you’ve helped Zinnov, as a company, a whole lot in terms of making progress on our programs. You’ve mentored us, and been very generous with sharing knowledge, that you have in this industry. So, I can attest to, how your mother must have given her feedback. And I also love your comment about the learnings you have taken from people like Buffet and Bob Iger is one of my favorite authors. Sun Tzu, I have not read enough, but I think every other book, keeps quoting him. So, by virtue of those quotes, I’ve learned a little bit of his philosophy and leadership style. So, I think it’s all really good stuff. So Chris, now purely for the Zinnov audience, we have about 800 consultants and analysts who are going to listen to this podcast. You’ve been a management consultant yourself. And now you’ve changed gears to come to this fascinating world of automation. And you explain the convergence and the value pools and things like those. What prompted that move, Chris? What did you observe as a management consultant, that you chose to come on the other side and walk the talk if I can say so?

Chris: Yeah! So anybody watched the movie, Forrest Gump? Forrest Gump had various chapters in his life and similarly, I see my life as being a book and I want each chapter to be really interesting, I would hate for all of my chapters to just sort of blur together. And so I tried to create very unique experiences for each one of my chapters in life. In my first chapter, I wanted to be a public servant and give back, so did 20 years in the Marine Corps and retired. I was a financial manager. So I had a marketable skill set that I was able to sort of, you know, transfer to the commercial sector and then went to Deloitte Consulting, and at Deloitte Consulting, instead of consuming enterprise software, which I did for 20 years in the Marine Corps; I now wanted to help implement it at a grander scale outside of just the department of defense. And so I was able to do that. One of the innate qualities that I’ve had was always wanting to play at this intersection of financial assets and technology. And how do I get the most out of my given financial constraints? And a big piece of that answer is technology. And so, I always had this affinity for technology, but always played into the asset and value creation space. And I think, parlaying that into a management consulting role at Deloitte allowed me to go there and help start the automation practice, primarily focusing on robotic process automation. About eight years ago, RPA was very hot then. But I think that’s why I found a natural affinity for the technology and the assets space. Therefore, management consulting based on it being a new chapter, was sort of not a step too far, but a step away from what I had been doing. And then I said, Okay, not only have I, consumed and implemented the technology but then I went and consulted on how to start from scratch in some instances? How to incrementally improve in other instances? But now I want to take this and go to a product company. And if you think about it Praveen, you’re right. Like, this is a strange role for a business strategist to be serving as a Chief Strategy Officer of a product company. That’s weird. It typically is an engineer by trade that sets in, and they typically call it a CTO Chief Technology Officer. But let’s look at what’s happened lately, globally. And that is, organizations are not buying technology anymore. They’re buying outcomes, they’re buying results, they’re buying experiences. And so many of the product companies now that are successful, don’t really talk about their product, they talk about the outcomes that can be achieved if you use them. Look at what Microsoft is doing. These are companies that are traditionally viewed as product companies that have now delivered tremendous services. And those services now are what they’re selling, and that pulls in the product. I think that’s what’s enabled me to come here. I wanted to be uncomfortable again. I wanted to have a unique chapter in my life. And I thought that what could I bring that would help the organization. I believe that Kofax has been able to recast its image into the marketplace in an effective way, where our traditional customers needed us to go, and where our future prospects need the technology, that Kofax can now bring. So, it feels like we’ve got a good balance of protecting the baseball positioning for the future strategy that we’ve unveiled over the last couple of years here at Kofax.

Praveen: Perfect. One of the quick things I wanted to also ask you is and this is a little bit inspired by Vala Afshar from Salesforce. If you could go back in time and advise a younger version of yourself to do something differently, what would that be? What would you advise to your younger self?

Chris: Giving advice to myself. Praveen, we could be here all day.

We won’t take the scenic route here; we will get straight to it. This introspective exercise here reminds me of the adage, as we get older, our parents get wiser. Meaning as we accumulate experiences, we realize that the advice that our parents shared with us when we were kids, were spot on. And had we listened, we could have saved ourselves so much time and headache. But we had to learn the hard way. But to your question, if I were able to meet up with a younger version of myself, I guess I would start by saying, slow down, have faith in your instincts and take risks, but also take the time to embrace the moment and celebrate the small wins, not just the big ones. Because the big ones are few and far between. And more than anything, take the time to mentor. The gift of passing on knowledge provides the recipient, again, the most valuable commodity in the world. And that is time. And so, I think that all of us, especially those of us that have spent a good amount of time in our industries and have some experience to share, should not wait for people to knock at our door. But we should just be mindful of who is around us, who’s joining our organizations, and ensure that we have a strong mentor-mentee process set up. Because especially in the current COVID environment, where we are not in the office and not running into each other in the hallways, there is a younger generation right now that is missing out on those hallway conversations. And so, the onus is on to the more experienced of us to do the outreach and make sure that we are mentoring appropriately.

Praveen: Yeah, that’s so true. I think we’ve been onboarding a lot of people. And it’s funny, in the last 10 months, we haven’t been able to meet anyone of them. And they’re just catching up. But it’s the onus like you said, is on all of us to make sure that they feel comfortable. And they are mentored enough to be able to get the same benefits that we got.

Chris: That’s right, they don’t know our organizations and all the mechanisms and the accessibility that is there. And so, the onus to your point Praveen, needs to be on us. To do that outreach and make sure that they feel comfortable, that they feel empowered, that we empower them and give them the right level of autonomy. But we also give them the right level of guidance. I think we’re all seeking that regardless of what level we are in. I do this with my mentors almost on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. Because of the challenges that we’re all working through, I reach out to my mentors and say hey, can we grab 15 minutes to talk to you about something? When you’re first starting out, sometimes that can be overwhelming. Like, I don’t want to bother somebody. And so making them feel comfortable. Yes, please bother me. Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to benefit from taking on as much experience as quickly as possible.

Praveen: Awesome. So, Chris, this was truly an enchanting session with you. Not only did we learn more about you as a human being, but more so how your own diverse set of experiences, gave shape to your leadership principles and your approach towards sustained success. We truly hope that our listeners found several key takeaways that can one day help them set the tone straight with their own career goals or leadership goals and enable them to focus on unleashing the very best versions of themselves. Thank you so much. I truly appreciate your time. And thank you everyone for tuning in to this episode of the Zinnov podcast series. Have a fantastic time ahead and we will see you very soon. Thank you so much.

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