10: Bassam Salem, CEO of AtlasRTX, on Heroes Swimming Against the "Norm", Getting Things Wrong When We Are Sure We Are Right, and the Connection Between Personal and Professional Success

Show Notes

Bassam Salem is the CEO of AtlasRTX based in Park City, UT. They deliver an integrated A.I. chatbot and message platform that enables a real-time customer experience that moves seamlessly from A.I. chatbots to real, live humans. I had a chance to meet the team and they are an impressive group of individuals. Previous he was the Chief Operating Officer at MaritzCX and the Chief Business Officer at inContact.

During our conversation we discussed:

  • His first professional leadership experience and the importance of having a mentor who really cared (5:57)
  • The biggest change in his leadership approach over the years – evolving from an analytical to more human-focused style and how hard that is (11:45)
  • His real leadership heroes – those that swim against “norms” (13:45)
  • How sure we are that we are right when we are dead wrong (14:10)
  • The key to making a difference as an entrepreneur (17:00)
  • His leadership style today – ”communal” (22:45)
  • Making unpopular decisions (25:00)
  • His vulnerable awareness of things he is still working on (24:10, 28:00)
  • The evolution of his leadership mindset (30:45)
  • How he maintains his energy level (33:30)
  • The connection between personal and professional success (36:15)

Complete show notes and a transcript of the podcast are available on our show site: http://seekingexcellence.io

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Podcast Transcript

And one of the things I'm really big on is the fact that if there's one thing history has taught us it's that we humans are consistently wrong yet consistently confident about how right we are. And there was a time not that long ago where women could not vote even in this country. Just a little over 100 years ago.

Not long.

And we thought that was normal. And someone had to step up and say that's wrong. And others had to step up in the minority and say that's wrong we're going to do something about it.

Welcome to seeking excellence I'm Brett Pinegar. In work I help executives and teams be their best and achieve remarkable results, reduce time to market, more rapid growth, higher levels of profitability, along with a better quality of life. learn more about my coaching peer groups and training programs at BrettPinegar.com. You can also follow me on social media at Brett Pinegar. Check the show notes for all the specifics. Seeking Excellence is all about helping us understand what makes leaders that are striving to be their best tic. What are their beliefs or mindsets about how the world works? What motivates them? And how do they bring their best to their work? And then we take those insights and uncover things we can all do to live and lead with more intention. If you enjoy this podcast we would appreciate it if you take the time to rate review and share it with others. Let me introduce my guest. Bassam Salem is the CEO of AtlasRTX. They offer an integrated AI chat bot and messaging platform that enables real time customer experiences to move seamlessly from AI to real live humans. I had a chance to meet with the team and they are an impressive group of individuals. Previously Bassam was the Chief Operating Officer at Merritt CX and the Chief Business Officer at In Contact. I found the Bassam's vulnerability and openness super impressive. We discussed his real leadership heroes those that swim against the norms, how sure we are that were right when we're dead wrong, the key to making a difference as an entrepreneur, and things he's still working on and much much more. Let's jump right in. Well Bassam it is great to be with you here today and it's a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

I appreciate you coming up thank you.

It's an honor. Let's start by talking a little bit about you and your current activity with AtlasRTX.

So I founded Atlas two and a half, wow. It's two and a half years ago now. I'm used to saying recently but it's been two and a half years. We are based in Park City. We have about 10 full time folks and six part time folks right now. And we we provide a software as a service that's actually a managed service that consists of a chat bot and messaging platform. It's a mechanism to allow organizations in general to engage customers in a really modern real time way. And that's what the RTX stands for real time experience.

Where are you in terms of revenue? Are you pre-revenue sort of growing revenues or?

We're right around the million dollar ARR mark.

Fantastic, congratulations.

Thank you thank you.

What have you learned about the industry and about the opportunities that those of us who are not familiar with AI chat bots might want to know about.

