PODCAST 106: Want to Become a CEO? Advice & Tactics for First-Time CEOs with Jim Sharpe

This week on the Sales Hacker podcast, we speak with Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri.

Aventri provides event management technology that helps companies grow their meetings and events. Prior to assuming the role of CEO, Jim served as managing director and general manager of Gerson Lehrman Group’s largest and most profitable business unit, their financial services unit where he grew revenues to more than $200 million. We talk about what it’s like to step into the role of CEO for the first time at a large company.

If you missed episode 105, check it out here: 105: Working From Home & 2 Factors to Organization Alignment with Jessica Wilkeyson.

What You’ll Learn

  • Who is Jim Sharpe and what is Aventri
  • How COVID-19 impacts the events business
  • The surprises you face when becoming a CEO for the first time
  • How to differentiate an events management company
  • Advice for people who want to be CEOs of large companies one day

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:10]
  2. About Jim Sharpe and Aventri [02:02]
  3. COVID-19’s impact on business [5:15]
  4. The surprises you face when becoming a CEO for the first time [14:51]
  5. Tactics for organizational communication [23:04]
  6. Differentiating an events management company [29:06]
  7. Advice for people who want to be CEOs of large companies one day [33:44]
  8. Sam’s Corner [39:27]

Show Introduction (~300 words) [00:10]

Sam Jacobs: Today, on the show, we’ve got a very good friend of mine; someone I’ve actually known for well over 20 years, Jim Sharpe, who’s the CEO of a company called Aventri. We talk about what it’s like for a new CEO, for somebody that’s inheriting an organization, stepping into the role, first time running a really large company. What are the tools? What are the skillsets? What foundational principles do you need to operate from in order to be a really effective CEO?

Now, before we get into the conversation, we want to thank our sponsor. Our sponsor is Outreach. Outreach revolutionizes customer engagement by moving away from siloed conversations to a streamlined and customer-centric journey. Leveraging the next generation of artificial intelligence, the platform allows sales reps to deliver consistent, relevant, and responsible communication for each prospect, every time, enabling personalization at scale that was previously unthinkable.

Outreach produces incredible industry leading events like their Unleash conference; I’ve been in and it’s awesome. And their city by city Unleash summit series road shows, along with top notch thought leadership content. Check them out at www.outreach.io

Now, without further ado, let’s listen to this interview with Jim Sharpe.

About Jim Sharpe and Aventri [02:02]

Sam Jacobs: Today, on the show, we’ve got a special guest, one of my very good friends. We probably met initially for the first time in 1995 or 1996 and we’ve been friends ever since. We’ve worked together a lot. And on the show today, we’ve got Jim Sharpe. He’s the CEO of a company called Aventri, which he just joined in January, 2020.

Aventri is an events management business. Prior to Aventri, he was the managing director and general manager of Gerson Lehrman Group’s largest and most profitable business unit, their financial services unit. In this capacity, he led several hundred professionals and achieved significant expansion of the user base, while growing revenues to over $200 million.

Ultimately, he sold the business to a European company. He graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in commerce and East Asian languages. He resides in Westchester County. Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Sharpe: Thank you, Sam, for having me.

Sam Jacobs: First, tell us what is Aventri? We want to give you an opportunity to talk about this business and then we’ll dive into how you became the CEO. And also, we’ll talk about the impact that coronavirus and COVID-19 is having on it. But first things first, what is Aventri?

Jim Sharpe:Aventri is a private equity backed software provider for the events and meeting space. So what that means is that we are a SAS model, and we have more than 1500 enterprise and association clients, so your who’s who from Fortune 500 that have events programs. And those events programs, maybe dozens of events per year, ranging from 10 people to 10,000 people.

And what our software provides is all the components that an event planner needs or a marketing professional needs to plan a valuable event start to finish. And on the side of that, we also have an on-site services business. So if you’ve ever been to a large event and you’ve shown up and the professionals that are there with the printing equipment and the badges and all of that, we also supply a lot of very important game day technology and services to our clients.

