Eric tees up great coworker relationships
Eric Johnson didn’t get his first set of golf clubs until he was in college. He never really took golf seriously until several years later when some coworkers invited him to play a round at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Portland, OR. “Now this is fantastic… I want to do more of this!” was his immediate thought.
In this episode, we talk about how amazing golf has been for Eric’s relationship building, both with coworkers and clients. By developing these stronger connections, he’s able to have more open and honest work conversations. He also discusses how life is a broad concept that incorporates your work, your home life and your hobbies. If it was only work, Eric admits he would burn out and not be nearly as effective.
Eric Johnson is the CFO at Nintex, bringing more than 18 years of financial and operational experience at mid-size and large technology companies.
He graduated maxima cum laude from the University of Portland with a degree in finance.
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John: Welcome to episode 49 of the Green Apple Podcast, where each Wednesday I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion, making them stand out like a green apple in a red apple world. And don’t miss any future episodes by subscribing to iTunes or Stitcher and you can get links to all of that at greenapplepodcast.com, as well as links to connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn, because I really enjoy hearing from everyone who’s listening.
Now let me introduce you to this week’s guest: Eric Johnson, the CFO of Nintex. He brings more than 18 years of experience at technology companies, having served as the Vice President of Finance for Jive Software, leading them through their IPO process — which is pretty exciting — and as the VP of Sales Operations for Serena Software. He graduated from the University of Portland with a degree in Finance, later went on to get a CMA designation and now he’s here with me on the Green Apple Podcast.
So, Eric, before we get to the fun stuff, I always love to ask my guests, how did you get into finance to begin with?
Eric: Yeah. So my dad was a corporate executive at a Fortune 500 transportation company, he ran IT there, and having a mentor who had all this success in business, I was interested in business too; explained to my father what I wanted to do, and one of his recommendations was that finance and accounting is the language of business and then someday later in your career, and you’re senior executive or you’re at the board level, and you’re having discussions with those types of folks, or external investors and people like that, really understanding the language of finance and accounting will help you articulate what’s happening in the business.
And so, that’s why I studied finance in college, and then pretty quickly got out into the profession in some operational finance roles. Along the way, I’ve done both finance roles, I’ve been responsible for accounting, and then went into some operational roles. I definitely have a good appreciation to the value that the education and skillset can add.
John: Right, right, that’s pretty much how I ended up in accounting. It was a combination of getting a D in Physics and getting out of engineering. But then, once I got into business it was like, what’s the degree that everybody loves, and everybody knows numbers, and everybody knows dollars, so no matter where you go, accounting and finance is definitely a great foundation. That’s exactly the same thing that happened to me. You’re going to be in comedy soon enough — that’s pretty much what I’m telling you, Eric. No, I’m just kidding.
So I know that you’re very busy as the CFO there in what have you, but what sort of hobbies and passions take up your time on the nights and weekends when you have some free time?
Eric: Yeah, so actually, number one hobby and passion is playing golf. When I have free time, it’s going to go one or two places — it’s either going to be golfing or family. My wife and I are fortunate to have two kids. We have a nine-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. The kids are just at a great stage, where they are a lot of fun and there are a ton of activities. And I have done a lot of coaching whether it’s… basketball is probably the thing I coach the best, because I used to play basketball through high school and was a pretty decent player.
So I coached a lot of basketball, coached football, I’ve done soccer… you name a sport a kid was in to, I probably one way or another volunteered to help. But I love golf. If it’s not kid stuff, then I’m going to go out and play golf.
John: Right, right, right. That’s very cool. So when did you first start golfing? When you were a kid, I imagine?
Eric: You know, I didn’t. So growing up, my parents were not into golf — I think I maybe played golf one time with them, using some rented clubs. So I got my first set of golf clubs when I was in college as a gift from my parents and goes my sophomore year. And the next seven years or so, I think I got them when I was about. I would play maybe three to five times a year. I always enjoy it, I was terrible, and — just so you know, an occasional thing to go out with your friends and do but I liked it.
