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“I am only comfortable when I am uncomfortable,” says Chris Huff, CSO, Kofax, as he talks to Praveen Bhadada, Managing Partner, Zinnov about his current role at Kofax, in this latest episode of the Zinnov Podcast Hyper Intelligent Automation series. Chris shares how setting the chessboard and playing the game is challenging in itself but how having a growth mindset can help to decide who says checkmate. Chris also talks about his key business philosophies and his view on the future of the overall Hyper Intelligent Automation industry. Tune in now!
Praveen: Hi everyone, I am Praveen Bhadada, your host for today. Welcome to another episode of the Zinnov podcast, Hyper Intelligent Automation series. This is part 2 of our podcast with Chris Huff, Chief Strategy Officer at Kofax. In part 1, Chris talked about his journey from being a Marine Corp to a management consultant to now being a CSO. He shared several interesting insights on what defined his journey as a leader and its key principles that have helped shape his leadership style. He also talked about the importance of mentorship and how it is changing in the new normal. In this episode, we will delve deeper into Chris’s current role at Kofax, the challenges, and its key business philosophies. With that, let me welcome you back, Chris.
Chris: Hi, Praveen. Thanks for having me.
Praveen: So Chris, let’s dive right in. A CSO’s role is often considered to represent the perfect balance between planning, execution, evangelization, communication, and many such things that are needed. So to put this in the context of the software company that you’re part of, which has heritage but is also trying to gain leadership in the automation market; which is super competitive – What are some of the key challenges you face in your role today which is very different from what you’ve done in the past? And what’s been your approach or the system that you’ve put in place to navigate some of those challenges? I think it will be good for a lot of leaders who are listening to this conversation to take inspiration from you.
Chris: My primary challenge is that I am only comfortable when I am uncomfortable. And so, if I find myself comfortable, then I don’t feel like I’m growing both professionally and personally. I would say that the primary challenge that I struggle with on a daily basis is the balance between setting up the chessboard and playing the chess game. And I think especially in today’s environment, where it’s all about business speed, the strategy offices are also leading cross-functional working groups. So, there is a level of playing the chess game that is needed. So, people need to roll their sleeves up, and properly flex between the strategic level, the operational level, and sometimes the tactical level. And while imperfect, I think I do have a pretty simple method. And that method is to just surround myself with a diverse set of team-oriented people, who complement my weaknesses and give them the autonomy to exercise their mental muscles and achieve greatness. I have got three top qualities that I look for when I surround myself with people. The first is they need to be easy to work with and be respectful of relationships. The second is that they need to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Because these types of people tend to take extreme initiatives and exercise good judgment. Just like Jobs said, ‘you don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do, you hire smart people, for them to tell you what to do.’ Well, I think part of that is these people need to have that entrepreneurial spirit and have the courage to say what needs to be done. And lastly, I think sometimes we make a mistake in hiring and put technical proficiency as the first thing. It means that we hire based on resumes and not based on potential. And I try to flip that, I hire based on potential, not necessarily based on resume and past successes. So, if that’s the process, then how do you activate it? — It all starts with networking. And putting myself out there, in these uncomfortable new situations and to meet people that otherwise, I would not have met if I stayed in my shell. That’s how I create opportunities to both bring people in and for me to get pulled into other networks. And I think that’s how I try to manage and balance to the right level where I’m impactful to corporate strategy, while also remaining influential to the day-to-day operations.
Praveen: That’s awesome. I think you put it really well. I think the three traits of respect, entrepreneurship, and some degree of technology bend, not from a previous success standpoint, but from a potential standpoint. I think they are definitely interesting. But how do you bring these three attributes together in the automation world? What kind of new jobs is going to evolve in this industry? And how to plan for the hyper-scale that this industry is going to achieve over the next few years?
