June 29, 2022

Episode #41: Mohammad Anwar – Softway & Culture+

Mohammad is the President and CEO of Softway and Culture+, and WSJ Best Selling Author of ‘Love as a Business Strategy: Resilience, Belonging and Success.’ He started Softway as a technology services company with his family at the age of 20 while pursuing his B.S. in Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics at the University of Houston.

He is celebrated for creating and sustaining a humanity-centered culture at Softway based on the philosophy that love is a business strategy. However, there was a time when the company culture at Softway was so toxic that it almost caused the enterprise to fold, but he took full responsibility for the problems at Softway and knew that, as the leader, he needed to change for the company to survive. After deep introspection, he eventually turned the company around. From this experience, he co-authored a WSJ bestselling book, Love as a Business Strategy.

Mohammad is the President and CEO of Softway and Culture+, and WSJ Best Selling Author of ‘Love as a Business Strategy: Resilience, Belonging and Success.’ He started Softway as a technology services company with his family at the age of 20 while pursuing his B.S. in Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics at the University of Houston. He is celebrated for creating and sustaining a humanity-centered culture at Softway based on the philosophy that love is a business strategy. However, there was a time when the company culture at Softway was so toxic that it almost caused the enterprise to fold, but he took full responsibility for the problems at Softway and knew that, as the leader, he needed to change for the company to survive. After deep introspection, he eventually turned the company around. From this experience, he co-authored a WSJ bestselling book, Love as a Business Strategy. Softway is now a Business-to-Employee solutions company that focuses on bringing technology solutions to others by building high performing teams to build solutions that speak to the human needs of your workforce – and in 2021, he formed Culture+ as a standalone organization fully dedicated to our mission: bring humanity back to the workplace. Culture+ provides Culture-as-a-Service to transform behaviors of employees and leaders – creating high-performing teams capable of achieving any business outcome.

Transcript

hello this is coach tim campsall and i’m your host for the self-made is a myth make a difference together show where we’re talking with successful business owners to hear their stories of the journey to building their business and because we know that achieving success in business is not something that we can do on our own we recognize the folks that helped us to excel and today i’m excited to have a fellow business owner from texas with us today my guest was born in saudi arabia to indian parents and moved to the u.s when he was 16. now that is a very cool uh combination of things isn’t it we’ll learn a little bit more about that he enjoys working out and anything to do with fitness and sports and he’s most proud of his wife’s accomplishments and just loves to brag about her so we’ll hear uh we’ll hear a little bit of that bragging here in a minute it’s my pleasure to welcome muhammad to the show today hello muhammad hello tim thank you for having me awesome well hey let’s start with having you um introduce yourself and tell us a little bit of your personal story um i shared a little bit of it already in terms of where you were born of it and where do you live now tell us about your family and some of your hobbies sure uh yes as you mentioned i was born in saudi arabia and two indian parents and moved here when i was 16 to kansas and i went to a catholic boarding school and then i moved to houston to go to university houston because i was tired of staying in the dorms and away from my family and at the time my sister was living in houston so i decided to go to college here and live with her and eat home-cooked food

and in college i met my uh wife and i met her by virtue of me tutoring math to athletes at the university of houston and she was on a athletic scholarship diving on their swimming and diving team and she’s from russia and she had just come back from sydney 2000 with a gold medal and i was tutoring her math and so that’s how i met her and we got married in 2006 in bangalore india her family flew in from russia and we had like this big wedding with 900 people and we have two beautiful kids uh my daughter is 12 years old her name is sifiya and my son is a mohsin and he’s seven years old and so they are indo-russian americans

