In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to telecoms industry disruptor, Alex West, CEO of Swoop, on being the calm in the chaos, trust and vulnerability, and building a high-performing culture through metrics.
Alex is currently the CEO of Swoop, a telecommunications company backed by Andrew Forrest’s Tattarang, and which has had a stellar year, including listing on the ASX followed by six acquisitions.
Alex has been involved in around 50 company acquisitions while in senior roles with some of Australia’s leading telcos, including Superloop and PIPE Networks (now TPG), and has also raised more than $66 million in equity in his 20-year career.
He cut his teeth as a graduate engineer at Telstra, before climbing the ranks to Chief Operating Officer at Vocus Group.
Alex holds a Bachelor of Computer Engineering from the University of Newcastle, and a Master of Engineering Management from the University of Technology, Sydney.
In this episode we talk about:
- How remaining calm, even when things go wrong, is his superpower;
- The shift from executive to CEO when you’ve spent two decades in the same industry;
- Leading a high-performing team through trust and vulnerability; and
- Cultivating a strong company culture of using metrics and dashboards.
Connecting with Alex West
You can connect with Alex via LinkedIn
Books and resources
- Start with Why – by Simon Sinek
“Things will always go wrong; my engineering background taught me to remain calm, avoid blame and just work through the problem.”
On early career lessons
- Telstra takes a lot of time to train their graduates and their new staff. They didn’t actually expect anything from you in that first 12 to 24 months, they just wanted you to learn. You did odd jobs and filled in a lot of administrative tasks, but they weren’t looking for you to be a proper engineer at any time at the beginning.
- Not a lot of companies have the time or the resources to do that. So you don’t often get that level of training that you would get at a big company with resources and a lot of experience.
On his superpower
- Remaining calm. Not everything goes well, things will break. Things will always go wrong, remaining calm when that happens avoiding blame and just working through the problem, which obviously comes from an operations and engineering background.
- If you’re authentic, honest and calm, people will want to work with you again. So my actual superpower is convincing people to come work with me again. Some of the people that I’m currently working with in this company, I’ve worked with for 15 odd years at four different organisations, some worked with me previously in two or three different companies. And so we’re coming back together and trying to build something that we can obviously all be proud of.
On his most valuable learning experience
- I did a Master’s course very early on in my career and there were some finance subjects in there that I just keep relying on. In engineering, you learn to build things and solve problems, you don’t necessarily always understand the finances. So that Master’s course dumbed it right down and I was able to build from that throughout my career.
- As you move from Project Manager to Operations Manager to COO to CEO, understanding how to put financial statements together or understand and read financial statements when you’re not from an accounting or finance background, becomes incredibly important. It’s probably the one thing I think is missing from other executives (other than the CFO).
On moving from COO to CEO
- Learning that I was either responsible for everything or responsible for nothing. As a Chief Operating Officer or an operations role, I was completely responsible for the operations of the business, making sure that we were delivering services and keeping customers connected and making sure everyone was happy.
- You move to CEO and you’re responsible for that and the performance of the company, but there’s nothing I can individually do to fix that. I have to rely very heavily on the team around me and make sure that they have all the things they need and all the knowledge and they’re able to do it.
- How does the sales process work? How does marketing function? What are the things that I need to ask to make sure that my Chief Revenue Officer is doing to make sure that the operations managers can do what they need to do and so on.
- Effectively you’re trying to get people to answer their own questions. No one’s coming to an executive level with absolutely no idea. All I’m really trying to do is pull that out of them by asking, “What do you think you should do?”
- It’s a no-brainer, but the moment you get people to start talking and going through all their options, making sure that if they’re looking at something from a cross-silo perspective is whether they have spoken to the other executives. I’m also reminding people to talk to each other, which is a key part of my job.
On sagely mentor advice
- One of my mentors, Bevan Slattery, his view of the industry taught me to view big and work out a way to compete. And his view was simply to just go off and compete. You build the things that they’re not doing despite the fact that they build some amazing infrastructure.
- He taught me, particularly in negotiation, to actually ask for what you want. Most people are afraid to say, “Can I have this?” or “I think we should do it this way.”
- How you ask is part of the negotiation style. But actually just ask for it, even when you think it’s a crazy idea, because the worst thing that they can potentially say is no, but they might actually say yes, so you can benchmark conversations. But put that aside and just say, “We would like to do this” and off you go.
On his number one interview question
- We were recently interviewing for a Head of People & Culture and my CFO, who was interviewing with me, asked a question about coming out of the pandemic, and how would the candidate get all the people back into the office. Now, what was interesting about the question was that it wasn’t something we were looking to do and something we were potentially moving away from. That was the real trick of that question – seeing whether or not someone would have the convictions to stand up for what they actually believed in, not just, effectively mislead an interviewer.
- So my advice here is to ask something that you don’t necessarily believe in to see whether or not people will actually tell you what you want to hear or actually tell you what they believe and what they think you should do to collaborate. Because I don’t need seven people working for me that just agree with me, because that’s a surefire way to put business into the toilet.
On differentiating the business
- Listening to customers, making sure we’re taking their feedback in adjusting our process. So one of the reasons why we choose to own our infrastructure and sell more on what we build, as opposed to what other people build, is we can control that.
- The main thing is making sure people are contactable. So, having local support centres. And it’s not how long you spend on the call, it’s whether you actually service the customer and fix what they need.
- And then building infrastructure to back that up. The best service is actually no service. Make sure that you can build a reliable network that hardly ever goes down. The less calls we get, the better.
On building a high performing team
- You can’t do it all yourself, but in terms of bringing a team together, trust and vulnerability are key. I know that I can’t do everything and so I trust my team to do it and tell them that I trust them to do it. We have to rely on each other to actually achieve an outcome.
- We, as an executive or even as a company, succeed and fail and grow together. If one division’s not doing what they need to do, then none of us will actually succeed. So it’s helping each other, keeping each other accountable.
- And how do you drive that? You’ve got to know your numbers and keep people accountable for what they’re doing. But also, encourage people to reach out and be vulnerable and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.
- I often encourage my executive to look for mentors outside of the business to say, “Is there any coaching you need? Or is there someone on the board you can talk to?”
- You have to define what success looks like. So 12 to 12.5 in EBITDA is our key metric, so just making sure that we keep that as a focus and then working back from there.
- So, to achieve that metric, we need a certain revenue, and to get a certain revenue, we need a certain amount of sales at a certain gross margin. And so you just keep tracking that week on week. We get weekly dashboards, we know how many sales we did last week. We know how many connections we did. We know how many customer calls we had and just keep watching those for trends. What happened last week to what happened this week to what happened last month to what happened this month? Is it going a certain way? Is there a corrective action that we need to take? Is there something that’s not working that we’re trying? And then have a plan to, if this isn’t going the direction we need to, what direction does it need to go?
On the value of partnerships
- Whilst I said we’re independent, we still sell products that other people build and manage processes on behalf of our customers, and that is part of why we’re successful. And so our role is to support them delivering what we do, which is network infrastructure or deliver communications infrastructure so that they can add their products on top.
- That’s a significant growth opportunity for us as 40 to 50% of our revenue comes from those wholesale partners, who actually own the end customer relationship, and we are just supporting them.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Get the right team around you. People that you want to work with, people that you respect, and then motivate them to work together when you’re not in the room. If you can do those two things, you’ll ultimately be successful because you can’t do it on your own.