You work for everyone — not the other way around: As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised, as many CEOs are, about the limited amount of freedom and control that comes with being CEO. It’s a myth that once you get to the top and step into the role of CEO, you’ll have full control. It’s important to learn early on in your career, that is not the case. For example, I report to the board and investors and our executive team — I work for all of them. I’m responsible for the stakeholders, particularly the investors, especially as we’re trying to grow in an emerging market.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael DePasquale.
Michael W. DePasquale serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BIO-key International, a New Jersey headquartered developer of advanced biometric security solutions. Mike was appointed Chairman of the company in February 2014 and has served as Chief Executive Officer since January 2003. He brings more than 25 years of extensive executive management, sales and marketing experience to the company and can speak to a variety of topics, including biometrics and the need for multi-factor authentication.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve been in technology my whole career. I started with Digital Equipment Corporation and worked my way up through the organization in sales and marketing. I had an opportunity to make a change and I wound up at McGraw Hill, where I was a Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Publishing Division. That was a dichotomy to technology because publishing and books are the most traditional industry that you could possibly be in.
McGraw Hill needed someone who understood how to use technology to help transform what was a very traditional business. Then I got the entrepreneurial bug and was part of a team that purchased Jostens Learning, along with GE Capital and Bain Partners in 1996. I had a significant background working in large companies and brought that into medium size businesses, which is a big advantage when rebuilding a company. There are things you learn in that environment that are very valuable as an entrepreneur.
Throughout that whole experience, I had an interest in security and found my way to BIO-key in 2003 when they were looking for a CEO. It was my first experience managing a public company. It presents a whole different set of opportunities but also challenges. I call it a blessing and a curse being a small public company. The blessing is access to capital and being able to raise money in the public markets, but the curse is that you have to report your earnings every quarter. You’re under a microscope and in an emerging business that is still episodic that it can be very challenging. That’s the backstory of how I got to BIO-key.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I would say it was believed that the advanced biometric technology developed at BIO-key in the early 2000s would become widely adopted more quickly than it did. After 9/11, there was a brief but significant movement to utilize advanced biometric technologies to thwart terrorist initiatives but the change in process and behavior to do it on a mass level didn’t pan out. It took nearly 10 years for biometrics to be widely accepted by consumers and it started with the fingerprint sensor introduced on the iPhone. The moral of this story is that longevity and staying power are absolutely necessary to achieve your vision and objectives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When we first decided to hold quarterly earnings calls, I put together my thoughts on the current state of the business, markets and outlook for the future in bullet form, thinking I could expand on them in a precise and eloquent manner without a script. Also, we had a live Q&A following my comments. After rambling on about a few items and missing a number of others due to time constraints, I quickly realized that scripting was the right way to deliver the earnings presentation. Live and learn! To this day, I script all of my quarterly calls.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s critical for all businesses to be aware of and actively work to improve race, diversity and inclusion. It is especially important in a global technology business because our goal is to lift everyone up.
There aren’t enough resources to go around to support the businesses that we’re in, especially in security. If we don’t develop people across the board, it’s going to limit our long-term growth and development. Today many technologies, service retail businesses cannot support their growth because they can’t find qualified resources.
We’ve got to lift people across the board. We have to be diverse, across all genres, races, gender and we have to do a better job at it.
BIO-key has been quite diverse from the beginning because we were forced to resource the best people across the country and in some cases, internationally. We’ve been a diverse organization from day one and we plan to do an even better job in the future.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Recruiting, developing, and finding resources that bring diverse perspectives to the company, benefit the company. At the end of the day, none of us have the corner on intellect and understand exactly where we should be going. The future is an unknown. To combat this, we need to keep contacts we’ve worked within the past and actively help to foster their careers when we see talent. I’ve done this in the past — when I previously worked with diverse and extraordinarily talented colleagues, I brought them to BIO-key as employees and in one case as a board member. Those are the kinds of things that we all need to be doing too.
It’s important to bring diversity to the company to genuinely better the organization, rather than forcing it. It has to evolve organically. Trust is very important and I think if people trust each other, that makes it a lot easier.
When diversity programs are forced, it makes them more divisive. Leaders have to make a special effort that highlight the issues they are trying to solve and be open about resourcing them with the best overall candidates keeping the balance of diversity in mind. If it evolves organically, it will have a better long-term impact on the organization and everyone involved. I think we’ll soon see more public companies embracing this.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
That’s a great question. A lot of it depends on the size and type of the organization. In particular, at BIO-key, since it’s a public company and as I mentioned before, it’s a blessing and a curse to lead in a public company.
