Saturday, July 20, 2024

Inside the Mind Of… Stephen Kelly

Last updated on July 30th, 2017 at 10:33 am

Stephen Kelly became Chief Executive Officer of Sage, the UK-based accounting software giant, in November 2014.

He has over 30 years of leadership experience in the technology sector, having led successful businesses in California, New York and Europe.

Kelly served as Chief Executive Officer of two high growth US and UK public companies: NASDAQ listed Chordiant Software, Inc. from 2001 to 2005, and London Stock Exchange listed Micro Focus International plc. from 2006 to 2010, where the company achieved a 7-fold increase in market value over the 4 years.

In 2012 he was appointed Chief Operating Officer for the UK Government. Kelly was the most senior executive responsible for UK Government’s Efficiency and Reform Program for Digital, Commercial, IT, Major Projects and SME strategies.

The program improved services to UK citizens while saving the UK taxpayer almost $30 billion CAD in 2013/14.

Kelly has a passion for small and medium businesses, and has acted as an angel investor for multiple start-ups.

This summer, Kelly was one of many keynotes in Atlanta and Toronto, at the annual Sage Summit, where thousands of small and medium business owners gathered to learn about leadership, entrepreneur guidance, and how to adapt with technological progress, among other ideas.


What do you look for in the team you work with, the team that you surround with? What are the qualities, primary values, or the skills that you look for in your fellow managers and staff?

Stephen Kelly: The same values, and it all starts with customer obsession. Doing the right thing for the customer.

Values are really important. That’s probably the only thing that’s consistent. Then, I look for different personality types. I look to hire people that are better than me. I look for a culture where: speak truth to power. There’s a lot of “everybody cares about doing the right thing for customers.” We use the phrase, “Keep a chair empty in the room, for the customer.” So, the customer always gets their voice heard by the management team. Sage is the most excited startup in the world. What that means is people can challenge me, because we just care about doing the right thing for the customers. And if we do that, we’ll stay true to ourselves.


Thoughts on the elements of leadership, and what you’ve learned about leadership?

Stephen Kelly: It takes grit and determination to build a very successful business. So, I think that is the epitome of leadership. But it all starts with having a big idea, going where your customers are, living in their shoes. We really like to support the business builders, who create all the jobs, all the prosperity. We just want to give them awesome technology and make their lives easier.


What’s the thing that most entrepreneurs need to know about being entrepreneurs?

Stephen Kelly: Think about where the customer is and how you get there. I’d recommend really looking at social media, and the channels – Instagram, Facebook, or whatever– where your audience is.

Think of the top three people who are the experts, the rock stars, the gurus, and try to reach them through social media. In your head, you might think, “they won’t see me. They won’t have time for me. They’ll have bodyguards. They’ll have security.” With social media, loads of people DM me.

Don’t underestimate there are people here to help you.

From that conversation, that idea – and it might refine your idea – you can have a nugget to actually start a business.


Who are your favorite top entrepreneurs?

Stephen Kelly: I love entrepreneurs who are very humble, who have that sense of humility to talk about their mistakes. Famous ones include Richard Branson from the multi-consumer brand experience, from airline to music. What a humble guy.

And he’s, you know, a multi-billionaire, but you sit across from him to have a cup of coffee, and he’s just a regular guy.

Then, people like Steve Jobs. Technology genius. He invented a whole different user experience for consumers. He had dreams about integration and convergence of different technologies to give consumers something that he thought would be very practical. When he went to the board meeting to persuade people about the iPhone, half the board wasn’t there, maybe even thought he was crazy. But he had conviction. Belief.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce blew me away, a massive influence on technology in the last decade. Definitely worth reading his books as well. Inspirational leader, great technology visionary, but the reason I’d pick him out is this whole area of compassionate capitalism.

Obviously, we want to build a great company, have awesome customers, awesome technology, all of those things, but we also want to give back to the communities, look after our colleagues, play an active role in supporting the youth, and things we really care about.

We are about building a sustainable, successful business that has huge longevity and creates a massive legacy. So, I love the concept.

It really is the way all companies should be run. Obviously, a multi-billionaire, but just such an amazing, inspirational leader and shows a great sense of humility.


What’s one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Stephen Kelly: Don’t try to do too many things, because you become all things to all people, and you’re good at nothing. It’s the same with social media. Pick one channel. Same with product or service. Pick one to start with. And then – we call it beachhead strategy.

You own one beachhead, you do well there, then you think about the next one that’s related, and move to the next one, and the next one. That’s how you ultimately scale a good business.

You’ve got to step back and look at yourself in the moment, and sometimes when you do that you go, “Wow, I’m getting worried about stuff I don’t need to worry about.” You should only worry about what you can change. No point worrying about stuff you can’t.


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Dave Gordon
Dave Gordon
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than a hundred publications globally, over the course of twenty years. More about him can be found at