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Speaker Spotlight: Stephen Pappas

Today we're talking with Stephen Pappas,

Head of North American Operations & Senior Vice President at Panviva.

Steve has built a career transforming customer experiences. By taking a 360-degree view of the customer, Steve makes sure each employee has the actionable knowledge necessary to make better decisions and serve customers in a way that increases loyalty, referrals, sales and satisfaction.

In his role with Panviva, the omnichannel knowledge cloud company, Steve consults with hundreds of companies annually on their CX strategies. Industry associations, publications, and Fortune 500 companies invite him to speak and write about CX best practices in healthcare, finance, utilities, insurance and telecommunications.

A successful entrepreneur in his own right, Steve has built and sold six companies. Each company has held to the mantra of “the customer is at the center of the universe.” When he is not driving CX strategy, Steve plays the guitar and mentors young entrepreneurs. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and sons.

We spoke to Stephen about his experience in leadership and how he builds teams to encourage diversity of thought in his own organization.

What is your favorite leadership quote?

I have so many quotes that are not from famous people but from people I admired growing up and that have molded me into the businessperson I am today – my family. I had a father who was an investor in a lot of businesses and he had a mantra that was “Always exceed your customers expectations.”  I had an uncle who owned about 45 food trucks and concessions that used to go to fairs and festivals in the Northeast and Florida in the Southeast.  My dad died when I was young, so my uncle was my next business influencer and probably my biggest.  I learned some old world ways of operating from him.  He was the type of guy who would say “Shake someone’s hand, look them straight in the eye and over deliver what you promise.” Similar thoughts and both very powerful to me.  

I have started six start-ups and in all six I carried those words and those attitudes with me and they have serviced me very well.  I also had a first cousin – he was oldest first cousin and I was the youngest first cousin.   It was funny, we were the same personality – he was in California and I am here – but people would always confuse us because our voice, our mannerisms, and our intonations were just alike.  He was not really a businessperson but he did documentaries for ABC and was a member of the Academy of Arts & Sciences. Prior to and after the wars in Vietnam and Korea, he set up English-speaking radio stations in those areas, especially for the armed forces.  He also set up stations here in the US.  He was not a business person but he used to tell me this one thing all the time,

“You can always find something to relate to every person on earth.” 

Even if I am in a restaurant or on a plane, I chat with everyone.  It is true; you can find something to relate to every person.  

What attracted you to your current industry and role?

I have been in technology most of my adult life.  I got my degree in Management Information Science and got my business degree.  I got in software development right from the beginning.  I have not worked for a lot of companies – I have had start ups – but you can tell from my background that I look for a home.  

A few things are key for me. 

  • A -- I need to be challenged all the time. 

  • B -- I am a creator at heart and have an entrepreneurial spirit so I would much rather be building and creating something rather than managing it.  Others can manage the spreadsheet after but I am the idea guy and like to come up with new things.  

  • C -- It is a respect level.  I look for companies that are known to respect all of their employees and get the best out of their employees.  If those all come together you will see I will be there for a long time. 

I always challenge boards to get rid of me when I am no longer the right person.  In fact I joke with them that I keep an empty box at the ready if a time comes that I am not doing the job to the best that they can get.   So putting the underlying technology aside for a moment, it is really those three things and if I can see them and grow with them, that is what attracts me.  It is much more the make up of the company and the philosophy coming from the top.

What is the most important thing you have learned that has been critical to your career success?

From my perspective if I go back and think back through my career there are lots of trends that I could track that occurred in many places.  Every time I would say that I managed by a philosophy. I have run many companies and been an executive in many companies.  I have learned that you can always get the best from every employee but you have to figure out how.  The way I look at it is that my job here is thinking of people's career paths - thinking of people's strengths and weaknesses and how they can gain on their strengths and turn weakness into strength.  

Everyone that ever worked for me can also tell you that there are two things I cannot stand – getting political and empire builders.  I think people that get too political will sabotage organizations. These are so important to me that I set employees down and share them with them.  But, I say to them that if those are fine with you, I will do my best to make sure you can learn, you are challenged, you are listened to and that your growth matters.  And it is not just about the employees – I am doing it as well for their spouse and children their dog, their families.  

What is your leadership style?

I have learned that the reason people will leave an organization is that they feel that they don’t have the tools for growth. They don’t feel that level of respect or that their voice matters.  Money comes into it of course but it is less important that the other things:  respect, being listened to, being part of the solution and not relegated behind the scenes. I have always found that if I tell them the things that I won’t stand for but also share that I will do everything I can to build them up and promote them – even if they are looking to knock me off the pedestal.  That makes us successful but nothing hurts business more than the middle management sabotage. 

How has your leadership style evolved as you’ve gained experience?

