3 years as CEO. 3 key learnings at Unit 4. | Unit4
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3 years as CEO. 3 key learnings at Unit 4.

from  April 22, 2022 | 4 min read

This week, I am celebrating 3 years as CEO at Unit4.

It’s been a terrific and rewarding experience – although not necessarily the one I was expecting when I started.

I can safely say I’ve done and learned more, as both a person and leader, over the last 3 years than I did in the 30 years prior.

And, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside the best people I’ve ever worked with too.

I was invited to lead Unit4 back in December 2018. I accepted for the opportunity to come aboard a company with great heritage, to help it perform and take it to the next level, and started on 15 April 2019.

We were creating great momentum and seeing great results by the end of the year – and then the pandemic arrived in early March 2020.

 

Running towards the fire

Everyone felt it in different ways, but the global reaction to COVID blew up the normal modus operandi for us all.

For me, the lifestyle change was quite extreme. I’ve spent my entire career travelling for business. Prior to 2020, I regularly spent 2 weeks out of every month on the road or in the air. My British Airways dashboard tells me I’ve spent a full 28 weeks of my life flying.

By contrast, in 2020 I only managed 4 international trips. The most Orwellian experience was landing at Terminal 2 at Heathrow, in June 2020. and the baggage arrivals board only had 8 flights listed for the day.  I would’ve liked to have done more, but most of my flights for the year were cancelled, much to my disappointment. Perhaps it’s the South African in me, but I’ve always been of a mind to run towards the challenge rather than away from it. 

 

​​​​​​​How do you sell a $2bn business in the middle of a lockdown?

I certainly think this approach has helped in the other big event from the past 3 years – our successful sale of Unit4 in 2021 to TA Associates.

Selling a $2bn+ business during lockdown isn’t an easy thing to do. When that kind of money is on the line, people want to meet in person.

Thanks to my somewhat bruising experience of trying to navigate different regions’ restrictions in my attempts to travel, I realized that the perfect location for face-to-face meetings would be Miami – and I was pleased to discover that many of our potential buyers had had the same idea and were already hanging out in South Florida!

We met with 15 potential buyers before eventually creating a deal with TA. All bidders had some sort of previous relationship with us, and 70% were able to meet with us in person.

This combination of pre-existing relationships and a willingness to go the extra mile to get the deal over the line contributed greatly to both our ability to find the right partner for the purchase, and to accelerate the sale process. We began the process on January 4th, signed the agreement on March 18th, and closed the transaction on 1 July.

An impressive turnaround from a failed sale in 2018 to successfully finding a new partner in March – all in a period of extreme uncertainty.

 

What have we learned?

I mentioned earlier that I’ve learned more in the past 3 years than I ever had before.

While quite a bit of what I’ve learned is an encyclopedic knowledge of the constantly changing travel regulations in different countries, I think the 3 most important things I’ve learned in the past 3 years are the following:

 

1: Figure out how you’re going to de-escalate before you escalate

If COVID and its aftermath have shown anything, it’s that knee-jerk actions can have big unforeseen consequences. Many people – and many businesses and governments – escalated very quickly at the start of the pandemic.

Now that some of the dust has settled, many have found that without a clear path forward, de-escalation is difficult and chaotic at best, and impossible at worst.

Leaders should always have an eye on the exit for any course of action they take – especially if it represents a significant departure from the status quo. You might not always have a path back to the way things were, but you can and must always have a clear idea of your path through the crisis.

This brings me neatly to my second lesson.

 

2: Keeping a business running means keeping its people safe

Helping provide the leadership necessary to get Unit4 through the pandemic has been a huge part of my day-to-day responsibility over the past 25 months.

One move which proved very fortuitous right from the start was our decision to move to a “headquarterless” operating model in 2019. Rather than run the company out of a single HQ, our global leadership would meet monthly in one of our international offices. This was already a well-oiled machine by 2020, and all we needed to do to make a shift to full remote working was to meet over Teams.

Our approach to dealing with the disruptions of COVID was quite simple, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my time at Unit4.

We made the decision in mid-March 2020, if at all possible, that we’d make no redundancies, no cutbacks to our marketing spend, and no change to our bonus accumulation.

I remember early on seeing many other CEOs adopting and almost bragging about how bad they thought COVID might be for them. How many of their people they’d have to layoff? How radically they’d have to change their plans. Many adopted a “war room mentality” in their approach – or created literal war rooms.

By contrast, at Unit4, we were always careful to treat COVID as a health issue, and as a people issue first and foremost. We stuck to a single plan – our original plan – because we knew the situation would be stressful for everyone and we didn’t want to make it even worse by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Our approach paid off with us achieving our targets for the year, and with our people working harder and smarter remotely than had even in the office the previous year.

 

3: Don’t dictate

As a South African, I’m in the interesting position of having grown up under the dictatorial years of Apartheid.

The past 2 years have been extremely distressing to me for this very reason. Living as I do now in the “land of the free”, I never expected that I’d see similar restrictions on everyone’s freedom to those I grew up with, in the 70s and 80s – all enacted in the name of public health.

I therefore made a personal decision early on that I wouldn’t become a “dictator” myself and encouraged a similar approach from our leadership team.

At Unit4, we’re proud that we’ve never forced anyone to do something they wouldn’t want to – either during or after restrictions were lifted. We’ll never force people to come back to the office if they don’t want to – but we’ll never force them to stay away if we can help it either.

I couldn’t be happier with what I’ve achieved personally in the past 3 years, and with what Unit4 has achieved as a business in the face of extreme adversity and uncertainty.

I look forward to many more years with the business as we pursue our goal of quintupling our valuation to become a $10 billion company. Not only that, but to continue developing our next-generation ERPx solution, leading innovation in the space and putting people first.

One of the many things that attracted me to Unit4 was its strapline, “In Business for People”. As I shared in a number of interviews when I started, “Unit4 is unique in that it rebuilt ERP from a people-centric standpoint, which is fundamentally different to building manufacturing-centric ERP.” It got me really excited, and that excitement continues to this day.

 

As I reflect on the past 24 months, being in business for people has taken on a whole new meaning – how we support our people in this new way of work, engage with our customers in an entirely different way, partner with an expanding global ecosystem, and most importantly lead with authenticity, empathy, and care. The last statement is perhaps the most important as it’s kept us moving forward, together, during some exceptionally challenging times and has emboldened us to always try to do our best for our employees, their families, our customers, and by extension the customers and communities they serve.

Mike Ettling - Chief Executive Office at Unit4

Mike Ettling

I’m a CEO, Investor, builder of world class teams, champion of diversity and continuous learner, and I’m passionate about people. From my first leadership role in the Boy Scouts, to exec positions in the tech industry, my career has revolved around elevating, engaging and enabling people. I joined Unit4 to get the market as excited in our unique approach to enterprise tech as I am. We’re building systems that change how people experience work, and the impact will be huge.

Outside of work I’m a family man, a Liverpool supporter, and a proud South African.