The Lighthouse Series features a weekly Q&A where we ask one of our CEOs five questions that are matters of the heart, mind, and business.
This week, we interviewed Jean-Marc Levy, CEO of ComplySci, where he shared his perspective on what the best-in-class traits of a leader are today.
THIS WEEK'S CEO: JEAN-MARC LEVY
Jean-Marc Levy is the CEO of ComplySci and is passionate about building technology solutions that can transform ineffective practices and empower professionals to become better strategic partners within their businesses. He has a longstanding track record of building successful fast-growing information and technology businesses and is a recognized leader in the Ethics & Compliance industry. Prior to ComplySci, Jean-Marc held a multitude of positions, including President of LRN, Head of Global Issuer Services with NYSE (Intercontinental Exchange), and Chief Financial and Business Development Officer with TheMarkets.com LLC.
1. I know you like to read a lot and you study markets, situations, and people. Have you made any early conclusions or working assumptions about this COVID-19 crisis situation?
Let me try to frame my answer from the perspective of being both an older CEO and an immigrant.
As an older CEO, I have had the experience and great “benefit” of living through a number of Black Swan events. I entered the professional world during the 1987 stock market crash and I was leading one of my first startups when the internet bubble burst in 2000. I found myself in similar entrepreneurial roles during 9/11 and the 2008 Financial Crisis, and witnessed Hurricane Katrina ravage my Alma Mater’s town in between. And while each of these events brought its own different painful lessons and trauma, it is impossible for me to look back at each of these events and not be amazed by our resilience as a country.
As an immigrant, I have the added benefit of having witnessed the way we handle crises here compared to other parts of the world. The lessons here are clear. Our democracy is tremendously messy and polarized. We fight bitterly over the best courses of action, and we make a lot of mistakes along the way.
But the one constant is that when the chips are truly down, we always get it together as a country and emerge stronger on the other side. I am a big believer in the “don’t bet against America” school of thought.
The bottom line: many of us will experience more than one “Black Swan” in our careers. That’s the bad news. The better news is that I believe it would be a lost wager to bet against our ability to come out stronger on the other side as a community and a country. As leaders, it is our responsibility to remind others that there is always a brighter side, and that “the best way out is through.” It’s an even more important responsibility at times like these, when economic uncertainty, societal polarization, and racial strife can seem desperately irreconcilable.
2. You have held senior leadership positions in both public and private companies. What is the difference as a leader between private and public, besides more documentation in public companies?
Honestly, given the tremendous increase in access to private capital and liquidity today, even for some of the largest unicorns, I have a very hard time seeing the benefits of taking a company public. Period.
The trade-offs that come with being a public company are numerous. These include the material operating costs of meeting all regulatory requirements, the short-term orientation, and a restricted ability to make investments with longer return or to pivot quickly. Overall, the financial and strategic costs of running a publicly-traded company are very real.
Historically, all of these costs could be justified on the basis of being necessary constraints in order to raise large amounts of capital, but, in my opinion, there are enough alternative sources of liquidity available nowadays to make the trade-offs too onerous.
3. You sold ComplySci two years ago to Vista, an esteemed large buyout PE shop, and now you have a bigger platform as CEO. What have you learned from this that you can share?
In our particular case, size is a factor but not the most relevant attribute. What Vista brings to the table is different. They bring focus, discipline, and a commitment to operational excellence that is grounded in proven and repeatable processes.
Vista’s focus has been unwavering: they only invest in software companies and, over many years, they have helped dozens of companies navigate the same issues and challenges, and implement the most successful strategies any SaaS leader is likely to come across in their career. They’ve seen every mistake possible along the way, but they’ve also documented every lesson they learned on the way to a solution.
As a CEO whose job is to provide my teams with the tools they need to be successful, this has given us an ecosystem of support and resources that is difficult to match.
4. You and I often talk about the intangibles and qualitative skills that separate the best operators from the good ones. What are the key characteristics you try to possess and look for in hiring executives that stand the test of time and challenge?
The best operators and leaders I have met and learned from in my own career all have several traits in common. They are great communicators, they are competitive, and they know how to balance the tactical and the strategic. They are also kind, fair, behave with the highest levels of integrity, and have incredible levels of energy and stamina. I could go on...
But above all else, the leaders, coaches and teachers who truly stand out, and have inspired me to bring my best self to work every day, all consistently exhibit three competencies:
They have an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for learning and growing professionally and personally, for asking questions, and for inquisitive learning. Their favorite words are “what,” “why,” and “how,” and their most frequently used sentence is “help me understand this.”
They are equally obsessive about helping people on their teams grow and develop, and about helping these teams achieve results beyond what they ever imagined they could.
The one question I ask of every interview candidate I meet is to tell me about someone who genuinely helped them at some point in their career. I am still amazed by the number of people who respond proudly that “they did it all on their own without help from anyone,” but I know that the ones who light up and talk about the great mentor or leader who helped them along the way will have a greater sense of responsibility for paying it forward.
Last but not least, great leaders exhibit the kind of humility that comes from knowing how little they truly know. The best leaders don’t need to be the smartest people in the room; rather, they are committed to hiring and building the brightest and highest performing teams possible.
5. How do you sustain yourself amid all the stress and swerves associated with being the CEO of a PE-backed company?
I try to be as disciplined as possible about the way I manage my stress. I prioritize spending time with my family and try to adhere to a rigorous and steady exercise regimen. As an introvert by nature, I formally schedule half-hour chunks of time throughout the week to pause and reflect by myself.
Humor is also key. I take my job and responsibilities extremely seriously, but there is not a day that goes by when I don’t find a reason to laugh at myself. Fortunately, that’s another area where my family is extremely supportive and never hesitates to bring me down to size if I do take myself too seriously.
And when all of the above fails and things get too stressful or overwhelming, a quick Karaoke session by myself can usually get me back on track pretty quickly.