Authenticity — I have seen this a few, rare times, most notably from Captain Ashliman, but it never ceases to impress me in how much an authentic leader, living her or his life on the public stage, can motivate others to follow. That authenticity leads to trust and that trust is the essential ingredient to leadership.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Smith.
Mike Smith is the CEO and co-founder of Aclymate, a Denver-based climate-tech startup building carbon accounting and offsetting software for small and medium-sized businesses to identify, reduce, offset, and report their impact on the climate. Previously, Mike founded RenewWest, where he developed the largest carbon reforestation project in U.S. history, the two million tree Collins-Modoc Project. He is a former US Navy FA-18 pilot with 354 carrier-arrested landings across three deployments, ultimately attaining the rank of Commander. As a 2002 honors graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Mike holds a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering with a minor-equivalent in Political Science, both with an environmental focus. He is the happily married father of two and in his free time, he enjoys backpacking, skiing, reading, and sailing.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
We just came through a difficult fundraising period where we went out and did all of the things that we were supposed to — the fancy slide deck, getting the warm introductions to investors, giving pitches with every word tailored and vetted. The works. And we nearly went under for lack of funding. It was incredibly stressful to see the end of the runway and know that we were about to lay off everyone and likely shut the company down. It was especially frustrating because we thought we had a company that checked all of the boxes — software as a service to businesses in the suddenly very-investable climate sector. But it didn’t matter. That despite the proud boasts that venture capitalists bet on the jockey and not the horse, they were not investing in us. So in addition the stress of watching the company running out cash, I also had some big feelings of inadequacy.
We ended up getting funded from some amazing investors who did believe in me and what we were doing, but they didn’t need the choreographed pitch. They didn’t need the fancy deck. They believed in me and saw the opportunity we saw. So, the thing I’m working on now is to rewrite the rules. Or maybe to ignore them all together. We learned that for a certain class of investor, they say that they want the pitch and they bet on the founders, but what they really want are the numbers. And if you have the numbers, their rules don’t matter. That the rules they create are, in many ways, an arbitrary system they create to justify to themselves why they turn down so many great leaders of promising companies. And now I’m building the company I want to build. That because I’m the CEO and I have a great partner as a co-founder, we make our own rules. And that we will win or lose on our own terms and our worth will be defined by the solutions we provide our customers, the team we build, and our own sense of self-worth. It is very freeing.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
Without a doubt, the single best leader I have ever known is Captain Monty Ashliman and who was one of my commanding officers when I was a pilot in the Navy. He has such an enthusiasm for the Navy and flying fighters that from anyone else would have felt a bit cheesy or overdone, but from him, it only built your own enthusiasm for both. This was most clearly manifested in his deep and sincere interest in the life and well-being of each of the 250+ people that were under his command. The Navy can be a very hierarchical organization, but everyone from the junior-most sailor to his second-in-command knew that they could approach him, he cared about them, and that they wanted to live up to his expectations. He made a very vertical organization flat and drove it to being recognized several times as the best fighter squadron in the Pacific Fleet.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
My biggest mistake has always been a sense that hard work is enough. It is often essential, but usually a problem isn’t solved by changing your level of effort, but instead by changing how you go about it. Intelligent people are often convinced of their ability to think. But changing mental frameworks often requires experience, not just intelligence, and that is hard won. What I learned is that advisors should not be just when needed, but a regularly scheduled meeting. You will never lack for things to talk about, and you can shortcut the need for developing experience by relying upon theirs. It will accelerate the pace by which you learn and think.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
When I was younger, I felt that the job of being a leader was about creating structure, order, and schedules. I thought that leadership was about being the brain of an organization and that subordinates were the body. Frankly, it was an immature and overly ordered view of how humans actually think, live, and work. Moreover, it is inefficient. Giving people the authority and the responsibility to use their full suite of talents takes the emotional maturity to let go of control. Now, I understand that leadership is about example setting, employee empowerment, communicating company culture and mission, and creating expectations.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
I stopped managing the time of my team. If I hired well and empower my employees to make decisions, why should I dictate things like work hours or vacation time? When I thought about it, it’s pretty patronizing and it undercuts my faith in them. That is not to say I do not care or have checked out — I want to know because it shows I care about them as people and it helps me keep track of broader production concerns, but it is not the time they are working as much as the projects they are completing.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
Deadlines are important. Startups win because we’re nimble and can move faster, so it doesn’t matter at a company nor individual level what is being worked on, but what is being completed. This can be a challenge, because empowering employees means having them set the steps and encouraging them to maintain a sense of urgency. But once they and I have committed to it, the work needs to do get done.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
One of the things I think we do well here at Aclymate is to hire the person for their potential instead of their credential, and this is something I learned most intimately during my time as an officer in the US Navy but continue to be proven right about throughout my life.