so we live in texas and i got to go to the olympics again my wife went to uh athens and in beijing but i accompanied with her to beijing and it was the most interesting thing being in the stands in the diving well diving is a very big sport in china and china was the most likelihood to win uh the olympics in diving so my wife was the main con contender to that gold medal and in the audience i’m probably the only indian looking guy with russian flags painted on my face and holding the russian flag can’t speak a word of russian but i’m american citizen and you should have seen the looks i got in the audience they’re like why are you here right and the russian fans came up to me and they’re like you’re not russian and i’m like no i’m not and then and then the chinese fans were like who are you they’re no indian they’re no indian athletes here what are you doing so it was the most uh like uh awkward thing for me because i got the stairs and the looks people are just genuinely curious like who is this guy uh but nonetheless it was a very very interesting experience being in uh watching my wife compete in the olympics from the stands and seeing her when she ended up winning two silvers in beijing um and all in all she has five olympic medals from she’s meddled at every olympics that she’s gone to so yeah i do brag about her she doesn’t like it talking about her medals she’s like why do you do that like it’s just so big stop it well we will make sure to you know to not share this with thousands of people uh you know around the world so you know she can she can keep that little secret to herself i think i didn’t tell her name so i guess it’s still okay yeah well well we’ll definitely need to make sure that you share that so what is her name her name is julia pacquillina so a multi-uh olympic medal winner fantastic so muhammad what’s a funny story that your family likes to to tell about you that you’d be willing to share with us ooh i was not expecting that that the problem is i have so many stories that i am sure my family would they so i was the baby of the family uh i am still the baby of the family uh i am five of the siblings and i’m the last and so my family always looked to me as the baby of the house and pampered me and you know took care of me and even in my adulthood as i started my business and everything my my siblings are always overprotective wanting to make sure nobody tries to take advantage of me or you know i know what i’m doing and so forth so i guess a funny story i don’t know if it’s a funny story it must be funny from my siblings perspective but it was not that funny from my perspective is uh when that’s because that was

sure so i was i was obviously the favorite of my parents and i got anything and everything i wanted because if i went crying to my dad my dad would just buy it or whatever so my my elder brothers convinced me into going to my dad and getting a brand new atari at the time and they were like yeah for your birthday you should ask for an atari and like it’s the coolest thing make sure you tell that to get you an atari so i end up getting the atari because they told me to get it i was still too young to know like to be completely able to play it like fully right and i was probably like five or six years old and i remember this very well because i got the atari and i never got to play it because my brothers just played the whole time we only had like two joysticks so they ended up playing the whole time and i could never play and i’m like why the hell did i fall for this i love it so muhammad tell us about how your business came about and at what point did you have the confidence that you could run your own business sure so i um was pursuing my computer science degree at the university of houston and you know i just had moved to the country when i was 16 for high school and so i was still an international immigrant studying in the school and i was still in the process of my immigration and everything so at the time as i was looking for jobs in as i was getting close to my senior year i was in my junior year i started to look for jobs and i couldn’t i couldn’t get through the interviews or get calls even because i wasn’t considered um a u.s citizen at the time so i you know i didn’t get a lot of calls and and you know when i did interview a lot of the companies were like yeah we’re looking to outsource all our work to india because at that time it was the y2k boom that just happened and you know jobs are moving overseas so i started to debate what do i do because i i went into this career you know pursuit of computer science because at the time it was a hot thing people are giving away porsches to as a joining business back in the day in 1998 so this is 2003 and things were not very good for computer scientists at the time so as i began to think contemplate i was like man there are more jobs in india than in the us so what do i do and then my brother gave me an idea hey i’m based out of bangalore india let’s start a company where i can get higher developers and you could start a business and i had this idea of like okay let’s let’s start the business so i’m still 20 years old pursuing my computer science degree had just entered my senior year so started the company and within 10 years of running the company i believed i had hit the pinnacle of success like our company had over 300 employees and i was living the american dream i was driving my cars porsche included um flying planes across texas and i believed like this is it i’ve done it i’m 30 years old and i’m living the life and two three years after that our company was on the verge of bankruptcy and i was almost about to lose everything including my home i had seven figure debt and and uh you know people were quitting left and right uh we were losing clients and projects and i was at a crossroads of what to do and then our darkest day arrived i had to lay off almost 100 employees in one day and i did so in a very inhumane manner i’m not very proud of it still reeling in from it and after that i kind of lost my confidence my ability like i had no like drive because i was like okay this is a total failure on my part i i you know for the longest time i kept blaming my team our clients the industry the economy but this time around it was a little different i was like i really don’t know if the doors of software are going to remain open i don’t know how to function anymore so i was at an all-time low but thanks to a football game a few weeks later you know from my alma mater university houston i ha i learned about what is called the culture of love from then coach tom herman and i was very inspired by witnessing a comeback victory and so i was i got rejuvenated excited to come back and fight for software and i heard about coach sherman talk about the success and resilience of that football team was because of the love they had for one another and it wasn’t the love you broke kind of love it was the genuine you had my heart in your hand kind of love and i began to introspect and question in a moment of introspection i asked myself do i love my team and the answer was no i didn’t and that’s when i began to commit to figuring out how could i become a leader that loves my team and creates a culture of love so i committed to go on a journey of transformation with no destination where i would learn to not lead my team but serve my team and committed to becoming a an empathetic trusting inclusive leader that creates a circle of safety where our teams are empowered and to learn make mistakes and forgive one another thereby creating an environment of inclusion and belonging and i’m not there yet it’s like i said it’s a journey i keep having to improve but as i began on that journey the rest of our team began to see those changes in myself and they began to see the effort and the attempts i was trying to rectify my behaviors i still made mistakes but they eventually had more grace for me they were able to be more forgiving of me and they gave me a chance and they decided to commit beside me and stick out to fight for software versus going and taking another job even in terms of financial uncertainty and our business as a result went from surviving to thriving within three years and we tripled our revenue dropped our attrition from 30 to 12 percent our ebitda improved by 45 percentage points from negative 15 to you know almost 30 percent and our client account size went from six figures to seven figures and we were just like booming and ultimately our largest customer at the time saw or had the benefit of seeing our transformation through their lens for the last 10 years that we had been working with them and their um our stakeholders there you know began were basically would hang out with us more than their own co-workers when we would work with them and they came up with this wild idea and said hey muhammad we’d love to have a part of software’s culture inside of our walls i wish our leaders would be more like what how you guys behave would you be willing to help us put up a leadership uh training for our leaders and we’re like no that’s not what we do right we’re a technology firm but you know they’re our biggest clients so they compelled us i said no no no you are going to do this