When I was about kind of mid-20s, maybe 26 or something, one of the places I was working at, three of the senior executives loved golf, and they were all members of the same golf club called Pumpkin Ridge, which is out on the west side of Portland, Oregon, they took me out there two times, and I was like, “Well, this — now this is fantastic.” To go out to this beautiful place; the club was super nice, course was amazing, they served great cocktails, good food, and you’re having a great time and I’m like “I would like to do this.” And so that’s when I got into playing golf. I think I joined my first golf club when I was 27.
John: Okay, that’s great man. Yeah, because if it’s like, “If I’m going to suck, at least make it pretty,” right?
Eric: And then the next order of business was, “Okay, this is really great. Now I’ve joined a place I’ve got to get better.” And so, instead of going out there and just shooting 110 every time or whatever, I would at the time lots of double bogeys and worse. I started working at it and the lowest I’ve ever gotten down to is about 9-handicap, I was about an 8.9 for a while. The last years, I’ve mostly been about a 10 to 13 — just depends on if I’m working at the time, handicap rises, sometimes it comes down. But yeah, I play decent, and I love the game.
John: Yeah, yeah, that’s really cool, man, that’s really cool. So what’s your favorite place that you’ve ever played golf at?
Eric: Favorite place by far, that’s an easy one, would be down at Bandon Dunes. Bandon Dunes is on the Southern Oregon coast. Four world-class golf courses, primarily kind of a link-style operation, it smells like you’re at the beach, it’s beautiful. It’s really set up for people who love golf, that the lodging is nice, but it’s not like a four-season type deal, it’s kind of understated, so it’s great, and the courses are just incredibly beautiful. I’ve typically gone down there for the last eight years or so maybe once a year.
John: Oh, that’s cool, man, that’s great. And so are you able to bring in coworkers or clients when you’re golfing?
Eric: I definitely do. So golf for me has been really good at business. Realistically I got introduced to it and started taking it serious through business, through some co-workers, some guys I looked up to. And then what happened over time as I started to get more into it, you realize there are other people in business who also like golf and there are a lot of business-related golf events.
When I was at Serena Software, I spent some time as the head of sales operations, so I was in more of a sales ops kind of a hybrid role between finance and sales and in that role, I went out into the field. And so from time to time we would need to take customers or partners golfing or to a golf event and because I was into golf, I was then a really good resource to participate. Same thing happened when I was at Jive Software, I would participate in golf related things. And then here at Nintex, very similar, a bunch of our executives like golf, a lot of our partners like golf. To be honest, golf is an integral part of business. In fact if I was to look at the rounds of golf played this summer, I would say over half of them, one way, are related to business.
John: Wow, yeah. So do you have to walk a fine line between really driving that 8 or 9-handicap to just playing along with people, especially when it’s a sales type event?
Eric: You know, I go with the perspective of most the folks I’m playing with. They’re true competitors, they wouldn’t want me to take it easy. I honestly try to play the best I can, but with the kid stuff and the travel and everything, I can’t always practice consistently. I’ll have a wide dispersion of performance. I mean I could still on a really bad day shoot north of a hundred, or I could shoot 78. I would say this year has probably been more of the good rounds have been in the low to mid-80s. It’s just golf is a very hard game and I didn’t grow up playing.
John: Yeah, I was just imagining how competitive it really gets. I mean internally, that’s one thing, but when all of a sudden you’re trying to get some sales or develop some outside relationships… yeah. But like you said, everyone’s competitive and you don’t become that level on accident.
Eric: Yeah. And what I do to is if I’m playing with people that are work-related, like a customer or partner, and they don’t play very often, then I’m going to take a little bit different tactic, laying in a competitive game probably a bad idea. You don’t want somebody all stressed out or hardly played golf, who you’re trying to foster a business relationship with. So in that type of situation, then my goal is just like if I play with my wife who only plays casually and infrequently, then we’re just going to keep it fun. Don’t worry about the score, let’s have a great time, let’s have some beverages, some great food, and just enjoy being out, spending some time together.