We are very fortunate to have a huge number of applicants apply for every position we’ve hired for, despite the meager pay. I attribute this opportunity to a variety of factors — working in a mission-driven company, the opportunity to promote quickly in the startup sector, and our explicit statement that we run a blind-hiring process that leans heavily upon skills assessments. It is this last component which I think is something special about Aclymate — we care very little about whether someone went to an Ivy League or even college at all and when we do, it is sometimes to put them at a disadvantage. One recent hire was picked over a higher-credentialed candidate with a similar skills assessment because our hire had demonstrated the ability to learn and get much done while critically under-resourced. What better test is there for working in a time and cash constrained startup?
This focus on skills over credentials was very intentional — we deliberately set it into our company culture from the very beginning — and I encouraged this culture based upon my experience in the Navy. The United States military recruits from across the entirety of the US population. The work can be thrilling and dangerous and dull and fun all at the same time, so the military hires all comers with no experience requirements and only some very minimal academic requirements. This would not seem to be a recipe for creating the most effective military in the world, but it works. The armed forces routinely give young, minimally-credentialled individuals incredible life-and-death decision-making authority in fast-paced, limited-information, high-complexity situations. And these people perform wherever and whenever they are called on. It has become so routine that the US military will get the job done, we forget who incredible some of the things we ask the people who comprise it to do.
So put talent over credentials. People come from different backgrounds, some of which create unfair advantages when it comes to the attainment of credentials. And you will be blown away by all the diamonds you find in the rough.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Avoid the temptation of control, remember that you were selected for a reason, and that failure is only permanent if you let it be. But most of all, never stop learning. You are at the beginning of your leadership journey and not the end.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?
- Authenticity — I have seen this a few, rare times, most notably from Captain Ashliman, but it never ceases to impress me in how much an authentic leader, living her or his life on the public stage, can motivate others to follow. That authenticity leads to trust and that trust is the essential ingredient to leadership.
- Integrity — The second half of the equation for trust is one of integrity. Humans have a deep, emotional antipathy to things being unfair and to dishonesty. As leaders, we make asks of others that require sacrifice, from mundane things like focusing on finishing an indoor work task on a beautiful day, to more substantial things like traveling during family events. Even a hint of dishonesty or crookedness will lead to resentment and will give you a label you don’t want. Plus, I’m constantly reminded how doing the right thing isn’t just the moral thing, it generally is the profitable thing in the end.
- Mission — I’ve seen organizations that have a defined mission and I’ve seen those without, and without fail, the ones with a mission outperform. Humans want to follow leaders, but they want to tell themselves a story about how they are part of something bigger than personalities. This is borne out in data, too. A Cone Communication survey showed that 55% of Americans will take a pay cut to work for a company with a quality mission and 78% will work longer hours if they feel fulfilled in their work.
- Balance — Just because you can drive employees of a mission-first company harder doesn’t mean you should. Human beings need fulfillment, but that search for self-actualization rests atop the pyramid of other needs that Maslow defined in his hierarchy, and most of those needs require humans to rest, to deal with the necessities of life, and to connect with the ones they love. In a mission-driven company, you will have to encourage your employees to care for themselves, so don’t fear being taken advantage of.
- Intentionality — The job of a leader is to give direction. Even in flat organizations where leadership is more implicit and less commanding, failure to provide direction will cause drift or disfunction. This comes down to even the words you choose. Careless words will land with importance you may not intend. So be intentional.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
I love that quote! It also reminds me of this line from Rudyard Kipling’s If, that to be the person you want to be, you should “…fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” It’s really a great poem, encouraging one to “walk with crowds and keep your virtue or walk with kings nor lose the common touch” and to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors the same.”
On a practical side, I try to fill my days to the point of earning my rest in the evening. To be intentional about using the time I have in my life. My calendar is very full. But in a bigger sense, I try to be intentional about who I want to be as a person, what example I want to be for my children and my friends, and to embody the concepts around memento mori. That can be big, heavy stuff, but it plays out in a basic and more tangible way — fill your days with meaningful work. Doing so will get you 75% of the way there on the bigger stuff.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I want to be remembered as a fundamentally decent person that helped the people I worked with to achieve the impact they want to have on the world. That if they think of me years later, they do so with a smile.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
First, I would love to help everyone reading in dealing with their impact upon the climate. To do so, head to Aclymate.com and you can sign up for an account or book a demo. You can also email [email protected].
Second, if you want to follow me on LinkedIn, that is where you’ll see me post most about leadership, climate, and the occasion photo of my dog in the office. I also will post more personal and climate related material on Mastodon (handle: @[email protected])
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!