We have been in business for quite a while, north of 10 years. But I am in week 11 as the CEO here at Aventri, so pretty early. We have north of 400 employees around the world. And as I mentioned, we’re private equity backed in the growth stage of our business. We’re a little north of $50 million in revenue. We should be north of that this year, and looking to continue to accelerate growth.

COVID-19’s Impact on Business [05:15]

Sam Jacobs: From your perspective, Jim, what’s been the impact on your business, because you run an events business? How has Aventri responded and how have you personally responded?

Jim Sharpe: Well, it’s been a unique time and I’ll tell you that it’s certainly not what I expected to be facing in the third month of my first 10 years as a CEO of a legitimately sized company. And it’s been obviously an impact on our business, for the most part, on the on-site side of the business that I mentioned. We’re seeing some impacts on the software side as well, although we do have the benefit of long term contracts with our customers and we’re working with them to make sure that they’re successful with their current events programs.

But we’re fortunate in, to some degree, because of the nature of our business model. We had an early glimpse into what was coming because of the events business. One of the first big events to be canceled was Mobile World Congress. And we provide a lot of services to that event. As a result, we lept into action and started to plan for it.

Early on, we established a communication tempo with the company so that we could outline operating protocols and safety and even did a test shut downs of our offices for a day on short notice to see how the business would respond. And when that was successful, we were confident that we could go to where we are today, which is actually shut down fully. We assured the team of the strength of our company.

I’ve been communicating quite a bit with the company and also communicating with the market. It’s a market that’s been turned upside down. A lot of people are hurting in the event space, and we try to provide a voice of stability in that market. But in terms of what we’ve been doing internally, there’s been a lot of scenario planning and ensuring that we don’t forget about the worst case, because a month ago, the worst case is now the best case.

And we’ve been doing a bottom-up process with our executive team to decide on what decisions need to be made. We’ve been having weekly board calls with our stakeholders, and also trying to keep business as usual. I mean, we’re not deviating from our operating plan or our strategy despite the fact that there’s a lot of uncertainty and some decisions that we have to make.

One piece of advice I would give to anybody, and I’m sure by the time listeners hear this, it’s going to be played out. But for those who do have access to capital in this environment, I think it’s important that you expedite those discussions, have them early so that you can capitalize on whatever capital’s available to you through your current stakeholders before the situation changes.

So it’s been an interesting time. I’m highly confident that the events business is going to return and return in a strong rebounded fashion and we’re going to be ready for that. And we’re going to provide our clients what they need. But in the meantime, obviously, doing what we can to maintain the safety and stability of our clients, our partners and our employees.

Sam Jacobs: So you’ve mentioned you have long term agreements and you mentioned that you’re sort of adhering to the operating plan. You don’t have to give us specific numbers, of course, but have you maintained your 2020 revenue forecast and revenue target? Have you made adjustments there? How are you thinking about kind of implementing some of the precautions that you’re taking on an operational basis and finding their way into your financial plan?

Jim Sharpe: The picture has changed. We were this year projecting a very solid revenue growth year and a nice profitable situation for the business. We have amended those plans just to be realistic. When you look at the falloff in our onsite services business, that has impacted the plan. So we are having to adjust for that.

And then, in terms of the bookings and renewals side of the business, we’re making pretty conservative assumptions to weave them into the plan. Everybody’s aware that this is a year that is just going to be different in terms of the way it plays out. That’s going to impact the way our customers are doing their businesses, and then, therefore, how they engage with us.

So in terms of working with our customers, we are fielding incoming calls from customers that need to either change their commercial agreements or just need some help in terms of working with us. And we’ve been fair on a case by case basis, making sure that we’re partnering fully to navigate through this. Overall, we’re still expecting to have a pretty solid year as a business, given the long term nature of our contracts, but certainly, to your question, the financial plans that we had put in place a few months ago have changed.

Sam Jacobs: Thanks for your honesty. When you think about the situation kind of personally, one of the questions we’re asking in our economic benchmarking survey in Revenue Collective is, what’s your prognosis on the length, the duration of this massive economic impact? Today, again, March 26th, we saw the unemployment number was 3.3 million. When you think about how you’re adjusting your mindset, is it a two to three month thing, is it a six month thing? What’s your approach?

