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Perspectives Podcast: Leadership Lessons From Splunk CEO Gary Steele

Splunk CEO Gary Steele shares his perspective on AI, innovation and the current economic landscape — and reveals whether he’d ever appear on Undercover Boss.

A headshot of Splunk CEO Gary Steele.

In our inaugural episode of the Perspectives Podcast, my co-host and fellow Field CTO Kirsty Paine and I sat down at .conf23 with our very own Splunk CEO, Gary Steele. Gary shares how he’s thinking and strategizing as a technology leader; we dig into how he prioritizes both customer and employee experience, his thoughts on where AI will take us, and how to effectively lead in the current economic climate.

Watch, download or listen to the full episode below. Thanks for tuning in.

Note: This is an auto-generated transcript, which may contain errors. 

Cory Minton: Hi, everyone. Kirsty and I are excited to bring you the Perspectives by Splunk podcast where we seek to bring you interesting topics around security and technology for leaders by leaders. And we're joined today by Gary Steele. Gary, we'll start off with a quick one for you. 

Gary Steele: Sure.

interviewer: Who is Gary Steele? 

Gary Steele: Who is Gary Steele? Well, I'm Splunk’s CEO, and I'm just having an amazing time being Splunk CEO. 

Kirsty Paine: Fantastic. That's great. I mean, that could have gone a lot of different directions to that question we had on the legend, Gary Steele. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. As we said, you know, this podcast is by leaders for leaders. So we'd be really keen to know for you, what's the biggest challenge that you hear from our customer executives today as you speak to them, peer to peer or leader to leader?

Gary Steele: You know, one of the things that have been great being here at .conf and spending time with our customers. I think there's this broad theme around resilience, obviously, that's a big part of our messaging. But I also think it's what's on people's minds, and it really spans around cyber to how do you keep this broad, vast digital footprint up and running consistently? And so I think while that happens to be our messaging, I do think it is number one top of mind for tech leaders today.

Cory Minton: Yeah, one of the things that we talk about is, you know, we've seen Swan go through some pretty massive transformations from a go-to market perspective and frankly, you know, operating in a highly innovative part of the industry. From your seat, what is maybe some wisdom that you could share with, you know, other leaders that they're trying to lead through, big changes like this that are happening today?

Gary Steele: Yeah, I think a couple of things. I think one as a technology company, one of the things I've been super focused on is how do we continue to increase the pace of innovation? Because at the end of the day, it's all about delivering an amazing customer experience and at the heart of customer experience is innovation. That's what that's what they're dependent upon us for.

And so really getting everyone thematically focused on it, you know, being here at .conf, I think people walked away with that message. There's a lot happening across the product line which I think everyone's super excited about. And then in that process of leading change, you know, for Splunk, you know, one of the things I've been trying to do consistently is talk directly to sponger every week and make sure that people really understand how we're thinking about the opportunity going forward and getting aligned on what's really important and customer experience being a big part of that.

Kirsty Paine: Yeah, I think that innovation piece is really key and it's interesting because we wonder how that offsets against the background, you know, the challenge that we're working in the context that we're in with the economic climate, the way it is and wondered if you could speak a bit about how that has challenged you to think differently the way the economy is at the moment.

Gary Steele: Yeah, I mean, clearly there's a level of uncertainty in the economic environment and, you know, honestly, I don't think it's bad. I just think it's super uncertain. Like I don't think any of us really understand what the next year will hold in terms of where does the economy go? But I think as long as we're anchored and focused on things that result in value for our customers, and that's all that matters, whether that's improving customer experience, whether that's more products and capabilities that drive better innovation, whether it's capabilities that help customers consolidate their offerings. I think all of those things are really good. And so if you never lose sight of delivering value to customers, I think you will do the right thing even at a choppier economic time.

Cory Minton: Yeah. So it's, it's interesting though because I think from a leader’s perspective, uncertainty certainly makes people, you know, sometimes uncomfortable, but they look at leaders like you and CEOs to, you know, set priorities right, to prioritize those objectives. How do you go about that process of helping develop customer experience and pace of innovation, how do you set those perspectives and cascade those effectively through your teams? 

Gary Steele: Yeah, you know, it's interesting, you know, as a company, we really have two kinds of competing priorities, which are, how do you ensure that that customer experience is amazing every day and there's always room for improvement there. And then I think about the power of all of our employees and the capabilities that they have to deliver that customer experience. And I think about customer experience and employee experience very much equivalent because they're so critical to running this business. And if you always frame everything in terms of what really matters, does it matter to an employer? Is it mattering to a customer? It's kind of, it kind of sift helps you sift through those priorities relatively quickly. And I think you could ultimately then deliver great outcomes as a result.


Kirsty Paine: Yeah, that lens is really important for helping you prioritize and get those things in order. And that can really help in times of uncertainty like you were saying before. And so we've seen a lot of evolution happening lately with the Splunk portfolio of everything that's going on. What do you think is resonating the most with our customer executives?


Gary Steele: You know, it's interesting because there's so much thematic discussion around AI, I think everyone wanted to hear like, what are you up to? You know, and, and one of the things that I'm personally very excited about is what the future holds for us in this broad context of AI, you know, the announcement that we made today relative to Splunk A I, I think is a good anchor point. But what's really exciting is where it's all headed. And if we can just make the lives of our customers easier because you're assisting them along the way with more sophistication delivered through AI. That's kind of amazing.


