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Mike Armistead: “One way to get to those mini-successes is to listen a lot”

One way to get to those mini-successes is to listen a lot, listening for the root cause or ground truth rather than what’s being said on the surface. if you can get to that root, then you usually know how to help move the ball forward. You have to put ego aside because that ego […]

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One way to get to those mini-successes is to listen a lot, listening for the root cause or ground truth rather than what’s being said on the surface. if you can get to that root, then you usually know how to help move the ball forward. You have to put ego aside because that ego can prevent you from listening well. For the longest time, people told me I was a nice guy and that it was going to hold me back. But because I didn’t have a lot of ego to get in the way, it worked to my advantage. I really listen to my team and learn from them.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Armistead. He is co-founder and CEO of Respond Software, a Silicon Valley-based software company that brings artificial intelligence (AI)-based products to cybersecurity teams to help them more effectively defend their enterprise. Mike is a serial entrepreneur with multiple successful exits, including Pure Software’s IPO and Fortify Software’s acquisition by HP.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

This is the fifth startup I’ve been involved in. I didn’t start all of them, but I was in early with all of them. I enjoy working in small companies. There is a challenge to create something from nothing, and not everyone gets to experience that. My career path has always had an element of serendipity about meeting people and where the market was. I got involved with Respond Software because it was a shot at a huge idea. I thought we could make a gigantic difference. Otherwise, I would have just consulted and been semi-retired. But this opportunity was compelling, so I went for it.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

When the company was small, the staff was geographically distributed. That slowed down the decision-making process because certain conversations that automatically happen when you were all in the same office didn’t happen or took longer to happen. The lesson here is you have to work harder to have effective communication. You have to over-communicate and not keep things to yourself. You also have to bring everyone together regularly, too, whether that’s weekly company meetings or more informal gatherings. I’d never do this distributed staff set-up again, but we made it work.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Success is a journey. It’s a series of mini-successes rather than one shining moment. Being involved in the startup world for so long, I saw a lot of people think the ultimate success was getting a big round of funding, but it doesn’t end there.

One way to get to those mini-successes is to listen a lot, listening for the root cause or ground truth rather than what’s being said on the surface. if you can get to that root, then you usually know how to help move the ball forward. You have to put ego aside because that ego can prevent you from listening well. For the longest time, people told me I was a nice guy and that it was going to hold me back. But because I didn’t have a lot of ego to get in the way, it worked to my advantage. I really listen to my team and learn from them.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

One: Something I’ve learned from my current board is that the market gives you permission to grow. Not your investors, not your own thinking — the market. It’s changed how I think about how to use the resources and what to spend money on.

Two: It used to be that you had one boss; you now have several bosses. And this is very different because they don’t think the same. When you have just one manager, you know how to manage that person, too. When you have multiple bosses, you really have to put a focus on these relationships and make sure you’re managing them well. My first time around as a CEO, I did not do that, and it was not good.

Three: You really need to put the appropriate amount of time and focus and energy into managing and leveraging the board, because they’re strong in some places and weak in others.

Four: Be aware that people will assign motive to you sometimes or assume that you have an ulterior motive for something you do. I once overheard two employees talking about an article I’d posted on social media. They were trying to figure out why I’d posted it, what was behind it. I just thought it was a good article!

Five: Be prepared to use all of the people’s experience that you’ve gained as a manager, every single skill. People are different, and you can’t motivate everyone the exact same way. The CEO isn’t a figurehead; you need to be out there empowering people.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Well, most of us are really not in life-and-death situations, so do not take yourself too seriously. It’s hard when you’re in a leadership position to not think everything reflects back on you. Instead, revel in the learning. Otherwise, you’ll burn out, because this is a hard job. It does isolate you a bit; that’s natural. But if you’re stagnating, you need to look at where you can learn something new. That’s what keeps the job fresh for me, anyway.

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?

I have had the good fortune of working with so many incredible people along the way, it would be hard to narrow down a specific person.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

I want to stay on my feet when I play hockey! I picked up hockey three years ago because I was getting older and I couldn’t play basketball anymore. You get hurt easier as you get older. I’d also like to coach sports again. I’ve coached almost every sport that my kids played, including volleyball, basketball, lacrosse and baseball. So, it’s a dream of mine to coach full-time one day, probably at the high school level.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

Well, it’s along the line of coaching. It’s nice to think that people would remember me for having helped someone else achieve something that was important to them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I think it would be as easy treating others as you want to be treated and influencing kindness.

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