Innovation Insights: Leadership Series - A Conversation with Fortinet CEO, Ken Xie

By Bill McGee | August 12, 2016

Editor’s note: We have been running a regular series highlighting Fortinet’s technology innovations, called Innovation Insights. Today’s blog begins a new set within our Innovation series highlighting Fortinet’s leadership team.

Ken Xie is the founder and CEO of Fortinet. He is a network security visionary and an established and successful business leader, having founded several companies in his career. Ken has steered Fortinet from its founding sixteen years ago, and successful IPO in 2009, to become a billion dollar market leader and security innovator.

Ken, thanks for helping us kick off this new blog series. You have had a huge influence on the security market, not just through technology innovation, but as the leader of two hugely influential companies – Netscreen (sold to Juniper) and Fortinet – that have literally changed the marketplace. Could you give us some insight into your leadership philosophy?

There are several phases in the life of a company, tied to its size and revenue, and as a company evolves, the role of leadership needs to evolve as well.

As a startup - from day one to about $10 million - a strong leader creates a vision everyone can get behind. This leader is focused on growing the organization, leveraging personal connections, establishing financing, and building bridges into the industry.  Most successful startups, and their leaders, are entrepreneurial and scrappy in nature and embody the values that will eventually become the core of the culture as the company grows.

The next phase, say from $10 million to $1 billion, is about creating strong teams, both at the leadership level and throughout the company. To move forward, teams must come together to create the systems and processes needed for the next phase of growth, because no one leader can do it alone.

Once the company matures to over $1 billion, a hallmark we just passed, you need a culture that every employee embodies. In my opinion, this culture needs to embrace three key values: openness, teamwork, and innovation. A strong culture that builds on these attributes creates a thriving employee base that creates winning solutions that customers embrace.

A strong, savvy board plays an essential role as mentors and guides. The Fortinet board, for example, includes industry leaders with many years of success in growing companies from small to major global corporations. The knowledge and experience of the Fortinet board helps steer the company, and has played a crucial role in our long-term success.

How do you grow an organization that has great innovation built into its DNA? How did you do it at Fortinet?

We are committed to delivering the best technology to support our customers. One way we do that is to listen to their challenges so we can help meet their rapidly evolving needs, and focus on getting ahead of where they need to go. Our development teams are then incented to build and enhance our solutions to address these requirements as quickly as possible.

We also highly value continuous learning, and we encourage our employees to own advancing their own credibility and credentials, so that we remain at the leading edge of where our industry is going.

As a global company, we are fortunate to have a diverse population, and good ideas can come from literally anywhere in the company.  These good ideas should not have to bubble up through layers of management to have an impact.  So to encourage all of our employees to contribute to innovation, we created a Patents Award Program. 

Our employee’s patent innovations come from all areas of the business, not just technology. In fact, we have patented innovation around business models as well as engineering. Our patent recipients receive an incentive, and they are recognized on our “Patent Wall.” More than 300 Fortinet patents have been issued to date, and we have another 250 pending. This is more than any of our competitors in the security space.

Finally, at Fortinet, we want to create something lasting, and we want our employees to be excited to be part of something bigger than themselves.  Recognition is a huge piece of this. We celebrate success in all its forms across our company through our FortiChamp program. Every quarter, we recognize people from different functions all across the company that have been identified by their peers as team players, innovators, key contributors, and those who continually go above and beyond.

I heard that as a young man you actually trained for the Olympics as a volleyball player. Did that experience influence your approach to running an organization? What were your other influences?

Yes, I did, and that experience was hugely impactful. It taught me that while every member of a team plays a valuable role, they need to work as a whole to be successful. For example, my focus was on being an outside hitter, but no matter how good I was, we couldn’t win, and I couldn’t be successful, without the setters and blockers.

I also learned that a team needs to be flexible and adaptable. Things happen quickly on a volleyball court, and if everyone insists on only performing their usual jobs you won’t get very far. Likewise in an organization, a flat structure allows you to quickly address an opportunity or a fast-changing, dynamic market.

My parents were also significant influences for me – they supported my career choices, and taught me to always keep learning, maintain focus, go deep, and be dedicated.

Any final thoughts?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life's failures are made by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” The trick is to “fail quickly” so we can recover quickly as well.