John: Right, right. But that’s such a great way for developing that relationship with not only coworkers but also clients, like you said.
Eric: It’s an amazing activity for relationship building, because if you think about it, typical 18-hole round of golf is going to be around four hours for the golfing part. And then you’ve got either you ate before or you eat after; you have drinks before, you have drinks after, typically you’re going to hang out after. You’re going to spend, realistically, in a range of five to six hours with the people you’re playing with. You learn so much about the person when you spend that amount of time, and you also see things about them on that course. Are they a person that gets angry throws their clubs and swears or do they keep their temperament? Are they funny? Are they serious? There are just all these things you find out about a person when you play golf with them.
John: Yeah, that’s true, because certainly golf does push your patience to the limits. That’s the nature of the beast.
Eric: It keeps you humble. I can sure tell you that.
John: Right, no that is for sure. Because especially those guys that think they’re really good athletes or trying to relive those high school and college glory days and then they get out there and shank one. And then it’s like, “Oh, there we go.”
Eric: Yup, that’s the truth.
John: Right, absolutely. Clearly everyone in the office knows you for your golf, I would imagine.
Eric: Most people know, if they’ve been around for a while, they know I love to play golf. I have to be a little careful because I don’t want them the perception be that I play too much golf, otherwise they’re going to think we’re not working enough, so, I’m definitely cautious on that. But yes, people do know. If they spend any time around me they’re going to know I love to play golf.
John: And that’s an interesting thing that you brought up, of just that perception of if you talk about your passion and hobby too much, then people think that you’re not actually doing work. So can you talk about that just a little bit, maybe from even your perspective as a CFO for the people below you, how you perceive that?
Eric: Yeah. I think that my perspective has always been one of life is a broad concept. Life includes stuff you do at home, it includes your hobbies, it includes your work. And so my perspective and what I really try to encourage the teams is that to have sustainable long-term success, you have to integrate all those things in a way that works for you personally. For me, if all I did was work, I have to be honest, I wouldn’t be that great at it and I’d probably burn out and I don’t think I’d be as creative. And so I think having balance and people seeing that I’m super passionate about work, I am driving really hard, I’m aggressive, I’m trying to get us to meet and exceed our objectives, and they see that. But they also see that occasionally, I take a day off and I go on a golf trip or I go on a family vacation.
And so I think that the people that I work with at work and the organization for me here at Nintex, I think they know that while I definitely like to have a good time and have other aspects of my life going well, I’m very serious about the company being successful and I think they see that. So I think it’s that balance that if you’re doing the right things, over time, it works out.
John: Yeah, and I think that’s something that a lot of people worry about, that perception of others. And I think that’s something that people that I’ve talked to in the past that holds them back from even wanting to share that they golf on the weekend, or whatever their hobby or passion is. I guess it’s just something that I wish wasn’t the case, that people just judge you based on that. But yeah, if you’re getting your work done and you’re doing a good job, then it doesn’t matter.
Eric: Yeah. Actually, what I always say is the number one thing we’re going to judge people on is their results. What’s their output? Are they doing high-caliber work? Are they meeting and exceeding expectations? I personally believe to do that on sustainable basis at the highest end, you do have to have these other parts of your life working well.
Whenever I’ve had people that have gone a bit wayward in the office, they typically it’s a combination of things going on. Maybe they weren’t the right fit for the role and or they also have some stuff going on outside of work that’s not exactly helping their life. And so I try my best to model a good success on both ends because I think that’s the way to create good outcomes for the company.
John: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. We’re not talking about drama and things like that, we’re talking about true hobbies and passions that enhance your life and when you talk about them your eyes light up and you’re excited, things like that. Yeah, definitely not drama or anything that’s going to distract you in a bad way, that’s definitely not the case.
