Priya Iyer Leads Tech Like a Conductor

Former Anaqua CEO Priya Iyer believes that serving as an effective, transformational tech exec is like leading a jazz band

Priya Iyer knows firsthand the value of learning from strong leaders. Thanks to the Innovation and Global Leadership program at the MIT Sloan School of Business, Iyer succesfully led intellectual-asset-management and SaaS-solutions company Anaqua for nearly a decade. She loved the program because it brought together a group of people with a tremendous amount of experience.

“It’s a global team with senior leaders from around the world,” she says. “There are so many CEOs in that cohort and a constant stream of preeminent leaders on campus from innovative organizations such as Apple, GE, etc.” Because of its impressive lineup of faculty and experienced classmates, the program instilled an innovation and entrepreneurship mindset in Iyer. “I joined the leadership team of Anaqua directly after completing the program, and Anaqua shares the culture of teamwork, excellence, entrepreneurism, and innovation with the program.”

As a result of her experience, Iyer now teaches in a leadership seminar in the program, host internships at the school, and coaches entrepreneurial groups. She tells her peers that they should think constantly about innovating. “Don’t wait for someone to give you a job description,” she says. “Think what you can do, what you can develop.”

“An innovative team is often versatile and diverse; it’s like music.”

Iyer has applied this philosophy throughout her career, and especially at Anaqua, which she joined as COO in 2005. Anaqua began as an initiative through a collaboration of several IP leaders from Ford Motor Company and British American Tobacco. There was a need for large companies like this to manage the full intellectual-property lifecycle in a way that was efficient, holistic, reliable, and cost-effective. Anaqua was developed as a web-based software package that managed all forms of IP such as trademarks, patents, contracts, and designs, and was launched as a private company in 2004.

Iyer explains that intellectual property and IT occupy a unique space. “We have seen the western world move from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from there to a services economy, and now we are in an intellectual economy,” Iyer says. “During this time there has been a trend to outsource manufacturing and to outsource services. What remains is our ideas and innovativeness—these are our core assets.”

For Iyer, it’s vital for people and companies to protect their innovation. And while she is no longer at the company, Anaqua embodies the idea she established as its COO: companies deserve and need their ideas protected. “Eighty percent of a company’s valuation is tied up in their intangible assets,” Iyer says. “Anaqua helps people spur their innovation and figure out which of those are most important to them.” The company serves a cross-functional role. In addition to helping clients discover and fine tune ways to create value and increase revenue, it also helps them strategize, innovate, and then protect those ideas.

Iyer admits that leadership in a technology-focused company is different from leadership in other types of industries. “Technology is really changing the world, and today it is not just an isolated field,” she says. “It is deeply embedded into every industry: health care, manufacturing, pharma, consumer packaged goods—literally any area you go into.” Technology leaders have to be agile and think outside of the box, envisioning what will be required tomorrow to develop it today.

“It’s about pushing this level of innovation into every area and every industry,” Iyer says. “An innovative team is often versatile and diverse.” As a result, it’s difficult to have a rigid hierarchy when running a tech company. “It’s like music: a symphony orchestra has a conductor standing in front. There are many musicians, but  each has a specific part and the conductor is the central point of control. The performance is highly structured.”

But a tech team can be likened to a jazz band. “They’re listening to each other and innovating on the spot, and there are many things happening on that floor, often for the first time,” she says. “It is a constant state of innovation, each musician feeding off of the others.”

While she can see the artistry, Iyer also grasps the technical side. In addition to an MBA from Sloan, she has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science and engineering. “My engineering background is great for tackling hard, complex problems in today’s business world,” Iyer says. “Figuring out the data you need, analyzing it, and making decisions and explaining those decisions to others is a nicely-structured process.”

Iyer believes her business degree is also vital. “It gives you that cross functional view across finance, sales, and marketing combined with macroeconomics—what’s happening in global markets—and helps you clearly explain strategy and why and how it is different,” she says.

Iyer views the task of a leader within a company as charting a path in open waters and enabling the team to smoothly travel through it, improving everything along the way. “You have to lead your organization not in isolation but in the ecosystem in which you play,” Iyer says. “You have to always be ambidextrous—thinking about the details of your internal organization but always paying attention to the changing external environment. Even when a company has a great team that is innovative and empowered, you need to make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction and with the wind. That is the critical role of the leader.”