Zig, CEO, talks choosing Qualtrics
“We're building Qualtrics as a place where we care deeply and act like owners. There's a lot of fulfillment that comes from that. When you start to think of it that way, you personally grow differently as well,” says Zig Serafin, CEO of Qualtrics. We sat down with Zig to discover why he is All In on the company. And from an immigrant’s childhood in Southern California through being named Qualtrics CEO in 2020, Zig takes being All In very seriously.
Zig Serafin joined Qualtrics in 2016 after a 17-year career at Microsoft. After leading global operations as COO and helping guide the successful acquisition of Qualtrics by SAP in 2018, Zig was named CEO in 2020, just in time to take the company public. Today the company has nearly 5,000 employees around the world and has guided to more than $1 billion in revenue in 2021.
Simple question to start: Why Qualtrics?
Qualtrics as a company has always had the desire to do something that is amazing– to change the world. When I was first considering joining, one of the things that stood out was the transparency of co-founders Jared and Ryan Smith. We spent about 12 months getting to know each other. They showed me everything that was going on in the business and how they wanted to grow this company. There was a trust there. So many things had to go right to make it possible. In the case of Qualtrics back in 2016, they were growing the customer base quickly and it was clear to me that this was a company that was on a roll.
So was there a moment you knew you had ‘to have the job’ at Qualtrics?
Back in 2016, I first met Jared Smith and I already had a ton of respect for the nature of the technology problem and business Qualtrics was working on. We used Qualtrics at Microsoft, and I deeply appreciated the need for human insight to help improve product, customer and employee experiences. I flew out to Utah to meet more of the team and spend time getting to know each other as people. I homed in on four things:
- The tech. I dug into how the Qualtrics platform was designed and where they needed to take the architecture next. The technology was amazing and, importantly, it was ready to scale to a true enterprise platform.
- The customers. One of the unique things that Qualtrics had going - and this is something that you rarely see in companies - is there was this customer relationship that was about landing at the departmental level and then expanding across departments. This is really hard to create because the product has to be engineered to accommodate that. But once customers find the value, it spreads. I found that fascinating because I'd only seen a few companies previously that had done that. One was Salesforce, and I saw Qualtrics in that same zone.
- The culture. Culture is sometimes peripheral for companies. Sometimes they put it up on a poster and they're like, “Hey, this is what our culture is,” and then you walk into the organization and it’s clear they have issues. At Qualtrics I saw a culture that was genuinely alive as I met people and interacted.
- The stakeholders. Who makes all of this possible? It's the shareholders, the founders, the employees, and the board. What I found was that there was a lot of consistency among each of them, how they led their lives as individual human beings, and in the culture of the company.
Anytime you consider a new responsibility, look for these. Each of those four things all had to be there in order for it to feel like this was going to be right. And with Qualtrics they were.
You moved to Utah for Qualtrics, right? What did your family think of the move?
We moved from Seattle and went all-in on Utah because there was only one headquarters at that time. Of course, if you look at Seattle today, we have Qualtrics Tower downtown, and it’s a dual headquarters model with almost 1,000 employees there. I like both places - I love Washington and I absolutely love Utah. There's a lot of cool things about both.
We didn't get serious about Qualtrics until around August of 2016, and then my kids didn't find out until the end of August. They're thinking they're going to continue their next school years in Washington and all of a sudden: “Hey guys, surprise!” But we brought them to HQ and that's all it took. They got to walk into this cool building and saw the scooters, the ice cream machines, the garden, and it was a thousand questions from there. That was the beginning of a new adventure.
What word would you use to describe yourself?
I would describe myself as somewhat intense. I’m intense about winning, about doing things in life, about taking care of each other, about getting things done right for our customers, about self-development and about helping others to develop. I think life is short, so my intensity is an open invitation to come join me. I love to win together with a team.
We know that failure exists for every person, but failures for a CEO seem like a bigger deal. What’s a notable failure you’ve been part of, and how do you reflect on it now?
I think failures, for me, happen almost every day; there’s always something I feel I can do better. A failure that stands out was when I first joined Microsoft. The group that I joined was building this next-generation product. Five days into my time there I was in my first Bill Gates review. You learned a lot about yourself in those. In that first review meeting, we went in well prepared, but we lacked the confidence and conviction in what we were building. I think we knew there were several strategic flaws in our plans. Naturally, Bill poked holes in the strategy.
Shortly after we all made the decision to stop that project, and I had to find a new role in Microsoft. The learning moment for me is don't ever be afraid of following through on what you believe. And don’t be afraid to make hard decisions. You will always find that people will respect you for that and will later embrace you.
You’ve spoken before about how important self-care is from your perspective, and how neglecting self-care is a form of failure. Tell us more?
It’s tempting to say, “Failure is all about work decisions.” But there's also a failure that I had where, for about 5 years, I failed to take care of myself. We were working really hard, the kids were young, and the last thing I did was take care of my own balance, my own health, and my own well-being. This showed up in many negative ways. It showed up in the way I interacted with my family, it showed up in the way I worked with colleagues, especially under pressure. Taking care of yourself, living with balance, and investing in yourself long-term are huge.
I had a highly-respected leader sit me down and say, “I just want you to know we want you here for the long run, so don't burn yourself out.” It was a really interesting point in time because he wasn't actually telling me, ”You need to go take care of yourself” or “You need to do this or that.” It was more of an “aha” moment, and I took away a lesson that you have to invest in your total well-being. If you do that, lots of good flows.
What’s one skill or trait that you think has been most important to your career?
About 15 years ago I was being considered for an executive-level role at Microsoft. I remember having a sit down with my managers and they came at me and said, “You really need to work on empathy.” I thought, “What are you talking about? I'm getting it done, just look at the results.” It was like getting hit by a bus. I didn't understand it. I thought, “I care about people, I take care of my people, and the people I try to work with,” and so on.