Jim Sharpe: That’s a very timely question, Sam, because we have been spending a lot of time on that very item. And I have a board meeting later today where we’re talking through some of this.

We’re running a few scenarios here, Sam. And the earliest scenario that we’re running, and this is not necessarily a statement of when the virus itself dissipates, but when a business, especially our business, we think is back to normal. And we think it will be a gradual return to normal. But what we are forecasting in our scenarios, the best case scenario we’re forecasting is an end of August recovery in our market, just so you know.

So that is five months out, right? And of course, I’m trying to be a conservative leader and plan appropriately.

And then you also have to plan for something that sounds terrifying, but you’re hearing about it in the news quite a bit, which is, is there a double dip scenario where, as the world is having different weather cycles, you end up going back into a situation next year? So we’re having a plan for that as well.

Obviously, we don’t expect that to happen and we would expect scientific ingenuity or some other breakthrough to get in the way of that. But…we’re making sure that we’re out in front of all these different scenarios.

But I’ll tell you, when Mobile World Congress canceled, we had a board meeting about that just simply because it was a revenue item. And at that point, we certainly had no thought that this would be continuing out past April or May, at that time. So it’s very interesting to see how these timelines and scenarios are changing on a week by week basis, if not daily.

Sam Jacobs: Well, it sounds like I’m already impressed by the job that you’re doing, because I think over-communication is the key to managing these crises. And also, I think it must be challenging to both project optimism and reassurance and calm while also trying to be realistic with people so that they continue to trust you.

Jim Sharpe: I try to be as transparent as I can be in any situation. And I think one attribute I’ve brought to the company in my 11 weeks is that I do tend to over communicate. have been communicating in writing on a weekly basis just with my thoughts.

Tomorrow morning, I have a video address with the company, an open Q&A. So yeah, we’re leveraging communication and I think it’s a combination of things. One is assuring the team and our community that we are on strong footing, which we are because we’re very fortunate to be there. And then assuring them that we’re doing everything we can do, first and foremost, to keep them safe.

Assure them that we are working with our customers to make sure that they are getting what they need in this particular situation, but at the same time, being realistic. And we have to talk about the things we need to do to make sure that we are realistic about the time it will take to recover and ensure that our business is positioned for that.

We recently partnered with three virtual event providers on short notice because we saw the trend changing early on with the cancellation of these first events. And we’re into deals with three different partners who can help us and help our clients convert their events into a virtual format.

So not having to throw away all the hard work they’ve done, just converting the format. Again, we think that there’s no substitute for a face to face meeting. But virtual can be a very valuable format or part of the equation in throwing events. We’ve seen dozens and dozens of customers and prospects coming to us, asking for our help in making that hand off to those virtual event providers.

RELATED: Selling in a Global Crisis? Here’s My Approach

Surprises for the First-time CEO [14:51]

Sam Jacobs: We’ll pull a little bit away from COVID-19 and talk about your ascension into the role of CEO. You are now the CEO of a 400 person company. How did that come to be? I think that’s really interesting, and frankly, inspiring.

Jim Sharpe: The tactical version was that I’ve always been adept at keeping long term relationships with friends and professionals. In this particular case, I had a relationship with HGGC who is the lead shareholder of Aventri. And several months ago, I had met up with somebody, a partner at that firm who had talked to me about a potential C-level position at Aventri, that wasn’t the CEO, but more it was the COO job. And for various reasons I was at GLG and didn’t see it as a good fit at the time.

But one thing led to another and we reconnected and there was this opportunity to take on the CEO role, which became pretty interesting. And I fortunately was able to get access to a tremendous amount of data on the company to learn what I was getting into and got very excited about the market that it was in. And one of the commonalities I saw with Aventri and where I was before, at GLG, was that both businesses work hard to make professionals have meaningful interactions.

