A theme that has developed over the past 15 years of my career is becoming a turnaround executive.
It began when I went to lead the European, Middle East and African business at IBM. It was a $25 billion business that was not doing very well.
We were able to bring in a new team, innovate and get much closer to our customers and market, turning the business around. Then I went to Siebel Systems and did a turnaround there before going into private equity, where I did a lot of similar work.
At IBM, I got to work with one of my generation’s best business leaders, Lou Gerstner. He’s the reason why I do many of the things the way I do them today.
I learned the power of communications, the power of keeping things simple and the power of the normal tension between patience and wanting to get things done. I also learned about the significance of a disciplined management system and the need for an overriding focus on clients, markets, competitors and tangible business results.
After 27 years at IBM, I wanted to take everything I learned and apply it to a real-life situation where I had the ultimate responsibility for the results.
I was 50 years old and realized I could either get comfortable there or try to stretch myself. I remember I had a conversation with my family, and we took a vote about me leaving. It was split 50-50, but I ultimately made the decision to leave for Siebel Systems.
There, I was proud about what we accomplished.
We had identified a major shift in the market toward software services. I remember having the discussion where I felt that the new competitor was going to be salesforce.com and that we should compete in a certain way.
The founder and I didn’t see eye to eye, and so I left from that situation, but I was proud of the fact that we identified the market shift. I learned a lot of lessons. That was my first time as a chief executive of a public company, so I didn’t do everything right, but it was a very meaningful and positive experience.
Until transitioning to ValueAct Capital Partners, I had always been an executive. Now all of a sudden, I was the investor sitting across the table from the chief executive and trying to advise him or her on how to improve the value of their company. It was an enormously powerful lesson for me: Whatever business moves you’re going to make, both short term and long term, you must understand how that plays out in terms of the valuation and value you create for your shareholders. Sometimes you need to get smaller to get more profitable. I learned how to stick with my convictions as I began to turn a company around. It’s very easy to get sidelined into activities that don’t significantly bring value.
Learning both sides of the table very well, I went on to be the chief executive of Misys.
Now here at CSC, I bring a game plan that has a pretty good track record of success and a playbook of ideas and approaches to turning a company around.
—Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: President and chief executive of CSC, a Falls Church-based company that provides technology-enabled business solutions and services.
Career highlights: Chief executive, Misys; partner, ValueAct Capital Partners; president and chief executive, Siebel Systems; senior vice president and group executive; IBM.
Education: BA, history, Drexel University; MBA, finance and marketing, Ohio University.
Personal: Commutes from Connecticut to Falls Church. Married with a son and a daughter.