and they kind of began to say i know you’ve never done this before but we’ve gone to the deloittes and the mckenzies and you know we have t-shirts to prove that we went to their training but nothing ever changes we’d love for you to try it out and give it a shot and like we really believe in you and so we they gave us two weeks to do a pilot um and experiment with leaders from different uh you know departments backgrounds and and regions to come in and we did a pilot we got two weeks put it together and we created what we branded at that time the seneca sessions um and it was a huge success not because it was perfect but because we made mistakes in the seneca sessions we ordered too little of food where we starved we starved our largest customer and because we had never done an event like this where technology from we’re not event specialists and training specialists and but what happened was as a result of ordering really less food and people were starving we heard the grumblings from people how they were hungry and we didn’t want them to get hangry so one of my project managers came up to me mohamed give me the credit card just give me the credit card and she went and ordered pizzas and it showed up and and then i remember standing up there and apologizing saying hey i’m really sorry this is a pilot we’re learning we’ve messed up on ordering the food but we’ve got pizzas on the way and and ultimately those pizzas were delicious um and at the end of the session we got feedback that the content was good in everything but really what made us believe in this program was the fact that you guys practiced what you preached you made a blender you made a mistake blunder and you made a mistake and you actually admitted and apologized and that’s what made us so much more authentic and real that we were living out how we worked with each other how we treated each other and lived out the values that we were practicing and from there on i got signed on for a multi-million dollar initiative to travel the whole world and train 1400 leaders across 10 different i had to travel to 10 different locations people from 46 different countries showed up and we ended up doing a full world tour in 2019 and we trained 1400 leaders across the globe and in that moment in time we were talking about love and culture of love to people from all backgrounds ethnicities ages faiths you know geographies and they all resonated to it and they came to us and said muhammad this story has to be shared with the world you need to write a book you have to write a book so we got inspired to write a book called love as a business strategy and since then we’ve been uh founder founded our new calling and your new purpose which is to bring back humanity to the workplace and um we’ve been just doing that and i’m gracious i’m very grateful for you for being gracious and allowing us to spread our message and our story with the world that is so cool so um does the the training umbrella come under the tech company or do you have two different companies how does this all work together great question so when we first started offering this people were like what is a technology company doing leadership training and it was never people struggle to contemplate wait your website is your technology firm so why the hell are you here um and so ultimately we did um branch branch off a new company called culture plus inspired by espn plus and disney plus call us a little bit of a copycat but we got our trademark so we’re really excited uh and so yeah so we started a company called culture plus which also indicates culture ad because we don’t believe in culture fit we believe in culture ad because people come with diverse perspectives and you add them to your culture you don’t look for having them fit in your culture so we wanted to play on that name yeah so culture plus is the company where we offer culture as a service to help organizations transform and strengthen their cultures and there’s always opportunity to strengthen a culture so we offer leadership experiences to help transform leadership behaviors because we believe leaders create or destroy culture so it starts with them and then we have uh digital tools and technology products with our background we built some products like to measure culture called culture counter and then we also built a pocket coach for helping leaders go through their behavior change in a psychologically safe manner and they’re all on their own journey everybody’s on their own journey so we wanted to do an individualized mobile application that takes them on their journey of behavior transformation and coaches them and holds them accountable and you know we also help a change management and any other initiatives that hr to bring this culture change and make it a sustainable process for the organization to go on their own journey so we partner with them to give them playbooks and help to change management and communication as you help organizations go through their culture change so that’s what we offer as culture as a service and software is still offering technology and communication services that are more studio type creative services together with technology to go hand in hand awesome fantastic well congratulations on such an amazing turnaround and and uh getting into an industry that you didn’t even plan to get into that’s that’s fantastic thank you so i i can assume that along this journey and you already alluded to it a little bit and it’s like hey this isn’t what we were meant to do so share tell us a little bit more about um someone who pushed you or inspired you that you could make this work right this training company and and the impact that that person had on the ultimate success that you’ve been able to achieve so i’ve had multiple people who have been our fans and or like inspired me some of them don’t even know they’ve inspired me some of them have directly been involved i would say the biggest