Eric: And I will tell you what the golf for me, the fact that I love it so much and other people feel the same way, it allows you to connect with people. If someone is even halfway into golf, the moment that we both discover that, you now instantaneously, you have a mutual, positive, common bond; and you start talking about it. And what I’ve always found in life is that if you can connect with people, then they help you more. Like the whole relationship whether it’s a personal or professional or both, it goes better, they give you the benefit of the doubt. And I think that your hobby, like something like golf or maybe for some people it’s skiing or whatever, those things are really important to building great relationships.
John: Oh, yeah, absolutely, man! And it’s amazing how you can work around someone and whatever, and then all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, you like to golf, too?” Boom! It’s like a whole new level of all of a sudden you’re best friends for no reason.
Eric: That’s the truth. The different companies I’ve been at, we’ve done golf trips where we’ve had a combination of board members and executives and things like that. Those are great trips. You think of all the time you spend together and invariably you end up covering some of business, that you’re building deeper relationships and it helps you work together better. So I have no problem in my own mind mainly justifying all the investments I’ve made in golf because not only have they brought great joy, it’s honestly helping in business.
John: Right, right. And then the ironic thing is is from those retreats that’s probably what you think about most about the people that you were with. It’s those outside of work things, rather than “What specific project did that person work on? I don’t know, but he loves to ski,” or “She loves to ride bikes”. That’s the thing that comes to mind first and that you gravitate towards.
Eric: Yeah, and it creates an opportunity, too, to have an honesty level in your relationship that’s different. Human, psychology right, people have a hard time with conflict, they don’t like to say things other people don’t want to hear. But when you get to build a good relationship with someone, it’s a lot easier to be like, “Hey, by the way, I think we’re going wayward here. I really didn’t like when you did this,” or “Geez, we need to improve this.” And so the golf for me has opened some doors to build some relationships that then has been really helpful for some of those tougher situations.
John: Right, right, because then you’re “friends” now and not colleagues and so you’re able to be more honest and more open and you know, “Hey I don’t think you’re doing this quite right” where before they would take it personally and “Well who the heck do you think you are?” Yeah, man, that’s huge; and then you can weather the storm together when things are tough. Such great examples that you brought up, man, that’s really, really good. Really good stuff.
So how does it come up in conversation, or do you have pictures of golf things in your office or… How do people know? You come in wearing spikes, like, “What’s up?” No, I’m just kidding.
Eric: In my office, I do have one really nice golf picture up on the wall of a hole from Pebble Beach. So I have a picture up in my wall, I have a couple in my office. I don’t typically wear my spikes to the office, that would go a little sideways. I work in a software company, so it is a little more casual, I would say. In the summer, I do wear some golf shirts to work, there’d be some of that.
But one of the things I always do like when I’m out talking with our customers, prospects and partners in the field, and I’m out in the sales teams, I always look when I’m in somebody’s office and I see what’s sitting there. And a lot of offices, you’ll see some pictures they’ll have of golfing, and I’m like, “Oh, you like to play golf!” or “Oh, hey, you were at Pinehurst too” and “I’ve been there,” and then all of a sudden, boom, you’re talking golf. Now, I’m in my sweet spot. And then, you can weave that back into talking whatever you were there to focus on from a business perspective.
John: Right, absolutely. Small world. Just last year I did a corporate event at Pinehurst and I was able to walk down the hall and see all the Payne Steward pictures and all that stuff. Yeah, that was a cool place.
Eric: It’s an amazing place, it would be my second favorite place I’ve been on to play golf. I love going to Pinehurst.
John: Yeah, really neat. That’s great. So before you got into golf, since this was later on in your career, was there something else that you would share at work, or was golf kind of the thing that broke it open?
Eric: No, I’ve always had hobbies, my wife likes to say so. My wife and I have been married since basically we got out of college, I think one year after we got married, so we’ve been married 16 years. She says when I’ve always got something I’m all-in on. So back when we were first together, the hobbies that I spent more time on were — we skied in the winter, so I grew up doing some skiing and so I’d always ski. And in the Northwest where you get these rainy, dark winters, you have got a lot of skiers and snowboarders, that’s a really common bond that you’ll be able to make with people.
