As a veteran of Silicon Valley, Ebrahim Abbasi has an established track record of high growth and turnaround success stories, including the restructuring of Roamware (now Mobileum), the transformation of Force10 Networks and subsequent acquisition by Dell, the turnaround of Redback Network’s corporate operations functions leading to a $2.1B acquisition by Ericsson, and as a member of the executive team growing Ascend Communications into a $24B acquisition target by Lucent Technologies.
FEI Daily spoke with Abbasi, CEO of Violin Systems, at a recent Financial Executives International New York City Chapter Event about what led him to become a “turnaround executive” and why the five year plan is a mistake.
FEI Daily: What in your history has inspired you to be a turnaround executive?
Ebrahim Abbasi: The number one instigator for me being a turnaround executive is being an immigrant. I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was getting money from my Dad. I’m originally from Iran and my life collapsed because of the Islamic revolution. I’m not a Muslim. The money stopped. I never saw my parents and I started feeling sorry for myself. But fast forward, life taught me that you have two options when adversity comes. You either play victim or you take charge. And I didn’t look good as a victim so I decided to turn it around. And since then I’ve learned that life is a series of turnarounds. And if you don’t believe me, talk to your next Uber driver. Everyone is in a state of turnaround. Sometimes the most beautiful gifts in life come in a very ugly package. If you have the audacity, if you have the belief to unwrap that ugly package to find the beauty inside of it, adversity is a gift.
FEI Daily: Coming from a war-torn country, how do you instill that motivation in leaders who haven’t faced that adversity?
Abbasi: You put them through that.
If you convince and inspire people and create safety for them to fail, fail fast and fail often, and accumulate as many failures as you can, that becomes the foundation for your success.
Let me give you an example. In life, those who have been hurt the most have the most ability to heal. Companies who have failed the most have the best chance to succeed. All you have to do as a serving leader is create a safe environment to fail and encourage them to build on that. So you don’t have to come from adversity.
I’m known in the work environment as a hybrid of a Zen master and a tyrant. Inspire, support, serve, but also there is an unwritten rule around me. You miss your target once, Ebrahim will talk to you. You miss it twice, he won’t to talk you. HR will talk to you. You’re gone.
FEI Daily: What are some of the warning signs that a company needs a turnaround?
Abbasi: First of all, if they have a five-year business plan. So did the Soviet Union.
See where it got them. To me, there is a constant tweaking of the business plan.
FEI Daily: How often?
Abbasi: Every quarter.
Mark Twain says “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.” When everybody agrees on too many things, the company is doomed to fail. One of the things that I tell people when I go in is I remind them, even though I was not born here, I’m a proud, loyal, American. This country was built based on dissent. And I tell them, “If your founding fathers were as obedient as you are, you would still have a picture of an old woman from the UK on your wall.” You have to speak up and you have to dissent.
The other signs are when there is a not a safe environment for the exchange of ideas and when the boss knows more than everyone. I freak out when I walk into my meetings and I’m the smartest guy in the room.
FEI Daily: How can leaders create safe environments? How do you set the tone at the top that it’s okay to share your ideas, to dissent?
Abassi: Two of my biggest teachers in life have been my children. And employees are like children. They don’t do what you tell them. They do what you do.
I have a 28-year-old son and right before he was born, I was so successful. My head was so big, we had to buy a bigger home so my ego can be parked in the backyard. And I was telling people how to give me updates, how the font size should be, the format.
Then this little guy shows up. I can’t tell him, “Give me a report this way, talk to me this way.” I have to start talking to him like a kid, and it dawned on me. I said, “Who are you? Why can’t you come down from your high horse, talk to them in their language?” It made me a better communicator.
I like reading the New York Times at the breakfast table. One day I came back home to catch an early flight to New York, and my wife says, “Honey, come in quietly to see what he’s doing.” One and a half year old. I still remember the scene. He’s holding the New York Times upside down.
So that’s the day that I learned how to practice Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”