Chris: I think everybody that works around you in the strategy sphere has to be big on reading tea leaves, because nobody will come to you and say – Hey, here’s what’s going to happen in the next five years and go plan around it. And so, you have to be able to consume a lot of data points, understand macro trends, understand your industry, and then start to craft or design a way forward, and clearly articulate that across your business. I suspect that the automation industry will do what technology has always done. And that is, it will converge value pools. The great thing about the convergence of technology is that it resets the playing field by creating these leapfrog opportunities for both societies and industries. We’ve done this at Kofax. Over the last 10 years, we’ve made a series of automation acquisitions, including robotic process automation (RPA), business process management (BPM), analytics, electronic signature, and many others. And in 2018, based on reading the tea leaves of the market, which again was the convergence of technologies and to provide a seamless experience that was focused less on technology and more on the experience and outcomes, we made the decision to shift from being a siloed product-oriented company to a platform-oriented company, in this ecosystem and that’s what we go to the market with now. Praveen, I believe that at Zinnov you call this hyper intelligent automation. So, I think we were reading similar tea leaves and coming up with the same general approach, but we call it something slightly different. But nevertheless, I believe, this is the next wave of productivity and then within the technology industry, you start to see a rallying cry around low code, democratization. I think this whole low code democratization is intended to scale automation and AI. AI is a bridge that’s still being built. But nevertheless, we’ve experienced a lot of success due to robotic process automation. It has led to global upskilling of the workforce. You now have financial management analysts, that now no longer have a CV or resume that says, ‘I’m a financial management analyst doing accounts payable’. Instead, they now are financial managers/bot managers. And now they are managing this digital workforce, where you have humans, and you have automation that performs these financial management operations and that’s significant. Because on an individual basis, they have been upskilled tremendously, giving them greater upward mobility, and also driving more value for their respective organizations. So, I think this convergence does reduce the total cost of ownership and the improved customer experience is going to enable greater business speed, agility, and resiliency, which are the three keywords that everybody is saying, but not everybody knows how to achieve it. And I think the primary way they are (industries and companies) going to achieve it, is by focusing on upskilling their workforce and adopting these low code, hyper intelligent automation integrated platforms that allow this upskilled workforce to be able to deploy solutions rapidly to address these complex use cases. And I think companies that are able to analyse data faster than they are ingesting the data will win out at the end of the day. These two dynamics – (i) internal – their workforce, (ii) external – making the right investments in technology, is going to enable them to reach that win-out philosophy.
Praveen: So Chris, if you ever build another company from scratch, what would you prioritize? Will it be customer experience, employee experience or technology? How would you stack rank three, as you think of building the organizations of the future?
Chris: This is a phenomenal question. I think what you see now are some of the more experienced (those that have been around a while) companies struggling because of new entrants like the fintech companies coming in, with no global footprint, other than understanding what the customers really want and then leveraging technology, largely automation and AI, to deliver against these required experiences. They are able to have greater impact and greater reach than those companies that have been around for decades. So, this is rethinking how Warren Buffett calls it – ‘business moats.’ Business moats used to be based on longevity – ‘I’ve been in this industry forever. I know these customers. I have an existing product or service line, and they’re going to consume it.’ That’s longevity and it’s no longer the primary driver of a business moat. I think understanding the customer journey and delivering personalized experiences is the new business moat. Those that can deliver the most robust and delightful personalized experiences for their customers; that may or may not require a product, maybe a product and service or maybe a service only – these companies will win out at the end of the day. They are the ones that will develop more digital intellectual property (IP) that will allow them to cordon off and protect the personalized experiences that they developed. Look at Netflix. Netflix has done a great job of using AI to develop these personalized experiences that really delight their customers and keep them sticky and tied to their model, even though there are other entrants coming in almost on a daily basis. So, I think that the ability to deliver personalized experiences will be the new business moat. If I were building a business today, I would start from the customer experience or an outward-in perspective with the customer experience; and then pull that into the products that are needed to deliver that experience.
Praveen: Perfect. So Chris, and now a fun question. Hypothetically speaking, if you had all the power in the world to build one thing, buy one thing, or borrow one thing, what would that be?
