How one CEO uses his unique style to drive growth

Company co-founder, president and CEO Matthew Calkins leads Appian his way, and it’s difficult to quarrel with success.

The provider of enterprise and cloud-based business process management software experienced record growth through the first three quarters of 2011 with software licenses and total orders the highest in the company’s 12-year history.

During the past nine months the company has added 62 new customers and license orders increased 208 percent over the same period last year.

Appian’s business process management software is now used by more than 35 federal agencies and departments, including the military service branches, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Treasury Department.

The Education Departments and the General Services Administration are using a cloud-based version of Appian’s software.

Calkins says budget cuts and congressional stalemate aside, he sees the beginnings of a revolution in how government works.

“I love that we’re thinking about cloud, that we’re thinking about mobility in the government in ways we never have been before,” he said.

He said he believes government revolutions in productivity and efficiency “are on the cusp” driven in part by the demand to shrink government spending. “IT departments are strangled by the [cost of] maintenance and upkeep on their systems,” he said.

“We have the answers to some of these problems, and so it’s wonderful to be affiliated with and working with the government at a time when we know we can contribute so much,” he said.

When asked to explain the company’s soaring and sustained success, like many of his C-level colleagues Calkins credits his employees. But when he says it, even the most skeptical are apt to believe him.

“The real reason is what’s underlain our business from the beginning: It is our peculiar focus on people and talent,” he said. “I use the word ‘peculiar’ for a reason. I think we’ve gone well beyond what others have done.”

For one, he insists on personally interviewing every job applicant who appears to have the right stuff for his highly charged and innovative company, which now has almost 200 employees.

“No one gets a job at Appian without interviewing with me. That’s been true for 12 years,” he said. “The board doesn’t think I should be doing it, often the management people don’t think I should be doing it.”

Nevertheless, he says he will continue to act as company gatekeeper because “that’s one of the primary traction points that I can have on the cultural integrity of the organization.”

“Everyone has the right to amaze their peers.” he said. It’s a mantra he repeats several times during the interview.

Calkins, who also reads employee reviews weekly to maintain a continual growth mode, definitely has a particular type of employee in mind. It is someone primarily interested in innovation but not necessarily IT innovation, he said.

“We’re stocked with people who are both generous with their time, contributing to others, [are] good collaborators, and then also of exceptionally high aptitude,” he continued. “It’s really the ideal employee base on which to build innovation.”

That formula for success might sound similar to the way Steve Jobs reportedly ran Apple, but Calkins adds a twist.

“I do not stand on experience,” he explained. “So I almost don’t care what experience someone has. I care about aptitude and interest and a kind of personal generosity. I want to see whether they’ve excelled at the things they chose to do no matter what that was.”

His strategy “is to hire aptitude at an entry level and then rocket it upward through ranks of responsibility,” he said.

Calkins hires those who have the potential to be “promoted again and again.”

“I love people with vibrant hobbies,” said Calkins, a designer of award-winning board games, the most recent of which is a 3-hour game based on the Japanese military campaign for unification in 1600.

“I want to see hobbies or really any place [where] you’ve invested your time,” Calkins said.

During his interviews he asks potential hires to teach him something he didn’t know. That gives him a sense of how much expertise the candidate has, he said.

“Any activity that you’ve blessed with your personal attention ought to have been brought to a level of measurable success,” he said.

Even with those broad parameters, competition for top young talent is tough, and includes Facebook, Google, Apple and other better known corporate names.

“As such, we go out of our way to make a special connection,” he said.

“You find these terrific people and inspire them at the source,” he said, adding that many of Appian’s employees who’ve been with the company the longest were recruited through his speeches, personal appearances and interviews on college campuses.

“We try not to do anything normal here, and certainly not [normal] HR. We are so far from normal in that regard,” Calkins said.

“If you’re capable of inventing,” said the company and game creator, “you shouldn’t be a follower.”

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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