Appreciate that leadership is a privilege. Appreciate the privilege of leadership, which means thinking about it as something that’s bigger than just a job. The challenge with leadership is that you will have good days and you will have bad days, you will have frustrating days, and sometimes it will be hard and lonely. But remember that leadership is a privilege, because you get the chance to impact something bigger than just yourself.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Blair LaCorte.
Blair is an accomplished leader and strategist with a long history of leveraging change management skills to drive operational alignment and growth within companies. He has transformed companies in eight different industries, and has deep functional experience in B2B, Technology, Logistics, and Asset Optimization. Blair is also an astronaut-in-training, and expects to be among the first civilians to visit space in 2022 as a Virgin Galactic astronaut.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, where my stepfather and mother ran an airline, and all of us kids worked in the business, getting up before dawn to clean and prep the planes. It was a true startup: my parents were constantly under stress, trying to make ends meet. I thought there had to be a better way, so I got a business degree and, with time and experimentation across different industries and roles, found a niche helping entrepreneurs put process in place to eschew volatility.
I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed for a job. I’ve kind of fallen into jobs and they’ve all been entrepreneurial. My career journey has been all about being curious and taking risks — trying things that are different and that sometimes make me uncomfortable. I’ve switched industries eight different times, and — while some people would say that’s crazy — I think it’s been advantageous. I’ve been able to add value to companies by bringing people skills and patterns from one industry to another.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My dad used to say, “How you define the problem impacts how you build the solution.” When I was doing my due diligence on AEye, it occurred to me that others were trying to invent laser hardware that captured as much information as possible about their surroundings. We saw a different challenge: creating a solution that perceived the world in movement better than a human. To achieve that, we needed an intelligent solution that captured better information using less data. The focus needed to be on the software.
AEye built and named our IDAR™ (Intelligent Detection and Ranging) platform to stand out from traditional LiDAR solutions. We added “Intelligence” to the name to highlight that we were building a software-driven system that had LiDAR at its core. We worked down from the information the software needed, and then built the hardware to do that.
People often asked how we came up with a different solution, using “active” versus “passive” LiDAR, than the other 85 companies that started around the same time. The answer is as simple as Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute writing down the solution.” We took the time to understand the problem: not collecting photons with a hardware system. Rather, allowing a computer to perceive information like a human in order to make decisions better than a human. That made it clear the solution needed to start with software, and once we made that decision, the path became clear.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There was a point when COVID hit and our facility was shut down and all of our orders were delayed that the problem seemed too large to solve — too many things out of our control. The team sat down and looked first at negative consequences. We decided those consequences were unacceptable, so we framed the situation in terms of what we could control internally. We applied for a manufacturer’s special exception for limited access to our facility; we retrofitted our system for remote testing; we set up a central workstation in the testing lab; we built a web-based remote demo platform based on the Discord gaming platform to conduct interactive, real-time demos for customers and partners all over the world; we asked all employees to take a pay cut, with stock in lieu of their income. In the end, we bought time and found ways to keep moving ahead so, as the external factors improved, we were not at a dead stop. The whole experience brought the team closer, made everyone more committed, and enabled us to focus on what we could control and see results.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
As a youth coach for 15 years, I saw during that time the strength of shared belief that allows teams to rally from a terrible first half. While many look at the progress we made in continuing to build the product during the worst of the pandemic, the real momentum was the culture and team dynamics that we achieved. Learning to run with a 100 pound weight, while helping others carry theirs, accelerated our momentum as we emerged, and the external factors that were out of our control became less oppressive.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In a recent customer win, we asked for feedback. They spent the first third of the conversation talking about the technology, the second third talking about the process, but the last third was the most surprising. They talked about how we treated each other and how we treated them in both good and stressful moments. They admired our team and environment. They said, “we saw the respect and the support your team gave each other, and it made us feel comfortable as your partner that we would receive the same. There will be hard times, and we want to align with a company that actually gets better in crisis, not worse.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I was a trainee, I was offered a job from a former boss who headed up strategy at a large global company. He called and asked if I would leave consulting and help him, as he was taking on a new job in a new industry. I was working on a project for a large oil and gas company, so when he said, “Join me at Sun,” I assumed it was Sun Oil. I remembered the advice my dad had given me many times, that when you have a chance to work with someone you respect, can learn from and will care about you, don’t get hung up on job specifics like title, bonus, or a cool company reputation. Instead, invest in the opportunity and personal growth, and — in the end — that path will lead to success. I said “Yes”, didn’t do any research that weekend, and resigned from my position. When I received the offer letter, (Yes, that’s how it happened before the internet!) much to my surprise it said Sun Microsystems in California. In the end, the job allowed me to learn about technology and it changed my career path. The lesson was that relationships, and having someone who helps you learn, are the real investments that drive opportunity and success.