About a year and a half ago, the world’s 4 biggest enterprise-apps companies had very different feelings about the co-CEO model: Oracle, SAP and Salesforce all had co-CEOs, while Workday had a single CEO.
But today, Workday is the only 2-CEO vendor in the bunch—and co-founder and co-CEO Aneel Bhusri is thrilled with his new working arrangement.
More focus on products and technology
In a wide-ranging conversation Bhusri and I had late last year, he talked about what I would describe as his sense of relief and renewed enthusiasm in being able to focus more on products and strategy while co-CEO Chano Fernandez handles day-to-day operations.
The subject came up as Bhusri was describing the unprecedented challenges that confronted CEOs in every industry in 2020. I asked Bhusri how the appointment of Fernandez as CEO on Aug. 27 had enabled Bhusri to be a more-effective leader.
“Well, taking a step back, I didn’t get the training to run a huge company—let’s just say that,” Bhusri said with a laugh.
“Workday is 12,000 people, and I was feeling stretched pretty thin. I’d been the sole CEO for seven years now.
‘Two was better than one’
“The best time I had at Workday was when Dave [co-founder Dave Duffield] and I were co-CEOs. I’ll never forget those years. We had such a great time working together and there were two of us and two was better than one.
“Just in thinking about that and making sure that Workday didn’t get stale because I’d been in the role for a long time, I felt like it was time to elevate Chano—he’s earned the right to be co-CEO.”
Bhusri then expanded on his opening comment about never having received “the training to run a huge company,” along with his understandable desire to spend more time doing the parts of the job he loves the best and believes generate the greatest value for Workday.
“Chano’s a much better operating executive than I’ll ever be, and what it also allowed me to do was to free me up to focus on the things that hopefully the world would agree I’m good at, which are products and technology.
“And frankly, it also frees me up to spend more time on some of the Workday Foundation and our own family giving efforts.”
Bhusri then described a dynamic that’s more personal but still has a powerful business impact.
“Chano was taking on a big load of the customer and market facing activities and he’s really a rock star,” Bhusri said.
Friendship is the key
“And much like Dave and I are very close friends, Chano and I are close friends as well.
“I get asked the question, ‘how do you make the co-CEO model work?’ Number one, friendship. Number two, you leave your ego at the door. We’re just not big-ego people and so we need to figure out what do we need to do to be successful as a company because we’re stewards of this company,” Bhusri said.
“So we’re just dusting off that co-CEO playbook that Dave and I had and we’re now applying it to me and Chano.
“I’m excited to get back into the products and technology. I won’t say that I got really far away from it, but I wasn’t able to spend the amount of time I wanted to spend on it.”
We then got into an exchange about something Bhusri first mentioned to me in a conversation a couple of years ago: his role as “Pied Piper of Workday” in which he selects a high-priority initiative and pushes it relentlessly throughout the company.
And, fairly soon, everyone else is pushing it relentlessly as well.
“That’s exactly what I did for machine learning and I’m still doing that, and now I’m championing an elevated user experience,” Bhusri said.
Relentless push for ‘elevated user experience’
“When I look at the user experiences for different systems, there’s a new bar being set by the consumer internet almost every day. And then there’s a new bar being set by the new generation of cloud companies like the Zooms of the world.
“We just have to make sure that we’re always on that leading edge, that cutting edge of user experience because the most valuable systems aren’t necessarily the most powerful—although that helps—it’s the ones that people like to use.
“And we always have to remind the teams about that, so that’s my new Pied Piper job.”
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