Driving Disruption: Paul Smith Of ServiceNow On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industry

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Focus on empathy and value for the customer: Your customers’ needs must be at the center of your innovation strategy. When organizations stay true to their purpose and deliver real, tangible value to customers, the innovation and the disruption follows.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Smith, the Chief Commercial Officer at ServiceNow.

Paul is responsible for overseeing ServiceNow’s global sales efforts, including sales, pre-sales, sales enablement, value management, global operations, and alliances and channel ecosystem, driving all resources to help solve the challenges of any customer at the CxO level. With 20 years’ experience in senior leadership roles across the technology industry, Paul’s passion for applying innovation to reinvent work and challenge legacy business models is stronger than ever at ServiceNow.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I joined ServiceNow four years ago — at the height of the global pandemic — to serve as President of EMEA before becoming the global Chief Commercial Officer. I saw the tremendous untapped potential in this company both in its differentiated platform and what it was capable of and the massive growth opportunity ahead. We are still only scratching the surface.

I’ve worked in the tech industry for more than two decades, but my first job after university was a sales role at Proctor and Gamble. It’s where I built a foundation as a frontline salesperson. I loved the competitive aspect of the job. Being the boots on the ground, connecting with customers, solving what keeps them up at night, and finding new opportunities. I was always fascinated by technology, so I soon moved into the industry. I held various business development and sales roles at software start-ups and then at Microsoft and Salesforce.

It’s the culmination of these experiences that drives how I approach my work at ServiceNow. I think of our sales organization as the worldwide customer organization. It better encapsulates what we do which is deliver value to our customers every single day. We’re not just product salespeople. We have a team across geographies, pre- and post-sales, specialists, and partners to understand what’s top of mind for our customers, understand their challenges and solve the individual problems our customers are facing. The goal is getting them to value and success as quickly as we possibly can.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I joined ServiceNow because of two massive differentiators that are equally true today–our winning platform and our team culture. This is what gives us that sustainable advantage over time. From the beginning, ServiceNow’s story has been different. Our founder Fred Luddy believed wholeheartedly that technology should work in service of people. That empathy for the customer should be at the core of everything we do. He created ServiceNow as a platform to simplify work processes across various systems, departments, and siloes. Although he first focused on IT use cases, customers now use our platform to solve problems across the entire enterprise — IT, HR, customer service — and are even building their own unique applications. This AI platform is driving true business transformation and really is like nothing else I’ve encountered in my career. ServiceNow was made for the moment we’re now in — the age of intelligence.

There isn’t a boardroom meeting right now that doesn’t have generative AI on the agenda. ServiceNow is bringing this once-in-a-generation technology to our customers and getting them to value, fast. On its own, GenAI surfaces information. Embedding GenAI into a system of action like the ServiceNow Platform is what brings information and action together, truly changing the game.

Beyond the technology, our hungry and humble, win as a team ethos is real and durable. These core values are key to our success and are valued across our leadership team. Our culture speaks for itself. We have the lowest employee attrition we’ve ever had, and we had over one million applicants for open roles last year! We’ve doubled down on making our team successful with the right tools and resources. Our ability to scale, be agile, execute, and put our people at the top are critical ingredients to our success.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • I’m intently and relentlessly focused on execution. Douglas MacArthur said one of my favorite quotes, “Have a good plan, execute it violently, and do it today.” I firmly believe that perfection is often the enemy of progress.
  • I can zoom in as easily as I can zoom out. I’ve always had the ability to identify patterns, opportunities, and causes that help me define my vision and articulate where we’re going and why. But at the same time, I have a meticulous handle on the details. This doesn’t mean micromanaging your team, but you must fully understand a problem in detail before you can start to solve it. And there will always be new problems to solve!
  • Lastly, I would hope that my colleagues would say I am pragmatic, empathetic, and pretty controlled under pressure. I strive to lead by example both in how I work and how I treat people.
  • Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with, ServiceNow Chairman and CEO Bill McDermott included, exude similar qualities. Bill is relentlessly optimistic, he works harder than anyone I know, and he is all about execution. He has audacious goals, but he never expects anything from his team that he isn’t ready to do himself.
  • As Bill would say, “leadership is about creating the conditions for people to thrive.” To me, this is all about how you treat people and how they feel when they come to work every day. When people feel heard and respected, they want to do their best work! It’s that simple. And with a company that is growing as quickly and has as many opportunities as ServiceNow, we need people that are committed and want to be in it for the long haul with us.
  • Our success all comes down to how we execute and how we treat each other along the way. We want to move fast and win, and we will, but we’ll be thoughtful and do it the right way.

Leadership often entails making hard choices between two good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

If you have a good team in place, there is always going to be an endless supply of good ideas. Many of them will make total sense, but you can’t do everything. So, to start, you must focus and prioritize. But the real key is once you make a choice, you can’t look back. You have to go all in on it!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

  • The term is often applied to individuals or leaders, but personally I think disruption comes with time and proven results, it’s not self-appointed.
  • Starting with the leadership team, you need people that have a growth mindset and are ready to roll up their sleeves, be curious, collaborate, have an openness to trying and failing, and be ready to execute! At ServiceNow, we have a team that is constantly thinking about what will make customers’ lives and their work better, and where we can go next. It all comes back to being hungry and humble. That’s where the innovation is born. The disruption follows.
  • That said, we are living and working in a world that is more complex than ever and we are facing an unprecedented pace of change. That same collective growth mindset is what gives you an organization that is far better positioned to adapt to the unexpected and inevitable disruption.

