Brandon Sawalich of Starkey: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a CEO
You are constantly managing priorities and cutting out the bureaucracy. In today’s business world, you have to be agile and move with velocity. If you add in new projects and work, you must decide what old projects and work must stop. A CEO or an executive cannot allow focus to be lost on accomplishing our priorities. Ask yourself, “What do we need to keep doing? Stop doing? Start doing?” You want a leadership team that doesn’t build unnecessary layers into the organization. It can slow you down with your customers and decisions and will add more meetings. I always talk about challenging our “because.” I will ask leaders and managers, “Why do we need to do it this way?” The last answer I want to hear is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Challenge yourself and embrace change. You have to make tough decisions and do what is hard, and it starts with keeping the company focused and your priorities clear.
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 Brandon Sawalich.
As President and CEO of Starkey, Brandon Sawalich is pushing the hearing industry to revolutionize hearing healthcare through technological advancements, bold thinking and building high-performing teams — leading the industry into a new decade of innovation.
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 came to Starkey more than 26 years ago as a 19-year-old for a summer job. I haven’t left since. I started in Starkey’s All Make Repair and Earmold Lab. I had the task of cleaning old hearing aids that needed to be repaired. During that first summer, I also helped with our customer educational classes by picking people up from the airport. I also picked up those who were on their way to Starkey for hearing help. Having one-on-one time with famed people like Walter Cronkite, Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller as a teenager just trying to figure out life was incredible. I learned so much from those car rides. It also gave me a look into how hearing aids have the power to transform someone’s life. Walter Cronkite, for example, had extensive hearing loss. Without hearing aids, he couldn’t do the news reports Americans had come to rely on every night. It was seeing the impact that hearing health has that helped me find my life’s passion at 19. I’ve had jobs in nearly every corner of Starkey since that summer, and I have learned, from anyone who will teach me, about the ins and outs of the hearing industry. This is more than a job for me; it’s a purpose. Helping people reconnect back to their worlds is what we do every single day. Now, leading Starkey and the hearing industry into this next evolution is an amazing opportunity, but it comes with an incredible responsibility, too.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I started to lead Starkey, I remember how uncomfortable I was with my title and hearing people I have known for years or new team members call me “Sir.” When I was promoted, I felt I was doing most of the job already, but I quickly recognized that with the title came a new responsibility you feel inside yourself. I take the responsibility of being President and CEO seriously, and I know I represent the team, and they count on me, my words and the direction I set. I was a kid from Southern Illinois who enjoyed fishing, baseball, July 4th and hanging out with friends. Now, though I am that same person, I’ve had to get used to the expectations of the job, and I quickly understood the decisions and responsibility stopped with me.
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?
When I started at Starkey in 1994, we were a much smaller company. Everyone knew each other and pitched in to help where they could. I was asked to go out to the airport to pick up someone who was coming in to see Bill Austin, the man who established Starkey, and his team about getting new hearing aids. I wasn’t told who I was picking up. I went to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, through security and to the gate to wait for the flight to arrive. I had my laminated Starkey sign, and I waited for someone to approach me. I was 20 years old at the time, so I wasn’t paying much attention, and this gentleman approached me from my right side and said in a distinct voice, “Are you Brandon from Starkey?” I looked over and immediately said, “Yes.” I quickly realized the person I was asked to pick up was ‘The Most Trusted Man in America,’ Walter Cronkite. I was in awe and nervous, but I was also excited because I realized the history and legend standing in front of me. I spent the day with Mr. Cronkite, asking questions about all the U.S. Presidents he’d met, moments in history he covered, the space race, and he told me about the time he almost accepted a news job in Minneapolis over New York. He smiled and said, “I took New York, and it worked out well.” That experience taught me that people are people. I have had the privilege to meet many celebrities, and when it comes to helping them hear better, I remember that they are simply people who need help. I learned from that moment on, no matter if it’s someone local who walks into Starkey needing help or a former U.S. President, we treat all people with respect and ask the same questions regardless of who it is.
