October 3, 2023

Sometimes, It Is Worth Taking A Step Back In Order To Move Forward!

Sometimes, It Is Worth Taking A Step Back In Order To Move Forward!

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Remember Bob Dylan’s famous croon about changing times? We feel thrilled when we Uber instead of driving or waiting for a cab. We are willing to pre-book a Tesla sedan that’s coming in 2018, because it is the future car. But the same things become scary when you work for a GM or Toyota, because now you see the other side of it. What if people stop wanting to own cars? What if people prefer Tesla to a GM when they decide to go for their next car? How do you foresee the future in your industry and steer your career to take advantage of it, rather than getting stuck? How do you even figure if the best option is to stay on and be the change maker where you are? What better way to answer these questions than talk to somebody who has actually navigated disruptions very successfully and emerged a happy, fulfilled professional at the end of it? This is what led us, at AnuPartha, to talk to Amal M. Johnson, who has seen it all and done it all.

It was the 90s, and IBM was struck with turmoil in the wake of the PC revolution and a drastically changing business landscape. As she reflected back at the end of her year-long stint at the IBM Chairman’s office, Amal knew the time had come for her to move on. “I had gone there with an agenda – to evaluate if I was a person who liked to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond”, she said. The answer was simple, she concluded she wanted to run a company and be a CEO. This realization set the wheels into motion as she sought to achieve her goals. Her next stop was ASK Manufacturing Systems where she was brought in to lead the application division. Amal has never looked back since. She went on to achieve her dreams when she became the President of North America for BAAN, and after its successful IPO moved to Lightspeed Venture Capital as a General Partner, then stepped back to an operations role as the CEO of Market Tools, a SAAS software company. Today she has the luxury of choosing to do what she wants to do - working with CEOs especially in Organization Building as a Board Member, and mentoring first time women entrepreneurs.

In this exclusive interview with us, Amal takes an expansive look at her professional life, and draws out key lessons for thriving in turbulent times.

Listen To Your Heart

Back in the 1970s, Amal chose to tread where few women dared to go. But this was not a deterrent; rather it worked in her favor. “I loved computer science. There were very few women doing programming and computer science at that time. So when IBM was looking to hire, their pool was small and I benefitted from that.” IBM was a company way ahead of the curve, she says, that consciously nurtured minority talent – mentoring and training them to play larger roles in the company. Amal wholeheartedly attributes her success to IBM. “They always invested in me and I don’t believe I spent more than 3 years in any one job in the 15 years, I was with them.” She was on a steep learning curve, and it wasn’t long before the realization dawned that she was much more of a people’s person rather than just a good programmer. “I knew that managing people and teams, the business aspects, suited my personality.” Amal also realized that most senior executives at IBM rose up from sales and marketing, not from technology roles. While the geek in her loved technology, she decided it was important to follow her heart. When she was promoted as a Systems Engineering Manager, she turned it down and asked for a move to Sales. Amal recalls how surprised her superiors were and how they tried to convince her to stay in that role as she was good at it, but she was not swayed.

I was willing to take a step back in order to move forward. It took some self-awareness, but I knew it was the right move for me.” tweet


Be Authentic – It Changes The Game And Makes You A Winner

Amal loved being in Sales, and did exceedingly well at it, because she says, “I never sold anything”! Instead of focusing on “what do I sell them, and how?”, she says she spent her energies on getting to know her customers well, and building a partnership with them, learning what their problems were and helping them solve them; Sales happened almost by itself! Even to this date Amal feels that what customers liked about her was her authenticity – they could believe and trust her to do her best for them, and they made sure that she succeeded!

Disruption, A Great Time To Reflect And Self-Assess

It was not an easy choice to leave IBM after a decade and a half there. But IBM was undergoing massive disruptions – it had just faced the biggest annual loss in its history, share prices had collapsed, and a proposal to split the company was on the table. Amal recalls an interesting conversation with John Akers, the CEO at IBM, when he said “Come and learn from us but don’t try and change how we do things.” At this juncture, she knew it was time to close this chapter and open a new one, and with it, new beginnings.

An opportunity came knocking in the form of ASK Manufacturing, a small enterprise software product startup. True to her nature, Amal embraced the challenge and took the plunge, but soon realized that there were hurdles to overcome, especially when transitioning from a large company to a small one. As she looks back at this phase of her life, Amal feels that the first assignment after a large company truly helps you define what you want to do next. She asked herself some basic questions - “Do I like the chaos of a small company? Do I like to build, or do I like to innovate? What turns me on?”

You won’t often be successful at the first place you join after a big company; you have got to accept that!.” tweet

ASK proved to be just that for her – a stepping-stone to a successful career. It also reiterated her love for the software business. When ASK was acquired by CA a year later, she moved to Baan, an ERP software company that was coming up fast. It was a spectacular ride for Amal in this high-growth company. She rose through the ranks quickly, and went on to become the President of Baan Americas, one of the very few women in the corporate ranks in the Tech industry at the time.

