Keeping your Head up: Experiences that Shape your Life and your Face

ice hockey player

Interview with Mr. Mark Anderson, CEO of Alteryx

While it is undeniably true that we are all the sum of our experiences, it is also fair to say that some experiences offer more lessons for life than others. Mark Anderson, ice hockey player and CEO of Alteryx, is well qualified to reflect on that. 

How did your experience as an ice hockey player prepare you for your role as CEO of Alteryx?

Growing up in Toronto, I was an energetic kid and therefore gravitated towards sports. I eventually became a product of the Canadian youth hockey culture. Playing hockey provided me with many great experiences, but it also taught me countless important lessons that helped shape my life and my face – my nose was broken seven times. Apart from teaching me to keep my head up, hockey also taught me to remain calm and persist through difficult times, especially when the result wasn’t what you planned.  

While this didn’t come naturally as a young boy growing up, I strongly believe that reaching out and asking for help makes you stronger, not weaker. As anyone playing a team sport knows, helping each other is crucial to winning. This realisation was a turning point in my own personal development, and I haven’t forgotten it as a business leader. Whether you’re on the ice and striving to score or a CEO leading transformation in tumultuous times, you must keep your head up, keep moving forward, and do your best, regardless of the circumstances.

Learning to do this was a key turning point in my development as a skater, and I’ve continued to use it as a business leader. I have worked with many smart, talented, and driven people. Bringing them into a situation, asking them for advice, and taking advantage of their guidance has enabled me to “flex and develop unfamiliar muscles” that helped progress my career and led me to where I am now. 

In what ways do you think the skills required to lead a successful tech company differ from those needed to succeed in ice hockey?

It may have taken a while to keep nursing those broken noses, but I still look back and appreciate my time on the ice. Some of those plays, tactics, and strategies that helped support and coach the team on the rink to get the puck into the net still help me now.  Similar to a hockey game, leadership takes practice and a loyal team to succeed.

It is crucial to trust the team around you to make some of these plays. This is especially important for the plays outside of your own comfort zone.

In a high-pressure business environment, there are always many tasks and activities that can distract you from your goal. It is crucial to trust the team around you to make some of these plays. This is especially important for the plays outside of your own comfort zone. Whether through delegation or automation, have the confidence to pull back and create space for others to participate and control situations so the company can make that goal. 

Practice and training deliver consistency and enable you to focus on the long-term goal, while keeping the stamina needed to be prepared and cross the finish line. As I get older, I realise you can’t buy time, you don’t need to sprint to win, and the things that made me successful in the past may not help us in the future. I get energy from the people around me; I balance leadership with trust that others can lead, and I take advantage of data-driven insights to help guide my plays, strategies, and tactics to deliver transformative outcomes for the business. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a leader in the tech industry, and how have you drawn on your experience as a hockey player to overcome them?

Risk and uncertainty are two of the most common challenges I’ve faced in both sport and the tech industry. Similar to sports like hockey, the world is moving very quickly. To be successful, you’ve got to be ready for what’s around the corner. 

Every leader I talk to is feeling the pressure of today’s turbulent times and is constantly assessing tactics and strategies to ensure success. As the great one, Wayne Gretzky, said, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”  Regardless of ice hockey or business, it takes a team to succeed. Leaders who collaborate and learn from others can gather insights that can be used to help reduce uncertainty, provide clarity, deliver performance, and differentiate by providing the best experience for customers.

But an effective team needs to be nurtured and provided with the tools, skills, and opportunities to make the shot. Everyone has the potential to improve and better themselves, whether this be on the hockey rink or learning a new skill in the office. A successful coach invests time in their players, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, helping them improve, and showing them what they are capable of. The same principle applies to a business leader. You’ve got to train your people with the right tools and capabilities to navigate change and be capable of taking the shot. While hiring the right people is hugely important, I strongly believe that business leaders need to make the most of their teams’ potential and learn how to invest in them to develop the skills and insights they need.  

Can you describe a time when your experience on the ice helped you make a critical decision as a CEO?

When facing an opposing team, it’s crucial to have confidence in the players around you and understand that each one will play a critical role in seeing the play through.  Today’s dynamic macroeconomic environment is similar to skating on ice and navigating the opposing team on your own. For a business leader, it’s like steering a ship through a minefield – with just one lookout.  Facing challenges alone means that the chances of failing or sinking are high. But, similar to having confidence in the skills of your other players to get to the goal, being in the know that every employee is equipped to be a lookout enables the CEO to navigate a safer course.

How do you ensure that your team is motivated and working towards the same goals, and how does this compare to the dynamics of a hockey team?

