From Battlefield to Boardroom

This former M1-A1 tank officer shares his leadership philosophy and advice for keeping calm during business transformations.

Chris Hsu, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s EVP and general manager of Software and chief operating officer, is a graduate of West Point and a former U.S. Army captain, a leadership role that proved valuable for navigating the separation of Hewlett Packard into two Fortune 100 companies (HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise), as well as the ever-shifting tech landscape.

He spoke with HPE Newsroom about his military experience, his transition to the technology industry and the lessons he draws from both every day.

How did you decide to go to West Point and into the Army?

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Acknowledge and identify the root causes and contributing factors and then correct the problem.

I joined the military when I was 17. I was very focused at a young age on leadership development, especially after studying World War II and generals like Eisenhower, Marshall and Patton. I took that leadership theme all the way through my career, and it ended up intact here at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Probably more influential than that was my father’s background. He was an immigrant from China who had lived through the Japanese occupation and became a citizen soldier in the Kuomintang, the nationalist army that lost to the Communist Chinese. He moved from place to place in China and then escaped to Taiwan with his brother.

Somehow he found his way to the United States where he got his education. There were four kids in the family, two girls and two boys.

My brother and I both went to West Point.We were raised with this sense that “freedom is not free” and that you actually have to earn and retain freedom. I think the whole reason I joined the military was because of those two themes.

Which of the skills you learned in the military helped you most as you moved into high tech?

When you’re sitting inside of an M1-A1 tank at night and machine guns are going off, you have to teach yourself to be cool, calm and collected.

I’m a passionate person, but when the going gets really tough, and emotions start flying, I always remind myself to take it down and be what I call a “dampening” effect instead of an “amplifying” effect.

The next thing is giving clear and concise guidance and resisting the temptation to rationalize failure, to find external reasons to blame — there’s no value in that. The important thing is to acknowledge and identify the root causes and contributing factors and then correct the problem.

HPE COO and Army veteran Chris Hsu has carried this 3×5 index card outlining his leadership philosophies in his pocket throughout his career.

After your military service, what got you interested in the tech sector?

I was at McKinsey at the time, and I had been at General Mills before that. There were a number of people that had left General Mills to go to Best Buy, and Best Buy was really in its rapid ramp-up at that time. We were hired to develop a strategy to turn around the computer category and further drive growth.

In private equity, when we did due diligence on companies we were looking to buy, the underlying technology platforms became a core part of the buying decision. If you were acquiring a software company, what you really cared about was their IT platform and the linkage that they had with their customers.

I started to see the theme of disruptive technology interwoven through all different businesses, whether it was insurance, claims processing or pure software.

The technology industry is fraught with change and transformation, and I’ve found that I thrive in that kind of environment.

I think it’s something that ties back to military skills — the ability to continue to push through, the ability to see the other end and drive an organization through.

You’ve compared the HP separation process to your army experiences in Bosnia. Can you spell that out a little?

In 1995, I was running the deployment operations center for the 1st Armored Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.

We were planning and running the operation to ship tanks, helicopters and troops down to Bosnia. All of the munitions were in different places, the equipment and troops were somewhere else and what they needed for deployment was still in other locations.

On top of that, the bridge systems didn’t support our heavy equipment and the river flooded, making it even harder to get into the country. We had to coordinate and make sure that everything flowed through the entire network and got into Bosnia.

It was then that I really learned the military method of planning, which I still use to this day. I think this role in the military shaped the way I think about strategy and planning in large operations.

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A positive attitude is contagious, especially if you’re a leader and everyone’s looking at you.

Soon after joining HP, our CEO Meg Whitman told me about her plans to separate the company. I’m a mission-oriented guy. Driving HP’s transformation was the mission and I was called to duty.

I felt like I had a leader I could trust, follow and learn from, and a mission that was very clear and really hard. I saw the granularity and interfaces between IT and HR and finance, and I saw what needed to be done globally as well as at a country level.

I saw a level of complexity that no one will ever appreciate unless they actually live through it, and I used what I had learned during the Bosnian deployment. That’s the linkage.

Can you offer any advice to others who face similarly complex challenges?

I say this when I take over new teams: Leadership is about listening, seeing and understanding. Before you do anything, that’s what you have to do, especially when you’re taking over a new team.

You also have to let your team know your intent — why you are doing this, what you are trying to accomplish and what you expect of them. If you’re clear with what you want, the team can do a good job.

The last thing is having a positive attitude. There are times when it gets easy to turn negative, but a positive attitude is contagious, especially if you’re a leader and everyone’s looking at you. Negative reinforcement is a last resort. It’s positive motivation that can drive permanent change.

This article first appeared on HPE Newsroom and was republished with permission.

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Chris Hsu is Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President and General Manager of Software.

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