But I think the CEO is and must be the voice to the investors and the board. The CEO should pass, consolidate and summarize information to the board. That in and of itself, is dramatically different from the other executives in the organization that operate on a functional level. The CEO must also bring together the overall strategic vision for the business and create an environment to achieve that vision.
While other executives participate in the overall process, the CEO is the leader and voice of the company. I used to explain my job by saying that I was responsible for everything. In the early days at BIO-key, we had a in a small office in New Jersey and my job involved everything from cleaning toilets to answering phones to managing the finances and raising tens of millions of dollars. Ultimately, you become the voice of the company to all constituents — that is investors, customers and employees. Communicating visions and strategies in a clear and understandable way is critical to being a good leader.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There’s this myth that at the top of the organization that you have full control and freedom to move in whatever direction you so choose. Well, that’s not the way it works. We all report to someone. In my role, I report to a board and to investors as one constituent group and our executive team as another. They don’t work for me, I work for them! The bottom line is, in order for an organization to be successful, everyone must participate and must contribute. Especially now, in difficult times, everyone must participate in resourcing, not just for our existing positions but also for future positions as we grow and develop the business.
Your time gets allocated to the things that are critical and important. Sometimes it’s crisis management and sometimes it’s strategic but you are as accountable, if not more so, than as anyone in the organization.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
At the end of the day, money, funding and resourcing the company is absolutely critical and probably the number one role and responsibility within the business. That was a dramatically different perspective than what I had. I didn’t realize how much time and energy I would spend doing that versus actually managing the business or focusing on customers.
If you don’t have the financing, then you’re always scrambling and trying to figure out where you’re going to get the next dollar. Then you can’t focus as strategically as you would like. I think that would clearly be an area every CEO truly needs to understand. Being responsible for your stakeholders, and in particular, your investors, is critically important, especially as you’re trying to grow in a developing market.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think first it’s someone who really enjoys communicating at all levels. If you can’t communicate, you can’t attract investors and you can’t attract good people to work with.
It’s important for a successful executive to have a passion not necessarily for the role but for something within that business. It can be a passion for the technology, or for developing people or for leading or finance. Whatever it is, you have to have a passion for that. It’s lonely at the top and it’s very difficult to do this job unless you have a passion for it and you have the ability to communicate.
You also have to be a people person. To some degree, there are a lot of CEOs who are not. I don’t want to say that you can’t be successful in that regard. But I think it’s because of how difficult it is to resource your top positions, you have to be a people person and you have to be able to use your communication skills to attract those people and then to retain them. Those are in my opinion, the most important traits required.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
In order to create a fantastic work culture, you’ve got to have a diverse and deep leadership team. You have to have leaders on that team who have a passion for what they do and they have to be part of the culture. Leaders have to help build the culture and then that filters down to all of the employees.
I think it’s all about setting priorities and then having fun accomplishing your goals. Not every day is a great day. I can’t say that I enjoy every day in this role. But on the other hand, I have more good days than bad days. If I didn’t have more good days than bad days, I’d go off and do something else.
When creating the culture, you have to have an environment that allows people to have more good days than bad days. Because if they don’t, they will move on.
The traditional way of working, from 9–5 with little flexibility, changed last year with the pandemic. The hybrid model of being able to work anywhere, anytime, any place is great.
Creating a new hybrid culture and that keeps people connected is going to be the biggest challenge for any business going forward — large, medium or small. When you poll people and the statistics are out there, 35–45% of the people who wound up working remotely because of the pandemic say they’re not going back to an office full-time.
Cultures are going to change very significantly over time because a culture is everything about the work venue — the work environment, the style of work, how people interact. All of this is going to change. It’s already changing. The companies that will succeed are the ones that can be successful operate in a hybrid venue while keeping people connected enough to feel like they’re part of something greater.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are a lot of things that BIO-key has engaged in through the years that can help the betterment of society.
We’re using biometrics to make things more secure and convenient for people. We recently launched Identity Bound Biometrics (IBB) that uses palm and fingerprint scans to ensure that users who are signing into an application in the cloud or on a mobile device are who they say they are. This helps support handicapped individuals making life easier for them versus having to type in passwords or use tokens or cards. They simply use something they already have and that’s unique to them and them alone.
One of the things that really brings a smile to my face is the way our technology has been able to work with really young children — as young as pre-K and kindergarten age. Fingerprint scans help the children for everyday tasks like logging into school or taking a book out of the library. But they also can be used in the event of some type of a crisis in helping to positively identify them. That’s something that I think is really important.
The work that we’re doing at BIO-key internationally, in particular in Africa, is really critical in helping people out of poverty.
