David Leichner, CMO of Cybellum, has spent more than 25 years in marketing and sales executive management at companies like Information Builders, Magic Software, Gilat Satellite Networks, BluePhoenix Solutions, and SQream. The CMO Club caught up with him just as he was leaving for the Himalayas – his fourth time trekking in the world’s highest mountain range. We asked him to share his life’s journey, which has taken him around the world and to great personal and professional heights.
The key to a rich and meaningful life
At the heart of my story is my family – both the family I was born into in New York, and the family my wife Sarah and I have built together over the last 30+ years here in Israel. My parents were great role models on what it takes to build a worthy family, for the time that they were with us. But I was orphaned far too young. My mother died when I was 11 years old, and I lost my father when I was 21. When my mother was given a year to live she said her dream was to visit Israel. She wanted to walk the streets of Jerusalem, and she wanted her children to see it too. Somehow my father made it happen, and we spent a month here. That was her way of instilling in her children the bridge between the United States and Israel. It was one of the last gifts she gave us. I have four brothers and sisters, and through the years someone was always here visiting. I came to Israel and stayed. It was through my parents I learned that if you can build a worthy family you’ll have a rich and meaningful life.
I met my wife Sarah in Israel, and it’s here that we started building our life together. We have five children as my parents did. I have one darling granddaughter and another one on the way. We’re so lucky that all of our children and their families are close to us. I get to see my granddaughter almost every week. While our kids are pretty much grown now, when we were a young family, juggling the demands of work and family was very hard. Thankfully, my wife is in the medical profession, and she didn’t have to travel as much for work as I did. Family was always our priority. I would often have to travel to California and all over the world for my job. I would always try to get back home for the weekend, and during the week I would be helping with homework over the phone or doing whatever I could in the evenings, even though I was so far away.
My family has given me my life’s greatest gifts. It’s my foundation. Family is the source of my strength and resilience. Our children are the pride and joy of our lives. They are at the core of who I am.
What the Himalayas give you. And what they demand.
When you decide you’re going to climb up to 5,000+ meters, you need to be both mentally and physically prepared. Like a lot of people, I put on a Corona belly, so to prepare for this trip I’ve been training. I have been doing 3 to 4 hour hikes several times a week in the hills nearby to train. I know my trek will be very physically demanding, but it’s the mental challenges that I think are hardest. The mountains can either really bring you down psychologically, or they can push you forward. When you have parents who die young you can either fall, or you can push onward. All my life I’ve been pushing forward, and I guess that’s part of why I go to the Himalayas.
It also forces you to step back and take the time to reflect on life, and on work. It gives you the space to clear your head. You get out of the rat race and rush hour traffic and into a complete change of scenery. It gives you a fresh perspective. You can really hear silence when you’re trekking up a mountain with your Sherpa and it’s only the two of you and the views. The experience builds your own internal strength. It’s a really focused mental space. I love it because it’s where so many amazing thoughts and ideas form. It’s where really breakthrough creativity can happen.
This trip, I’m going to the highest point I’ve ever been in the Himalayas. While I’ve never dreamed of climbing Everest, I’ll be able to see it from my climb. For me, the summit is not the most important part. Sure, it’s the motivation. But the climb is where I am tested and where I receive the most enduring rewards of these adventures. It’s the journey that is most satisfying for me.
The summit is the motivation, but the climb is where I receive my rewards.
Fortune is sometimes disguised as a disaster
When a situation seems terrible just keep moving forward. My uncle used to tell me this as well. He lived in Lvov, Ukraine before World War II. He would tell the story of how the Russians came in 1939. They identified any Jewish person who was powerful or had some measure of wealth. These people were sent off to Siberia. My uncle was one of them. Everyone thought that those who had been sent to Siberia were sure to die there, including my uncle. A year later the Germans came to Lvov and they killed 100% of the remaining Jewish population there. My uncle survived Siberia and managed to make his way to America. By the time he died, he had built a family and carved out a wonderful life. Being sent to Siberia seemed like the worst thing that could have possibly happened to him at the time. But it ended up being something that saved his life.
I tell my children and anyone I know who is suffering from some kind of huge disappointment or setback not to worry. Things may seem terrible right now, but a couple of years down the road you may look back on this moment and be grateful for it.
I’m an optimist at heart because my life’s circumstances have helped me become one. To be optimistic is to have dealt with enormous disappointment and to have just kept moving forward, believing that tomorrow will be better than today.
When I was newly married with a young child, we moved back to New York so I could go to grad school at night and work during the day. After a long but successful interview process with the electric utility Long Island Lighting, I was very excited to land a new job with a good salary. Just before I was supposed to start working, they went dark. After about a week of my calls being dodged, I finally got a hold of the recruiter. He told me that they had decided to recruit from within. That was a big shock for me. I had brought my wife all the way from Israel to New York. We had a little baby. I wanted a job to support my family during the day. It was a big disappointment, but I just kept moving forward. I started interviewing intensively, and I ultimately got an offer from Information Builders. The salary was half of what I would have made at the utility, but I was happy to have a job so I took it.
Two years later we moved back to Israel. There I saw a posting for a position in Magic Software, and Information Builders was one of their biggest competitors. Magic Software immediately hired me and within four years, I was the VP of Global Marketing. In 2000, we did a $100M secondary exit. Had I gotten the job at the utility all those years ago, I would not have had that career trajectory. There’s no question that a key reason I got the job at Magic Software was because I had worked for their competitor. That big disappointment with Long Island Lighting was actually the beginning of the path that took me into executive management and into my first exit.