attributed credit i would give to is the employees of software i was the team members was my co-workers because they were willing to hold me accountable they were willing to give me feedback despite the fear of giving their ceo feedback right and they were also willing to be gracious with me and forgiving of me and so without my team without them standing beside me but also really holding me accountable speaking the truth to power coming in having the courage to give me feedback and say no that was that was not good the way you treated our team yeah that was not the way you should be treating each other and you know i had written this really nasty uh email to my company uh when one day i showed up in the refrigerator was disgustingly dirty and so i wrote a nasty email uh to my employees and everybody was like what the hell is wrong with muhammad and in fact it got circulated outside of software to ex employees and made it to glassdoor as well so you can go read it it’s on glassdoor but i was a horrible ceo in that context i i treated people very unfairly i belittled them i humiliated them i had created a culture of fear where i walked the hallways and it would grow quiet um there were people who would quit once they would converse with me so just kind of gives you an idea of how i treated our team so so a lot of them i had no reason to put up with this yeah but they decided to see me as a human decided to see my human side and they were willing to see past my misbehaviors and empathize with me and provide a support system for me to go on my journey a journey of change

and they were willing to forgive me and that was a big deal because without the people of software i don’t think i would ever have even gone through my personal transformation journey let alone help software survive and thrive awesome that is amazing i i just i love how um how humble lee you just described that which which based on how you described yourself in that scenario versus now sharing that story clearly there’s been a tremendous uh transformation in you so congratulations on on allowing yourself to go through that journey and and you know leaning on others to to help you get there thank you so muhammad we know that business success doesn’t happen in isolation so tell us about one of your biggest challenges during the years and a fellow business owner who you know came alongside you and helped you get through that challenge

hmm i would have to say um like you mean as a business owner who is not involved in my business it can be involved yeah just uh just you know there’s different you you so you just mentioned one level of interaction is with your employees so i’m just trying to get a different perspective right of what’s a business owner interaction that you’ve had that has helped you along the way i think our customers right like our customers especially the the cut the stakeholders from that large company unfortunately i can’t name them publicly but they they were there they had witnessed their transformation they knew uh a sense of my behaviors uh but they had they had just seen it as oh that’s normal that’s even how my bosses affected each other so it’s not uncommon to see the softest ceo coming like you know everybody like just perks up sits up straight like they’re like the best performance so but when they saw the transformation and the commitment that i was making to transform