And Sam, you saw it from your time at GLG, the value that getting people together, whether virtually on the phone or in-person can have, and how much they’re willing to pay for it to have a meaningful connection. So it made a lot of sense for me in terms of the mission. So here I am.

But in terms of looking back, I was at GLG on two different occasions, each of them six years. The first of those areas I was called a customer success professional, making customers happy at GLG.

I saw the business go from roughly $6 million to call it $200 million in revenue over a six-year period very early in my career and got a lot of leadership training from that. I then left to do the manufacturing thing, which I’ll talk about. But then I came back to GLG and saw the business go from probably $250 million in revenue to $600 million. I was leading the largest business unit at the firm, which was north of $200 million with very good margins, overseeing a team of about 400.

I have a lot of that experience to thank for preparing me for this role, because I did wear a lot of hats throughout that tenure. And when you step into the CEO role, I can tell you, you have this bit of anxiety, wondering if you’re going to be able to succeed in the role. But what you realize is that everything you’ve done leading up to this has prepared you and it all shows itself very quickly when you step into the seat.

As long as you stick to your knitting and play your game and leverage your strengths as a leader, you can be successful. So that’s how I got here today. I would say that, in this particular situation, with COVID-19, looking back to that manufacturing experience, it’s a long time ago and it’s a smaller business. But building a manufacturing business with very limited experience was obviously a trying set of circumstances.

And in that experience, I faced failure every day. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in a Holiday Inn four nights a week for 18 months, but I did. It took a lot to make that a successful business. A lot of the lessons learned and just development that occurred in the trenches of that business, albeit a small one, really prepare you for difficult situations like some of the ones that our economy is facing today.

Sam Jacobs: You’re in week 11, so your first 100 days: What do those look like as a first time CEO of a large company, and how did you figure out what to do? And then, also, the second part of the question. What are the areas that you’re super confident around in your new role, and what are the areas where you’re going to look for skills, support, resources or people to help augment some gaps?

Jim Sharpe: I don’t think there’s any real playbook for it. But 100 days in, 77 days in, whatever we are, I feel like some of the steps I took early on were helpful. And if you think about what I leveraged here, I would say that the only real reading I had done on the topic had been a book called How to Have a Good Day, which is by Caroline Webb.

But the first thing that I did, I tend to be a listener. And so I went on a big listening tour and was amazed by how aligned everybody was in their comments. And the listening tour was more than 50 one-on-one meetings with employees.

It was customer conversations. I did an employee survey that went just to me in terms of the results. And all that was aligned. I mean, all the answers I needed were right there in what I heard from that tour. Then I engaged my executive team for an offsite for a full day. And what we did was take some of those strategic findings and start to develop a strategy.

That brought the executive team together in a new way, in that we started working together as a team and ensuring that everybody felt ownership of the situation, which has led to a lot of alignment. Alongside that, I started communicating very openly. I have a rule, where if any employee emails me, I respond on the same day to that employee as a way of showing the rest of the organization what my expectations are for treating ourselves like customers of each other.

I’ve been communicating very openly and I think that has changed the way that our team starts to communicate. So that’s a lot of the first 100 days.

I’ve also been working on a number of tactical things, building new visibility and new KPIs across the company. If you look at where we are today, we are obviously reacting a bit to the reality of today’s news. But also, we are implementing our strategy that we’ve decided on. W

In terms of your other question about strengths, I feel that I’m a pretty effective communicator, and that’s been a learned practice over the years. As I mentioned, I’m an effective listener, so I’m trying to pick up signals from the organization and not make decisions until they are pretty clear, but also not trying to slow things down.

I tend to get in the weeds of many things around the business, because I’m extremely focused on continuous improvement. So what I’ve had to do is find a way to better step back from some of the things that I tend to get involved in just because now, as a CEO, you have a whole different set of areas to focus on.

But that said, I’m still spending a ton of time tactically with customers and employees to make sure that I’m keeping true to our strategy.

Tactics for Organizational Communication [23:04]

Sam Jacobs: What are some tactics that you’ve used? What are some new KPIs?