Over and over again, the door I wanted to go through was closed, but another one opened and it was all for the best.
Early in my career, I worked at Solomon Brothers and TRW Space and Defense in the networking groups. My undergraduate degree was in computer information systems, not engineering. When I initially moved to Israel I interviewed at the PTT, Bezeq, with the VP of Engineering for a role in her group. She looked at my credentials and said I didn’t belong in her group because I wasn’t an engineer, even though I had 5 years experience in networking. I should be in Marketing, she said. That was my entry into Marketing.
To be optimistic is to have dealt with enormous disappointment and to have just kept moving forward, believing that tomorrow will be better than today.
My most treasured possession
The morning after I didn’t get the job at Long Island Lighting, I found a little note on the table. It was from my wife Sarah. It said: “I prefer to have bread and butter with you than steak by myself.”
I still carry it around. It’s all beat up and tattered, but I’ve had this little piece of paper in my wallet for more than 30 years.
Years later, and after we both progressed forward in our careers, she left me a second note. It was the sequel: “18 years later, if I could choose to have steak with you, I would.”
Always learning, always growing
In graduate school, I was taught business by Professor T.K. Das, but what he really taught us was critical thinking. He came into the classroom the first day and told us that we should read everything outlined in the syllabus because we would be tested on it. But we were going to spend our time together in class using the Wall Street Journal as our textbook. We would learn how to think, strategize, and prepare for all the issues we would handle in our careers by dissecting the business cases that were unfolding in the news day-to-day. We were figuring out the HBR case studies before they were written – when they were still in the newsprint.
I loved learning from luminary thinkers like Professor Das, but I believe we can learn from everyone. At Magic Software in 1998, there was a fellow in QA tech, Shay, who happens to play a mean banjo, and I still love to go watch him play. One day, we had lunch at work, and he asked me why we aren’t doing anything in Linux. It was in the very early days of Linux, and his question surfaced a great insight. In the days and weeks that followed, I explored it further and recognized the opportunity Linux presented for our company. I decided that we were going to go strongly into Linux. Over the next few years, Linux became huge and a big part of our $100M exit was related to our strong Linux strategy. You never know where the best ideas will come from. Often they come several levels down from people who know better than you what the market needs or what’s hot in tech.
To become a seasoned executive, it helps to have great mentors to learn from. When we were preparing for our IPO at Magic Software, I told the Chairman David Assia and the CEO Yaki Dunietz that I’d really like to be involved, because I’d never done a public offering before. So they created the space for me to play a very major role. I helped to build the prospectus. I went on the fundraising roadshow. I learned from them, the lawyers, and the accountants. It was an amazing growth experience for me. I’ve been so fortunate to have had another amazing mentor in Jeffery Starr. These men are luminaries in the Tech sector and David and Yaki are founding fathers of Israeli high tech. I like to joke that I did my undergraduate and master’s degrees in the U.S., but I did my PhD by learning from Jeffery.
Some of my greatest successes have come when I was in a place of empowerment, and I always try to create that space for the people in my organization. It’s so important to believe in your instincts and believe in yourself. And you can’t get that confidence unless you’ve been empowered to run and test your own limits of what you can do.
Back at Magic Software when I was pushing the company into Linux, our VP of R&D said that he would never put out a Linux server version. But I saw the opportunity. So together with my QA guy we did a skunkworks project and we got a Linux server version created on our own.
Empowering your people is what makes them bold and confident. That’s so important to me. Never micromanage. I remember one instance when I worked at Gilat Satellite Networks and we had a big event coming up. The events manager came in to brief me on what I should talk about in the meeting with the CEO. I asked why she wouldn’t be the person talking. She knew all there was to know. She smiled and told me no one had let her do it before. So we go to the meeting and the CEO looks at me and asks what we’re doing at the event. I look at Yael, and she starts talking. She presented and did an amazing job. Of course, I was there to support her and we all had some comments, but when you create an empowered space for your people, that’s really when they do their best work.
It’s so important to let your people run. Let them take risks.
The creative impulse
Creativity is at the very heart of our job. Marketing automation has taken such a center stage in our profession that sometimes the brand building and creative work gets pushed to the background. Sure, metrics are critical, but we can’t forget about the creative piece.
I like asking this interview question: “What’s the most creative campaign you’ve done?” The answer shouldn’t be an email sequence. It needs to be something that can capture the imagination and that leaves an enduring imprint.
When I was at Magic Software, we brought two live penguins to the show floor of Linux World. A penguin is the official brand character of the Linux kernel. We had an igloo. We gave out snow cones. We were taking treasured care of the animals, with expert keepers and handlers making sure the environmental conditions were just right for them. It was just a delightful, memorable experience for our customers at the show that year. And it was an idea that was rooted in creativity.
There’s so much potential at the intersection of education and the tech sector. My life’s accomplishments are living proof of that. I treasure the hours that I get to spend as part of my work as the Chairman of the Israeli Friends and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) to help the next generation try to capture that opportunity. At JCT, we’re educating 20% of all the women in Israel who are studying computer science. We have programs to help new Ethiopian immigrants and ultra-Orthodox students in Jerusalem achieve their first degrees. This work is so important to me. I’m also a mentor for MBA students at Hebrew University and I was previously on the Board of Governors of Shalem College. Education is a path to opportunity, and I love helping young people find new doors to the future and unlock them. I am a firm believer that as marketers, we can and should use our capabilities to help educational institutions and other nonprofits to succeed.