Well let me let me start by saying that what I've learned is it's a lot harder to go from zero to one than to go from 50 to 51. I think that's obvious but until I experienced it myself my gosh it's been a pretty meaningful project so far. But as it pertains to the actual industry we're in I think we're hard pressed to think of a phrase that is quite as hot as AI these days. Everyone's talking about AI in fact every company is attributing themselves with some sort of AI capability. But there's so much around what artificial intelligence really is. It's a pretty gray area it's a pretty large domain. What we've chosen to pick is conversational artificial intelligence so that is the domain that's a sub domain that we focus on. The idea is can we have a computer system engage a human in a conversational experience instead of a graphical interface? So you remember GUI was a big buzzword for us in the late 80s and 90s that was a big deal, GUI. I really don't like Cui, C-U-I we're going to have to come up with something better but conversational UI is really what's replacing a sort of legacy experience. And I think we see it with Alexa and Siri and otherwise. I think we're really at a time when these conversational experiences, these conversational UIs are really going to displace a lot of the functions that today we do via more traditional either physical buttons, physical UI or graphical user interfaces.

Well our home has changed since Alexa joined the family.


Sometimes she jumps in conversations even when you don't ask her.

Exactly when an ad comes on TV I always love that yeah absolutely.

Yeah absolutely true here. Well it sounds like a very exciting discipline and one I'd love to learn more about. But today on our podcast I'd like to focus more on your approach to leadership your approach to how you bring out the best in other people and maybe we could roll back the clock and talk a little bit about your first experiences as a leader. Where did you first feel like you were a leader?

I'm going to actually name names because I really feel like there are times in one's life professionally and personally where someone steps in and makes a meaningful impact on you. And gives you a shot and gives you a growing opportunity. And this was not the first there are other names before this person but I'd like to name one of my early managers who's name was Mike. Michael Resnick his name is Michael Resnick. Michael was an executive at Siebel systems when I joined there and Michael was actually the guy who hired me. And he gave me my first shot as a real leader. He believed in me he saw that I could step up and I really owe him a lot because he coached me through it. He helped me through it and I'll forever be grateful to him for that so this was I wish I could remember the exact year late 90's early 2000. Siebel was then maybe 1500, 2000 employees. You remember the good old days of Siebel CRM and I was asked to be responsible for the Professional Services Organization in the Northwest and carry a bag which was strange for a software engineer consulting kind of guy like me. Having a six million dollar quota really allowed me to appreciate that sales is not so easy. And that actually having a very objective metric was a tough thing to have but that was my very first true management responsibility.

What was it that Michel Resnick did that gave you confidence that you could do this?

He was very something I aspire to be. He's very genuine, he was very clear. I got feedback consistently. I knew what I needed to do and what I didn't. He comforted me around, this was a time when the company was growing like crazy as you might remember. So it was about moving quickly and figuring things out on your own and just trusting one another. I have to say that I think with all due respect to the many companies I've had the good fortune of working with Siebel is near the top in terms of having at that time at least just ridiculous talent. You could really look to your left and look to your right and think my gosh I can't believe I'm working with these people. They are so smart, so hard working, so capable. It's no wonder the company succeeded so amazingly so. I really appreciated the trust he put in me and the transparency and clarity of the objective that he gave me. May be hard to remember but when you think back to now leading that Northwest professional services or consulting team here. What did it feel like? I mean what were sort of the emotions that would go through your mind here and how did you, what were sort of some of the big challenges that those emotions sort of caused you think about in your mind?

Boy there are quite a few emotions I remember. I think the first one I remember is oh my gosh is everyone going to think I'm too young to do this? I think by and large most people who worked for me were older and I remember trying to think, older than me that is, do I need to fake being older? Now the good news is having less hair and looking the way I do I've looked older anyway. I'm pretty sure I've looked this way since I was 18. I've always looked like a 64 year old. But I remember having a bit of impostor syndrome, more than a bit wondering am I really up to the task? Can I really give guidance and coaching? And you get prepped for this as a consultant. I've been a consultant at IBM Global Services before. So you know how to behave when someone's paying you $325 an hour as a 27 year old or whatever. So you have the ability to fake it until you make it. but deep down you have a sincere insecurity as to whether or not you really can whether you can do this, whether I can coach, whether I can hit the target on behalf of the company. It was it was definitely a very perhaps the most insecure I felt in my 20's was that one.

