Mark McLaughlin’s career includes president and CEO roles at Verisign and, most recently, Palo Alto Networks, where he steered the company to its current position as a global leader in security before he stepped down in June. A former soldier, attorney and startup VP, Mark recommends forgoing detailed life plans in favor of taking risks, pursuing new directions and answering one simple question: “What really matters?”
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
Relatively late in my career, I started to take some time before the day starts—15 or 20 minutes of quiet time, and a half hour for exercise. I think the quiet time in particular is so important. I pray; some people meditate; you can just sit and collect your thoughts. But if you skip it and go straight to your phone and the deluge of emails that arrived while you were sleeping, the tyranny of the urgent can take over your whole day.
It’s hard to resist, especially if you’re a go-go-go, action-oriented person, like a lot of us in tech. But if I start the day peacefully, then when I do dive in, my replies are more thoughtful. My tone is different. Decisions that I might have struggled with the night before are suddenly more clear. I think I’m actually better at my job and life in general when I take that little bit of time.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
The most important thing you will do is choose the leaders of your company. That sets the tone for your entire culture—how your team communicates, how well things are done. When I’m looking for a new leader, I start with values. Competency matters a great deal, but a person who isn’t aligned with your values is more likely to hurt your organization than help it, no matter how skilled they are.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to find leaders who have true integrity and character and won’t point fingers or wilt under pressure. Everyone thinks they’re that person, but you have to find the ones who actually are. I usually start with references, either before or right after I meet with someone, and I don’t mean the references they provide. If you put in a little effort, you can connect with “behind-the-scenes” references, and you can learn a lot from those conversations. Another thing I used to do long ago, with smaller organizations—this will sound crazy, but before I hired a leader I’d invite myself to dinner at their house. When you meet someone’s family, see the things they value and ask about the pictures on their walls, you start to learn who they really are.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Setting boundaries. Whether that’s taking a little time in the morning or making sure I go on vacation, it’s a small change in terms of overall time but it makes an incredible impact. It’s natural for hardworking people to make the mistake of letting work become all-consuming. I know I’ve struggled with that. But I have three kids, and I think even if all you manage in a given day is getting home to put them to bed, those 20 minutes are way better than nothing.
The first time I was offered the job as CEO of Palo Alto Networks, in 2008, I really wanted it. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But we were living in Virginia and my wife, Karen, and the kids were against moving—for good reason. Their entire lives were there. I ended up getting another chance a few years later, and by then the kids were teenagers who thought California would be cool. But that first offer, I couldn’t take. It was the wrong thing for my family at the time, and I believe that if you have a wildly successful career but it comes at the cost of your relationship with your spouse or children, in my opinion, you get an F. Family is everything.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
It’s a long list! The older I get, the more I realize how little I know, especially when it comes to people. We tend to draw conclusions about someone based on the data we have, but that information is always incomplete. I’ve gotten myself worked up wondering how a person could do one thing when the company needs another, and then I find out their mother is in hospice or they’ve spent the last month searching for a doctor for their child with special needs. People have lives outside of work—family, friends, hobbies, dreams. No matter how well you think you know someone, you don’t know everything.
That said, you can try. Most people are very open if you just take the time to ask them how they’re doing. But being more open-minded is important, too. Rather than judging someone for being wrong or making a mistake, start with empathy. When you give them the biggest possible benefit of the doubt, your feelings might change.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m about halfway through Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s book about Theranos. It’s basically the story of greed and ambition getting in the way of truth and goodness, and of the train wreck that followed. I also just finished a book called Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson, which was a fun read. It’s about a group of divers who stumbled upon an unidentified sunken vessel off the coast of New Jersey that turned out to be a German U-Boat from World War II. I won’t ruin it, but it’s a great story.
I’m generally more interested in nonfiction, especially history. Truth is stranger than fiction, and there are so many parallels to learn from—in geopolitics, business and individual behavior. People who, against all odds, did the right thing and showed character and leadership. Those stories are timeless.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
Almost every day. We so rarely have all the data, so I think the trick is deciding how much you need before you make a decision. Unless it’s super simple, I usually don’t make a decision off-the-cuff. I take some time to get more information and hear different perspectives. In the end, that will often confirm my gut reaction, but I’d rather be more informed.
How you handle the results matters, too. If you made the right decision, you don’t need to make sure everyone knows it. But when you’re wrong, you should be the first to say so. People don’t expect you to get it right every time. A CEO or leader who thinks that’s the job will just end up putting too much pressure on themselves and losing credibility. You’ll get much further if you’re honest about your mistakes.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
You can think about that question on several levels. As a CEO, it might be the next quarter or the next three years. But my instinct is to look at the big picture—eternity, or at least your entire life. In those terms, I think what you do this afternoon actually becomes very important. How you treat people, how you make decisions and what you value all suddenly become front and center. In the long term, who you are is what matters.
I made the decision to step down as CEO of Palo Alto Networks entirely because of that long-term perspective. My youngest child is eight, and I wanted more time with him. You can squeeze in the big events, like trips to Disney World, but in the end that’s not really what builds your relationship or informs who your kids will be. It’s the day to day. And in the grand scheme of things, work is just work.
- Values before competency
- Start with empathy
- Family is everything
— Mark McLaughlin, Vice Chairman of the Board, Palo Alto Networks