C-suite career advice: Bruce McClelland, Ribbon Communications

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? “It works for me, which doesn’t mean it would work for someone else! You have to build that balance for yourself – no one will give it to you.”

Ribbon Communications

Name: Bruce McClelland

Company: Ribbon Communications

Job Title: CEO & President

Location: Plano, TX

Bruce McClelland is CEO and President of Ribbon Communications (Nasdaq: RBBN), a global communications and network solutions provider to service providers, enterprises, and critical infrastructure sectors. McClelland is a technical business leader with a proven history of developing and growing sustainable, profitable businesses through technology and business cycles. Before joining Ribbon, McClelland was CEO at ARRIS and led its sale to CommScope, where he served as COO. During his tenure at ARRIS, McClelland held multiple leadership positions and had a key role in the successful acquisition and integration of multiple companies including Ruckus, Pace and the Motorola Home Business. He has served on the boards of ARRIS and Benu Networks, and actively supports the Georgia Cystic Fibrosis chapter.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Be flexible in the way you approach your career path. Sometimes taking a lateral step or an opportunity that allows you to dive in and really understand the details of the business is the right approach. Your career won’t necessarily progress in a straight line.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? It wasn’t advice exactly but my CEO once told me to go fast, not make any mistakes and not spend any money! While we would all love for things to work that way, you have to invest when you’re in a technology business  -- everything we do is based on understanding where the future is going, betting big on the opportunity and moving fast. What’s really important in my opinion is learning to identify your errors and quickly course correct. But you can’t innovate without investment and some mistakes (which sometimes even lead to improvements).

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Join us – there’s really no better place to be. IT/tech has permeated every aspect of our lives, and every company is now to some extent a technology company. On a practical level, I recommend engineering as an educational path. It teaches you to think critically and logically and to come up with practical solutions. Of course, I may be a bit biased – my wife and I are both engineers, and my three children are studying it!

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I grew up in Saskatchewan on a small farm - my father worked for the local telephone company, and riding around with him awakened my interest in telecom. I certainly didn’t anticipate the pace of change that would occur – we had a party line at one point when I was growing up! Having a front seat and getting to participate in the tremendous innovation that has taken place in just a few decades has been both interesting and rewarding.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started off at Bell Northern Research in manual system testing for software and hardware. It was a great place to begin my career because it allowed me to dig in and really understand how different components interact and coalesce into a solution. It provided me with a lot of useful insights and a solid foundation.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? People often assume that telecom is boring -- cloud companies get all of the attention. But in fact, none of the internet economy would be possible without the networks that everything runs on, and it takes tremendous investment to keep those networks performing at peak capacity while we constantly demand more of them in terms of security, flexibility, latency, etc.  

Making that infrastructure operate so that people can take it for granted, and even more so during the past year, is actually a complex task that requires all kinds of talent, from engineering to marketing, finance, sales, and so on. So if you’re looking for an area that is constantly innovating and enables huge swaths of our lives, then telecom is a great place to be.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I’m a strong believer in preparation so take the smaller opportunity and grow from there – think about your role as CEO of the business you’re running – get outside of the box you’re in and be opinionated, interested and outspoken. And if you keep doing that it will be obvious to everyone that you have those capabilities. If you wait until the opportunity shows up you’ll have missed your chance to be ready to hit the ground running.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I love to build teams, products, and businesses, and I’ve had many opportunities to do that. That being said, I think less in the context of my career and more in the context of the company -- how can we have an impact here and now? I do have a lot of ambitions for the company, and I’m confident we can create significant value by growing both organically and inorganically.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? It works for me, which doesn’t mean it would work for someone else! You have to build that balance for yourself – no one will give it to you. The basics are about the same for everyone: taking care of your health, exercising regularly, making time for family and other relationships, and maintaining some outside interests. And then you have to put it all together in a way that works for you.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would have taken on a few opportunities that included more risk - for example I’ve never worked in a startup, and that’s an environment where you are really putting it all on the line without any backstop. I would also have enjoyed more international assignments, but the timing never worked out. Still it’s been a fantastic path so far and who knows what will come next.

Which would you recommend: a coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’m a firm believer in the importance of understanding the fundamentals of your work, whether that’s computers, material science, accounting or anything else, so there’s no question in my mind that the degree would be a higher priority.

How important are specific certifications? It really depends on the field you’re in. For example, there are multiple certifications for the many protocols in networking. Understanding those fundamentals is crucial but certifications aren’t the only way to get there. There’s a lot of value in hands-on learning and struggling through the details - you often gain a deeper comprehension when you’ve had to figure things out for yourself rather than memorising them from a course.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Of course candidates have to have the skillset to perform the job but that’s table stakes.

A “team before self” attitude - I’m not interested in people who are constantly looking out for themselves. If your team isn’t successful you won’t be successful – so I look for someone who’s team-oriented in how they can make an impact.  

Integrity matters - there’s nowhere to go once people question your honesty. You’ve got to be transparent in your dealings.

Finally, a bit of humbleness is important - everyone has had some help to get to where they are, and not being too full of yourself is an attribute that is underestimated.

What would put you off a candidate? In addition to the opposite of the above, somebody who won’t look you in the eye and is unable to have a comfortable dialogue. Lack of personal confidence can be a real impediment in your interactions.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The biggest mistake I see is coming in underprepared – you need to have a genuine interest in the company to have a meaningful conversation. What’s happening with the organisation? What are some of their latest announcements, what do they mean? You also need to be aware of the perception you’re giving through your body language etc. First impressions do matter, especially in interview situations.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Ideally both. Running a business requires business skills but I want the people leading the company to have a strong technical background as well. Ultimately business is done between people and customers want counterparts who know the technology and can speak to It intelligently. They need to be confident that leadership understands the landscape, the technological challenges, and can figure out ways to solve their problems. Finding that combination of skills can be pretty daunting, but it’s worth the effort.