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7 Questions on Leadership with Mike Fouts

Name: Mike Fouts

Title: Chief Business Officer

Organisation: ShareFile

Mike is responsible globally for the strategy and go to market sales motion for ShareFile. Mike has nearly 30 years of sales, channel and operational management experience in the technology sector, having held various leadership roles regionally, nationally and globally within ShareFile and the Citrix Sales and Services organizations. Prior to ShareFile and Citrix, Fouts held management and leadership positions with a Fortune 500 financial services company and the United States Golf Association. You can follow @TheRealFouts on Twitter for Mike’s random musings on a variety of topics.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Mike's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

I frequently remind my team that communication, much like medicine and the law, is a practice. It's something we practice daily in our personal and professional lives, and as a leader the ability to effectively communicate up, across and down organizations is the most important characteristic of a successful leader. The ability to communicate drives a leaders persona, ability to lead, success or failure, and overall presence and brand.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I came up in the technology industry as a technical resource and systems/sales engineer. I had reached a point in my career where there was a "fork in the road" of either continuing a technical career, or move down the path of leadership. While it was a scary career point to leave behind a skillset that had served me well, I definitely wanted to be more coach than player. Like many leaders, I was fortunate to have a couple of opportunities to prove myself as a new leader, of which I was able to capitalize and parlay into additional roles and responsibilities.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

The day always starts with a chai tea latte and an hour in the morning of reading time. I'm not a super early bird, but I faithfully block the first hour of the morning to read, which is a combination of topics within the tech/software industry, as well as outside of the industry. I always close my morning reading time with Mansion Global from the Wall Street Journal (I enjoy seeing beautiful homes throughout the world).

My week is divided into days, meaning Monday's are 1:1 days with my direct individual leaders. Tuesday is forecast day, Wednesday is staff meeting day, Thursday is our Executive Leadership Meeting day. In between those anchor events, I pack in as many customer and partner conversations as I can, time with the team to ensure I know what's going on within the business and what the buzz is, and I always have a 30-45 minute calendar block each day to handle ad-hoc issues and items that arise.

Friday is much of the same, with the afternoons blocked to clean up any items from the week before heading into the weekend. I make every effort to keep weekends work free as a time to recharge and reset.

My children are now adults (28 and 26) so the evenings are filled with helping them in their careers (my son is in the tech business, my daughter runs her own business), which I absolutely love. I've enjoyed being Dad, coach and mentor as they begin their careers.

I close every day with reading on my iPad. I only read non-fiction, mostly biographies or something business and/or history related.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

As I get a little older, and the workforce of my team gets a little younger, I'm often reminded of a few key things:

- Coaching. As leaders, we have a responsibility to coach and mentor the next generation of leaders.

- Storytelling. Humans learn, absorb and comprehend best by stories. Stories are passed down through generations, and are powerful tools in our communication toolbox. Don't just tell, instead tell a story.

- Delegation. Not for the sake of delegation or to free time on my calendar, but delegation for the purpose of developing the next generation of leader, of having tangible situations where you can coach, guide and mentor the team, and to make sure I have time to play 9 holes of golf on Friday afternoon sometimes (just kidding... not really).

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

American Icon. It's the story of Ford Motor Company and their survival during the financial crisis of the 2008 period. I love the book for the following reasons:

- Leadership lessons as stories. Real stories of the decisions the executive team made, how/why they arrived at those decisions and the fears, doubts and uncertainties they had to accept.

- Accountability. Without accountability at every level, Ford was doomed to fail. The CEO instilled a new culture of accountability that was not based on fear and punishment, but instead viewed as a strength. Any team member, regardless of title or level in the org, was celebrated for critical thinking and solving problems, not just observing problems.

- Courage. It would have been very easy for Ford, like every other auto manufacturer, to simply take the Federal government bailout. They had the courage to inspect their business, build a plan and execute the plan and never take a dollar in bailout money. Spoiler alert: They came out of the financial crisis in better health than any other manufacturer.

- Well written. I read a lot. My pet peeve is books and text that is poorly written, poorly structured or grammatically incorrect. Don't get me going on this topic.....

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Be authentic.

At this point in my career, I have a book full of advice to give a young leader. But for one single piece that will make the biggest impact, be authentic.

I would add that you need to be coachable and forever curious, but most people will overlook many shortcomings if you are an authentic leader. No one is perfect, no one wants to be over sold, so be authentic.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

There are many over the course of more than 30 years, but I'll pick one that younger leaders can apply.

Generally, I have built a career within direct and indirect sales, so I lean towards being someone who enjoys words and the human interaction. I was moving along just fine in my career and the leadership team asked me to take on an additional interim assignment as the global leader of Sales Operations. Sales Operations is definitively not a words role, rather it is exclusively a numbers role that has a very defined box.

I accepted the challenge, which came along with some cool things like living in Europe for a period of time (our children were in college so the timing was perfect and my wife came along), so there was definitely upside.

Here's the lesson and meaningful point of the story: It took me way out of my comfort zone. I had always been a leader who had solid domain expertise within the function(s) that I led. In this role, I had virtually no domain expertise, other than understanding how to do basic math.

Leading a team of seasoned professionals, on an interim basis, when you have no comparable expertise to them is a massive challenge. The lessons that one year taught me were invaluable, and I use them to this day.

You quickly learn to ask probing questions that get to the point of the matter immediately, as you don't have time or bandwidth to become an expert. You learn to solicit input, to debate and make decisions based on empowering people and not 20+ years of experience.

And to my earlier points about being coachable and curious, you learn that even after 20 years, you don't know everything and you have to be curious. And you have to be coachable and be an active listener to be a good leader.

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