Think again. Turns out this CEO is really very … human. Wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, Peter Ciceri welcomes me into his comfortable office and makes tea, heartily praising Silk Road, the trend-setting teashop in Chinatown. The first thing I notice once I sit down is the acoustic guitar propped near his desk. It turns out it’s just one guitar in the collection of this self-taught guitarist (after 30 years of playing, he only began lessons when his daughter had to cancel hers and he decided to take the lesson instead) who counts Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, and even White Buffalo among his favourite musicians.
The guitar is the first clue I need to drop any preconceived notions about CEOs, because Ciceri is anything but typical. But make no mistake: he knows business and he knows CEOs. He’s been there, done that, several times, most recently during a four-year stint here in Victoria as president and CEO of Custom House Currency Exchange, the company founded in 1992 by Peter Gustavson. Ciceri was brought into Custom House by Gustavson to increase the value of the company — which he did, to the tune of four times its value — and to sell it — which he also did, to Western Union for $370 million in 2009.
Before that, Ciceri was president and managing director of Compaq Canada, a $1.7-billion company with 5,000 employees. He is a seasoned international businessman who has worked in more than 30 countries, mostly in Asia Pacific, where he spent over 10 years living in Hong Kong and Tokyo working with Compaq, HP, and Unisys. He’s been lead director and chairman of Sierra Wireless, one of B.C.’s most successful tech companies, as well as a member of the University of Victoria’s Board of Governors. And he’s has been recognized by the Financial Post’s Report on Business as one of Canada’s top 100 Business Elite and by UVic as the “Alumni of the Year” for Business Achievement in 2000. Now he’s bundled his executive experience, along with his MA in Counselling Psychology and his training with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Corporate Directors, into his newest role — coaching CEOs and other business executives.
Douglas: How would you characterize yourself as a CEO?
Ciceri: When I was CEO or president of a company, I never saw myself as better than anybody else. As a CEO, I have a role and I am the leader and I am ultimately accountable. The decisions that I make have a much greater influence and effect. People want strong leadership, they really do, and it’s really important, and it is a privilege to provide it, but that doesn’t make the [CEO] better.
Douglas: What is business all about for you?
Ciceri: In business, it’s about people — always about people, first and last. The factors of production from an economic standpoint are land, capital, and labour — and most important is always people. It is the determinant of whether you are going to have a successful business or not.
Douglas: Custom House was bought by Western Union. What is it like internally when one company buys another one?
Ciceri: It was difficult: no question. It’s really important that the value of the company that has been bought be preserved. In order to preserve something, you have to understand it. And unfortunately, I think Western Union was more concerned about managing and controlling than they were about understanding the value of the business. It’s like when you buy a house, and you want to make renovations to that house, its good to leave that house alone for a little while so you get to know it. Ideally, you could even move in for a little while before you change anything so you can see what works and what doesn’t work. That didn’t happen.
Douglas: What happened after the sale of Custom House? Things seemed to collapse under Western Union.
Ciceri: I think [Western Union] wanted to build the company here to 300 [to] 350 people from the 260 people that we had. They had good intentions. They told us that that was what they wanted to do. But it hasn’t gone in that direction because they changed their minds about a lot of different things. Now it is about 90 people.
Douglas: What can and should happen with a merger or acquisition?
Ciceri: It all depends on the [people] acquiring the company — how smart and sensitive they are in making sure that they preserve and build the value of what it is they acquire. You acquire a company because that company has something of value that is going to enhance the value of your company on some level. Pretty simple. And hopefully two plus two equals five. You want there to be increasing returns to scale. But it’s all in how you manage it. There are three things that are going to undermine the value of an acquisition. One is that it was poor strategy in the first place. The second is in the execution of the merger and the transition. And the third is culture. If the culture of the company is such that people don’t feel connected to the new business — and it is all about feeling a connection to the new business to the same degree that they had to the old business — then either they are not going to work hard, or they are going to leave.
Douglas: Are there new rules for CEOs?
Ciceri: I don’t necessarily know if there are new rules. I think maybe there are rules that have been forgotten or that aren’t adhered to. I think the ability to really listen is a characteristic that isn’t often adhered to. That
is absolutely key.
Douglas: How should a CEO run a company?
Ciceri: In running a company, everybody has a valid opinion. When you run a company, it is really all about synthesizing and bringing together the brilliance of everybody who is in the business. That’s what you do [as a CEO]: you bring people together. You synthesize their creative energy, their spirit, their work, their contribution. You are responsible for providing some structure and purpose, as such, to bring people together and allow them the opportunity to contribute. You synthesize the brilliance of the people around you to make sure that you have a vision and have a strategy for getting to that vision that’s going to be as strong as possible.
Douglas: As a CEO, how do you do that?