It has definitely evolved towards carrying more about my employees’ careers and less about my career.  If you think about the bell curve of a career, I am at this point certainly on the later half of the curve.   I look at that as I have learned so much over all of these years and met so many people that I want to share that more now than ever before in my career.  I see this as a time to share more with people – when I travel with them, at conferences, or just in meetings.  I try to give back to folks not just so they can learn but that they can also avoid pitfalls along the way.  I can bring the value of a lifetime of business.  Sometimes it can be really tough in business but you figure out all of the survival techniques. 

What advice do you have for aspiring leaders?

One thing I always kept which came from the values instilled in me growing up is that I always wanted to be able to have a cup of coffee with everyone and never burn a bridge.  There were times I would owe rent money for example and I would always shake the landlord’s hand and tell him that he didn’t need to worry; I will get him all that I owed. And I would say it is because one day I may meet you on the street and want to be able to grab a cup of coffee.  

What tools or resources have you used that have been crucial to your success?

I have operated a lot using the Performance Consulting Methodology out of the UK.  

I ran into it 25/30 years ago.  It is a simplified model to get from here and go to there – really an A to B scenario.  What is the current state of the business, of product, of clientele?  And then what is the gap – the Mind the Gap approach -- from where you are to where you want to get.  Lastly, how do you quantify the difference (in dollars, time, numerical approach) and qualify the gap into a plan?

Answering those things gives you the basis for the steps you need to take to get from here to there.  I have used that hundreds if not thousands of times and it has never failed me. 

What steps are you currently taking to improve yourself, professionally?

I am a lifetime learner.  If you look up life long learner in the dictionary my picture is probably there.  It is because we had so many teachers and business folks in my family.  It was instilled at an early age to never stop learning.  Not as matter of being a know it all but to gain insights about everything around you so you can communicate, and work with anyone at any level - so you can have something to talk to every person about. 

If you look at my account in Udemy, Skillshare, or Lynda, there are at least 100 different classes that I am always working through.  Sometimes they are as diverse as musical classes.  I have been a musician all my life and now am working through ten different classes on music theory, electronic music and creation of music in different forms. Doing so allows me to have a conversation.  I recently ran into the bassist of a big band and we had lots to talk about. It is not like someone saying he knows a few buzzwords.  No they know I can go deep on a lot of subjects.  The idea is that you want to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation with someone you may not have known and you can walk away with such a satisfied feeling that we really connected.  

That just doesn’t happen unless you are life long learner and are trying to get deeper on different subjects   For example you could learn and talk about filming, talk about documentaries, how to provide different angles for movies, where cameras should be.  It is a totally different subject but all things I find are important especially to someone in business – not only as an executive but also a citizen of world. Do you know whether to bow in this culture?  Do you shake hands? It is critical to know how to provide respect around the world and to all of the people you encounter and will do business with as well. 

What is your proudest achievement?

I would have to say my proudest achievement is my two kids. It really is because my wife and I were not supposed to have kids.  We were told we were not able.  So when you have two miracle babies that come one after another and you say, “hey you told us we couldn’t” and they say, “well we were wrong.”  You tend to look at that and say they are miracles but also that it is an achievement.  Seeing them now at 22 and 24 and what they are becoming makes me so proud. 

From a business perspective at end of the day I am proud of all the people.  I am a people person.  It is the people I have encountered, people I have made friends with – life long friends.  I still talk and send messages with people I met 37 years ago and did business with.  I have worked hard my entire life to stay in touch with everyone I have encountered.  It is not about the money I have made, about the businesses, because when we are six feet under none of that matters.  What matters to me are the experiences I have had and the experience I have created for others.  

What do you think needs to happen or have you seen done successfully in the past to create an inclusive workplace/corporate culture?

I work extremely hard at it and it has become habit also. We are so diverse on a global basis.  We have different people from all over the world - different lifestyles and coming from different perspectives.  At the end of the day we are all the same.  We have to do some things the same way.  Like we have to treat all people with respect and make sure they feel their contribution matters to the organization as a whole.  You need to make sure they feel valued and that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. And it doesn’t matter from where they come.  From an inclusive perspective, we are extremely conscious of that. 

I expect everyone to contribute. I will go around and ask for everyone’s opinion and every one of those opinions are used equally.  It doesn’t matter if they are male, female or what part of world they are from. 

Are there things we can do better?  Of course, we can always do better and should strive to do that.

Diversity and inclusion are never perfect and they are never done. 

They are like a living and breathing organism in a company. So you always have to be attending to both of those areas. But at least from an understanding perspective and consciousness, we have always approached it that way here and in most of my companies.

In the 80s, maybe we did not have as many women in management but that certainly has changed since the late 90s and early 2000s.  To me there are no differences.  Honestly it is like my political views, I will vote for the person who will do the best job. I will hire the person who will do the best job, because at the end of the day I need to build the business.  I will fill all the gaps with the best I can find.  I think the last rounds we have hired here were mostly all females and that was because that created the best team.  Honestly I have loved every one of those hires.  They have been phenomenal to take us to new levels. 

Want the chance to meet Stephen and hear him speak live? We thought so! Register here for the upcoming Rise & Diversify breakfast on Tuesday May 14!


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