Below is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with UL CDO Christian Anschuetz. Christian is responsible for identifying, prioritizing and embedding technology innovation and digital trends into the vision, strategy, and operating models at product safety firm UL. He is also a director of ProjectRELO, which is dedicated to transforming America’s perspective on the value and character of our veterans through intense and immersive business leadership training exercises.
This interview took place in October 2018.
Bob Evans: Our guest today is Christian Anschuetz, Chief Digital Officer at UL LLC, formerly Underwriters Laboratories, traditionally known as a product testing and safety icon. With big contributions from Christian, UL has undergone some incredible changes over the past few years, and those adventures will form the heart of this podcast conversation. Christian, welcome to the Cloud Wars Live podcast, and thanks very much for joining us.
Christian Anschuetz: Well, thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be here. And thank you for the very, very nice introduction.
BE: Christian, just to get us going: almost everybody has had some interaction with a UL brand or a UL experience. But probably a lot of folks have known it as Underwriters Laboratories. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey from Underwriters Laboratories to UL and through your paired perspectives of, first, CIO and now Chief Digital Officer?
CA: I could spend hours talking about the company that I work for and serve, UL. But I’ll try to be brief. UL is the brand that we all, in America and increasingly around the world, rely on, and yet often fail to realize what it is.
UL is best known by that – two letters in a circle. You would see it on virtually every product: small appliances, large appliances, fire control systems, whatnot. What it meant is that this company that leads in independence and trust has tested the product to make sure that it conforms with everything it needs to conform with from a product safety, performance, and increasingly, now, security and sustainability regulations and requirements.
Bob, that mark today goes on 26 billion products every single year. That’s with a B, 26 billion products every year.
CA: Right now, I guarantee you you’re working on a computer that’s been somehow worked on by UL. You’re sitting in a house that’s got a fire alarm that’s protected by it, and the fire extinguisher. And you probably use a phone that the mobile transactions that you conduct on it regarding finances are also secured by this company.
Our job, our mission, is to ensure the technology enters the world – all technology, not just high tech – so it does more good than harm. We do that across a broad spectrum of things. And that’s that 26 billion plus marks or labels we put on products every single year.
BE: Wow. I knew you’d have a good stat of some sort. 26 billion, that’s getting in the range of 80 or 90 million a day. So, the impact, the touch, the presence of what UL does is just astonishing.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on the importance of trust
CA: It’s such an important company. I’m not saying this because I’m drawing a paycheck. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. I actually say this because what the company does is important.
There has to be an independent third party that you can trust in these very critical areas. We know – and this could be the subject of, like, 10 of your podcasts – that trust in major institutions has decreased over the last number of years, and there’s no line of sight for that to improve any time soon.
So, there has to be some firm, some bulwark, some institutions that you can always go, look, they’re independent, they have our best interests in mind, and they’re going to tell us all the truth—good, bad or indifferent. That’s the space that this company occupies.
BE: Before we go a little bit more into what UL’s been doing, I do want our audience to be able to understand a little bit about you as well. Let me put it this way. You left active duty from the United States Marine Corps as a captain. As you’ve said before, once a Marine, always a Marine.
CA: That’s right.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on overlaps between the military and business
BE: Can you talk a little bit about, Christian, those experiences in the Marine Corps? All the different things you did there, from active duty and combat and so on, how did those shape your ability to be a private sector leader and innovator? And at the same time, you’re somebody who’s extremely humble, and says things like I want to work for a company that I believe in.
CA: Well, you are the expert at asking the really big questions.
BE: Yeah—you have ten words or less, please, for your answer. (laughs)
CA: I’d be unable to do that. I wish I could be that succinct. You know, let me go to a quote from a very well-read person, at least in military terms: Carl von Clausewitz. He had a quote that is essentially – I think this is right – no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
This is something that’s so fundamental in the military. It’s planning, planning, planning; then there’s an action. And as soon as something happens, much of what you thought, much of what you assumed is now different, and now you’re reacting. The reason why I bring this up is because that describes business perfectly.
I have yet to ever see something come out of a Power Point out of a headquarters of some large organization that actually is hugely beautiful and powerful and fundamentally changes the world. Rather, it’s the unit commanders, the people that understand the intent of the headquarters—the intent.
The parallels are uncanny, actually. And while so many people think the military is command and control, command and control, command and control, I’ve got to tell you – I served in both the United States Marine Corps and corporate America, and generally speaking, corporate America is way more hierarchical. It’s way more command and control.
The military generally understands the concept of intent better. Organizations like UL that deal in intent better than most is one of the reasons why the company is really kind of progressing so well.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on the path forward for UL
BE: Yeah, Christian. Great stuff there. We’re going to come back to that in just a minute here, because I think it informs so much about your leadership. In a way, you describe yourself as an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a creator, which you’ve been. Yet, there has been something about the UL culture, the UL challenge, and the UL experience that’s led you to stay there for a non-trivial number of years. There’s really got to be some magic going on there, on this adventure that you’ve been through with them.
