Vena Solutions co-founder and CEO Don Mal speaks at an event organized by Tech Toronto on Feb. 12.

Published: February 13th, 2018

TORONTO – Outside of work, Vena Solutions co-founder and CEO Don Mal likes to focus on what he calls his “three Gs” – his girls (two daughters), his guitar (he quit university to start a band, and still plays in a band called the Grid Unlocked with his Vena colleagues), and his golf.

He’s learned a key leadership lesson from the last: Like golf, management is highly counterintuitive.

“Anyone who has played golf knows that if you want the ball to go up, you’ve got to hit down. And to make it go far, you’ve got to hit it less hard,” Mal said during a Feb. 13 presentation organized by Tech Toronto.

In a similar vein, great leadership requires “not being the smartest person in the room, and recognizing that, and hiring and surrounding yourself with people that can support… any gaps that you might have, and being able to admit that you have those gaps,” he added.

Vena, a corporate performance management software developer which already employs more than 200 people six years after its founding, illustrates this principle, Mal said: each founder, including CTO George Papayiannis and chief solutions architect Rishi Grover, brought unique expertise to the table, with Papayiannis focusing on the technology, Grover on the product, and Mal on sales.

“I’ll tell you right now, I definitely was not the product or technical person, and I recognized that, and I gave way to my cofounders to run that part of the business,” Mal said. “Similarly, they recognized that they didn’t have my sales background, and they were able to give way to that. So we all recognized our strengths and weaknesses, and we are all able to work better around them.”

In sales, for example, emotional intelligence is more important than academic intelligence – making it the perfect fit for a band member-turned-concert-promoter-turned-sales expert like himself, he joked.

“In sales, if you want to give advice… you’d better have a level of emotional intelligence to… convince [prospective customers] that your quality assurance is something they want to buy,” he said.

Equally important to embracing emotional vulnerability as a strength, however, is training your organization’s workforce to follow suit, Mal said.

The payoffs are worth it, he promised: Workers at a company that values honesty and transparency – what he called “authentic leadership” – over short-term gains will be more likely to trust each other and articulate what they consider wrongheaded or inappropriate behaviour.

“Leadership is something everyone can learn… and improve,” Mal said. “Having the… culture of authentic leadership means that you’re going to have stronger teams that are going to work really well together, because by recognizing those gaps in your skills, you make sure that you have people that fill them out on your team.”

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