Chris: Build, buy and borrow? Well, if I were to build something today, I think I would want to build something around the ESG (environmental, societal, and governance). I think that is the big push now. This is why the business roundtable has expanded their definition of why organizations exist? And it’s no longer just to deliver to the shareholders, it’s to deliver to all the stakeholders. And the stakeholders are no longer just the shareholders. The stakeholders are the global community, the employees, and the customers. It’s no longer about creating value just for the shareholders. And I think that’s a really important driving force. And again, those companies that went out in the future will be focused more on the right investments around the ESG. And not necessarily try to drive top-line growth and bottom-line profitability. I think top-line growth and bottom-line profitability have become a by-product now and are making sure that you are a good global citizen. So, if I were to build something, it would be predicated on that. If I were to buy something, I think there’s a greater need right now around taking care of the environment. I think you should be very responsible for what you would buy. Because a lot of what you buy today, comes with some baggage. And based on how culture has evolved, that baggage can sometimes serve as more of a headwind than a tailwind. Even because you’ve typically been through a lot of consolidation within markets and industries, where there are a lot of legacy or heritage players and I think with that heritage and legacy estate, comes a lot of anchors that can slow down business and everything now is about business speed. So, if I were to buy something today, I think I would likely pay a premium for that because it would come from a newer age technology or a newer age company that doesn’t have as much baggage. So, my buy would be something that would be leaner of an organization and would give me greater speed in the market. And if I were to borrow? — I’m borrowing a lot today. And I think that business speed and borrowing is a big piece of what’s making companies successful. So, when we pivoted in 2018 at Kofax, away from these siloed product solutions into the platform, that was part of a robust ecosystem. And the robust ecosystem means that you need to get savvy at how you work with the market, traditionally perceived as your competitors. And so, I have borrowed a lot of capital, not in terms of financial capital, but in terms of intellectual property (IP) capital from our ecosystem partners. Because there’s a put and a take within the ecosystem in terms of what you get and what you give. And like we’ve announced in the last two months, our alliance with Microsoft, with UiPath, and with Automation Anywhere; each one of these relationships is set up so that we can borrow from what they do and deliver a robust experience to the customer. And then likewise they borrow from us where we deliver a robust experience to our customers. And so together, it’s not one plus one equals two, but it’s one plus one equals three. And I think that’s how we’re doing a lot of bartering now, by borrowing each other’s IP, with an understanding of the rules of engagement. And I would continue to borrow where there’s an ecosystem.
Praveen: I love the response, Chris. I think sustainable growth is a hot topic. So, building there absolutely makes a lot of sense. Buying for speed, again, a spot-on answer. I think that’s what’s the need of the hour today. And then working with the extended ecosystem to build on each other’s capabilities is a great area to borrow strengths and capabilities from. So, it’s a great response. So, before we sign off, one last question Chris, for all of our audience, any recommendations, anything around a book or cuisine or a place that you’ve gone to? Any personal experience or any recommendation that you want to give to our audience?
Chris: Well, Praveen, I would recommend the book Sun Tzu. It’s relevant to all and not just a military audience, where I was first introduced to it. But I’ve been able to parlay a lot of the learnings from this book. ‘The Teachings from Sun Tzu through the Art of War’ is the name of the book. So, the Art of War is a tremendous book that I found, and it has the principles like respecting your competitors or your enemy. And I’m teaching my nine-year-old daughter this now when she’s, playing soccer or basketball, to not just look at the record and dismiss them and feel that I don’t need to prepare for this. But know who’s in the team, what plays they run, where they found success, and where they have weaknesses that can be exploited. So, respecting your enemy and finding the opportunities and chaos. I think that was an important thing that I was able to hopefully put into play here at Kofax throughout COVID-19. We called an immediate timeout at the end of March as of last year. I was called back from international travel like so many other people. If we were shutting down international travel, we were likely going to then fall into a global recession, which we never really did. And so, we called that out the third week of March and found an opportunity in the chaos, which was to call a strategic pause to our company, gather the executive management team (EMT) together and initiate what we call ‘Project Moonshot’. Essentially, we established six major initiatives in order to understand how we navigate the crisis, and then position to win in the term for growth. So, I would say Sun Tzu’s Art of War, teaches you so many things. There are Cliffsnotes on it for those that want to dip their toe in the water, before committing to the full book. But I think it would help a lot of people to better understand how to deal with the current accelerated rate of change that we’re all dealing with.
Praveen: Yes, great suggestion. I’m definitely going to pick it up. Thank you so much, Chris. It was an absolute delight talking to you. I hope our listeners enjoyed this episode as much as I did. There is so much to learn from your leadership style and philosophies, especially how you constantly seek discomfort to be able to grow and succeed. I certainly learned a lot today from you. And thank you once again, Chris, and the audience 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.