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?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentorship of Bill Austin. He established Starkey in 1967, and he has worked tirelessly to revolutionize the hearing industry ever since. He continues to be Starkey’s heart and soul, and he drives us to be better. When I first started, he gave me an important piece of advice: Be the first one in and the last one out. And it wasn’t just his words, Bill lives that motto. I took that piece of advice to heart. People say to work smarter, not harder. When you are working for, and now leading, a company with the purpose of helping the world hear, you have to do both. I work for the people of Starkey; they don’t work for me. My job as President and CEO is to make sure people have the resources and support they need to do their job — whether that’s making million-dollar decisions or grabbing someone a cup of coffee. That’s servant leadership, and that kind of leadership is necessary when you are asking people to make the impossible possible. Starkey is reinventing the hearing aid. We are using artificial intelligence and integrated sensors to make a device that doesn’t only offer the best in hearing technology, but with features like engagement and activity tracking, fall detection and alerts and in-ear, real-time translation of 27 languages, it also helps people live better, healthier lives. The hearing aid is your personal assistant. When you are asking people to completely revolutionize a product to help people around the world, it requires dedication to that higher purpose.
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.
As business leaders, we must set the standard. We have a responsibility to lead by example. At Starkey, we must listen and lead with our hearts. If we create a company that is focused on openness, caring, kindness and helping others, that starts a ripple effect. Our employees then treat our customers with the same respect and kindness. In turn, those customers treat their patients with that same caring. It all comes down to caring. At Starkey, our number one rule is to treat people with respect.
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?
I see my role as setting the vision for the company, communicating our vision and priorities along with instilling the culture and providing the resources employees need to be successful. I represent Starkey, and I work for our employees. I would not ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. Being an executive is not about wielding power and telling people what to do. It is about communicating with transparency, being vulnerable and listening to the team’s needs. I like using the analogy that I am the conductor of a symphony. I’m not required to know how to play every instrument, but I bring all the sections together to create music of impact. I feel the responsibility of each and every employee and their families. I take that responsibility seriously, and I don’t want to let the team down.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
When you’re an executive, others instantly think you have all these people who work for you. The reality is you work for them. Your responsibility is to make sure you bring on the right talent and that you are empowering the teams to do their jobs. Take care of your team, and they will take care of the company. The human potential is limitless. Don’t get caught up in your title. You have to earn it every day from your team.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
One should never have the “It’s not my job” mentality. It’s about doing your job by finding your value to the team as the CEO of the company. You have to know where to step in and redirect, make a decision and move fast. You must trust and empower your people, but I have learned they also look to you for support when you recognize a project, product or a person is spiraling and needs help. It’s a delicate balance between not appearing to micromanage and leading through influence. You must be proactive and know when to give support and recognition, or if something is failing, fail fast and move on.
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?
The self-awareness to know when you need to get out of the way. As a leader, part of your job is to remove yourself. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be involved in the process. It means the process does not revolve around you. Some leaders learn this lesson the hard way, but it’s what separates a boss from a leader. As a leader, you must assemble the right team. We have more than 5,000 employees around the globe at Starkey. Our company moves at the speed of innovation. We can’t do that if I’m micromanaging every step of the way. Put the right people in the right roles and let them do their jobs.
Executives must also be risk takers, and they need to empower their employees to take risks, too. Every one of your employees is an innovator — regardless of their position in the organization. At Starkey, we have a culture that asks, “What if?” When I have people come to me with bold ideas on ways to reinvent the hearing aid, I have to ask, “Why not?” Leaders must be bold thinkers, and they must create an environment where their team is supported to take risks. I always say, “If you fail, fail fast and move on.” Innovation doesn’t happen when we are in our comfort zone. Encourage everyone on your team to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that starts with you.