i think the fact that they stood up for us and fought with their senior level vps to fight for getting us to help them with their culture and leadership training was a huge confidence boost for us and for me personally it was flattering but also humbling to see how middle management of this large corporation are willing to put their reputation on the line to have this technology company come and teach their vps and leadership how to behave i mean that takes a lot of like not just courage but willing to risk and trust and empower us to go and be successful so there are quite a few of those middle managers that even till date i’m like so indebted to them for creating the opportunity giving us the encouragement kind of blackmailing me into doing it right but without them pushing us to try something above and beyond our skill sets uh doing something that we had never done before i don’t know if i would have ever found my new purpose a new calling and so i heavily attribute that to them and that’s also a point of time that i learned about what i call the power of empowerment when somebody is able to trust you completely without ever witnessing you do something in the past or a skill set or demonstrating something in the past and them saying no i genuinely trust you i’m confident you’re going to be able to do this but then also be there beside us setting up setting us up for success yeah with that trust they also did everything to make sure we were successful in this endure and including not having anything to eat for lunch exactly i even starve them i starved our largest customers and and still being forgiving yeah right like all of those behaviors all of those those things that they demonstrated towards someone they didn’t really need to yeah um i think made me believe in the power of humanity the power of connection when we see each other despite our differences we’re able to like really care for each other and fight for each other and do things for strangers and you know we’re not blood related or siblings or relatives or just like business counterparts and yeah going out of their way to see us succeed and fight with their leadership to give us an opportunity i think had huge impacts on our organization’s trajectory in terms of going from just being successful but then finding a new purpose new calling to bring back humanity to the workplace which now we’re we have a whole company dedicated for that we’ve written a book for it and we spread it we go around speaking engagements for this and spreading this message to thousands of people and i i mean i i owe that group of individuals wholeheartedly um a lot i’m indebted to them for giving me this opportunity yeah amazing so then let’s get more specific if i asked you to pick three people in your business owner journey that you’re i’m most grateful for being there for your business’s growth who are those three people and how they help you i have to put coach tamar herman in there as one of them i think without his inspiration through his press conference where he introduced me to the concept of culture of love i had heard of love it’s not an uncommon thing but it’s not common to hear that in the workplace or you know we we hear it from the spiritual side or faith side and you know in movies and everything but but having to witness that in a sports team and seeing the success that university houston was able to accomplish because they don’t have talented players they don’t recruit their small university in terms of football and they don’t have five-star players they recruit that people that nobody else wants none of these car five schools want and yet this coach comes in and harnesses high performance to where they went and beat top five teams and top 25 teams they didn’t lose a single top 25 match up and he did that all with players who weren’t considered to be great players and so he built this this high-performing team with resilience and love and care for one another that just the results they went on to be 13-1 that season and won the peach bowl and and he did this with just players that he inherited as he came in this is his rookie head coach here

and so i was so inspired by his message and his action he would kiss all 110 players on their cheek before they entered the stadium for every single game and people thought that was weird

but he did that i want camera and there are pictures you can go look it up he kissed every single player on their cheek all 110 of them i wouldn’t do that during code times but