Well a narrower one but one that you’ll find again, people in the Northwest are pretty outdoorsy, I used to fly fish. I haven’t really done it much in several years with the kids coming and stuff but used to go out and go fishing, strictly fly fishing. I was adaptable. And so at that point of my career when I was a little younger, you’d still have a lot of the younger boys especially the guys that — we would get a city league team together or whatever and we’d play basketball.
So I’ve always had something going on, I’m not the kind of person that could just sit at home. I’m terrible if I sit at home and just watch TV, makes me unhappy, I feel lethargic, that’s just not me. But that might work for other people, I’m not being down on that, but I’m more of like get up and let’s go do something kind of person.
John: Sure, absolutely. I think that’s great. What made you want to just share and jump in and get a group of guys together to be in this city league team and things like that as opposed to being more held back and reserved and what have you? What made you want to just go all-in like that?
Eric: I would say that just honestly, I’m more of an extroverted person, I like activities. If I could do activities, I would prefer to do them with other people. Now I’m not going to let that stop me like when I got into playing golf if there wasn’t anybody available to go play with, I would just go play. But I would prefer, I mean all the sequel, if we could do an activity with some people who I want to be around, that would be the optimum situation. So I’m pretty open to putting it out there.
I think the thing is too that helps in life, just in general is kind of sales 101 or influence 101, if you want to sell or influence and get outcomes you want, you have to be willing to take some risks and probably get some rejections. For me personally, while I don’t enjoy it, and no one ever likes getting told, “Hey, I’m not going to do that,” or “I’m not interested” or a “No” or whatever, I’m the kind of person that’s willing to ask. There’s a saying “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive”, and I’m all for asking.
John: Yeah, what’s the worst thing that could happen? It’s “Hey, so, over the weekend I’m going to go play golf, does anyone want to come with me?” and everyone says no and you’re like, “Okay, whatever.” It’s not like you got fired or you’re not going to be promoted because of that.
Eric: No, and my general thinking is that, you ask, you might ask the same type of people two or three times and if you try a couple of times, two or three, and people aren’t into what you’re doing, then okay, then fine, then I’m not going to ask them again. I’m not going to ask for rejection a hundred times, it’s stupid, but I’m going to go and find somebody else to ask.
John: Sure, Yeah, yeah. As opposed to just keeping it to yourself, “I play basketball a little on the side” or whatever and it’s like, ‘No, no, let’s get a group together and let’s have a team and let’s go play,” because those shared experiences and then when you come back to the office, that’s huge! That’s so huge amongst you guys. So as a CFO now and with people under you, what are some things that you might do to kind of get people to open up or share or for you to learn about what their hobbies and passions are?
Eric: So one of the things we’ve always had in all the groups I’ve managed proprietarily for the last ten years, maybe if we probably started this, maybe 12 or 13 years ago in another company, but I’ve always had a fun committee in my organization and we’re always trying to come up with the event. Typically, I’ve done them quarterly, but at least every six months, we try to do things as a group. We’ve done all sorts of things, we’ve done jet boat rides, wine tasting, lot of lunches and meals. We’ve done an underground tour when I was in that company in Portland. We try to find activities that bring people out together, get ourselves out of the office, and get time.
The other thing I’ll do fairly frequently is I’ll just randomly ask small groups of people to lunch. And I typically I prefer groups, I would rather have a group and more people that just works a little better for myself, better use of time, but those are types of things I do. And when you do that then invariably, you get people talking about what they’re interested in, their family, what’s on their mind, what do they thinking about this, that or the other in the world. You just get to know people. It’s great for the team.
John: Plus, it sounds like you’re doing it because you’re genuinely interested, it’s not “Oh I need to check this box because of my annual plan with HR,” or whatever.
Eric: No, you’ve got to be genuine, people get through that pretty quick if you’re not. It’s part of that and I think Chris will help me with the leadership blogging opportunity we had maybe last year, and one of the things we talked about was, as a manager, one of the most important things you can do is that people genuinely believe and know that you care for them and for their success professionally and personally.