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“Take the cash. You never know what stock will be worth.” The truth is that the only way to create real wealth is to own a piece of something that creates value when you sleep. Sometimes you learn and sometimes you earn, but many times they are not at same time, so my advice would be to pick something you will learn from, take a share of the company, and even if you don’t make a ton of money you will have made the right decision. It will get you to the next thing and you will be happy with your choices. People who think about cash versus stock (i.e. money first) often set themselves up. Many times liquidity and gains are impacted by things far beyond your work, so the sure bet is on where you spend your time. If you are betting with your most important asset, your time, then double down and take the stock, or find something else!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Persistence, resilience and determination. Several times in my career, I could have resigned when I believed unjust things happened — when I was not promoted or when I was l blamed for things not in my control. You have to work through these, as life will never be easy when you are competing for leadership or wealth. Don’t assume you will not learn from the tough days and always assume others will be impacted. It’s OK to set boundaries, but not to use them as an excuse to avoid discomfort.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Because you are successful and people admire that, remember that you are human and ask yourself, “what advice would I give to others in my situation?” Often the best person to know when you are at risk is yourself. Your boss or peers see you as strong, and often you train them not to see weakness. Take responsibility. If you would have told a friend to evaluate if their current track is healthy, be your own best friend and don’t feel weak or guilty to ask for a breather, and then come back to win the game. Feel aware and strong, as no one wants you to break.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Sometimes CEOs or founders in the early stage worry about things like valuation of a company or awards or titles that don’t matter. Those things are a means to an end, but the end you are trying to achieve is making your people better and providing value to your customers or partners. If you focus on those things, the rest will come.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think the pure emotional commitment is underestimated. All challenges lead back to people, ironically, even more so as a company becomes more technical. As you give emotion that builds trust and helps people fight, make sure you also have people around you who give you positive emotion at home and work, and a hobby helps too. It’s been said that “givers who don’t take, brake”, and it’s true — if you stretch an elastic band too long, it loses its resiliency. Be selfish sometimes and find positive emotion — it’s what makes you able to give. One of the most renewable forms of positive emotion is kindness in small moments: it’s easy, has ripple effects and always pays dividends. One of my great friends Dr. James Doty, a renowned neurosurgeon and head of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford, always says that it’s the small things that are not expected, but that are needed, that people remember. A hug can be more powerful than a bonus when used at the right time.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leadership doesn’t mean you spend all your time with people that need you the most. What you’ll find in an organization, just as in a team, is that some people will need more help than others. You can help people up but you can’t hold people up, if you do they never learn to stand on their own.
- Be careful not to get addicted to solving problems. If you are a hard-charger and you’re excited about your job, you may find yourself spending more time giving the answer than pulling the answer out of people. it makes you feel efficient, but — over time — you need your people to only come to you with the problems that really make sense for you to solve. Your job is to teach others to avoid problems or to solve them before they get to you.
- Build a team that is diverse in the way they think and the way they see the world. It’s easy to hire people that you like because they’re comfortable, but remember that you need tension to grow, and if everyone is comfortable, you feel good, but you don’t learn as much. Hire people who are diverse in the way they think and see the world because they’re the people who are going to make you better over time.
- Understand the subtle impact of power. Understand the use of implicit and explicit power, and know that what you say is interpreted differently depending on what position you have. You may work with someone for 10 years, but when you’re their boss and you have the ability to determine how their career path goes, the things you say have to be recalibrated. Think about the words you say, and remember that, as a leader, people will interpret the same thing you say very differently.
- Appreciate that leadership is a privilege. Appreciate the privilege of leadership, which means thinking about it as something that’s bigger than just a job. The challenge with leadership is that you will have good days and you will have bad days, you will have frustrating days, and sometimes it will be hard and lonely. But remember that leadership is a privilege, because you get the chance to impact something bigger than just yourself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One of my great friends, a neurosurgeon and man of science, started an organization to promote kindness and compassion at Stanford. The Dalai Lama visited one day and told him he had the ability, not to teach, but to actually change a person by practicing a simple act of kindness. This in turn would be passed on, and over time create a wave that had the force of nature: human nature. I would like to do the same — start a movement that is so simple and so intuitive that it would manage itself — to create a wave that is a movement, rather than being managed as a movement.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!