But my managers were right, and it was an important lesson for me. Empathy shapes your behavior and intentions toward others. And we all can improve. I continue to work on that because I think it's one of the most important leadership traits. If you can connect and relate to other people, all types of people, it will make you a better human being. It's going to make you a better employee and it's going to make you a better teammate. You're going to be able to do things far beyond what you think you could achieve on your own. This is because your ideas become so much better as you bring people together and bring out the best in the combination. This all starts with empathy.
Every leader out there is talking about diversity being important to them, Qualtrics included. Why is it important to you to see our team be made of diverse individuals?
When I look at the issues of how Black people are treated, at how the Asian and Pacific Islander communities face discrimination and experience hate crimes, they matter to me not only personally but create a negative chemical reaction in me. My mom and dad came to California from Eastern Europe. I only spoke Polish until I got to elementary school, and being accepted by others was super hard. I learned a lot, developed friendships with people who also had similar hardships and I learned from many experiences that shaped my view of the world at a very early age. It gave me a small sense of what it’s like to be different, to have to struggle for acceptance.
But I was taught to love. I was taught to respect and support every human being, and that's just how I see the world. I’m no better than any other human being and I have the responsibility to help and support other human beings. Everyone deserves that.
If you connect that feeling I have personally to our vision for Qualtrics, we believe in being a community with diversity that matches the world around us and inclusion that exceeds it. This is what being One Team, one of our core company values, really means. It's important that we're actively anti-racist and that we're actively against injustice. You can't do that unless you actually shed the perspective you have of yourself and how you've grown up. This enables you to begin to step into other people's shoes and start connecting.
You emphasized how important Qualtrics’s culture was to you in deciding to join. Talk to us about how you see that come to life with the team.
One of the greatest ways in which we can end up undermining our company is if we end up hiring people that aren't All In on understanding what it means to be a part of living and breathing the culture. What makes this place special is the TACOS culture. [TACOS stands for Transparency, All In, Customer Obsessed, One Team, and Scrappy.] The cool thing about TACOS is - even as the world's been changing around us - you can always map actions back to the parts of the TACOS.
Everybody at Qualtrics owns the responsibility for growing our culture. They get an opportunity to be a part of the interview process or recommend people they think will grow the team. But everything starts with culture in a very deep way. If there's one thing that keeps me up at night, sometimes it's thinking about how we can grow as a company so that our core, our culture, stays very much alive, even as we add hundreds of new people to our team every few months. I worry about how that translates; especially when you don't get to all be physically together at the same time and are in these digital spaces. These of course are opportunities to innovate on these new experiences.
What do you think is a principle that Qualtrics lives out well that you want to see our team continue to have?
It's an ownership mentality. When Qualtrics was founded, the Smiths started the company with no investment; they built this like it was a part of their family. They maintained that sense of ownership even as they invited other people to be a part of it, as investors became part of the company. It’s a deep principle.
When I was a kid, I worked for a small business, a construction company owned by an Italian family. This family was really scrappy, but they were deeply intentional about the way they treated their customers and about the quality of the product. They would do whatever it took to be able to make sure the job was done right. They would stand back after the job was done and they would be proud. It affected their decision-making: how they spent money, how they treated the equipment they had, and how they treated each other. They knew each other as friends and family, and I was a small part of this work family.
To me, that's what an ownership mindset is about. Even when you're 4,500 employees and growing, if we can maintain that together, then we each feel like it's our store, it's our market, it's our company, and we care for our customers like they’re a part of our family.
We're building Qualtrics as a place where we care deeply, and there's a lot of fulfillment that comes from that. When you start to think of it that way, you personally grow. Ownership runs deep in the veins of some of the most successful people in the world and at Qualtrics.
If you could pick one job at Qualtrics to do for the next month what would it be?
I'll give you two answers to that. I'd say any job that is customer-facing because I am fulfilled through the real world and what you get to do for people. But I also think a really cool job would be getting to be in every single job over 30 days.
What’s something about you that everyone should understand?
I grew up on a small orchard as a kid. I remember coming home from kindergarten one day and my dad was on our property with a shovel and he said, “You're going to help me plant these trees.” And we planted a lot of trees! Eventually, we had over 600. I remember counting them during long weekend days where we watered them by hand but also enjoyed eating and sharing avocados, citrus and the tropical fruits we grew from this orchard. I learned early the rewards of hard work and what comes from nurturing something you love.
Who inspires you?
Inside the company, I get my inspiration from people who are closest to our customers. Our Services teams, Sales, Customer Success, Solution Strategists, XM Scientists, our Product Managers, our Engineers, our User Experience teams, and anyone else working with our customers. They’ve got the heart of the customer on their sleeve all the time. I get inspired by people who I see truly understand our customers, what they’re trying to solve, and what it translates to for them in their own lives and the lives of their own customers. I get inspired by those moments.
And in my personal life, it’s my mom. She has always been someone who is an inspiration - who I look up to. She's very, very different from me but is a person who taught me a work ethic and scrappiness. She taught me sacrifice in everything she did to support our family while working two, sometimes three jobs as she raised our family. She also inspired me to learn. She came to the U.S. with teaching credentials from Europe. However, in the U.S., her first job was as a janitor at UCLA hospital. She eventually became a nurse but it wasn't easy getting there as someone who also had to learn English. I think of her as an example no matter what time or what stage I’m in life. She has shaped who I am and who I hope to continue to be.
|Zig started his career at Tellme Networks and came to Qualtrics from Microsoft. Zig’s family had a tree farm while he was growing up, with over 600 trees on it!|