CA: For sure. The one thing you can count on from a number of firms, and some of the very best like a UL, is that there is a pretty clear alignment between your work and some purpose that’s greater than you. I know it sounds kind of corny.
BE: Nope, nope.
CA: Research shows that the number one thing that motivates people is something other than just compensation. I would argue that one of the primary things is some real, tangible value that people get out of the work that they do, and the purpose that they contribute to.
There’s a real difference about UL, in that this is a company that has a mission for humanity. It is very commercially aggressive, and it’s got the balance between the two. You can do something really fantastic in the world, generate value and make money around it. And when you can find a firm like that, that’s the kind of firm that you want to kind of grab onto, hold onto, and maybe even build a career around.
BE: Yeah, the purpose-driven career. So, Christian, talk a little bit, please, about the opportunity forward for UL. What’s been the impact of a couple types of technology on what UL’s been able to do? Some of the things that you’ve done with the transformation using cloud technology, and also big data, and some of the other things you’re off into.
CA: If I just take a slight step back, Bob. You know, this company maintains a space of being a leader in the trust industry, in all the areas that we provide services and create value. And we do that from the perspective of being independent, and from leading from the perspective of science.
This is kind of important, especially in this day and age, because even some of science is sometimes questioned, right?
CA: Our leadership from science and that independence, that is purely people – very good people, very much dedicated to our mission and our purpose as a company. And yet, how do you scale that?
We have scaled very nicely, and grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise over the years. Yet can you scale it even more? Can you give a broader platform for that voice of independence, that voice of science, to reach more and more people? And the answer is yes, you can enable it through entirely new innovative business models that are underpinned by increasingly viable technological options. What we’re doing is we’re figuring out how we keep what makes us so great – that independence, that science – and give it a technological loudspeaker.
BE: I think around the time when you and I first met, you were trying to start to build that scale and build that innovation platform. As you were going forward you needed to come up with a new model, a new approach. You did a pretty radical thing, in moving to the cloud with a lot of the business processes and apps, if you will.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on strategic nimbleness
CA: That’s accurate, yep. And, if I could expand on that just for a second, Bob. One of the greatest strategic assets or strategic capabilities any firm can build is intellectual and organizational agility. It’s a true nimbleness.
And what these technologies allow us to do is to move into new areas more quickly. It allows us to address new and emerging problems that never thought we could even look at. We’re pulling in and taking a deeper, harder look at larger and larger bodies of information that are helping us go wow, we weren’t even aware that was a question that needed to be answered. Now, we understand the question, and we might actually even start to have the very beginnings of an answer. Let’s poke into this a little bit more. Let’s explore that.
And by the way, let’s do it in a market-driven approach. Let’s explore that with our customers. Make sure that we’re on to something. Oh, and to take that another step, Bob: let’s not just explore that with them, in terms of them giving us feedback. Let’s explore how we solve the problem together. A real radical collaboration, if you will.
BE: Today, we’re getting out of the old fashioned view: you’ve got your tech suppliers or vendors, and over here you’ve got buyers. And one person pushes a box out into the middle and the other throws a bag of money out in the middle; each grabs the thing it’s going to take away. Then you head for the hills.
But today, there are interactions and collaborations built around this sense of trust that you’ve described. I loved how you described scaling up intellectual and organizational agility. That’s got to be something that’s tremendously liberating and exciting for your customers too. They’re looking for those same sort of scale-up capabilities as well.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on how incumbents can innovate
CA: That’s exactly right. In my opinion—this is Christian Anschuetz’s opinion—companies have to get really focused on creating two operating models. One operating model is for the incumbents. The incumbents need to survive.
Incumbents have to have the operating model that runs the business today, but create a separate operating model that really fosters this different way of thinking that you were describing. Because often, it’s very, very difficult to take an existing operating model and say, “Okay, go ahead and be flexible. Go ahead and be innovative.”
BE: Christian, it’s almost like, within a company, if you can get some of those wise leaders who are able to look at something and say, “We’re not creating the right sort of breakaway tension here. We’re not pushing hard enough on the outside. We’re still constrained by where we’ve been instead of where we’re going.”
CA: That’s right, yeah. That’s a different mindset, especially fo long-time incumbents. They have to, you know, maybe think a little bit different. Well, they do have to think differently. I’m being soft in my words, and I should avoid that. They have to think differently. They have to act differently.
I said you’ve got to innovate, and then people go, “What is innovate?” Then you say, you’ve got to take more risks, and they’re like, “What does that mean?” What you’re really saying is you’ve got to really start rewarding failure. That’s something most operating models aren’t really good at. Ask yourself, Bob. You have worked for some big firms. When have you ever been in a room where everybody got together and said, “Hey, Joe or Jane. They really tried. That was a miss. You swung and you missed. I mean, that was terrible. By the way, nice job.”
