Lessons from a Global CEO
A comprehensive Interview with one of the world's most respected CEOs
Michael Dan - CEO of Brink's
Michael Dan is a CEO Success Story in Turnaround Management
CEO Q: What is your most important professional achievements at your current company?
Michael: Helping to chart a course to ensure the success of the Brink’s organization following The Pittston Company’s failed attempt to sell Brink’s in the 1980s. Fortunately, we were able to improve the company so well that we ended up selling off the assets of The Pittston Company and today, Brink’s is the company left standing.
CEO Q: How did you do that?
Michael: I also believe very strongly in focusing the company, establishing this focus early on was the key to success all these years. When I became president of Brink’s, Incorporated, we were minority owners in just about all of our operations throughout the world, and I wanted Brink’s to take control of it’s own destiny. I developed a strategy to apply new technologies, get control of our insurance, share best practices, and either buy out or sell shared interests, where appropriate, so that we could take hold of and control our future and the destiny of the company. The strategy took six or seven years to execute, but it allowed us to be where we are today.
CEO Q: What was education or prior experience helped you succeed at turning around Brinks?
Michael: Before joining Brink’s, I worked for a small company called Armored Vehicle Builders, Incorporated. I worked there seven or eight years, and assumed the position of president at the age of 27. The company was located in Massachusetts but we sold armored and personal protection vehicles all over the world. This helped me develop a global mindset and helped me understand what it took to be a good general manager—all at a very young age. During this time, the company was in trouble and I had to learn to make payroll every week. I had to learn, very quickly, how to balance sales, marketing, operations, finance, and other aspects of the business. This is what laid a foundation for me and allowed me to have an impact when I came to Brink’s.
CEO Q: What lessons did you learn on your way to becoming a CEO?
Michael: The best lesson I’ve learned on my way to
becoming a CEO is to always do the right thing, no matter what. You
can’t be afraid to drive change as long as the interests of your
employees, customers and company are at the forefront. Don’t be
afraid. You can change and do anything, if you set your mind to it.
Also, I’ve learned that teams win. If you understand where you are,
where you have to go and can get the organization lined up in
support of the direction, the organization—the team—is unstoppable.
CEO Q: What lessons have you learned as a CEO?
Michael: You have to set the tone and strategy, and
stay positive—no matter what. There is always something positive to
be gained, a lesson to be learned, even in big failures. Also,
people are much smarter than we generally give them credit for, and
I try to never forget that.
CEO Q: What are the key success factors for a CEO?
Michael: Trust needs to be given to the people in
your organization, but as a CEO, you have to earn the trust of your
team and you have to do this every day. Also, you have to stay true
to your ethical standards. People either have high ethics and
standards or they don’t. These are lessons we learn early in life
from our families and friends. If someone doesn’t share our high
standards of ethics, there’s no place for them in the company.
CEO Q: What are the key challenges for a CEO?
Michael: Focus. For a CEO, nothing is more valuable than time, and it’s important to understand your priorities so you can know how best to schedule your time and focus on the right things. You have to understand what you can and can’t do with your time.
A CEO must have excellent communication skills. Obviously a CEO’s honesty and integrity must be above and beyond reproach, and you’d better have a lot of empathy for people. People are going to make mistakes; when this happens, my first question is always “did they learn from this?”
Another key challenge for a CEO is stress management. This is a
very stressful job. Many CEOs fail because the stress eats them up
physically and mentally. As a CEO, if you can’t manage the stress,
you’re not going to make it; you will fail.
CEO Q: How did you overcome those challenges?
Michael: I’ve been fortunate. For me, priorities are easy. I’ve always been good at prioritizing and managing my time wisely. As for ethics, I have my parents to thank because it’s probably from them that strong ethics are so well engrained in me. Managing stress, on the other hand, is a learned behavior. You’ve got to be able to take a step back, take a deep breath, and find ways to alleviate stress—ways that work for you. I do yoga and like to hike. I find these activities to be good stress relievers for me because they take me out of my stressful position, both mentally and physically.