Africa, particularly Nigeria, has been hard hit by the pandemic. The biggest issue facing individuals there is poverty. We have a number of programs in Africa right now, particularly in Nigeria, and are creating one million new jobs for individuals across the country. We’ve created programs in Nigeria that use our Identity Bound Biometrics software and hardware to secure identities all across the country. Identity Bound Biometrics make it easy for people there to verify their identity without documents, just by using their fingerprints or palms. We’ve used biometrics for everything from pensioner benefits and national identity and border security to SIM card registrations and banking and mobile payment solutions.
At a personal level, one of the benefits of being a CEO and in particular, CEO of a public company like BIO-key, is having a public venue where you have a voice. You have the ability to communicate and to share your experiences on a public basis — so I like to use that to the betterment of our industry and that relates down to customers and people and individuals across the globe.
I am also the Vice Chairman of the Industry Association representing the many companies that develop Identity Management and Biometrics Technologies, the “International Biometrics and Identity Association” and have been an active member for nearly 10 years.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You work for everyone — not the other way around: As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised, as many CEOs are, about the limited amount of freedom and control that comes with being CEO. It’s a myth that once you get to the top and step into the role of CEO, you’ll have full control. It’s important to learn early on in your career, that is not the case. For example, I report to the board and investors and our executive team — I work for all of them. I’m responsible for the stakeholders, particularly the investors, especially as we’re trying to grow in an emerging market.
- Communication is essential: It’s absolutely vital to have top-notch communication skills when you’re leading a company. You use communication in everything you do as a CEO — from attracting investors and employees to synthesizing information to present to the board. For example, as the CEO of BIO-key, I’m the voice of the company — and that includes all the constituents — customers, employees and investors. I have to communicate visions and strategies in a clear way.
- As a leader, you’re responsible for the culture: As a CEO, you have to help build the entire culture — and the tone you set will affect every single employee. Set your priorities — but make sure everyone is having fun while accomplishing their goals. You have to make sure your employees are having more good days than bad days in order to keep them. For example, I have more good days than bad days. If I didn’t have more good days than bad days, I’d move on to something else. You have to treat your employees the way you would want to be treated and build a culture that keeps them connected to the greater goals.
- Managing small public companies is a blessing and a curse: In my first experience managing a public company, as CEO of BIO-key, I learned that small companies are an entirely different beast from large companies. The environment of building a public company from the ground up creates unique opportunities — and the flip side of that coin is that it also brings unique challenges. It’s a blessing and a curse to lead in a public company. I’ve learned it’s a blessing to having access to capital and being able to fundraise — but that comes along with the curse of the requirement for quarterly earnings reports and being put under a microscope.
- Things change fast: It’s amazing to me how fast things change, especially in a public venue where you’re reporting out every single quarter to the public and it has a whole different set of challenges. I never expected that to be as challenging and require as much time and energy as it does. I came into this role not really understanding how much of a challenge it would be to work in a quickly evolving environment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’ve spent half of my career in the security space, and in particular in biometrics.
Identity Bound Biometrics is especially interesting to me because it’s really the only way to identify some kind of behavior that’s unique to you and the only way to unique identify you as an individual.
I think that the power of being secure and being able to present yourself without any documents, like a security card or key, is just amazing. That’s what attracted me to this business. That’s what got me here. That’s what keeps me here and that’s the passion I have.
I see a world in 3–5 syears where all we have to do is present ourselves. It may be our face or our fingerprints, our behavior, the way we walk, the way we talk. Any of those things that are definitive ways to positively identify us are going to become mainstream.
All we’ll have to do is present ourselves to be able to do anything and have access to all kinds of social services, retail purchases, healthcare — all of the things that we do on a daily basis. We’ll be able to log onto our computers, networks and be able to access physical infrastructures around the world.
And it’s going to have a profound impact, not only here in the developed world, but think about the impact it’s going to have in the third world, in the undeveloped world, where you haven’t had the communication infrastructure built. We have telephone poles and lines all over here but you don’t have that in the third world. It’s the mobile communication network that’s creating the possibilities there. So, it’s a whole different way of operating and I think it’s going to have a profound impact on the world over the next 5–10 years.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What goes around comes around”, especially as it relates to the way you deal with people both at a personal and business level. Through the years, I was fortunate to have built solid relationships founded in trust with many high-quality people and a number of them have come back to work with me today. This is also very true in my personal life where I have maintained relationships with people from my childhood. You have to work at it and be very diligent to remain connected and you have to treat people the way you expect to be treated.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Elon Musk. I am amazed at his tenacity and will to succeed despite the odds. Like anyone who is wildly successful, he has his faults but the way he is changing the world through technology is incredible.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.