Spencer Stuart’s Jason Hancock recently sat down with Neri to discuss his unique rise from junior employee to CEO, and the elements of leadership that guide him as leader. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell us a little bit about taking over a company where you had already spent so much of your life. What has your experience as the top leader been like?
It has been a wonderful experience building my career here, I have to say. Every day I have the opportunity to learn from our team members, customers, partners, and the communities in which we operate.
Being in this role requires one to process an incredible amount of information, at an amazing speed. It’s important to identify the priorities, gather relevant information, analyze the implications, make a decision, and lead the way forward. Yes, it can be lonely because everything ends with you, but through it all, you learn, evolve, and become a more resilient leader.
The reality is that the role of a CEO has changed dramatically through the last several years. Just look at what the world has been through — natural disasters, global pandemic, wars, social injustices, supply chain disruptions, and more. Ultimately, the CEO of today is a much different leader than in the past. It's not just about running the company from an operational perspective and engaging with shareholders.
When I reflect on my career journey, I have always been passionate about solving problems using technology. My engineering background has served me well as CEO — I have a deep understanding of HPE’s technology and decades of experience applying it to help our customers meet their goals.
I am incredibly proud of the work we do at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. We have a clear purpose — to advance the way people live and work — which, paired with our employee-centric culture, positions us well to capitalize on opportunities that will have a lasting impact for all. I’m more excited than ever to lead at work each day.
HPE has made many acquisitions in the past eight years. How do you ensure that you bring out the best in them, and that they bring the best out in HPE?
First, let's talk about why we buy companies. A company can’t innovate everything itself. But to stay relevant, it must continuously add both fresh and diverse talent and intellectual property, with a vibrant and collaborative culture to match.
When considering an acquisition target, we ask a few key questions. Does the IP complement our own IP and our go-to-market? Does the company have the right talent to accelerate what we already do? What does the integration of this new organization and its products and services with our culture look like? There are other implications to consider as well — the board, the CEO whose job will change, and ultimately the employees.
While there is no playbook, when I reflect on HPE’s acquisitions, I see many effective ways to approach it. For example, when we acquired Aruba Networks, it was a reverse integration. Aruba had a unique culture with a drive for innovation in the networking space. So, we took our networking assets and reversed into their platform, which allowed us to scale the business much faster. In some other cases, it's the other way around.
We are very proud of the culture we have established here, and our culture is a good platform by which we can integrate these companies. It requires a conscientious mindset, flexibility, and adaptability to the circumstances.
Culture, of course, is a word with many meanings. How do you define and measure culture and boost employee engagement?
It’s my belief that culture is everything — how we conduct ourselves every day, how we interact with each other, how we push each other, and ultimately what we stand for. When I took the role as CEO, I made culture one of my top priorities. I wanted to reinspire team members and accelerate our strategy for the future. One of our first actions was to establish what we call our culture blueprint, which defines HPE’s four key beliefs, as our guiding principles. First, we believe in accelerating what’s next; second, we believe in bold moves; third, we believe in the power of “yes we can”; and fourth, we believe in being a force for good.
We also revamped our physical sites, created new experiences for team members, and updated the company’s look and feel.
Through the last five years, I’m particularly proud that team member engagement has risen 20 points and is at an all-time high for the company. To this day, I draw inspiration from how passionate, vibrant and unconditionally committed to our purpose our team members are. And along the way, I’m happy to say that we make sure to have some fun — what we call “work joy.”
Jason Hancock: That transitions nicely into a question I wanted to ask about your training as an artist. How do you find time to continue to be an artist and enjoy sports? How does that influence your thinking as a CEO?
Antonio Neri: I don’t have as much time to do so now, but every so often I paint oil and acrylic. Painting creates space for me. It takes me to a different dimension, if you will, allowing me time to relax and think. I also play a lot of soccer, and that’s where I tap into my competitive side and activate my adrenaline.
I approach these activities the same way I lead at work. I am of the belief, that if you're going to do something, especially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like leading Hewlett Packard Enterprise, you must do it the right way. Mediocrity is not acceptable. And I turn to activities like art and sport in part because they encourage me to focus on the details that enable me to be at my best. Ultimately, when I take on a challenge, I want to feel proud about my effort and I want to enjoy it.
Jason Hancock: Where do you get your energy to be CEO?
Antonio Neri: When I joined HP in 1995, I never imagined I would be the CEO all these years later. In fact, I didn’t originally aspire to be a CEO. I wanted to be the GM of a business, but I had a mentor who guided and pushed me.
We have 60,000 team members globally, and I am of the mind that any one of them could be the next CEO. That’s how I and my Executive Committee look at the organization today—find hidden gems and provide them the opportunity and support to excel.
As for my energy, it's the opportunity to make a difference that drives me. It also comes from working with the people around me — observing, learning and teaching. I have been working for almost 40 years of my life and have learned a few things along the way. And one of the most important lessons has been to never take anything for granted.
At HPE, the opportunity in front of us is significant, and it has been both humbling and the honor of a lifetime to serve as CEO. I am more inspired today than I was on day one as CEO.