The most important trait that executives need to have is caring. Business is about people. At the end of the day, culture eats strategy for breakfast. If a leader treats everyone like family — with respect and kindness — their team will feel cared for and will work toward a common purpose.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
You must hire the best talent you can for the role, but a leader must establish core principles that drive and create a culture. I look for attitude first. If this person is a fit for who we are and aligns with our purpose, then I look at their talents. Being in hearing healthcare, we must hire caring people who want to use their talents to help others and to make a difference in people’s lives. Nothing will hinder a department, organization or company more than a toxic environment of people who are in the company for the wrong reasons. I’m not looking for someone who wants to be the MVP but then drives the team to last place. I want a championship team of caring attitudes and diverse talents that makes us lasting and sustainable.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Starkey’s purpose is to connect people to people through better hearing. During the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, many people needed to be better connected to hear what was going on in the world and with their families. In my role, I drive our strategy for better hearing, and our technology is eliminating the stigma of hearing aids. Our success allows us to have a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility by providing the best hearing aids to people who need hearing help but can’t afford it. We have had this caring mindset since the company was founded, and I have the privilege to encourage and support these programs of giving back like we do with our Starkey Cares program and our support of Starkey Hearing Foundation. We have changed lives around the globe for people all through hearing technology.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s not about the title. You earn your title by doing the work. I focus on being part of the team. If a hard decision is needed, then I will make it. But you have to build a following based on trust and care, not a title.
- Invest in yourself. If you want to be better, grow and advance your career, ask yourself what you are doing to invest in you. The company has a responsibility to invest in key training and support, but people need to invest in their own development as well. It starts with you, and if you see an opportunity, jump at it, work hard and don’t look back. No one owes you anything.
- Offices isolate you from our natural desire to collaborate. I have an office, and every day I think about not having one. I can feel isolated from the team, asking questions, learning and building relationships with employees. To many, an office is a status symbol, like a title, but the work is done outside an office by collaborating and learning what’s going on in the company and with your employees and customers. Take breaks, schedule time to walk around your campus and engage with people. You will do a better job for the company and employees.
- Meetings are not the solution for results. Too many meetings and too many people in those meetings can create more churn and indecisiveness and can slow your company down. Meetings must be scheduled with intention. Meetings should be used to gather information, learn and make decisions with the right people in the room who understand the clear purpose and desired outcome of the meeting.
- You are constantly managing priorities and cutting out the bureaucracy. In today’s business world, you have to be agile and move with velocity. If you add in new projects and work, you must decide what old projects and work must stop. A CEO or an executive cannot allow focus to be lost on accomplishing our priorities. Ask yourself, “What do we need to keep doing? Stop doing? Start doing?” You want a leadership team that doesn’t build unnecessary layers into the organization. It can slow you down with your customers and decisions and will add more meetings. I always talk about challenging our “because.” I will ask leaders and managers, “Why do we need to do it this way?” The last answer I want to hear is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Challenge yourself and embrace change. You have to make tough decisions and do what is hard, and it starts with keeping the company focused and your priorities clear.
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.
Something Starkey is already doing is removing the stigma around wearing hearing aids. Today’s hearing aids from Starkey have modern designs and incredible technology. They are not hearing aids you see stereotyped in movies and media from 30 years ago. Think of them as your own personal hearing health and communication devices designed specifically for your ear. On average, people who know they have hearing loss wait seven to ten years to actually treat it. When hearing loss is linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, that delay is alarming. Hearing health is not just a social health issue. It is an overall health and wellness issue.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In my roles at Starkey, I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of great leaders: presidents, accomplished entrepreneurs, thought leaders and trailblazers. Whenever I get the privilege of speaking with one of these great minds, I ask them for their best piece of advice. I’ve received a lot of interesting answers over the years, but I continue to come back to one: “Business starts with how you treat people.” The distinguished leader who shared this advice with me? My grandmother, Pat Manhart.
I’m in the business of helping people hear better and providing exceptional customer service. You have to care about what you do and hire people who want to accomplish a greater mission than just financial success. If you build your business and purpose around the values of helping people, the rest will follow.
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?
If I could have an hour with one person to ask questions, listen to and help me grow by thinking differently, it would be Elon Musk. He’s not afraid to do what is hard, ignores the negative opinions, stands by his teams, leads from the front and is a doer. He is always willing to find a better way and make progress. He wants to make a difference, and he ignores the doubters.