As with any team-based sport, different people will have different ideas of how the game should go and different thoughts on what success looks like to them and the team. Some want to score personal goals; others are happy to take a supportive role and assist others to take the lead. While my current role is CEO, I’m still just one person in the team.  We all have different goals to meet as an organisation, and everyone still has different concepts of what individual success looks like to them, but my role is to set a course and help develop everyone and take them on the journey. 

Like any good sports coach, mentoring and developing talent by providing pathways for their individual success is critical to the organisation’s overall success.

I learned early on in my career how important it is to engage with people and listen to them so you can understand their goals, motivation and, crucially, any issues they are having. I always felt most comfortable working in the field, learning from people and coaching people. I’ve never been the kind of person that likes telling people what to do. As a leader, I like to orchestrate their output and lead by example. But while it is important to have ambition and hunger, it is also important that individual visions of success align with those of the organisation. Like any good sports coach, mentoring and developing talent by providing pathways for their individual success is critical to the organisation’s overall success.

How do you balance the need for individual performance with the importance of team cohesion, both in hockey and in business?

I think businesses and sports teams are very similar in this respect. There may be a star player but, ultimately, it’s the whole team, each player doing their part and working towards winning, and this is also the case in businesses. I’m sure most organisations have many standout individuals, but it’s the teams around them that enable them to shine individually, and it’s important that everyone is aware of that. Just like a hockey team has goalies, scorers, and defenders, businesses have multiple roles, all of which must work towards the same goal and be coordinated. As CEO, I may be the most visible person at Alteryx, but I would be nothing without the team I work with, and this is the case for any sports team or tech company, I assure you.

Can you share any specific lessons from your time on the ice that have translated directly to your approach to leadership in the tech industry?

Today’s business environment is forcing leaders to reshape their organisations to adapt to new realities and working conditions. If I look back to my time cross-training and learning about balance and agility from a figure skater, I see two similarities to my leadership style.

Empathetic leaders get better results because they take the time to learn who their employees are as people, and they understand their strengths, dreams, motivations, and concerns.

Since becoming CEO of Alteryx in October 2020, I have been balancing leading with empathy while making changes that fundamentally impact our agility and improve how the company operates. In my experience, leading with empathy is vital to creating a successful working environment. Empathetic leaders get better results because they take the time to learn who their employees are as people, and they understand their strengths, dreams, motivations, and concerns. According to research by Catalyst, 47 per cent of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13 per cent of people with less empathic managers.

Many people look to the CEO for strength. Balancing the openness of empathy with strength as a company leader is a delicate endeavour, but it is the most effective and rewarding way to navigate change through a healthy company culture while ensuring that the business remains resilient and agile enough to sidestep unnecessary risk.

How do you think your background in sports has helped you to build and maintain strong relationships with partners and customers in the tech industry?

I revel in being present. I enjoy walking down the halls, stopping by someone’s desk, learning people’s names, and interacting with them on elevators. I remember once being a young man in an elevator with the CEO and being ignored. Since then, I always knew I wanted to be engaging and approachable in the CEO role. 

This passion to be present is no different from my approach to building and maintaining strong relationships with our customers, partners, and investors. After the pandemic, when travel restrictions were lifted, I spent pretty much an entire year travelling to visit and engage with customers, partners, and teams all over the world.

I continue to balance travel to meet in person with taking advantage of technologies available to collaborate virtually. We just held our annual customer, partner, and executive conference in Las Vegas. It was such a great experience to see and chat with many of the thousands of global attendees as they collaborated in person and spent time learning data- and analytics-driven best practices.

Finally, looking back on your career in both hockey and tech, what advice would you give to young professionals starting out in either field?

Whether you’re an aspiring leader looking to get on that first rung or an established leader trying to climb the ladder, never be afraid to go outside your comfort zone or ask others for help.

Take every chance you can to ask questions and learn as much as you can from people you respect. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. I was lucky enough to work with John Chambers at Cisco. I got in the habit of bringing him with me on long drives to sales calls. Before each call, I prepped questions that I’d thought about and prioritised the night before, which I’d then ask him during the drive. 

I was very lucky to learn from John and made the most of my opportunities with him. So, use the experience other people have learned to improve and develop your own skills. This is a great way to build relationships with anyone.

Executive Profile

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson is the chief executive officer (CEO) of Alteryx. Prior to Alteryx, Mark was president of Palo Alto Networks, where he and the team grew the company from pre-IPO in 2012 to become one of the largest security companies in the world. Prior to Palo Alto Networks, Mark led sales and go-to-market initiatives at F5 Networks, where he was instrumental in driving the company’s long-term, sustained hyper-growth. Earlier in his career, Mark held leadership positions at Cisco Systems and Lucent Technologies. He holds a BA in business and economics from York University in Toronto.

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