“A good CEO must have humility and be driven by a desire to make a difference in the lives of other people”: Lessons in leadership from MindBridge Analytics CEO Eli Fathi
Eli Fathi is currently the CEO of MindBridge Analytics Inc., a provider of human fraud detection platform. He is a serial entrepreneur who has founded or co-founded seven companies, which currently employ over 350 people. In his previous venture, he was the Co-founder and co-CEO of Fluidware Corporation until it was acquired by SurveyMonkey in August 2014. In 2016, Eli received the Algonquin College Alumnus of the year award as well as the Startup Canada Senior Entrepreneur award for Ontario.
I recently spoke with Eli about his lessons in leadership. During our conversation, he shares the best and worst pieces of advice he has ever received, along with his thoughts on what aspiring executives and CEOs need to focus on to be at their best.
Craig: What was one of your earliest leadership roles and what did you learn?
Eli: Because I was born in Israel, I had to serve in the military. You have to learn that leaders eat last. My job was to make sure the troops had what they needed before I got what I needed. That was a powerful lesson and one I have applied in every business I have started. I feel it’s a philosophy that has served me very well.
Craig: What was a defining leadership moment for you?
Eli: While I was working in my third startup where I was the founder and CEO. It is there that it hit me that I was the one responsible for the livelihood of our people.
Craig: Did you always want to be the CEO?
Eli: No. The CEO title is not the most important thing for me. I want to solve problems and make things happen, and happen fast. To do that, I need to be in a position of authority where I can influence things in a more significant way.
Craig: What’s one of your favorite leadership practices?
Eli: Management by walking around. I talk continuously to people. I hold business review meetings each quarter and we regularly hold ‘all hands-on deck’ meetings. I encourage people to ask questions. I also don’t wait for them to come to me. I go to them and ask questions.
Craig: What advice would you have for people aspiring to be a CEO?
Eli: If all you desire is to make money and have total control, it’s the wrong place to be. I believe a good CEO must have humility and be driven by a desire to make a difference in the lives of other people. The best CEOs are ‘eyes on, hands off.’ Don’t micro-manage. Let your people develop.
Craig: Why do you think some executives micro-manage?
Eli: Lack of trust. If you don't trust your people, you will micro-manage. In my opinion, you either give people full authority or you need to fire them, but you cannot micro-manage them. They do, and should know, the operations better than you do, as they're running the operations day to day.
Also, if you develop the right plan, there’s no need to micro-manage because you are consistently hitting your milestones.
Craig: How do you set up the right plan to ensure that happens?
Eli: You set up Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). I think the main problem is that many CEOs measure activity rather than results. For example, measuring activity is going fishing for two hours. Measuring results is catching two fish. Both are related to fishing. If you measure results through your KPIs, then you know exactly where you stand.
Craig: What’s the best piece of leadership advice you've ever received?
Eli: Be humble. You can catch more interest and support by praising others than you do by beating them up. When you do this, the return will be ten-fold.
Craig: What's the worst piece of leadership advice you received?
Eli: Wing it. I remember when I was going to try that, my mentor thankfully warned me that I was going to lose the respect of everybody in the company if I did that. I was lucky he was there to give this advice beforehand.
Craig: How would you describe your leadership style?
Eli: I consider myself a conductor. My team members are the stars of the show, not me. As an example, at our last board meeting, I had three executives from our company deliver our presentation. Before the meeting, we sat down and I shared what was expected and how to approach it. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted them to get the experience. Second, I wanted to show them that I trusted them and this was a great way to do that.
Craig: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would that be?
Eli: Recognize that sometimes a failure is a part of, and not the end of your plan. Learn from it and continue to push forward. Don’t throw out your entire plan because of one setback.
Craig: What advice would you have for leaders so they can be more effective?
Eli: Three things. Get as much experience as you can. You cannot learn how to drive or swim by reading a book. Second, find mentors. You can learn a lot from their successes and failures. Third, and this does not minimize its importance because of my first point, learn by reading books of successful people. Even though it does not replace experience, you can still gain tremendous insights from doing this.
Craig: What advice would you have for current or aspiring executives?
Eli: Never stop learning and never accept the status quo. You have to challenge it continuously to be successful.
Also, don’t gauge yourself against what others are doing. Don’t emulate exactly what they do and copy their methodology that they have as opposed to creating your own plan. If you only pay attention to your competition, you will go all over the map, which is a sure path to failure.
Craig: Since you sit on various Boards as well, what advice would you have for chief executives who are interacting with them?
Eli: Ask your Board for strategic advice. Challenge them and get them to talk to you. Don’t just show up with a large information dump that they have to read. Second, make sure you manage your board properly. Provide information ahead of time. Don’t wait until the Board meeting to discuss everything. This also allows them to contribute more and you will benefit the most from their insights and guidance.
Craig Dowden (PhD) is president and founder of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Craig delivers evidence-based executive coaching and leadership development training to his clients. You can connect with him by email or LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.