CEO Q: How do you manage the relationship with your Board of Directors?
Michael: Total transparency on all issues and open access to the entire management team are key. In today’s environment, which is vastly different from the environment when I first became CEO, there is a creative tension that’s necessary in the boardroom because of liabilities, Sarbanes-Oxley and the regulatory environment that continues to evolve. The only way to successfully handle these challenges is to be totally transparent so that board members have everything they need and want to do their jobs.
Also, it’s important to recognize—and respect—that the board’s duties and responsibilities to the shareholders, as well as their personal liability, are at risk. Questioning and probing is their job; they need to query my decisions and actions to make sure I’ve considered all the angles. I can’t lose this perspective because I need for them to be part of the process.
CEO Q: How do you identify and develop your top performers?
Michael: We have a formal review program that I established when I first took over as CEO of Brink’s. It’s a formal review process whereby we look at all of our top performers, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, their skills and experience, and look at their current job and their next job so we can also determine the skills and/or experience they need. We do this from a succession planning perspective, looking at opportunities for those who are ready now and opportunities for those who will be ready the next three to five years and beyond. The entire process takes a full month of my time each year. I work closely with our head of Human Resources and take the recommendations to our board of directors. The board provides input and gives us perspective based on their own experience or what they see in other companies. Their queries are quite detailed; they want to know how we’re developing our people and the steps we’re taking to address the needs of our people and the company, both now and in the future. We believe this is the most important thing we do because we’re only as good as our people.
CEO Q: What do you look for in your successor?
Michael: I look for a competent leader who is willing to question everything. It is important to have the confidence to review everything that’s already in place and ask questions. My successor must also have ethical standards that are unquestioned. He or she must have a strong work ethic and be willing to travel a lot as this is, after all, a global company.
CEO Q: What advice do you give to rising CEOs?
Michael: Teams win, individuals don’t. When you’re in school, you strive to be the best in your class, or when you join a company as a sales executive, you want to be the best sales executive. But when you become a senior leader, it’s no longer a competition. It’s about them, your team. It’s not about you anymore. CEO’s must understand that, otherwise they won’t be successful.
Also, be yourself. A lot of people forget this and try to emulate
someone else. Don’t do that; just be who you are.
CEO Q: Do you admire another CEO or a leader (current or historical)? Why?
Michael: There are many CEOs and leaders I admire. If I had to pick one, I’d say Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, who’s also a friend. Because he was an entrepreneur who started a company and took it from a small start-up to a global giant. He stayed there through all those evolutions. Most people don’t have the skills to manage a company through that degree of transition and change. Fred has all the traits of a good CEO.
I also admire Bill Gates. He’s obviously successful, but he was also smart enough to know he had to hire professional business managers. Steve Jobs is another leader I admire. He was fired because he couldn’t manage a big company but he came back and achieved incredible success.
CEO Q: Would you say luck has something to do with your success? If yes, how so?
Michael: Yes; I was lucky to be born to great parents. They taught me a lot at a very young age. I believe your ethics and moral compass are formed at an early age, and I’ve been fortunate to have truly great parents.
Also, regardless of the challenges I’ve faced in my career, I’ve
always received support from my bosses. With my personality and
aggressive efforts to do the right thing and get things done, it
could have easily gone the other way; all it would have taken is one
manager to hinder my progress, but I’ve been lucky.
CEO Q: How do you manage organizational politics, and conflicting personalities, interests, and views?
Michael: I believe in managing organizational politics and conflicts head-on. If you see a snake, in this case organizational politics, you have to address it instantly. Otherwise, another snake will crawl into a room, then a third and all of sudden there are snakes everywhere and you feel overwhelmed. Address the problem early and head on.
In my experience, organizational conflict often occurs because
everybody is trying to get their jobs done and they mean well, but
they don’t always appreciate the job challenges others in the
organization face. Everyone has a job to do but that doesn’t mean
they understand what their coworkers do or their needs. I believe
that, if people understand and respect other people’s jobs and their
needs, you can resolve 90% of conflict situations. You have to want
to resolve conflict, though, and that’s where communication and
emotional intellect come in to play. If you’re not emotionally
intelligent or aren’t a strong communicator, you’re not going to be
able to deal with organizational conflict, or you may even cause
CEO Q: How do you balance and manage various stakeholders’ interests?
