‘Please join us’ invite was a dream come true for great CEO and founder Dean Robertson
“Never buy the “basic” drinks package for a team event” – Dean Robertson
One member of The Growth Faculty who has every characteristic that makes a great CEO is the inimitable Dean Robertson, founder of early stage start-up Nooli. We spoke to him when he was moving from being founder and former CEO of Microsoft partner Mexia to Partner, Platform Engineering, at Deloitte Australia.
In late 2018, his whole team at Mexia was invited to join Deloitte, who were clearly impressed with their strength in cloud-based technology transformation, their ranking in the Top 10 Best Places to Work in Australia, and their being named Microsoft Partner of the Year.
Dean says it was a ‘dream come true’. Here, Dean shares 10 important behaviours for leaders, what makes a good CEO, and a high stakes decision he made in 2015.
GF: What's a story from your early days as an entrepreneur?
DR: I joined a QLD Govt funded business incubator called iLab when Mexia was only 2 months old. Mentors taught me the critical importance of running monthly board meetings to “get off the dance floor and onto the balcony” so you could take a step back and see how your business was going. Having the discipline to actually work “on” the business regularly, even when clients were demanding, and I could ill-afford to be away from them, was one of the overarching reasons for Mexia’s success.
Right up until before we joined Deloitte we were having regular monthly board meetings, and it’s a discipline I highly encourage other early-stage business to start. You’re never too young and one day it might save your life (financially speaking).
GF: From the start in 2008, were you deliberate in the way you planned out your company structure, ambitions and culture?
DR: Yes. I knew we were building a “people” business that would be acquired one day. We knew we had to be the best in order to attract the best staff, so we had a very deliberate strategy around hiring for behaviour and personality, as well as professional skill.
GF: What are some achievements you're most proud of from your time as CEO of Mexia?
- Building a team of world-class consultants that was good enough for Deloitte, the world’s fastest-growing and most successful Big 4 consultancy, to ask us to join their team. It’s a dream come true for a founder.
- Mexia being ranked top 10 Best Places to Work in Australia for 3 years in a row.
- Microsoft Partner of the Year 2017 out of 10,000 partners in Australia.
- Having Mexia’s work at Bendigo Hospital talked about on-stage at Microsoft Inspire 2018 in front of an audience of 20,000, and millions of online viewers.
- How our team rallied around a staff member and her family when she was seriously injured in the Bourke St rampage in 2017. She was, and continues to be, showered with love and support from our entire team. Happily she’s back at work with us and making a strong recovery.
GF: What qualities should a CEO have? What are the most important behaviours in a leader that best improve culture?
- Having a dogmatic vision about where the company is going and why. Everyone needs to be connected to a purpose, and they enjoy the feeling when we all make progress together.
- Being immediately generous with your time and resources. Never buy the “basic” drinks package for a team event, don’t scrimp in the quality of laptops, always trust them with company credit cards etc. In return your team will repay your generosity 100x with their effort, passion and willingness to help you back.
- Delegate and trust. Rather than insist you have to approve everything they do, delegate and let them have a go. They might only get it right 80% of the time at first, and as long as they’re willing to learn, you will get more mileage from a “retrospective” learning conversation for those 20% of failures, than having to approve 100% of their work just to prevent that 20% from occurring.
- Hire for behavioural alignment with your whole team AND yourself. Hire people that you actually enjoy working with and who enjoy your company too. Even if they have a valuable skill set, the last thing you want is people in your company that you try and avoid, because if you don’t like them there’s a good chance your customers won’t like them either.
- Be honest and open with the team about mistakes that get made (yours as well) and focus on the lessons learned.
- Be humble about your own skills, nobody likes a braggart, even if you’re the leader.
- There are no second class citizens in a great culture. Remind everyone that every boat has a hull underwater providing buoyancy and stability, even if you can’t see it. Everyone on the team is important and making a valuable contribution, from the admin staff to the leadership, even if they’re not in the limelight.
- Listen first, and seek first to understand. When there’s a disagreement, don’t hash it out on email. Pick up the phone and have a conversation, but go in ‘palms up’ so you don’t start on an aggressive note. Seek first to understand, people almost always have good intentions, so ask questions and allow different ideas to be explained.
- Seek advice and opinions from your team, but own your decision and be very clear that you expect the team to get on board with your decision. They will always get their opinions heard, but there can only be one leader and you can’t have ongoing dissention once the direction has been set. If you turn out to be wrong, be humble and own the consequences.
- Publicly thank and congratulate the team for good work at every opportunity. Nothing provides more satisfaction than being appreciated by your peers and leadership team.