Understood and I can relate. I think many of us can relate to that feeling of whoa heavy burden here not sure I'm up to it, imposter syndrome, all those sorts of things. So let's now compare that to maybe now where you are today here. What in your leadership style has changed from those early days how have you evolved as a leader what have been some of the big ahas or transformations that have occurred that caused you to think very differently about leadership today than you did in your 20's or 30's?

The word leadership Brett is such another one of those broad concepts because leadership in a business setting versus leadership socially and otherwise but if I keep it to leadership in a business setting for the moment, because I'd love to actually talk about the broader notion of leadership as well. It is incredible to me to think I got anything done with how little I knew in my 20's sincerely. You don't understand people. You don't understand what motivates them. You don't understand what motivates you, yourself that is. I used to take a very technocrat like approach. I was a computer scientist very numbers driven and I think I have so much more appreciation today for the human side and the difficulty of that. One of the challenges that I think. I like to think of the notion of leader as this person we all look up to and aspire to be like and so on and I now realize how overly glorified that notion really is. You have to be the bad guy. You have to be the contrarian. You have to be the one willing to say we're going to do it this way and knowing that the ultimate responsibility is on your back. You're breaking the ties. And I think so much of that has that human element to it. It's not the scientific zeros and ones. It's how do you make that happen? How do you navigate the waters of your own team to make it so things can happen the way they need to? And I just had little appreciation for that and I certainly don't think I'm good at it today.

Who is good at it in your mind? Maybe think about a hero or a person you look to and say boy I admire either in history or currently someone who really has mastered the art of the interpersonal aspects of leadership.

I've heard you ask that question to others so that was one I was thinking about. Who would I really think about from a leadership perspective as a role model and I have to tell you that's where I like to expand it to as you said history to social matters because it seems to me that the real heroes are people we likely don't know, people whose names have not made it. And one of the things I'm really big on is the fact that if there's one thing history has taught us it's that we humans are consistently wrong yet consistently confident about how right we are. And there was a time not that long ago where women could not vote even in this country. Just a little over 100 years ago.

Not long.

And we thought that was normal and someone had to step up and say that's wrong. And others had to step up in the minority and say that's wrong we're going to do something about it. I think I need not mention sensitive topics. We won't delve too much into slavery and so on but it boggles the mind to me that there was a time when slavery was accepted. Just the thought that again not that long ago that to see another human subjugated like this.

Less than 200 years ago.

It's ridiculous, it's ridiculous. Yet smart people who consider themselves good who considered themselves kind who preached that did this. It begs the question what are we doing today? What are we doing today that will be deemed wrong in a few hundred years? That will be deemed despicable? And who are the people today whose names I don't know who are risking their safety to stand up to a repressive regime? Who are risking their safety to fight for the rights of animals. Who are risking their future and their safety and their opportunity cost of what they could be doing to fight for others. And I sincerely feel like those people who never get named in history it seems who are really making the big powerful impacts on our society.

Bassam I agree. I think that that is absolutely, those are the best leaders 'cause they're the leaders that are fighting against the most resistance in order to to make a difference here. Sometimes as a CEO or as an executive you walk into environment where people are expected to follow what you say and that there are rules of behavior that mean that yeah things can go wrongly but things kind of function because there's this norm about how things are supposed to occur in a company. But when you're out there fighting for a change in the world there are no norms. What do you think is the commonality between those folks that stand up in the face of such horrific headwinds to take on a challenge whether it be slavery or the women's right to vote or same sex marriage or any other issues that we're not even thinking of, rights of animals for example? What from your perspective is the key that allows somebody to do that?

Well I wish I knew. I wish I knew but I do think it impressive. I have such an appreciation for true entrepreneurs. I don't consider myself a true entrepreneur. This is my first go at entrepreneurship. Before that like you I was a scalar. I think we described each other right. That was what we did. The thought of a person who could have a job and could be well paid saying I'm going to risk that opportunity cost. I'm going to pick an idea knowing that the vast majority of companies don't make it. And I'm going to believe in it and I'm going to surround myself with people and we're going to work hard to prove the odds wrong. That to me on a very small scale compared to the societal aspect is really that notion of going against the odds and fighting through it and proving the odds wrong. Because societally we're fighting the majority no matter what. When we believed as a society the world was flat it was the majority that believed the world was flat incorrectly. And someone stepped up and started a movement and believed against that. So I just think that monumental that genesis of the counterculture the counterpoint the company that doesn't exist, that Genesis is really impressive.