Michael: You start by always doing the right thing.
If you do the right thing—what’s best for the company, what’s best
for customers, and what’s best for employees—the numbers will take
care of themselves. If you do the right thing, the stakeholders,
including the communities in which we operate, will benefit and
you’ll have the resources you need to make sure everyone is
satisfied. In the event you have to take action that appears, in the
short time, to be disadvantageous to a stakeholder, you have to be
able to explain what you’re doing and why it’s important. That’s
where emotional intellect and communication skills come into play.
You’ll find that when you explain things rationally and clearly,
people will give you the benefit of the doubt, and when you’re
successful or if you’re on the wrong path and make the necessary
corrections, they’ll trust you more and appreciate your ability and
willingness to make the tough calls.
CEO Q: How do you describe your leadership style?
Michael: I am direct; I am hands-on. I cannot get enough information—ever. I read company reports from every country, every sales person. I did that for Brink’s Home Security and BAX when those companies were under the Brink’s umbrella. Information gives me perspective. When I visit the field, armed with information, I can make sure that what I’m hearing and seeing supports what I’ve been reading. It allows me to give our managers new perspective and valuable insight to help them deal with personnel issues, operational problems, or other challenges. At this point in my career, I’m almost like a professor, trying to transfer all my knowledge to the senior managers of this company.
CEO Q: How do you compete in a global business environment?
Michael: You have to read; you have to do your homework. I watch for trends so I can anticipate changes and know how to maintain our discipline in the face of external pressures. I travel a lot, too. I visit with government officials, with customers, and with employees. I belong to the Business Roundtable, where I’m able to interact with other CEOs. All of this is like going to school, it’s an education I can apply to our business and to our company, and to help our leaders understand the global dynamics of our business and strategic direction.
CEO Q: How do you compete in a recession?
Michael: You batten down the hatches. Fortunately we have a strong balance sheet and a company that is less affected than many in a recession. We get after expenses and communicate with employees so they know what we’re doing and why. The recession will end and we want to come out of it a stronger, leaner company with more leverage.
CEO Q: How do you see the future of the US economy and your industry?
Michael: I believe the U.S. economy is going to be very difficult for the next three to five years. The economy will recover but, unfortunately, the job market isn’t going to recover as quickly because many jobs have been lost and it will take years before those jobs transition into other industries. It’s going to be painful. The government is broke so the amount of support, the safety net, is going to be severely strained.
For our industry, in the U.S., our base industry is shrinking as banks pull back, close branches and reduce ATM servicing needs. But there are new lines of business that will enable Brink’s to continue to be the leader in our industry. The rest of the industry has been consolidating around us for the past 15 years and there’s not much consolidation left to go. Our competitors’ performance, however, is drastically trailing ours and I believe they’ll have a tough time making the technology investments that we have and developing the solutions they need to differentiate themselves as we have.
CEO Q: What advice would you give the US policy makers to help the economy and your business?
Michael: They ought to start by adopting Sarbanes-Oxley as we have, and they need greater fiscal discipline. They also need to understand how business works.
CEO Q: Can you please share any life or personal lessons that other CEOs might relate to?
Michael: The most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t be a CEO and not make mistakes. What you have to do is recognize the mistake—publicly—and fix it. The sooner you do it, the better.
CEO Q: Can you share with us a CEO humor?
Michael: A new CEO is given three envelopes,
numbered 1, 2 and 3, by his predecessor and told to open them in the
event of disaster or financial crisis. When the first disaster
occurs, the new CEO opens the first envelope and it says “blame your
predecessor”. A year later, a second disaster occurs and the CEO
opens the second envelope and reads, “blame the environment”. When
the third disaster strikes, the CEO opens the envelope and reads,
“prepare three envelopes.”
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