ME Interview with Jamie Lewis, former CEO and Research Chair at Burton Group
About Burton Group
Jamie Lewis led Burton Group, an IT research and advisory services company, for 20-plus years. Burton Group analysts and consultants delivered objective, in-depth and technical insights. Burton Group was solely driven by enterprise technologists needs and was acquired by Gartner in 2010. The focused services live on and are doing quite well.
Author’s note: I worked at Burton Group from January 2003 to June 2005.
Maybe it all started with that paper. Jamie Lewis says that as a kid he had “acted outside of integrity” so his dad made him write a paper on what integrity is. Note that Jamie said “outside of integrity”. So for Jamie, integrity is not a thing to reach for but a place where one exists.
This “place” is reflective of one of Jamie’s guideposts:
“Be what you aspire to be.”
Jamie says he learned from Judith and Craig Burton (pioneers who helped build Novell, and networking per se) that you can’t wait to start acting like what you want to be. If you wait you’ll never get there. You have to do it now, always be working to be that, always be on the path.
To Jamie, to actually be what you aspire to be is no small task. It takes hard work, commitment, determination and passion. It’s what he saw in his dad and other greats like John Smoltz and Bruce Springsteen.
Let’s start with the hard work.
Jamie’s dad returned from World War II with no high school diploma and started out as a mail clerk. He retired more than 40 years later as that company’s senior vice president of sales. He taught Jamie that you have to earn what you get and nobody’s going to give it to you. Anyone who knows Jamie knows how hard he works to live credibly within the confines of what he aspires to be. And he’s very thoughtful about it.
Jamie explains this in the context of being an analyst. According to Jamie, any good analyst has got to be willing to consider that he might be wrong about everything. Then, he’s got to do the hard work to really know what he knows and use rigorous methods to test this knowledge. Finally, he’s got to be willing to prove what he knows with simple confidence. It can’t go without saying that this is a complex process with complex interdependencies. There are no sound bites here.
In speaking of what it’s like to run your own company, Jamie quotes writer Randolph Bourne, “He who mounts a wild elephant goes where the elephant goes.” Jamie’s wild ride was Burton Group for 20-plus years. For Jamie, this ride was following his market, his customer with a serious commitment. His vision, intent and principles helped guide the way.
At the outset Jamie established what he calls “first principles”: What Burton Group was and was not; what Burton Group did and did not do. These first principles were not “motherhood-and-apple pie bromides”, they were specific operating principles that provided clarity. Over the years, Jamie stuck to these first principles and in that effort built a culture of excellence. Of this he says,
“Alignment of people and their intentions around a clear vision or intention of who it is you are and what you want to be [is key] … there’s a vibe that you get from a culture that’s focused on excellence and no superfluous stuff.”
Jamie says he’s always “admired the hell out of” pitcher John Smoltz, an Atlanta Brave for more than two decades. Smoltz is the only pitcher in major league history with more than 200 wins and 150 saves.
Jamie calls Smoltz the “personification of determination.” A successful starting pitcher, he became a closer after Tommy John surgery. Three years later he was a starting pitcher again. Jamie says this swap back and forth is “unheard of.” Jamie’s determination as both CEO and Research Chair kept Burton Group on course over the span of two decades.
Maybe the Bruce Springsteen of the ‘70s best represents Jamie’s passion to do it his way. Burton Group went through tough times and stuck to its path. Jamie took on no investors and didn’t go for the easy revenue path when revenue was needed most. Burton Group never published any type of research or white paper for hire, and never provided quotes for vendor product launch releases.
Jamie says, “Look, let’s face it, that’s doing it the hard way.” But for him the dividends were greater because it created the right culture for the company. And it’s what he wanted.
“I led and try to act and do from a place of passion. I liked what we did and felt what we did, you could feel it and see it. I did it in an 8-person and a 140-person organization. I loved doing it. Passion drives excellence. If you don’t like doing it you won’t.”
Like Bruce Springsteen’s three-and-a-half-hour live concerts, Jamie was also determined that when the audience left they’d be blown away. Over delivering was a way of life at Burton Group. The company’s subscription renewal rates were several points above market average; study after study reported very happy customers. And customers still love content-packed Catalyst Conferences.
About the time Burton Group was acquired by Gartner, 80% of its revenue came from enterprise technologist customers.
“That was just from a personal belief system that goes back to my dad. You can’t serve two masters.”
Jamie said he’s still got that paper somewhere; I’d like to see it.