How do you perceive the role of disruption within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

  • Disruption is inevitable regardless of industry. There will always be waves of change with more intensity and more speed. As they say, it’s the only constant.
  • In the technology industry specifically, we’re in a brave new world. We had the internet, then we had the iPhone moment, then everything went mobile. Now, everything is rapidly transforming with AI. It’s ushering in a new chapter in the relationship between humans and technology. It’s incredibly exciting.
  • The AI revolution is different from the technology waves that came before because of its outsized intelligence and productivity power. And it’s only going to get smarter. In the words of Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang, “We manufactured electricity, then we manufactured software, and now we are manufacturing intelligence.” Everyone is going to have access to this technology in some way or another and, put simply, this moment will be ‘do or die’ for most businesses. Leaders must seize the opportunity now or they will become obsolete. It won’t be the big eating the small, it will be the fast eating the slow.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

I’m not sure which of my guiding principles are considered “conventional wisdom” but one thing I do know is that less is more. Simple, clear, and defined guidance will get the job done every time. No one wants or needs lengthy, dense, and complex processes. I remind myself of this daily whether I’m talking to my own team, or I’m talking to a customer. We are all busy, the pace of change is faster than ever. Brevity is appreciated. A simple one-pager with the facts is almost always better than a 20-slide strategy deck.

The second thing would be that trying to know and control everything doesn’t get you a gold star. It isn’t feasible — and it slows you down. You must find the right people to have at the table and trust them wholeheartedly. In the spirit of pursuing pace over perfection, leaders must have the humility to empower and trust, rather than trying to exert prowess and control at every turn. But, like I said before, that doesn’t excuse you from getting into the details.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

While I don’t necessarily seek to be disruptive, encouraging people to do what is necessary is often disruptive. It’s not about navigating the opposition or being disruptive for the sake of disruption. I push my team to do better, to achieve more, and to find opportunities for improvement. I push customers to think about a new way of doing things because “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Sometimes I’m met with resistance because change is uncomfortable. But most would agree, the outcome is usually well worth the momentary discomfort. Once we get customers on board and show them results in one corner of their business, more often than not they roll it out like wildfire.

Look at technology. Cloud was disruptive, mobile was disruptive, ServiceNow with its one system of action across the enterprise was disruptive. But these have all proved to be a better way of doing things!

At the end of the day, if you can articulate that you’re trying to make everyone successful, people will get behind it.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using to Disrupt Our Industry”? Can you please share an example for each?

  • Focus on empathy and value for the customer: Your customers’ needs must be at the center of your innovation strategy. When organizations stay true to their purpose and deliver real, tangible value to customers, the innovation and the disruption follows.
  • Make it personal: We’re in a new world and although companies in every industry are experimenting with new AI technologies, they’re struggling with where to start first. We have to empower customers with choice and flexibility — meeting them where they are in their journey. One example of this when it comes to AI, is giving customers the ability to choose between multimodal models, their own LLMs, or general purpose LLMs, whatever best suits their needs. There’s no one size fits all approach.
  • Know that we can’t (and shouldn’t) go it alone: Innovation and success starts with teamwork. A big part of any leader’s role is joining forces with other industry leaders and innovators to deliver the best solutions possible for customers. Collaborating with partners is not a sign of weakness, it presents massive opportunity for us all to play into our strengths and define the future together.
  • Drink your own champagne: You can’t expect to deliver the best product or service to your customer, or articulate the full value, if you’re not using it yourself — full stop. This is why we are always customer zero. It’s the only way to fully understand what our customers are dealing with and find the best solutions that will solve their most complex pain points.
  • Build and nurture a winning culture: Innovation can’t exist without people. We don’t underestimate the value of a culture that breeds success–that’s why we’ve committed to not making any job cuts and doubling down on our people’s success. One of the best investments any leader can make is ensuring company culture remains intact. This is what can differentiate a company — the people and culture should be the crux of a sustainable and admirable business model.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

I’m always surprised at how often the default for people is to be hesitant to change or to take a risk. You typically don’t need a brilliant plan to try something new. All you need is an appetite for it and a bias to action.

For example, we’ve been rolling out new generative AI tools to our entire employee base. The tools are there for people to use, but not everyone is exploring and experimenting with them. The most successful people in my sales organization are those that are adopting them quickly and looking to be better than they were yesterday.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

My parents were in the Royal Air Force so naturally I moved around a lot as a kid, I attended different schools, I often had to recreate new social circles and new routines. As an adult, I’ve lived all over the U.K., Europe, and most recently moved my family to the U.S. While I didn’t necessarily seek out all of these changes, I’ve always maintained a sense of curiosity and a flexible attitude. That mindset has presented me with countless opportunities that I otherwise would’ve never imagined.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

When you have opportunities everywhere, it can be tough to know where to prioritize. It’s a great problem to have, but that’s what keeps me up at night. Delivering the best value for our customers is always top of mind. To be successful and embrace disruption, I need to continue to push our team and our platform to accelerate that time to value and capitalize on the opportunity with digital transformation. We continue to put our foot on the gas and expand into newer markets. There’s massive white space and opportunity for us and the industry altogether!

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I see a future where AI and automation truly levels the playing field and helps everyone — every individual, every business around the world — work and live better. If we can’t use this technology to help people and businesses reach their full potential, we’ve missed a massive opportunity.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m on LinkedIn or you can follow ServiceNow on social platforms, including LinkedIn and X. If you’re interested in learning more about ServiceNow, go to our website at www.servicenow.com.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights.

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.