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Contra Costa Times - CEO Rules With Grace And Humility

By Patrick Lencioni - October 2000

In The News

If you follow technology companies, or if you watch the stock market, or even if you've lived in Contra Costa County for any length of time, then you probably know about Mark Hoffman. He is the Chairman and CEO of Commerce One, one of the fastest growing and hottest companies on the planet. He was also the co-founder and CEO of Sybase, another high tech rocket ship that grew to one billion dollars in annual revenue over the course of Hoffman's ten-plus years at the helm.

By now, virtually every reputable business publication (including this one) has featured Hoffman or his company in a profile article. Like most business articles, those stories have chronicled Hoffman's accomplishments or outlined his current activities and strategic outlook.

Unfortunately, readers get only a glimpse of the true character and nature of a leader from a public relations driven cover story. What many readers really want is a behind-the-scenes expose, written without the permission of the subject, something that reveals the positive - and negative - sides of a person. Here is that expose.

I worked with Mark Hoffman for almost five years at Sybase. I reported directly to him at times, and worked for executives on his staff at others. As a consultant, I also had the chance to work with Hoffman for a time at Commerce One.

I have seen Mark at some of his most celebrated moments, and I've seen him at his most difficult. I've seen him be an extraordinary executive, and I've seen him be very human. What follows is a summary of what I believe makes up the real Mark Hoffman.

First, there is his ego. Or lack thereof. As competitive as Mark is, and as determined as he is to succeed, he seems to have no real need for attention. Based on his accomplishments at Sybase and Commerce One, Mark is arguably one of the America's most successful executives over the past ten years. And yet, people who meet Mark are often stunned at how unassuming, even ordinary, he is.

One story about Hoffman stands out for me. A new hire at Sybase bumped into Mark in the hallway outside Hoffman's office. Mark said hello, and politely asked the new employee what her name was, and what she would be doing at the company. After answering him, the new hire then asked Mark, "so, what do you do here?" Without missing a beat, Mark simply responded, "Oh, I'm the CEO." The way he answered, he just as easily could have told her that he worked in the mailroom. That's the thing about Mark. He doesn't ooze authority. He seems like just another guy. And a nice guy.

When I first met Mark, as an interviewee coming from Oracle to Sybase, I was immediately struck by the contrast between his office and that of his rival. Larry Ellison's office was not an office at all, but rather a palace equipped with its own kitchen, bathroom and high tech conference room with a view from Redwood Shores to San Francisco. At the time of my interview, Hoffman was occupying a small, windowless office.

And this leads me to another unmistakable characteristic of Mark Hoffman - his deceptive lack of flair. Mark is certainly a capable speaker, but no one will ever accuse Mark of being a fiery orator. He doesn't light up a room when he enters it, and he isn't the kind of person who wins over strangers in the first fifteen minutes that he meets them.

In spite of this, maybe even because of it, Hoffman inspires loyalty among people like few executives can. He says what he means, means what he says, and that's pretty much it. People crave that kind of integrity and humanity, and they get it from Mark.

One of my first interactions with Mark tells a lot about him. During an executive staff meeting at Sybase, members of Hoffman's team were debating an important topic for a considerable length of time. Mark was listening, but in a way that made me question how engaged he was. Frankly, I was worried that he had lost control of the meeting.

Then, as the conversation began to die down, Mark spoke for the first time in a long while. He summarized the discussion in a sentence or two. Then he made a recommendation, one that was obviously the best possible solution. Everyone in the room immediately recognized the wisdom of Mark's thinking, and they moved on to the next topic. It was one of the most subtle but impressive performances by an executive that I have ever seen.

Which brings me to the last remarkable quality of Mark Hoffman. He listens. And observes. He is living proof that there is a reason God gave us all two ears and one mouth. He doesn't try to decide what he's going to say next, but rather he digests information and uses it to make decisions - to make good decisions.

Is Mark a perfect executive? No. He has shortcomings like anyone else. Real shortcomings. For one, he is a little slow to engage in conflict. He prefers to focus on more quantitative, unemotional issues. He is also a little too sparse with his words, and might miss an opportunity to inspire an employee who could benefit from a word of acknowledgment from the CEO. The truth is, Mark is an exceedingly humble person, and he doesn't always understand the powerful impact that his actions might have on other people.

But that is one of the reasons that Mark is such an extraordinary executive. He is real. He is unpretentious. He is smart and practical. He is the kind of person that our country could use in public office. But that won't happen. Maybe 50 years ago when politicians were elected based on the quality of their thinking and their character. In today's age of telegenics, sound bites, and shallow campaigning tactics, Mark will have to settle for being just another extraordinary executive. I'm sure that's just fine with him.