Jim Sharpe: I’m trying to create a lot of visibility.

We created dashboards for each department. We decided on the 3-6 things that really drive that business, and built almost like a funnel starting at the very top of incoming, maybe it’s leads in the sales process, all the way down to the bottom of the funnel metrics that we care about. And we manage those toward red, yellow, green.

We communicate on a weekly basis about how we’re doing against those metrics. And we only focus on the things that really need focus. We’re also rolling out now a quarterly business review process so, essentially, formalizing the communication around those priorities. So each executive will be presenting to the rest of the team on the three big things that they’re focusing on for the quarter ahead.

Tactically speaking, we’re diving into things like account management. One thing I found when I came here was that we had little visibility into our renewals, for example. They were being tracked by people who care about the renewals, and they were doing a good job of that, but there was no real centralized visibility around renewing our business.

As a result, now we have actually daily tracking, where teams are updating the renewals across the board on a daily basis.

Sam Jacobs: We had an interesting conversation offline about your view of the market right now, the startup ecosystem, and a perspective on how to avoid commodification. Walk us through your thoughts there.

Jim Sharpe: You and I spoke about connecting today a few weeks ago. At the time, I would have told you that there was a lot of froth in the market in startups. That’s a relatively somewhat painful thing to say given the audience here.

There are a lot of startups out there that really don’t need to exist. There are a number of very crowded markets, because capital has been free flowing, and also it’s actually relatively cheap to get a business up and running these days.

So I think there’s going to be a big change now given the shakeup we’re seeing that’s going to change the number of participants in each market. Every day I’m getting emails from dozens of people that are offering me solutions, and what I’m seeing in the market is little differentiation in terms of what providers are bringing.

And so that lack of differentiation has me worried that you’re going to find a lot of companies that get to the $5 million mark pretty quickly, but they tend to stall out after that.

So there’s a lot of talented leaders out there with great questions that they’re asking, and thankfully, there are people out there to help answer those questions. But I do think that those processes can only take this market so far, especially in this market, before we start to see some shake out.

Differentiating an Events Management Company [29:06]

Sam Jacobs: The events management market is somewhat crowded. How are you planning on differentiating Aventri?

Jim Sharpe: It is a crowded market. And one of the first things that I looked at when I was considering this role is: What does Aventri bring to the table versus others?

There are some trends in the market you’re seeing. The first one is that of customization, where the event planner is looking for a solution that works for them as opposed to them working with the solution. That ties into the fact that providers must build a fully integrated platform that allows the user to go module by module without feeling like they’re having to log in and out of a bunch of different types of businesses and companies.

There’s also been this trend toward consolidation in the space that has led to some poor integration and Aventri was certainly an acquirer in the past. But overall, you see a lot of roll-up going on without care put into exactly how the companies come together, and that’s playing out and frustrating some customers that are out there. We’re also seeing a trend toward personalization.

The most interesting thing to me about the event space going forward is the fact that you’re going to be leveraging data and AI more effectively going forward. Imagine being on an event floor in five years, where your app is real time adjusting your day and your schedule based on who’s in your vicinity based on shared interests.

And then there’s this obvious trend, Sam, it’s emerging right now, which is the virtual capabilities. I mentioned we have a partnership with three virtual providers. But whether it be streaming on the side of an event or going virtual format, that is definitely a trend that we’re paying attention to and we plan to be investing in.

We’re actually a fully integrated provider that serves the enterprise. And as I think about the strategy that we’re rolling out, it is really to double down on that, which is, I do not think there’s anybody who provides a more holistic and smooth, easy to use and flexible solution than Aventri to the enterprise. So a lot of what I’m focusing on in terms of investment is really doubling down on that capability.

Sam Jacobs: We want to give you an opportunity to talk about the strategy of Aventri.

Jim Sharpe: I mentioned the listening tour. I kept copious notes in a yellow notebook based on all my interactions, and I would review it to see what types of themes we were picking up on. We took our executive team to an offsite for a day and we leveraged those findings and went around the room and came up with a pretty clear view of who we are and who we aren’t, and maybe even more importantly, who we have been trying to be for too long.

