Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Mike: I spend most of my spare time in the Midwest away from Silicon Beach and the insanity of LA culture to unwind and connect with a completely different world. Don’t get me wrong, I love LA, but I’m completely mid-west at heart.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Mike: My dad was my role model growing up. He had this gigantic work ethic, so it’s always been instilled in me to work hard and never give up. I would say it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a complete unbridled relentlessness that still burns hot today, which is a tremendous force for good, but it’s also somewhat a burden to have that sense of getting ahead all the time.
In high school, I never followed the rules. I majored in fun for the first 18 years of my life. There wasn’t a day that passed that wasn’t a blast. I never did one minute of homework. But in college, everything changed. It was time to turn the corner. I joined or ran a lot of organizations at Michigan State and worked really hard. A month before I graduated, I landed a job at Y&R in L.A. and the rest is history.
It hasn’t been a perfect ride, but every painful setback I’ve gone through in my career has allowed me to reimagine my role in this industry and more importantly, our offering as an agency.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Mike: Be nice and smart. If you’re smart and an asshole, it’s not a lasting proposition. But if you’re smart and nice, you’re going to do really well. There are a thousand little things about someone that makes them a leader – not one thing. Qualities like treating everyone like a boss knowing that someday they could be. Being honest when something goes sideways and not burying problems. Giving honest feedback and saying the things that sometimes people don’t want to hear. Not trying to be the smartest person in the room.
As a leader, get out of the way of your talent. I will freely and happily admit that our success was built on hundreds and hundreds of people that are way more talented than me. Leadership is about setting a course free of fear. Saying yes to everything you can, then just figuring out how to get shit done.
Adam: What are your best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Mike: Luck favors the brave. Anything can be done, but you have to be brave. When we built out Steelhead in 2017, the 50,000 square foot, 130-person production company, there were no guarantees that spending millions of dollars to build a production studio was going to pay off. But already in 10 months, we’ve shot TV shows, recorded albums, hosted conferences and concerts and now it’s booked 4 days out of the week. If we hadn’t done this, nothing would have happened. And now we’re designing a big part of our agency’s offering around it. Be afraid of not taking risks.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Mike: Find ways to say yes. A clerk can say no. But if you find ways to say yes, it will always, eventually, lead to something great.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Mike: Spend time with people who are new in their careers, whether it’s going back to your alma mater or sitting with interns or having one-on-one chats with someone who needs advice. I love doing that.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Mike: I have a long list of things that I do outside of this place. I like boating, bicycling, flying, playing guitar, riding motorcycles and working with my hands and building things. It’s a way to keep my battery charged in an extremely voltage-depleting business.
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