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How a Seasoned Silicon Valley Veteran Keeps Innovation at the Forefront of Business Nine leadership lessons from TriNet president and CEO Burton M. Goldfield

By Jason Nazar Edited by Jessica Thomas

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


What the pandemic has taught everyone is that pivoting business operations in crisis can be a challenge. I recently invited a renowned leader in sales, operations and technology to discuss the winning strategies for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) to drive product innovation and growth during this monumental time. For the latest episode of Comparably and Entrepreneur's Leadership Lessons series, I sat down with Burton M. Goldfield, president and CEO of TriNet (NYSE: TNET). TriNet is a cloud-based provider of full-service HR solutions for SMBs, and its net revenue has more than quadrupled during Goldfield's tenure as CEO since 2008.

Born in inner-city Philadelphia with no silver spoons in sight, Goldfield credits his early success to his natural aptitude for science and math. After graduating high school, he was asked to be part of Syracuse University's first graduating class in biomedical engineering. "I didn't really know what a biomedical engineer was, but I knew that having my degree paid for at that time was a really good thing," he says.

Related: Free On-Demand Webinar: How to Grow a Disruptive Software Company & Scale Globally

Biomedical engineer or not, Goldfield found that people were most drawn to the computer skills he had picked up as part of the deal. "Between you and I, I wasn't that good. But there weren't many people in the late 70s who appreciated computers and computer software." From there, Goldfield left Philly for Silicon Valley, settling in Palo Alto near the Hewlett-Packard garage, which he drew inspiration from. And from there, a bold 40-plus year career in the technology sector began, from his executive sales and operational roles at IBM and Hyperion Solutions Corporation to his role as CEO at Ketera Technologies, a Santa Clara-based SaaS provider.

I've been lucky enough to know this terrific leader for years, and his skill and humor as a speaker and storyteller made our conversation an especially rich and valuable session. Here are nine lessons from Burton Goldfield to keep in your back pocket:

1. Take things personally

Goldfield says his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. "To me, seeing people succeed is very personal. I feel the joy of their success," he says. And that extends to failures as well: "It tests who I am as I face those challenges." He stays in a constant state of learning by talking to small businesses and prospects, as well as mentoring folks.

2. Surround yourself with great people

Goldfield credits surrounding himself with the right people as being a critical element of his success. He met the founders of Rational Software, which he considers his first true company in the tech arena, on an interview. He was so impressed with their character that he joined the company, which he was loyal to for 14 years, as it went from a $19 million outfit to a $1 billion one by the time IBM bought it.

Related: Free On-Demand Webinar: Winning Strategies to Drive Product Innovation & Growth

3. Hire for core values and motivation

Knowledge, skills and experience can be taught on the job, so make sure to hire people with values that already align with the company and a motivation beyond simply making a living. "You're not evaluating whether people are good or bad. You're evaluating whether their core values and their motivation is what you need for the mission that your company is on," Goldfield told me.

4. You can't fake a genuine interest in other people

To be an effective CEO and to work with small businesses, curiosity and care about the people you work with has to be one soft skill that comes naturally to you. "I love hearing what you're doing when we catch up," Goldfield told me. "I love going and seeing my clients taking apart their devices, or talking to them about their markets, because it gets me energized. But it's a genuine interest. It's not a sales technique."

5. Don't depend on linear career progress

Goldfield says he's never chased money or had a particular desire for a job title. Those things came to him as a result of his efforts, but they were never the driver, nor were they defining markers for encouragement or discouragement. "I had a desire to be around people that I cared about and believed in, and could learn from. I wanted to be given a big gnarly problem to solve, and I also wanted to solve it and go back and say, "See, I did it?'"

Related: How Lynn Jurich Turned an Innate Passion for Saving the Environment into a Definitively Disruptive Energy Company

6. A lack of being content drives a CEO to innovate

Goldfield believes people are currently more risk-averse than they were in the 90s, when startups could get going without benefits and a bunch of options that had no value yet. Innovation is risky, especially to a company that is doing well financially, but Goldfield maintains that innovation has to remain of utmost importance to a CEO — he or she can't become too content with the company as it currently is. "I don't wake up content, I wake up happy," Goldfield says. "You're not chasing revenue and profit. You're chasing value, you're chasing execution, you're chasing hiring great people. And when you put it all together, the revenue and profit become the result."

7. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated technology

Goldfield agrees with those who speculate that the recent crisis has sped up development of technology by 10 years. Innovation needs to happen now on that advanced schedule as well. Customers want answers faster and with more user-friendly interfaces. "The ability to take knowledge and distribute that knowledge to help make decisions is going to accelerate even further."

8. Know what your goals are before accepting seed money

"Make sure you have a clear idea of the reason you're going public, or the reason you're using a SPAC, or the reason you're taking money from your uncle," Goldfield says. Everything comes with positives and negatives. Before taking money, think about what your goals are and how you will measure success with the project. "If you're developing an app that you think is going to make you a million dollars, and believe that you can live on a Caribbean island for the rest of your life with a million dollars, I wouldn't take a dime," he jokes. "I would eat beans, finish your app, get the million dollars, make the decisions yourself, declare victory, and go off and live on that island. On the other hand, if you are trying to cure cancer, the question is not whether you will take money, the question is how many rounds of funding and how many years will it take?"

Related: 12 Leadership Lessons from Envoy Founder and CEO Larry Gadea

9. A company's mission and vision are paramount for recruiting and retaining employees, particularly in remote work situations.

There's a place at every company for great employees for whom the paycheck is the bottom line motivator, but especially in a remote setting, genuine passion for the mission is irreplaceable. "I believe that a connection with the mission and vision will become an even more important element to keeping people and for opening up innovation and dialogue in companies over the next 10 years," Goldfield says.

To learn more about Goldfield's approach to leadership and other insights he shared with me during our chat, watch the full webinar here. For more extraordinary talks with other CEOs from high-profile brands like Zoom, Nextdoor, WarbyParker, Dallas Mavericks, GoDaddy and Docusign, check out our series page.

Jason Nazar

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Comparably Co-Founder & Serial Tech Entrepreneur

Jason Nazar is a serial tech entrepreneur, investor and advisor with two successful exits under his belt. Most recently he was co-founder/CEO of Comparably (acquired by ZoomInfo), a leading workplace culture and employee review site. Prior to that, he was founder/CEO of Docstoc (acquired by Intuit).

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