he did that and he lived it out and he showed them the care and tough love and like he locked him out of the practice room if they didn’t show up by 4 30 a.m like he showed tough love plus the love like he brought it all together yeah and i was inspired by that but i was like i can do this in the workplace i can try this out in the workplace and so i definitely owe him yeah i’ve tried to reach out to him i’ve emailed him but it goes to his assistant when he was at university of texas yeah i’ve tried to find other ways to reach out to him if you look at the book i have a whole page and a half dedicated to him i’m hoping one day he reaches out to me because i want to share with him how his philosophy and the way he led his team has not only changed the course of the life of strangers but saved the company let alone he wrote a book that is inspired by his story and it has impacted thousands of people and i don’t even know if he knows it by the way you’re referencing the book so i just want to show it here for folks here it is everyone thank you all right mom and who’s your second person the second person i would i would have to say that um that the employees of software i don’t have one person but i have a bunch of people who’ve been there through the journey with me so collectively i would say my team my co-authors that are on the book i wanted them to be a part of this book because i didn’t want the book just for my lens i wanted a book from lens of people who were not in the ceo seat and how they saw our journey and how they participate in the journey because i want more people out there to be inspired that you don’t have to be a ceo to see the journey through to transform a culture and to that of love and support so so they on the book my co-authors are a big part of this journey without them i wouldn’t have been able to do this and then the third would be my spiritual mentor he had a lot to do with helping me get through my tough times when things were almost like in desperate times he always told me embrace this this is not your punishment this is your blessing because what you’re gonna learn through this journey is going to help many others in the future so go through this embrace it take the take on the challenges take on the obstacles and the obstacle will become the way for you and and this learning this this these tough times are nothing but a preparation for you to become someone you’re you’re meant to be so embrace it so i think that encouragement that guidance that um that that that um belief in me was a big part of also helping me become more introspective and self-aware but yet also not giving up i love it so um last question here if um not if as you think over the next three to five years uh what are the biggest challenges that you see that you’re gonna face in reaching your business goals and who are the types of people you’re gonna need to help you solve those problems or challenges great question so i’m very very impassioned by the bring back humanity to the workplace vision i want to strive for that i don’t know if i’ll be able to achieve it in my lifetime so you know i i believe i’ve i think we’ve been pretty savvy in putting a business model around it with culture plus and offering services but we’re less um focused on the business goals and more focused on the impact of her vision and so we believe that if we pursue our vision full-heartedly money is going to come and we have proven that so it’s a matter of the impact and the legacy and the change that we want to create and so for us to be successful it’s going to require many more people out there who can become firm believers in the concept of humanity at the workplace can help you achieve business results it’s not a polarized opposite where if you prioritize people you can make profit or if you can if you need to prioritize profit you can’t take care of people we believe that taking care of people is the way to make sustainable long-term profits that are a socially responsible way to do it and so we need to create a movement where more and more people can

aspire to build those type of environments and no matter where they’re located everyone works pretty much for a living working is such a big part an integral part of her life and if we all can aspire to work at places and create environments by us contributing to those environments where we can feel respected included valued do work that has meaning and purpose then we can really create a revolution in the workplace where we change how the corporate world sees the people and operates and treats each other while still achieving meaningful impact to the world to the communities to the societies and make a difference so a small vision of bringing back humanity to the workplace i think is going to make a big change to the world which is much needed and so that’s that’s when we know we will be have we would have been successful but i’m also realistic to know this may not happen in our lifetime or it may but i definitely want to have a part and here’s what i see already is it is happening right so it’s just a matter of that snowball effect right of you know one more organization then one more organization and and so on and so forth so i love the work you’re doing congratulations on on making a difference thank you so it it sounds like based on the folks you’ve mentioned today that you’ve been blessed with some incredible people in your life that have helped along your journey so if they were all here on the show today muhammad what would you want to say to them i am so grateful for them to have grace and forgiveness of me because i know for a fact i have mistreated each and every one of them except coach tom herman because i haven’t had a chance to meet him yet but i would say that um their their their willingness to be gracious forgiving and committed and seeing me as a human who is valuable who makes mistakes and still seeing beyond those mistakes for who i want to be and how i want to be is what i’m forever grateful for them for and um yeah i wouldn’t be able to be who i am without them obviously my family is a big part of it as well so yeah that’s what i would want to share with them and for everyone out there in the world who is looking for a change in their life work life workplace life all of them i would i would want to thank them for even taking a chance on reading our book and trying the things at the workplace that could bring a benefit not just to themselves but the people around them awesome fantastic so muhammad it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today thank you so much for being on the show thank you thank you for having me i truly appreciate it tim to everyone who tuned in thanks for listening to the self-made is a myth show with your host coach tim camsell be sure to help us spread this movement by liking the show and posting about it on your social media and to join our movement go to bmad together.com all right folks that’s a wrap make sure to pay it forward and we’ll see you all next time take care