When Oracle CEO Safra Catz advises business leaders that “changing slowly can be fatal” in today’s wildly disruptive and fast-changing business world, she is definitely not saying one thing while practicing another.
Under the leadership of Catz and her longtime business partner, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison, Oracle itself has undergone massive changes over the past few years in not only its vast and highly advanced product and services portfolio but also its:
- Culture, which is now centered on customer success and co-creation with customers rather than optimizing every single transaction in its favor
- Go-to-market strategies and capabilities, which are all now centered on delivering successful business outcomes for customers
- Willingness to co-create openly and aggressively with partners
- Openness to form innovative and highly strategic partnerships with competitors
- Creation of a broad range of deployment options for customers that is far beyond what any other major cloud vendor offers; and
- Greatly enhanced ecosystem program and the philosophy underpinning that force-multiplying opportunity
In our recent interview for this CEO Outlook 2024 episode, I asked Catz to describe the mindset of customers here in mid-January.
“Just this morning, I was listening to Jamie Dimon [CEO of JPMorgan Chase] talk about the entire global outlook and sort of the level of uncertainty that there is,” said Catz, now in her 25th year at or very close to the top of the Oracle leadership structure.
“But in that same talk, he mentioned how critical it is for companies to maintain their investments in technology to be able to be competitive. So while companies more and more across industry after industry aren’t quite sure where things are going, they’re also looking at some of these challenges as actual opportunities on how to get ahead or, if they’re number one in their market, how to stay number one,” said Catz.
She then raised the theme that has been at the very core of her public commentary over the past 12-18 months: the need for business leaders to be decisive, to act boldly, to be unafraid to push into uncharted territory, and to rely on the power of modern cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) technology as the foundation for new initiatives.
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“All that involves constantly changing and bringing in the best information and the best technology — and if a company’s not #1 in their sector, then figuring out how to get in front by doing things differently and by adapting and even by seeing some of the things that are happening and changing in their sectors,” said Catz.
“One thing we can agree on — in every company — is that the one thing that’s not going to change is that everything is changing all the time, and that you’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to see it–and often see it before your competitors.”
The consequences for not being able or willing to undergo that insight-powered hyperevolution, Catz said, is first a loss of relevance and then a one-way ticket down the track to oblivion.
“I know I’ve said this before, but it’s really important: changing quickly has always been considered sort of risky, like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to move too fast — let’s write a white paper!’
“But what we saw during COVID was, in fact, that companies who did not adjust…weren’t going to survive COVID. And what we saw is that changing fast, actually, isn’t risky at all — in fact, changing slowly can be fatal,” Catz said.
In a parallel set of lessons learned at Oracle, Catz said, the company realized that if it is going to expect its customers to adapt and change and move with unprecedented speed, then Oracle itself must also undergo extensive transformations to be able to understand, deliver, and support those new customer initiatives.
Step one was for Oracle to commit to being all-in at all levels of the modern cloud, which transcends cloud infrastructure and fully encompasses cloud databases, line-of-business (LOB) applications such as ERP and HCM and CX, and purpose-built vertical applications that scale to the level of true operating technology.
Step two was equally challenging but in a different way: crafting and delivering go-to-market plans and programs and deployment options that allowed customers to consume and deploy cloud technology in whatever wild combinations of colors, shapes, and sizes that fit their particular needs and expectations.
To me, that’s been the remarkable transformation within Oracle: its demonstrated ability to be as nimble and innovative on go-to-market programs and deployment options as it has been with the development of world-class technology.
“We’re all about customer choice,” Catz said. “And as if that isn’t enough, you want us to work with Microsoft? Fantastic — hello Microsoft!” she added in reference to the stunning partnership the companies have formed in spite of the way they continue to compete viciously against each other in some markets.
“It’s the customer who gets to decide,” Catz said. She then capped off that thought with a big smile while adding, “If I was one of those walled garden clouds that didn’t allow you to move in and out easily, and if I’m a customer-facing that, then I’d be wondering about that. Right. About. Now.”
While Catz has had a profound impact on Oracle throughout her long career and in particular since her ascension to the sole CEO role in 2019 following the untimely death of fellow CEO Mark Hurd, it is impossible to think about Oracle in a large sense without also thinking of Larry Ellison.
And as Oracle prepares to continue evolving and innovating at hyperspeed in 2024 to meet the needs of a near-insatiable marketplace, Catz was bullish in her praise and appreciation for Ellison’s deep and ongoing involvement.
In the middle of our conversation, as she spoke about Oracle’s commitment to revamping the healthcare industry from helping hospitals manage critical inventory to optimizing clinical trials, Catz said, “So yeah, I think it’s time we bring healthcare into this century, and we’re not going to quit until we do that on an end-to-end basis. And Larry’s personally running that project, even as we speak right this minute.”
As we were winding down our conversation, I asked Catz to describe the working relationship she and Ellison have had for a quarter-century.
“Well, I’m in my 25th year at Oracle, something like that, and I’m just getting the hang of it,” Catz said with a laugh.
“And I will tell you, a partnership with Larry Ellison is truly a blessing. The truth is that he does not leave you in your comfort zone, he is not willing to accept the answer when he says, ‘Why?’ if you answer, ‘That’s the way we always did it.’ That’s a kiss of death because he’ll say, ‘No, no, that’s not an answer.’
“And that kind of fresh approach at everything is so important! I think one of the things that leads companies down very wrong paths — especially when they’ve been successful for years and years and years — is they just kind of don’t want to risk it,” Catz said.
“For us, the move into healthcare — a segment where we only had a small footprint in the past — that was a significant move! And it’s because we believe we can do it, but we can’t do it alone —partnerships are really important.
“And Oracle, well, we were not necessarily famous for partnerships all these years. But the fact that we understand that as a cloud provider, first of all, we have to partner with our customers — that’s the most important — and also with our competitors, again, that’s very, very important.
“And for that kind of open thinking, I’m not taking any credit for that.
“That is Lawrence J. Ellison, and he deserves the credit for all of this.”
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