And so getting to understand about people is part of that and if you don’t, the people I’ve found in my career that just do not care, they’re the ones who never ask. Because they honestly don’t care, so they don’t ask, because they don’t care. And the people that actually do care do ask, and they’re asking for a reason, and they actually do care. And so I just think it’s really important.
John: Yeah, man, that’s so huge and what a great note to end on. That’s so great, Eric. But I have a rule that I’d love to come golf with you sometime, but I have my 17 Rapid-Fire Questions to get to know Eric a little bit. So here we go, let me fire this thing up here. Here we go, really fast. Do you prefer cats or dogs?
John: Star Wars or Star Trek?
John: Neither! Wow. All right, do you have a movie, Rocky maybe, something like that?
Eric: I’m more for things like Rudy, Hoosiers. I love the sports stories.
John: Yeah. Rudy, you got me there, man. That’s a huge one. I went to Notre Dame so… you already won.
Eric: I went to University of Portland so I came from another Holy Cross school.
John: There you go, nice! Yeah, the Holy Cross, they only have a handful of schools out there, so that’s really cool, man. That’s cool. So how about a PC or a Mac?
John: PC. And when it comes to a mouse, a right click or a left click?
Eric: Let’s think about this here for a second. I’m a left click.
John: A left click, all right. What did you have for breakfast?
Eric: A Luna bar.
John: A Luna bar, there you go. Do you have a favorite TV show of all time?
Eric: In a day, it’s probably SportsCenter, watched it a million times.
John: It’s hard to compete with that. When it comes to financial statements, do you prefer the balance sheet or the income statement?
Eric: Income statement.
John: Yeah, there we go. Do you prefer a suit and tie or jeans and a T-shirt?
Eric: Oh, jeans and T-shirt, if given a choice.
John: All day, every day. Do you have a favorite number?
John: Seven, yeah, why is that?
Eric: I was lucky number seven. The next one would be number 30, because that’s what I wore when I played basketball in high school.
John: Sure, sure. Do you have a favorite sports team?
Eric: Portland Trailblazers.
John: Trailblazers, sure, yeah. Pat Connaughton, he’s playing out there, Notre Dame guy. Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: Neither. I’m not golfing. How about a score card? How about that? Do you have a favorite color?
Eric: You know what, realistically, I’d probably say that’s probably black, I wear a lot of black. Black or blue.
John: Black or blue, you’re just a big bruise, is that what’s going on? No, I’m just kidding. Do you have a least favorite color?
Eric: I don’t wear pink.
John: Pink, all right. That was so matter-of-fact.
Eric: Although my daughter loves pink, so it’s coming up in my eyes now that we’ve got a five-year-old daughter.
John: Right, the older she gets, it’s creeping up on you.
Eric: It is.
John: Do you have a favorite adult beverage?
Eric: At this point I’d say red wine. I’m a huge red wine drinker, it’s good for your health, heart health.
John: Right, right, that’s what I say too. How about a favorite comedian?
Eric: Chris Rock.
John: Chris Rock, there you go, really funny. Are you more of an early bird, or a night owl?
Eric: Early bird.
John: Early bird, all right. And the last one, favorite thing you own, or the favorite thing you have?
Eric: That’s an easy one, that’s my golf clubs.
John: Your golf clubs, I was going to say that would probably be a slam dunk but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t want to speak out of turn. But thank you so much, Eric, this was really, really cool. I really appreciate you taking time to be with me on the Green Apple Podcast.
Eric: Well, I appreciate you having me, it was great to catch up, and I’ll be sure to take you golfing.
John: That was really, really fun. I enjoyed how Eric said that because of developing stronger relationships with coworkers, their level of honesty is much, much higher, so everyone can give their honest opinions. Even if there’s a little bit of conflict, no one takes things so personally because they have these other common bonds that allow you to be much more open. If you’d like to see some pictures of Eric on the links and others with his family, go to greenapplepodcast.com. And while you’re there, please click the big green button and do my anonymous research survey for the book I’m writing.
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