Cory Minton: Yeah, absolutely. It is. So one of the things that we're hoping that leaders will come to, you know, Splunk Perspectives for is, you know, to stay abreast of what's going on the market. You talked about that there's incredible innovation happening in AI across the Splunk portfolio, but really it's happening across the world. Like there's, there's lots of innovation happening in lots of pockets. I'm curious, you know, you, you talked earlier about having, you know, great connection to your team right through regular cadence conversations. But what other sort of best practices do you adopt to help keep yourself abreast of the technology changes, abreast of like what's going on in the market so that you can accurately prioritize your teams?


Gary Steele: Yeah, you know, for me, and I sat on this vision when I joined the company, is I want to get really close to customers. And so I spent a good portion of my time, my first 100 days, my first 100 customers — it really helped anchor me for how customers were thinking about what was making Splunk great and also where we could improve. And so having that strong foundational knowledge of what the heck is going on with our customers, to me was sort of the basis for which it just helps you make priority decisions. So you're not relying upon everything, filtering through five layers of people before it gets to you and you have your own perspective and opinion on, well, I talked to a lot of customers myself and I have a view of what's really working or, or areas where we just need to improve. Yeah, it's really interesting because that ground truth is exactly that very grounding. And it reminds me of this TV show called Undercover Boss where you get to go and sit among —


Kirsty Paine: Would you, would you ever go on that, Gary?


Gary Steele: I don't know that it applies. I think it's better in retail, right? Like I think it's better at the restaurant.


Cory Minton: The challenge is because you are such a present CEO it's not, you know, we have a regular, you know, cadence of conversation with you, so I don't think you could sneak in.


Gary Steele: I don’t even know what my disguise would be. 


Kirsty Paine: Drink not diet Pepsi.


Cory Minton: I want to double click on one thing you mentioned earlier though. This AI story, right? It's pervasive, everybody wants to talk about it but making it real seems more challenging. What around AI innovation that Splunk is doing do you think is making AI really valuable in specific domain areas? 


Gary Steele: Now, what I think is super exciting is our focus on just making our user’s life better: assisting them in the tasks that they have ahead of them and making it more efficient, faster, more practical, delivering better outcomes as a result. You know, I keep reminding people AI is not magic, it's not magic as much as they'd like to believe. People portray it that way. Sometimes I get lots of questions that you would think AI is magic, it’s not, but it has great potential. And I think if we focus again, going back to customer experience, how can we deliver an amazing customer experience by leveraging AI that just makes someone’s day simpler?


Kirsty Paine: Yeah, I think that customer experience thread comes through really clearly in your leadership and best exemplified perhaps by the 100 days, 100 customers mentioned before, which is a great piece of advice for anyone starting and taking over as a CEO of a new company. But if you had the chance to give some advice to perhaps new CEOs or CEOs who are coming into a new company, days? 


Gary Steele: Yeah, I think the thing I did a couple of things that I really look back on and I think, ok, this was a good lesson and one was the focus on customers. I don't know that I would commit to 100 customers, it was a lot. I spent a lot of time with Splunkers and so hearing directly from the employees, what was working, what wasn't working and again, not relying on it all being filtered through other people. And I remember the chairman of Splunk’s board said to me, well, you know, maybe in your first 90 days, Gary you can talk to the top 50 Splunkers. And my response was, Dude, I'm going to do that before I start. I'm like, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna wait. So literally before I even walked in the door, I had a really good sense. So my only advice is, just the more that you can understand what you're walking into, meaning what's on the minds of the employees and what really matters, and then what's on the minds of your customers and it then helps you very quickly sift through what are, what's really important, what are the priorities and what really matters? 

You guys remember this, when I walked in, we had 12 priorities. It was a lot. I can't even name them off. We got it down to five relatively quickly, and it wasn't being disrespectful to the past. All those 12 things were very valid. It's just the average employee, including me, I can't remember them. And if it's too many, you're probably not actually focused on all of them for sure. And so again, the more we can all keep it simpler to try to drive better outcomes. So I think it's just better. 


Cory Minton: Yeah, if everything's important, nothing's important, right?


Gary Steele: Right. And honestly, nothing gets done. 


Cory Minton: Yeah, exactly. So one last thing I want to ask is, you know, you talked about being respectful of the past Splunk has a phenomenal culture, an amazing culture and amazing customers, amazing beauty and it's excited to be part of, I think as you look out over the next couple of years, what are you most excited about as if your priorities come true? What's that world look like in a couple of years for Splunk that you're excited to be part of? 


Gary Steele: Yeah, I think the path that we're on for customer experience, just making it easier for customers to adopt, making it easier for a customer to get outcomes. Those are great things you couple with that with the pace of innovation we have, I think it can be really transformative about the outcomes customers can get from Splunk.
And while we're at the beginning of this journey on AI, I think that it will unlock amazing outcomes that we can't even foresee. Because if you think about it, if you go back in time, what has been so remarkable, remarkable about Splunk is this incredible platform that empowers people to do things that no one would have ever imagined. And I think the work that we're doing, the innovation we're doing coupled with AI and continues to unlock that in a super powerful way. 


Kirsty Paine: It's such an interesting response to end on. I'm so sorry we don't have more time with you today. I know your schedule is incredibly busy, but we want to say thank you so much for joining us. 


Gary Steele: It’s great to be here. 


Kirsty Paine: Thank you for your time and thank you for our listeners as well for listening to our executive takes on today's security and technology topics by leaders for leaders. It's always great to hear Gary Steele speak on any subject, but especially the range of things you've let us ask you today.

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