And that spark you might say that captures it. Well but then it leads to this genesis of this creation that they are committed to. And I think a lot about what makes leaders effective in a corporate environment or as an entrepreneur or even in these social causes it's their ability to have mission and meaning and purpose. I think that people that are out there that see a wrong or that see a disconnector or something that is false they feel purpose in trying to correct that. I see an entrepreneur who sees a need that they feel passionate about an unmet need or a way things could be done better and they go out there and say I'm going to change the world because I believe deeply in something that can be done better or different. But boy they must have an amazing sort of level of motivation that comes with that because if you think about the way the mind works. We've got the prefrontal cortex. We've got the limbic brain. And the prefrontal cortex is pretty good at keeping you going for a few hours. But doesn't keep you going for the long haul. It doesn't have the sustained sort of motivational ability. So you've got to believe it deeply. You've got to believe it emotionally if you're going to go out there and make something happen. And I wonder if part of this is their upbringing and what they what they learned young. We talked previously on the podcast about Abraham Lincoln and how what it was that allowed him as a emerging leader to take on this issue of slavery in the way that he did. And one of the things that may have happened is that I mean he was an individual that faced a lot of ridicule, a lot of feedback about his looks and about his style of speech and about his abilities and he was a depressed individual. He had a rough marriage. And you look at all these things here and it may be that all of that helped him think whoa you know man I've not had it well. Maybe there's a better way and maybe there's a better way not just for me but other people that I see haven't had it well. I don't know but I wonder how our upbringings might have something to do with it.

Absolutely you know I was raised by parents who moved a lot. And when I say moved I mean countries. France for a year and a half as a young child and then England for another year and a half as a slightly older child and then the United States, originally from Egypt. And it's caused me to want exactly the opposite for myself and my kids now as an adult. So we have been in the same community for 20 plus years in Park City. And I wonder to what degree well certainly to what degree the struggles of moving as a child shaped me today? And is that missing from my kids? To what degree does my need for a stable existence for my own kids is it reflective in that and will they sort of counter it as they grow up? Will they feel exactly the opposite? So much like folks who may have grown up in Utah go to college and then they say you know what? I'm done I want to get out of here.

That's me, that's me right there.

It's the opposite right? So you're absolutely right I think upbringing certainly shapes us and I remember very difficult moments. Some of my most painful memories as a child were certainly around the moves and around facing new people and new cultures as the outsider. I was always the outsider I looked different. I spoke differently. And having to face that certainly has shaped me today.

Well that certainly not only has shaped you but it's allowed you to be who you are and to to bring a certain set of skills and attributes to your leadership style. How would you describe yourself as a leader today in terms of things like leading from the front versus leading from the back? Are you more of a out in front leader? Are you more of it behind the scenes guy?

We're so small I certainly don't consider myself out in front I feel like we really are, we're only 16 people so we're very much a communal sort of culture today. If there's one thing I'm really sincerely proud of here it's that I have picked people most of whom are from my past who were stellar individuals and I brought them in because they're stellar individuals. And when I say that I mean personally and professionally and ethically they're good humans. And they happen to be phenomenally good at what they do. And I trust them. I count on them. I could not do this without them. And in fact the company is nothing more than them and me. That is the company it's not the product it's not the market it's initially the team. Now I'm fortunate to say it's the team and our cadre of clients as well. But it really is about the team. That's not to say that I haven't had to make some have some tough conversations and some difficult decisions and ultimately there has to be a point person. There has to be the tiebreaker and candidly there has to be the person willing to make unpopular decisions and that is what distinguishes a CEO from an executive in general as I'm sure you know. Because the CEO may have to on rare occasions go against the entire executive team and the entire company. And no one else is going to be willing to do that. It's so much easier to be part of the crew. It's so much easier to just go with the flow to go with the status quo but to have pivot points to have meaningful movement you sometimes have to go and make these difficult moves of the whole clan. And so I don't know how to describe that but hopefully you're sort of feeling my characterization. It's this dichotomy for me and I've struggled with it candidly it's not easy and I certainly haven't mastered it.

