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Learn more about Stephens, agent channel chief for the managed cloud computing vendor.

Kelly Teal

October 8, 2020

9 Min Read
Top Gun 51 Profile: Rackspace's Michael Stephens: ‘We Have Come a Long Way During My Tenure’

Michael Stephens came to Rackspace Technology in 2016 after a 20-year stint at CenturyLink. Those two decades on the network side have greatly informed Stephens’ experience and ethos over at the managed cloud computing provider. And as agent channel chief, Stephens has been integral to the partner experience; his peers know him as an advocate for the indirect channel.

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Rackspace’s Michael Stephens

That’s why Stephens secured a 2020 Top Gun 51 award. Introduced last year, the Top Gun 51 recognizes premier leaders in the indirect IT and telecom channel. The criteria includes advocacy for the channel and commitment to partners’ business success. There’s also dedication to earning the channel’s trust. We solicited input from distributors, master agents and analysts to compile our Top Gun 51 for 2020.

“I value the channel because of my personal interactions and relationships,” Stephens says. “I personally have an extended network of mentors in this channel that I will always work tirelessly for to help create success on behalf of. So I am invested both professionally and personally — and that is why I value the channel so much.”

Thanks in large part to Stephens, Rackspace has a lot in store for partners through the rest of this year and into 2021.

“We are excited for the future,” he says.

As a teaser, look for even more education and certification programs in the works for next year, surrounded by what Stephens calls “very compelling incentives.”

In this Q&A, lightly edited for clarity, learn more about what motivates Stephens, his philosophy on leadership, how he’s handling new COVID-19 norms and why he plans to stay in the channel for the rest of his career.

Channel Futures: How did you first become involved in the channel? Was it part of your overall career plan?

Michael Stephens: I had an interesting path to channel. At a tier 1 telco, I was a leader in the operations organization running a team that included sales support, order entry, billing, collections and account management for business markets. At the time, our channel chief asked me to come meet his advisory council. This partner advisory council was a cross-section of the channel’s top leaders, and they gave me great feedback on what we did well and where we could improve. From there, every six months I returned to the readout on what improvement plans I implemented based on their feedback and the associated results.

This became an iterative process. It helped me grow as a leader, improve the business and ultimately grow our partner relationships. We did this through a proven track record to listen, align with and deliver for our channel partners. During this process, I realized without knowing it that I had found a home where I wanted to reside for the rest of my career.

CF: Have you been responsible for building channel programs from the ground up? If so, where did you first start and how has the experience lent itself to your time at Rackspace Technology?

MS: During my tenure at the previous company, for a period of time I was responsible for process design and tools implementation. I had the opportunity to hone my skills around defining need, measuring results with analysis and then improving performance through modification. This analytical approach has been invaluable to me in all roles since that time. Since joining Rackspace, these very skills continue to contribute. We immediately defined our mission, where we wanted to go and …

… who we wanted to be from a channel program perspective. While building a world-class team on an inspiring mission, we started building a fanatical channel ecosystem. This ecosystem of priority, high-propensity partners is now a significant driver to our channel program and its associated growth.

CF: What main channel goals have you accomplished during your Rackspace Technology tenure so far?

MS: We have come a long way during my tenure and could not be more proud of the channel team and all the extended team members who lean in and contribute day in and day out. The first goal was to create a winning team. We have a very selective process to ensure each leader we add is a perfect fit for the employees themselves, the Rackspace team, and also our channel and partner culture. We all needed to align on skill, will and attitude. And while we are always evolving, we have created quite a channel family that we believe is a desired destination of talent.

A second channel goal was to achieve deep relationships with the top partners in the channel. We can’t be successful if our partners aren’t front and center for everything we do. Every day we work to create a fanatical and inviting experience when aligning and selling with Rackspace Technology. These two goals all contribute to our final objective, which is, of course, to drive profitable growth for Rackspace

CF: What makes a channel program successful, and why?

MS: A successful channel program must put partners front and center. Each and every day, we work to make the interactions and experiences with the Rackspace Technology channel a positive one. You can have great products, but if you don’t align internal culture, focus and processes to be partner-focused, then the program will ultimately underperform or even fail. Success feeds success with this channel. Align well with partners, establish trust, make the partner successful in selling and supporting their customers, and growth will follow. This channel has proven countless times that with changes in industries, supplier programs, technology and business needs, relationships matter and partners will always win in the market.

CF: What is your philosophy on leadership?

MS: Team is everything. Take responsibility and do what you say you are going to do. Lead with empathy and the more you serve others, the more likely success will follow, in my experience. Lastly, I try to focus on recognition. Every opportunity taken to recognize a job well done is so important. Positivity is infectious and people like to know their contributions are appreciated and contribute to the team or company goals.

CF: What led you to that philosophy?

MS: Early in my career, I was very driven on results at any cost. I was able to deliver on my word, which has always been important to me. But one day pretty early on, a mentor of mine at the time asked me a question: “How much fun are you to work for and with?” It was a shock to think about the fact that I probably had been misplaying my journey to success up until that point. Ever since that day, I have tried to lead with empathy, consider other perspectives and …

… really help in a servant fashion.

CF: COVID-19 has changed so much of how we all work. What have been the biggest impacts so far when it comes to you and your interactions with the channel?

MS: So much of the channel’s history is person to person. The obvious change is the new virtual world in which we live and work. I try to block off time every week to just stay connected with people on the phone or video. It is hard, and there are definitely days I miss being on the road. But I am confident that we will collectively get through this and will be together in person soon.

CF: How have you navigated those changes — and how have partners responded?

MS: One big effort we have undergone at Rackspace Technology is our new virtual immersion sessions. We have been doing deep dives with partners on industry trends, sales skills, success use cases. These sessions have been very well attended and received. Our expertise is one of our biggest value propositions in the multicloud world, and so we love bringing that expertise and knowledge to our relationships in the channel. The enablement practices are solely designed to help our partners grow in this changed world. They are responding by taking leadership roles in selling to a customer’s pain points.

CF: Diversity and the fight against racism have become critical topics for business and the nation. What actions do you see the channel taking to improve the situation?

MS: Diversity has always been a priority to me especially when hiring and building a world-class team. Beyond my own diversity practices, I continue to see more and more diverse teams in the channel and I think that the trend is only making us stronger for ourselves and the end prospects and customers. We all have to lean in and help mentor, hire and align with a diverse group of leaders to help push the boundaries of where we can go in the future.

Channel Partners and Channel Futures commit to fostering an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion in the channel. Thus, we are featuring news articles, first-person accounts and strategies around topics of race, diversity and inclusion to spur discussion of these important subjects. Visit our webpage dedicated to the topic.

CF: Overall, what have you learned most from your experience with the channel and partners?

MS: I have learned that the shadow each of us casts is much bigger than we think. I have learned from our partners to aim high, keep focused and great things can be accomplished for others in this community. That contribution will be something I am ever grateful to be a part of.

CF: What advice would you give someone just starting out in channel leadership?

MS: Spend most of your time building relationships and your network. While you are spending time building that network, keep it positive. Challenges are aplenty, and can slow you and bring you down. If you envision a future of success and you focus on that vision with a positive mindset, anything you set out to achieve is there for the taking.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Teal

Contributing Editor, Channel Futures

Kelly Teal has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist, editor and analyst, with longtime expertise in the indirect channel. She worked on the Channel Partners magazine staff for 11 years. Kelly now is principal of Kreativ Energy LLC.

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