GF: You have attended events hosted by The Growth Faculty, can you share a couple of takeaways that helped you lead your team?
DR: Definitely. We have taken our entire leadership team to several Growth Faculty events.
My favourite was Jim Collins in Melbourne a few years ago. He was inspirational, but the single message we took away from that was the need to focus on a “20 mile march” when running and governing the business.
After that conference we instituted regular governance meetings that didn’t try to achieve too much, focusing instead on steady, incremental improvements to our business. Having a common language really helped our team get on board with not trying to perform miracles every time we had a good idea.
GF: What can you say to impress upon business owners that they need to transition and embrace technology?
- Embrace just enough technology to make your life (work, home etc) easier but don’t over invest because it will start to embrace you.
- Enterprise IT projects have a reputation for being large, expensive failures. I think that’s because the organisation is trying to do too much at once, instead of adopting the “20 mile march” mantra of a little bit each day/week/month. Embrace technology in thin-slices, incrementally and in a controlled way that allows your organisation to adopt and master. You’ll be amazed how much faster you can move when you slow down and take smaller steps.
GF: In your experience, where are Australian business leaders at, in terms of being tech savvy?
DR: Australia is generally a very tech-forward country with a well-educated executive community who understand what technology can do for their organisations.
I think there’s room for improvement in the management level (below exec) though, with not enough deep technology delivery expertise to drive tech implementations to success. It’s getting better every year though, naturally.
GF: Mexia joined Deloitte en-masse this year, including you, how's it going?
DR: It’s going very well. Deloitte are the fastest-growing and largest professional services firm in the Big 4. Their culture is very similar to that of Mexia, and the quality of their work is outstanding. We’re still finding our feet and learning how to operate our business inside another business, but it’s been the best decision we’ve ever made.
GREAT EIGHT with Dean Robertson
What's a book you'd recommend? Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. This taught me that strategy is the deliberate interplay of different parts of your business that together creates a unique market differentiator and barrier to entry for others.
If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be? And what's the book title? (No author nominated) Building an IT professional services firm in an era of the always-on business, rapid technological change and highly mobile workforce. I’d call it “Fractal IT: A Guide to Infinitely Recursive IT Consulting.”
What's a great bit of advice you could share? Be curious and listen deeply. You have two ears and one mouth, so use them in that order.
What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover? Mexia was a company that specialised in a very niche part of the IT world (middleware) and we only used Microsoft technologies because we were dedicated to being experts in one field. This focus meant we were a niche within a niche, which made us vulnerable to better technologies from other vendors. In 2015 we had grown rapidly with 30 staff but our sales pipeline was empty and we were nearing Xmas which is a traditionally slow time of year for enterprise IT consulting.
Making things worse was at that time Microsoft’s Azure cloud wasn’t mature yet and customers didn’t want to use it yet, so we were struggling to win enough work to keep our team busy let alone profitable. As a result Mexia was very low on cash, and we had to decide whether to throw our annual Xmas party which always involved flights to somewhere fun with staff and partners.
We discussed whether to cancel the party, have local events each, or reduce the budget to something more palatable. We didn’t want to send a message to the team that we were quitters and we weren’t going to have the party everyone had been looking forward to all year. In the end, we decided to stick to our guns and throw the best Xmas party we could.
We spent a large chunk of our remaining cash, and flew partners & staff to the Yarra Valley and had an awesome weekend wine tasting, and celebrating a long year.
As a result, the team returned to work in 2016 invigorated and motivated to help Mexia succeed, and together we all threw ourselves into client projects and delivered the highest quality work we could. Those customers at the time loved our team’s energy, enthusiasm and work quality, and we kept winning more and more work from them. We survived that year because of our commitment to our team, and our team’s commitment to Mexia. Revenues grew strongly after that as Microsoft’s Azure cloud reached mainstream status, and we’ve never looked back.
How do you relax?
I have a smoking BBQ so I like to do a ‘low-n-slow’ cook on a weekend whilst swimming and playing with my kids. I also enjoy cycling – yes I’m a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra (a MAMIL).
Is there something about you we don't know? I have a desire to race a sailboat around the world.
What's the secret of success? Passion, grit, determination and a supportive family.
What's a prediction for 2025? Massive cloud computing data centres will be passé, and the world will have moved to “fabric” computing with millions of tiny data centres scattered throughout towns and cities around the world.
Update September 2021: Dean Robertson retired from Deloitte in 2020, and founded Nooli. He describes it on LinkedIn as a suite of productivity tools to help tame the volume of information flowing into your life on a daily basis.
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