What do you do to prepare your team for those times when you're going to override or veto? I mean what sort of an approach would you use? Because that's an issue that all of us face as leaders whether at a team level or at the CEO level. I think many of us handle it poorly. We could say I decided we're going to do this and get along we're all going to. I mean we just don't sort of honor the fact of their differences of opinions. What have you done that's worked well when you've had to do that?

I certainly don't think I've done it well sincerely I'm getting better at it I'm appreciating it more. But I think it's all a function of the intellectual honesty and the trust between me and my team. And in cases where I've built that trust and I know the person is a human and I know the person as a professional and we've had difficult conversations in the past I think there's a bit of well I may not like it this time but I know that you've done this. I know that I know that we've had a relationship where I can trust that you've done it the other way most of the time.

So they feel heard. They feel like even though it may not have gone their way they know in the past that you've heard them and many times it's gone their way and this time it's not. Do you feel like people need to know your reason why? Or do you feel like it's just we've made a decision and we're going a different path?

No I think that's fair and I do think that absolutely knowing why, knowing the rationale, knowing the logic, whether or not one agrees with it or not is another topic. But I do think that that's absolutely important. And I tend to I certainly tend to take input and sort of weigh on it and try to figure the options. But as you know having been a CEO multiple times sometimes it really is the unpopular decision.

And sometimes it's the gut so even saying why it just doesn't feel right. I remember just recently in the last year or two having a decision I needed to make and people have said well why are we doing this? I said I don't know it doesn't feel right. And that was really difficult and unpopular because there was so little evidence to support the decision. And it turned out to be the right decision but it was unpopular and difficult for the team to swallow because there was no support for it really.

You're using a word Brett that has been probably the biggest epiphany for me over the last couple of years and that's the word unpopular. I'm not. One of my big insecurities that those who really know me know about me is and I'm being very open here is it's really important for me to be liked. I like to be liked. I like people, I like engaging, I like having friends. I like to be liked. And I now realize that can't be the primary driver as a CEO. You can't be seeking being liked. In fact if there's one person in the organization who is going to who's going to be the focus of frustration it has to be the CEO. It's not going to be the low level manager. It's not their job to have to do that. You have to be the one to step up and be willing to be unpopular which is so. It was a big epiphany to me and candidly explains a lot of successful companies with their high powered CEOs who are rather unpopular with their own companies. And you think the example that everyone talks about over the past few years was. I was about to say Tim Cook I'm so sorry but Steve Jobs. Tim's actually very well liked. But Steve Jobs had to, it takes a certain type of person to do what Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did. And it takes a certain type of willingness to be unpopular to grow a company like that. I can only imagine and I think I finally have an appreciation for that now that I didn't before. Mind you I'm no Steve Jobs I'm not implying that. But I have an appreciation for what it must have been like to be in his shoes and to break ties and to make unpopular decisions and to move the needle forward.

Yeah I think about this notion of being liked and I can absolutely relate to that. That's certainly something that is in my wiring as well. I'll call that a mindset. That's a belief that I really choose to be liked. That's the way I believe I should be perceived. And that when we're not like we feel unhappy and that tells us that maybe that's there's a disconnect there so if the mindset is I want to be liked and respected and appreciated and valued or liked what do we replace that with that would be a better frame for us as leaders? That would be more healthy? Is it something like I'm going to do the right thing? Is it I'm going to, I don't care? In your mind here is you seek to replace that what sorts of things or beliefs are you trying to replace that with for you?

As you asked the question two things immediately came to mind because they're the two things I rationalize when I have these difficult conversations and difficult moments. And they are, the first is at the end of the situation was I genuine and does the person believe me to be genuine? That is did I do something underhanded did I? I think the word genuine, the one that many joke about me using the word sincere a lot. I sign everything sincerely so really sincerity and genuineness is really important to me. So can we seek feeling one sincere and genuine and then two and finally have enough trust with those around us that the motivation was well intentioned? Because if the motivation is well intentioned I think it's really hard to not feel supportive. So I trust this person their motivation is well intentioned and we may be wrong. I will be wrong but I was well intentioned. And fortunately for most of us we're right much of the time. But it will happen and so I think that's what I would say I would replace.