Ciceri: Through the collective wisdom of many people and through the process of inclusion: they are going to buy into it and connect to it and bond to it and take a responsibility for getting there. CEOs need to know that their strength lies in the people that they have around them. A mistake CEOs make is believing they have all the answers. They don’t. They are much better off and they are going to have a much stronger company and much stronger results if they open up and tap into the collective wisdom of the people that they have around them. Ultimately, [CEOs] are responsible, but they need to tap into that.
Douglas: What are some of the other common mistakes CEOs make?
Ciceri: One of their biggest mistakes is not learning from their mistakes. And an even bigger mistake is not making mistakes. Mistakes are there for a reason. You learn from them. Everything. Always. And if you are not making mistakes, then you are not taking the courageous path; that’s a great expression — that’s [author] David White. You need to go out on a limb once in a while because, as Will Rogers says, that’s where the fruit is. And you need to have the wisdom to learn from mistakes. We live in this age of perfectionism, which is really a problem in that nothing is perfect. If you live in fear of making a mistake, or fear that you are not going to be perfect, then you are never going to be a good CEO. And some of the best CEOs I have known have made some mistakes. But they make mistakes with best intentions, with due process.
Douglas: How do you or can you learn from mistakes?
Ciceri: As a wise person said to me one time, the presenting problem is seldom the problem. So if you make a mistake, understand really well where that problem comes from. If you enter a new market, and it doesn’t pan out the way it should have, you say “oh, we made a mistake; we shouldn’t have entered that market; that’s the mistake.” Well, that’s not the mistake. The mistake is, perhaps, there wasn’t the due diligence behind it. Perhaps there wasn’t the analysis, or perhaps the product wasn’t priced right — there are myriad different reasons under the surface. You really need to look under the surface and understand what is it that caused the mistake, what was the motivation in the action. What did they learn from it? What can you help them learn from it? Your best chance of not repeating [a mistake] is to understand truly the reason for which it was caused in the first place.
Douglas: What is the most important quality in a good CEO?
Ciceri: I believe it is judgment — judgment in making decisions. I am a much better decision-maker now than I was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Why? Because I have made lots of mistakes. And you learn from them and you gain a confidence from taking risk. Judgment is a practice, something which is honed. You only build that by trying and sometimes failing and by learning and going on.
Douglas: What about leadership? What is it or what does it mean as a CEO quality?
Ciceri: Leadership is defined by getting enough people to follow somebody — I mean to willingly follow somebody. Why would somebody willing follow somebody else? Because on some emotional level, they feel connected to them; on a psychological level they feel connected to them. But what makes a leader a good leader? It is how connected that [leader] is to themselves, how well they know themselves, how open they are, and how confident they are as a result of that.
Douglas: In general, therapy deals with emotional issues. How do emotions play into business?
Ciceri: Business is very much about rational cognitive decisions that are driven by emotions. If you are buying a company, you go through all the financial analysis, [and ask] is it going to make us money, over what period of time, is it strategic, does it add scope, does it add scale, etc., etc. — all these different things. But, at the end of the day, it is how they feel about it. And if they don’t feel good about it, they won’t do it. Emotions play a huge role in [business], and the number one norm that men believe they need to adhere to is emotional control, emotional stoicism. They say emotion is weak. It’s not. And if you don’t realize that it’s not [weak] and if you don’t realize the role that it plays in your life, in decisions, and in business, you are going to be handicapped.
Douglas: Is the job of a CEO the same here as internationally?
Ciceri: I think it is pretty much the same. The job of the CEO is to drive shareholder value — first and foremost. Anywhere. Government owned, you still drive value; however, that bureaucracy defines values. It could be the number of widgets, bits, shares, profits, it could be all sorts of things — the job of the CEO is to build value irrespective. You build shareholder and stakeholder value — stakeholder value being employees, customers, and the community. [Community] is increasingly important and it should be: there’s social and moral responsibility around that. And a smart company is going to realize that if they have a focus on community and sustainability, it provides their employees and customers with a stronger bond to the company within the community. What goes around comes around and so it is good for business.
Douglas: Who do you consider good as a CEO and why?
Ciceri: Two that come to mind. There was a guy named David Sutcliffe, who was president and CEO of Sierra Wireless. I have a lot of respect for him. He was there for a long time, and I learned a lot from him. He was just a very trustworthy guy, and I would define that by the fact that he was very sincere, competent, consistent, and open. He always tried to do the right thing. And just integrity. I mean there is no grey area in integrity — people say there is but there’s not and ethics says there’s not. Just do the right thing, because it is going to find the light of day anyways.
But the other guy who I really like is Fezziwig, Ebenezer Scrooge’s first boss in A Christmas Carol. When Ebenezer Scrooge is watching the dance with the ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge says Fezziwig was the kindest, best employer ever. He cared about his people, he treated them like family, and he gave them a place where they could connect to the business and to themselves and to each other. He really wanted to have a work environment and a culture of work that was very humanistic in its approach. He embodied that. I think he should be just about everybody’s CEO — every CEO. He was a role model.
Story by Douglas Magazine