Paul Stobart, CEO of Zen Internet, announced his retirement and bowed out of the company last month. During his last week, he shared some final words of wisdom with Comms Business.

During Paul Stobart’s tenure as CEO of Zen Internet, the company grew revenues by 70 per cent to annualised revenues of £110 million, as well as increasing the size of its broadband base from 128,000 to 190,000 circuits. Zen Internet also unbundled 300 exchanges to reach its current footprint of 700 exchanges, alongside substantial investment into its core network and data centres.

All in all, a successful five-year stint leading the company. Richard Tang, Zen’s founder and chairman, has returned to the CEO position. Tang credited Stobart with driving the business forward and noted the two shared “a great collaborative working relationship based on shared values”.

Stobart stood out in the Channel for his willingness to discuss difficult topics with an openness that both encouraged partners and compelled all stakeholders to focus on building the momentum needed to drive success whilst tackling challenges. Comms Business asked Stobart to share some final thoughts with our readers as he heads into retirement.

Stobart emphasised the reality that sustainability and care for the environment must be a priority for any business.

He explained, “When I started out in 1980, I don’t think anybody knew the expression ‘climate change’, let alone what was going on. It was an entirely alien concept. That is something which belatedly my generation has come to realise is a massive problem and challenge. Everything I’ve been saying over the last few years about the environment and the need to plan your way to net zero has become incredibly important. And it was totally irrelevant when I started out.

“That’s one huge change. And it’s not an option. We simply have to do it in order to save the world for our children and grandchildren. Anything I can do in retirement to play a part by either speaking or cajoling or urging or encouraging people to take it seriously. I will do whatever I can.”

Technology and humans

Stobart reflected on the scale of technological change he has seen throughout his career, pointing to the distance travelled between his days using a slide rule for his A Level Maths studies through to working at an ISP in 2023.

“Technology is a magnificent thing in many ways but, at the end of the day, business is best done between people and the Channel know that better than anybody. The channel partners who are the most successful and growing the fastest are the ones that understand that it’s not all about technology. It’s a blend of technology and human relationships.”

He explained that success in the Channel rests on really understanding the customer’s perspective and taking in their rational and emotional needs before translating those into a technology solution.

He added, “It’s so easy to get carried away with technobabble, that you forget that it’s about people at the end of the day. We’re all human beings. We all have good days and bad days. We all need empathy and understanding. That is a lesson that is not going to change for the next five generations, no matter how much technology changes, which of course it will at an extraordinary pace.

“At the bottom of it all, we’re human beings, and we’re social animals, and we like engagement with others.”

Empowering your team

Stobart also discussed the importance of good leadership, and noted the importance of moving towards pull leadership, whereby management explain the strategy to their employees, seek their input and encourage them to play their role in delivering success.

He said, “When I started out in business, leadership was largely what would be called push leadership. People used to bark instructions at you and, if you were a young whippersnapper coming into the world of work, you just did what you were told.

“It was a world where you didn’t feel as though you had much to offer because your view was never asked for. You were just told to do stuff. Over the last 40 years, that’s changed. The understanding of what really inspires people to go that extra mile has changed.

“As a CEO, and I’ve been a CEO for 25 years or so, you learn that the CEO does very little. The truth is: it’s your team that does all the doing. Your job is to be authentic, and visible and genuine and encouraging and sincere and inspire them to do things for themselves. That’s the role of the CEO. In a sense you serve the organisation, you don’t run it.”

As for the future, Stobart has a few ideas about how he’ll spend his time. He said, “I’m hanging my proverbial boots up. What I will do is some non-exec roles. I chair of few businesses outside of Zen already, so I suspect in the future I’ll do more of that.

“I also look forward to public speaking and, like everybody else, I have a book or two in me, so I would like to write. Maybe one on leadership or perhaps on followship, because that’s what it really ought to be called. And I’ll see whether one or two people might buy it. Who knows?!

“But otherwise, I will spend more time with my family, who have put up with me working away and commuting and all the rest of it for a long time. This is my time to pay that back and I’m looking forward to it enormously.”

This interview appeared in our May 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.