That's interesting and I think that that notion of one your view of other people as people you care about and respect and therefore you want to treat them in a way that would be appropriate. And even though you disagree it comes from a place of I care versus I don't. So often, and this is sort of tough to say because I think we often would say I can't believe I would really think that but we do is we tend to objectify our workers in that they're the resources, human resources, people, people as in not humans.


And my team are always in which we tend to say I've got things that do stuff. And when we think about our coworkers these human beings in that way it is really easy to handle things in a way that would be me against you and therefore when I go against the grain it's going to be adversarial in nature instead of one that would be supportive and consistent. So I think you've really hit on something that really speaks pretty deeply to me as a key is that they've got to feel your love, your real concern and that's got to flow out. Leadership is a high energy sport.

Oh my gosh yeah.

It takes a ton of energy. What do you do to sort of maintain your energy level?

I have a workout routine that is my decompression time. It's the one time of the day, well I have my cup of coffee which I really enjoy in the four o'clock hour I sort of catch up on at 4:00 a.m. I catch up on the news overnight.

So you're an early riser?

I'm an early riser. I actually am one who wakes up and waits for the clock to turn four to get out of bed. Which is not healthy. I'm hoping for the day when I can just wake up at four naturally. But sort of the decompression time in the morning to sort of digest what's happening around the world sort of escape the moment. It's so intense as you know being a CEO certainly of a start up it's all you think about. All you think about is the moment and the five challenges of today and the five opportunities of today. So having a moment to just have some sort of downtime is fantastic. And then I have become the guy I never understood. I remember friends of mine who'd say if I don't work out I don't feel good. And you as a runner I'm sure you get that feeling. I never understood that until I became that. I don't feel good when I don't do my 5:15 workout and I have a crew with whom I work out. It's the same group every morning and I feel an affection for them. We've been together for years. And I really feel like that morning routine charges me up. So by the time I'm back it's 6:00 a.m. I'm refreshed, I'm ready to shower get going with the day and without that morning routine sincerely my team even notices. I'm lower energy, I'm tired when I don't do it. So if I sleep in and wake up at six I'm lower energy than if I do the 4:00 a.m. routine.

Oh boy I completely relate.

Relate to that?

Completely relate here and yet I got I know my son who's also a leader of a company here. He burns the midnight oil. And for some reason that works for him but maybe in time.

No I mean I think there are certain people who work better in the middle of the night. I tend to by about 10:30, 11 my mind is shutting off.

I'm done.

Don't ask me to write anything. In fact again my team will tell me oh Bassam did you write that in the middle of the night by chance? It's very different.

Two last questions here. One is is if you were to roll the clock back and give yourself some advice back in the Siepel days what you know now what advice would you give yourself?

I think I would say that you can't be successful professionally if you're not successful personally. So make sure to invest and keep up your relationships at home, and with your kids eventually, and with your siblings and so on. I think I've gained a huge appreciation for the fact that the rather sexist expression I know but can people hear behind every great man is a great woman. Sexist as that may be behind every great person I really believe is another great person. And I now have an appreciation for the fact that I could not be here had it not been for my wife and my parents and my colleagues and my friends. I think you alluded to this before we went on the air. That nothing is more meaningful. I think I intuitively knew that in my 20's but I don't think I appreciated to what degree that is what matters. Ultimately that truly is what matters so I wish I had invested even more in it in my 20's and 30's but I think that's what I tell myself.

Fantastic. What's the best way for people to follow you on social media or to stay in touch with you and you follow your progress?

Wow I've never thought of that. I'm on Twitter at my full name at Bassam Salem. I'm trying to figure out Instagram. And I say that because those who know me know I'm not an Instagram guy but it's Bassam T. Salem. And that's probably good.

Great well thank you for your time today. There's been a lot of great insights here. I'm sure much that our guests can learn.

I really appreciate your time thank you Brett.

Thank you.