That’s a different kind of behavior. And if you’re failing to think about that as part of your MO, then you’re probably really not going to be as innovative as you want to be.
And in the time you’re wasting, if you’re in a healthy market and creating value, someone’s going to want a piece of that. Or, they might actually not even want a piece of it. They might be solving for another problem and you just become a casualty of their foray into this new market. There are so many examples of industries being crushed – Amazon does this all the time – not because they’re being targeted; just because they’re collateral damage.
BE: Yeah. It gets back to some of what you were saying – are we so internally focused that we lose sight of what is taking place in the real world? No matter how polished our presentations are, and no matter how much we’ve reviewed and double checked and triple checked our internal projection, unless we can build a model that is driven by and wildly attuned to the outside world, we are on an increasingly short walk to oblivion.
CA: Well, I fully agree with all of that.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on Project RELO
BE: Christian, can you talk a little about your life outside UL? And about Project RELO.
CA: This is where I would offer a shameless plug for something that I really believe in. Project RELO is a veteran cause, a 501(c)3 charity, and it supports the hiring of veterans.
Instead of making the hiring of veterans about dotting an I or crossing a T, this is about developing an understanding of the qualities, the skills, and the character our veterans have. And it’s about helping organizations take advantage of it to the greatest extent possible. A really wise man talked about how Project RELO has created a battle plan to ensure that companies can win in the war on talent. I can’t remember who that was. His name might have been Bob – Bob Evans.
BE: Oh, couldn’t have been.
CA: So, here’s what we do, folks. We take senior executives, and we teach them leadership. Does that sound interesting? Maybe not. It’s the how that gets interesting. We have partnered with the United States Army and the Department of Defense. We teach leadership while conducting a multi-day field exercise on military bases in training areas doing a pseudo-military operation, and we use military veterans and transitioning military members as the instructors.
So while these executives are learning leadership, they’re learning it from members of the very group of people that want to get right hired into the organizations that those executives represent. That’s what Project RELO does. It’s a really great cause. It’s a super sexy delivery mechanism, and that is also what uses up all of my free time.
BE: Christian, having been on one of those exercises with you, so many of the transitioning military veterans have an incredible range of skills.
Yet it often was not clearly perceived by business people just how extraordinary the experiences are—the excellence of the background, the knowledge, the capabilities, everything from supply chain to logistics to leadership and hiring people and moving in to new areas. That education that you’re doing for the transitioning military vets, as well as for the business execs to see this packed talent pool that has to be really rewarding for you.
UL CDO Christian Anschuetz on what really matters in hiring
CA: It is rewarding, and it’s rewarding on both sides of the fence. Because, let’s go back to the very beginning of our conversation, the Clausewitz quote. You know, no plan survives that first contact. That’s dealing with intent. That’s understanding how to be truly nimble, and aggressively pursue opportunities. And as we’re hiring men and women into our organizations, do we not need that skill set above all else?
BE: Yeah. And Christian, I wanted to circle back to one thing you’ve talked about here, this issue of trust.
At two of the most successful, high-growth companies in the world right now, Microsoft and Salesforce, the CEOs talk endlessly about how trust is the number one element within their brand. The CEOs aren’t saying it just to check a box.
On that mission a couple years ago with you at Project RELO, there was one night, after a pretty grueling, physically-challenging day that opened our eyes to a lot of things about how people interact in different situations, you were doing a sort of overview of the day around the campfire. And I remember you were talking about this notion of trust and how ultimately everything sort of leads back to that, and is amplified by that. I remember that was the quietest that a very talkative group of people could possibly have been.
CA: Trust is the ultimate force multiplier. It is the most important thing, and it is the first thing that we sell short all the time. And it’s really sad, because our organizations, our teams, and candidly, individuals suffer for the lack of trust that we have in our lives.
BE: Christian, I love your perspectives on things. Anything you want to be sure to touch on before we wrap?
CA: You know, I think we covered it. If anybody wants to learn more about Project RELO, go to projectrelo.org and look us up, send us an email. Both myself and our president and executive director will look at and respond to everybody that reaches out to us. We’ve got a number of really fascinating things that we’re doing, including expanding into a broad channel communication platform, Vet Talks.
Learn more about Project Relo, really think about right hiring people for just in general, right? Hire at the right level in general, and really, really, folks, we need to consider soft skills as critically important, and stop this endless sort of checkbox of, you know, who’s got the hard skills and what not.
And let’s get to the root of character in our interviews, and let’s make sure we hire the very best men and women we can period. Regardless of who they are, where they come from, and whatnot. And that’s how I would end it, Bob. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you. I enjoy our conversations immensely. Thank you for allowing me to be here.
BE: This has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time and insights.
You can stream this whole conversation with Christian Anschuetz here.
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