From a software perspective, we are of the opinion that continued investment in the enterprise is the main place we should be investing. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to innovate, but in terms of the major investments we want to roll out, it’s almost like reinvesting in our core.

Now, our onsite services business is going to continue to be the tier one trade show provider that it’s always been, so nothing’s changing there.

Advice for Future CEOs [33:44]

Sam Jacobs: We’ve got folks that are listening that are 10-20 years early in their career and they want to be a CEO of a 400 person, $50 million plus revenue company one day. What do you think are the one or two things that they should keep in mind?

Jim Sharpe: Master your craft. When I got to GLG, I was fortunate that I realized that if I put my head down and really mastered the task I had in front of me, it led to a promotion. It led to somebody tapping me on the shoulder and finding the next opportunity.
Sam, both you and I were fortunate to have pretty large leadership positions very early in our career, and I think a lot of that was just to the dedication that we showed to the business.

So some of the advice that I have is to make sure that you are busy crushing your targets and your capabilities in the role you have. Think a little bit about the role ahead, but don’t do that while sacrificing what you’re focusing on today.

It’s important that you work on developing skills around that. You have to be a great communicator. You have to learn how to be strategic. You need to learn how to be analytical. Also, you have to align yourself with the right opportunities.

Another thing I’ve always prided myself on…I’ve tried in my career to treat everyone around me really well and do the right thing and be kind when I can be always.

Sam Jacobs: You mentioned How to Have a Good Day by Carolyn Webb. I wrote that down because I hadn’t heard about that book before. Give us just one or two influences: great books that you’ve read, great content that you’ve consumed, people that we should know about.

Jim Sharpe: In the case of Carolyn Webb’s book, it’s one of those books that I hand out now to anybody who reports to me. And it’s a lot of great common sense in terms of organizational development and psychology. And it’s practical and it’s also easy to digest. So I worked with Caroline for a few months while at GLG after a CEO transition.

One of the influences early on was actually a public speaking coach or a media coach that I had at GLG, a guy named Seth Pendleton, who has since moved on from this firm, KNP Communications.

He was somebody that engaged with me and really helped me overcome some mental blocks that I had in terms of communication and public speaking. I have him to thank for what I think has been a great change in turning something that was a liability into an asset.

Sam Jacobs: If folks out there are listening and they want to get in touch with you, are you open to that?

Jim Sharpe: Well, I’d be happy to give everybody my Aventri email address, if that works for you, Sam. It’s jim.sharpe@aventri.com. Always happy to chat. I think you’ll find that I’m pretty communicative and responsive. But Sam, I appreciate you making the time today.

Sam’s Corner [39:27]

Sam Jacobs: Hey, folks. Sam’s corner. It’s always just inspiring to hear people that work from the ground up and ultimately get the opportunity to be the boss.

That part is inspiring, but there’s a surprise element at first when you realize the scope of your responsibilities. But then, if you’ve been trained and if you’ve really put in the work, you can fall back on key principles of leadership.

Those principles are the same for everybody. One of the big principles is communication, making sure you’re communicating the vision of the company as often as possible, likely to a point that you feel like you’re repeating yourself. People process information in so many different ways that sending one email one time is not getting the job done when it comes to communicating a clear corporate vision and strategy.

What We Learned

  • Who is Jim Sharpe and what is Aventri
  • How COVID-19 impacts the events business
  • The surprises you face when becoming a CEO for the first time
  • How to differentiate an events management company
  • Advice for people who want to be CEOs of large companies one day

Don’t miss episode #107

It was a great conversation, I really enjoyed it. Thanks so much to our sponsor Outreach. Outreach revolutionizes customer engagement by moving away from siloed conversations to a streamlined and customer-centric journey. Check them out at www.outreach.io

If you want to reach out to me with feedback, you can find me on LinkedIn. If you haven’t rated the show, please give us five stars on the iTunes rating system so that we can remain in business and continue to bring you this show.

As always, thanks so much for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.

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