C-suite career advice: Ron Nash, Pivot3

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "Broaden your experience."

Name: Ron Nash

Company: Pivot3

Job Title: Former CEO and Board Member

Location: Austin, Texas

Ron Nash brings senior leadership and experience as a board member of Pivot3. He has held numerous leadership roles at both start-up and large enterprise information technology companies including ExoLink (acquired by Alliance Data Systems), Advanced Telemarketing (now Aegis Global), Rubicon (acquired by Cerner), Perot Systems (acquired by NTT Data) and EDS (now DXC). More recently, he served as a partner at InterWest Partners, investing in successful breakthrough technology companies like Pivot3, Lombardi Software (acquired by IBM) and Vendavo (acquired by Francisco Partners).

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? In the first job of my career, I worked for an incredibly smart and aggressive VP known for being the best at cleaning up messy business situations. If there was trouble, he was there to fix it. We ran into a situation once with a business unit experiencing several issues with its leadership--one of those scenarios where a tough message needed to be delivered and my boss was ready to deliver it forcefully. I walked into the office that day prepared to fly out of town and noticed this VP didn't have his suitcase. He said he had a conflict and couldn't make the meeting, and that I would need to handle the situation alone. I pushed back, explaining how everyone looked up to him and that I was young and lacked the experience to challenge and push these high-ranking leaders. He responded by saying, "Act like you're impersonating me, and just do what I would do in that situation." I was skeptical but did exactly that--and it worked! What I learned from his advice is that we hold ourselves back with our own sense of self and what we're able to accomplish. Throughout my career, I've kept my eyes open for leaders whose knowledge or personality style fit great in a particular situation. I've been amazed at how much I've been able to broaden my leadership skill set by learning from and emulating their style. I've told many young people that his advice to "Act like me" changed and accelerated my career. Doing that over and over again made me a broader and more accomplished business leader.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? In the first few years of my career, a colleague who I highly respected came in one day and told me he was leaving the company. I asked him why, and he said, "We're constantly cleaning up messes. I'm going to a company where they have smart people working on clean, new projects. You should come with me and work on something new and leave this mess behind." Ultimately, I decided to reject this advice and stay, but found that the experience of working on complex challenges and solutions was infinitely more rewarding — a trait that has helped my career progress immensely. The reality is that most people are willing to hand off messy, imperfect projects — what some fail to realise is that this is a big opportunity to this is a big opportunity to lead as you create significant value and real change in your organisation. That propels your career. Become known for creating real value for your business. Nothing is better than that.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? There are two paths you can take in an IT career: the technical path and the business path. My advice is to make sure you gain experience in both of these areas throughout your career. Many on the technical side often don't want to participate in the people-heavy side of the business, while those on the business side are averse to the intricacies of the technical side. However, having a deep understanding of what you're building and how it will bring value to your business is extremely important. Take advantage of opportunities early on in your career and use this time to explore all of the business; this is the best way to find your path while also exposing yourself to valuable insights along the way.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I didn't consider a career in IT until I was recruited into the field. However, I did know I wanted to work in technology and in business in some capacity. I wanted to be a leader, and the technology industry has been a blessing for me and my career. It has been fast growing, ever changing and incredibly innovative.  It is a great place to be.

What was your first job in IT? My first job in IT was with Electronic Data Systems (EDS). As a part of their new employee training programme, I had the opportunity both work directly with a customer to understand their issues, as well as with our technicians on the back-end of the process. This allowed me to understand first-hand the customer's pain points and why a change in their system could be beneficial to their business — a lesson I've carried with me throughout my entire career. It also played to my desire to be a leader as I quickly understood the business value that technology can bring. That is the key determinant of success.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? Many still see the IT field as being comprised entirely of nerdy men. But what you'll find is that IT professionals have vibrant personalities — and I'm pleased to see our industry becoming more diverse in many ways. Another misconception I hear is that IT is just back-office operations that merely support the business. While that may be true in some cases, we've entered a time in which IT is its own business and has moved from the back office to supporting the entire organisation — and even our daily lives.  Most every business today is dependent on technology to succeed, so when you work in the technology area, you are working in the heart of the business. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Broaden your experience. Find as many diverse opportunities as you can and demonstrate leadership by volunteering for assignments that are valuable for your company. I have volunteered for assignments nobody else wanted because they were complex and messy — but you'll find that solving the complicated problems important to the business will cause people to see you in a new light. If you do that long enough, they'll start to hand over more and more responsibility. Also, don't be afraid to make a functional change in your career. Being flexible with your role will help you grow long term. 

In a technological age like we are in today, you need to have a solid understanding of technology to be a real force in business. That's why I advise people to get a STEM degree as an undergraduate - it opens so many opportunities for you in your career. Don't measure yourself by silly metrics like how many people work for you or how much revenue you produce; measure yourself by how much value you and your team are bringing to the business. That is the CEO headset. That will move your career faster than empire building.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I'm pleased with how my career has grown and evolved, and have been very blessed with some incredible opportunities. While I've surpassed the ambitions and goals I had when I graduated college, I think it's important to always keep trying to do more. The good news is there's still plenty left for me to do in my career, and that's something that excites me.

You need to keep raising your goals over time so that you are always hustling and working hard.  A sports analogy would be to play the game like you are always behind. You need to always be striving to make things better - every minute of every day. That is how you have a great career

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have fantastic work-life balance, but some might think I'm completely imbalanced. I'm on the road consistently each week and work long hours, but I like to look at work-life balance over a longer period of time--not just days. Early on in your career, you most likely have the freedom to work hard, push yourself to produce accomplishments and make those investments that will give you freedom later on to have another career, go get a PhD or travel the world. When you have young children your time might look different, but once they're grown, you have the freedom again to push yourself. I think it's just a matter of understanding where you are and what stage of life you're in--by taking this macro view, you'll find balance over a longer period of time. Instead of looking at work life balance every day, I look at it over the length of a career because it will vary over time.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I don't have any regrets about my career path, but looking back, there were two big decisions that could have potentially altered my life. I graduated from high school early by skipping a grade and received academic scholarships to both MIT and Georgia Tech. Ultimately, I choose Georgia Tech, but I often wonder how attending MIT and living in the Northeast would have changed my career. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I served in the Army with plans to attend Harvard Business School after my time of service. However, a charismatic businessman named Ross Perot recruited me to join him and begin my career at EDS--and the rest is history. It is fun to think how things might be different but I really like my life in sunny Texas rather than in the Northeast—and I love my native Texan wife and would never change that.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? When making hiring decisions, I look for a high degree of emotional intelligence, a coachable attitude and specific skills that will translate quickly off the resume and into practice. I value emotional intelligence and personal maturity above anything else. You could have all the skills in the world, but if your immaturity leads to arrogance or selfishness, you will not succeed. I'm always looking to hire for the long-term and invest in people who can develop and grow into great leaders - technical leaders or business leaders.