A First-Time CEO Talks About Lessons Learned in His First Year

Alex Lintner is the recently appointed CEO of Vertafore, a tech firm that caters to the insurance industry, with $360 million in revenue and 20,000 global customers. Formerly  president of Intuit Global Business, Lintner is credited with growing IGB from $115 million in revenue in 2008 to $200 million by 2013 and more than doubling profitability during the worst recession in decades. After nine years with the company, Lintner retired, then came out of retirement eight months ago to join Vertafore as CEO. We spoke with Lintner about making the transition into his first CEO role.

“I went on a listening tour visiting 50 customers in 100 days to understand their interest with our assets.”

How did you prepare for the transition from the responsibilities of president to CEO?
“My previous role as president of Intuit Global Business was a good training ground for all things business related. But I reached out to some CEOs of private equity-backed firms and to a friend who runs a portfolio of tech companies for a private equity firm. I spent time understanding the investor side of things, something that wasn’t part of my job at Intuit. Once I arrived, I went on a listening tour visiting 50 customers in 100 days, as well as shareholders, to understand their interest with our assets.”

How did the board get involved in preparing you for your new role?
“My predecessor, Euan Menzies, moved into the vice chairman role, so he was nearby and very engaged. He introduced me to the insurance industry and he joined me for two-thirds of the customer visits. Before and after the customer conversations, he helped me interpret what I saw and heard. Our specific vertical was new to me. Euan was the person who mentored me into that market segment and into the CEO role. i asked him a lot of basic questions about what to do and how he operated his business. He has been a great thought partner to me and that still remains today.”

Do you have any mentors outside the company that you turn to for advice?
“Intuit’s current CEO Brad Smith and prior CEO Steve Bennett are my mentors. i talk to them every 4-6 weeks. They talk me through situations and help me prioritize my time. Running a business has a lot to do with people. Some people situations I haven’t encountered before, and they give me their point of view.”

Can you give me an example of a situation you had to deal with that you were previously unfamiliar with?
“One thing had to do with the composition of the senior management team. I brought to their attention that I liked some of the things i saw but also believed that some of the things I was not seeing would help us be a better management team, so I ran those observations by both of them. They said two things: 1) You don’t want to change everything at once; think about having stability. And 2) some of the things I found that needed to change immediately they advised me to do that right away. For example, I hired a new CFO with experience in a private equity-backed firm to tell me the things I should or should not do. Brad and Steve said that seemed like the right first hire for me. I then ran it by the board chairman. He agreed and we executed.”

“As a CEO, you own everything, whether you have anything to do with it or not.”

What were some of the challenges you had to deal with when you started and how did you handle them?
“Our building is a little odd because it’s split in two halves and on three floors. I wanted to bring everybody together to collaborate. I also wanted us to be an attractive employer and to be able to garner the best employees in the face of a lot of tech competition here in Seattle. So I put a barista with free coffee in the lobby to foster cross-functional collaboration. In that coffee line, I learn more than I sometimes learn in half a day in the office. People tell me what’s going on. It was a small investment, but I think it’s paying off in spades.”

What did you learn in your first six months that you did not anticipate?
“Good or bad, it was clear to me that, as a CEO, you own everything, whether you have anything to do with it or not. Particularly when it’s good, I would get credit for decisions that our 1,400 employees and board members make. The real work happens at the front lines and I give credit to the people who do the work. And when one employee didn’t do such a good job with the customer experience, you have to own that too. The need to have a line-of-site to all feedback good or bad was a surprise to me.”

“I’ve now come to terms with not being able to control what happens, but I can control how we react. I will proactively call if I hear that something happened. I’ll call the CEO and apologize and I make the problem mine. And I always try to listen. I want to hear about issues going on and want to signal to other CEOs that it’s got my attention and top management’s attention, and sometimes that alone gives them comfort.”

Gaining the respect and trust of your team is critical. How did you achieve that?
“That’s the million-dollar question for every leader. One attribute I have always been credited with is authenticity. i don’t pretend to be anything I am not. I am the same way at work as I am at home with my wife and children. Our job as leaders is to break the title down. I know my own humility and where I come from. I try to have an open and honest dialogue. My ‘say/do’ ratio needs to be high. I am a strong believer in that teams win and lose as a team. I use the word ‘we’ more than ‘I’ because it’s the complementary skills around the executive table, in aggregate, that will win and decide the game for us.”

“You’ve got to make time to understand your shareholders, your customers and your board.”

What new initiative are you spearheading now?
The insurance industry is not particularly tech forward, but our customers want us to play a more active role in bringing new technology to them, so I’ve put an emphasis on innovation. Even if the technology is not ours, if it’s relevant for the insurance industry, we’ll introduce it to our customers. For example, using an electronic signature. That came directly from what I heard during the listening tour.

What advice would you give to other new CEOs?
“You’ve got to make time to understand your shareholders, your customers and your board.”

" Lynn Russo Whylly : ."