Don't Be Afraid To Experiment And Course Correct

Four years later, Amal decided to take on a new and very different challenge, in the world of venture capital. In March of 1999, she moved to SandHill Road, and became a General Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.

The venture world was indeed a very different experience for Amal. For one, she enjoyed the break it gave her from the punishing travel schedule she had to maintain while at Baan. And she enjoyed working with young companies, and nurturing them as a coach rather than as the leader. However, she soon realized that the VC business did not really play to her core strengths and interests.

Following the great dotcom crash in 2001, it was a frustrating time for most VCs, and they were shutting down more companies than they could fund! She realized that in the venture world then, Investments were mostly financial decisions, with a lot of emphasis on spreadsheets & financial models. She saw herself as more of a team/people-centric person.

I realized I am not a very good VC! I wanted to jump in and help every company that came in with a problem!.” tweet

She was also surprised by how much of venture investing is a solo business where you really have to figure things out, and face all the challenges, all by yourself. She on the other hand, enjoyed, and thrived in, an operating environment where success is most often predicated on a team, and how well that team works together.

So in 2005, she left the VC world, and went back to running and growing a start-up technology company, MarketTools. She was back where she belonged! First as CEO, and subsequently its Chairman, Amal grew MarketTools from a fledgling company to become the leading technology and solutions provider of customer insight management capabilities for the world's market-leading brands, and oversaw its acquisition by MetrixLab, BV.

Success Means Learning To Let Go

Amal has seen that great leaders and entrepreneurs succeed not just because of their ideas, but also because of their passion. Passion to build, architect, and do whatever it takes to achieve their mission. However, it’s this same characteristic that also ends up holding them, and their companies, back many a times … either because they feel the company just cannot do without them, or in some cases, because they end up feeling “This is MY Company, and I can do what I want with it”. She attributes Baan Corporation’s demise from its once-dominant position, to this one flaw of the brilliant & charismatic Jan Baan. He could not understand that the company had grown larger than him, and he wouldn’t let go!

Amal believes that it is not just founders, but also CEOs of large companies who often suffer from a ‘letting-go’ problem, albeit of a different kind. As a CEO, it is not enough to know how to spot talent and channel their passion…but also to know when to let a person go. Amal believes that such situations are often obvious to a Board Member, and it becomes his/her responsibility to mentor & support the CEO through the decision-making.

Letting an executive go is never easy, but if you do it with respect and dignity it’s often good both for the individual and the organization. Don’t sugar-coat it.” says Amal tweet


Organization Building Requires Focus On Culture, And The Right Incentives Can Shape Culture.

Amal considers compensation to be her particular area of interest. She believes that you have to design a compensation system that speaks to the culture of the company.

For instance, she says it is not customary to give stock options to everyone. But there are several companies today, even traditional large companies, that are breaking this convention and bringing in a culture where everyone is valued and treated the same, no matter the role or designation.

There are also companies that are setting a risk taking culture to promote innovation. In this setting employees are encouraged to take risks. When a mistake is made they are given the time and resources to fix it.

Compensation is at the intersection of culture, long-term strategic goals, short-term strategic goals and focus”, says Amal. tweet

How you design a comp structure that ‘balances long-term versus short-term goals of the company’, is another dilemma most companies face. "At the end of the day if it’s good for the company, then it is the right thing to do," says Amal.

There are many other questions that arise – how do we benchmark with other companies our size? What about our competitors? Are we paying too much or too little? “You have to balance all these human elements with culture, goals, and the focus, and create the kind of environment that people want to come to.” says Amal, happy to be serving on several compensation committees, doing what she believes in.

Define Yourself And Become Who You Want To Be

As a woman who has successfully navigated the thorny world of corporate boardrooms, partnerships and venture capital, Amal shares her unique insights of women and business. While compromises are inevitable, the end goal is to build something that works for you as an individual. She feels women of today have so many more opportunities now, but they need to learn how to prioritize. Amal reflects back on her times when things were different, and the focus was more on family – “People say I leaned in, I was ambitious – but I didn’t have many choices then. I had no safety net to fall back on.” Today, however, women have plenty of options, and are electing to do other things- they want to focus on building careers, travel and explore the world! “It is becoming much more personal, what they want to do, but their options are unlimited.” She reiterates that it is not possible to give a simple formula to a complex life issue, especially with women struggling with creating that difficult work-life balance.

How do we define happiness? Do you define it with children or without? Is it a matter of your bank balance or the number of lives you touched? Or simply living every day to its fullest? " tweet

Tough questions, and there are no ‘right’ answers. But Amal believes that today’s generation has ample space to define themselves and they need to take advantage of it. But they first need to really know themselves. “Things are changing and that’s why kids today have tremendous options, and with it comes the responsibility to think about their choices and act accordingly.” She proudly quotes her daughter who tells her “I don’t want things; I want experiences”, suggesting she has indeed figured out what she wants much earlier in life!


“In the first third of my life, I was learning & growing. During the second third, I built my family, my network and my career, I built my nest. And now in the final third, I am trying to give back. The older we become, the more authentic we all yearn to be. And that is the only way to find peace,” she signs off, so beautifully!


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