When you’re CEO, you’ve got a lot of really good people working for you and you assume they understand that they’re really good at what they do, or they understand that they’ve done something well, but sometimes they may not. I’ve come to learn that it’s important to acknowledge achievements along the way, even for those really talented people in leadership roles. It makes a difference.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Burdiek, CEO and Director of CalAmp, a telematics leader in transforming the global connected economy. As a recognized pioneer of IoT and M2M, Burdiek has led CalAmp’s rapid growth as the telematics and IoT market leader. Since joining CalAmp as executive vice president in 2006, he also served as chief operating officer and president of CalAmp’s wireless dataCom segment before assuming his current roles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
Planes, trains and automobiles — and farm tractors! I’m from rural Kansas — the middle of nowhere in the northeast of the state — and have a very blue collar background. I was the first in my family to go to college, and set myself up to do so by working odd jobs at a very young age. At twelve, I started a profession as a hired hand on a farm, and from the time I was 12 to the time I was 19, I moved away every summer and lived with another family to work as their right hand man and manage a 1,200 acre farm.
I always say that I learned more about management from pig farming than I did in business school. Pigs are very much like any organization. There always tend to be disruptors in the midst and you have to figure out how to work with them.
Growing up, I wanted to be something other than a farmer, and my imagination took me all sorts of places. I decided to study engineering and use my education to find another experience. A lot of farm kids study it because they have the mechanical aptitude and problem solving skills, and the same was true for me. I had an interview in California in December, and when I landed it was 70 degrees. I thought, “Man this is the place where I ought to be,” and I’ve been here ever since and have been lucky to find so many opportunities to grow my career.
I’m a rebel at heart. In every job I’ve had, I tended to have a breakout moment, including my first job where I solved a problem that no one had solved. Even though there were groups of teams working on it for three years, no one had solved it because no one was as invested in it as I was. I wanted to be successful.
I’ve found that success is not necessarily following conventional wisdom. If you’re doing that, you’re following everybody else. You do the best you can in the job you’re in, and be yourself, follow your own path.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m not sure that CEOs are always the best to answer that question. I think — I hope — what makes us stand out is our boldness and our desire to do things that haven’t necessarily been done before. Not just because, but because it’s a good opportunity.
There is nothing like being a pioneer. At CalAmp, we’re on a mission to be a pioneer. To do that, you sometimes have to abandon conventional wisdom and set yourself off to explore previously unexplored territory. A lot of people aren’t capable of that, and in my job, I try to lead that and help people feel more comfortable on that odyssey. To be able to do this and position a company’s culture in that way, you have to be willing to bring about and embrace change.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We’re working on a lot of interesting things — I’ve never been more thrilled at any point in my career than I am right now with the strategic opportunities that are in front of us from a product and business perspective.
Maybe as important as anything we do are our efforts with first responders to improve incident response through instant crash notifications delivered directly and automatically with our telematics technologies. Our Crashboxx technology has that capability and with instant crash alerts, first responders can respond with no need to receive 911 calls or go through dispatch to understand something serious has happened on the roadways. So that’s something we are obligated to pursue. We’ve been given the privilege to help save lives through our technology, and I take that very seriously.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Give them opportunity. It’s amazing. I’ve been lucky enough to have been given unique opportunities, where people give me a lot of rope and let me run with it, and for the most part it turned out very well. I’m all about adventures and giving people the opportunity to do something amazing, and I get so excited to see people embrace and exploit every opportunity sent their way.
I recently told a team member, “There are career making opportunities out there. Embrace them.” You’ve got to take chances, you’ve got to take risks. If you want to be a follower, you follow. If you want to be a leader, you do these things. In some cases it doesn’t work out, but if you’ve done your best, that’s all you can do.
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?
It’s a collection of opportunities that people gave me along the way. It’s the people who gave me the opportunity to do what I just tried to describe. All along my career, someone has said, “Hey, there’s something new here. It may not work out, but are you willing to give it a shot?”
CalAmp’s current chairman of the board came to me to help transform the company. He brought me in to be a change agent, and said, “There potentially is an opportunity here, can you make something out of it?” Similarly, the CEO at a company I worked for previously came to me and said they wanted to do something different and wanted to know what could be done about it.
People have to open the opportunities up to you, but then it is completely up to you whether you take advantage of them or not.
Going back to when I was twelve years old, and my crazy boss wanted me to be his right-hand man. He said, “Ok, here’s what we are going to do. I’m going to teach you how to drive a tractor and then I’m going to leave you alone.” I could’ve driven into a ditch — probably came pretty close sometimes — but I didn’t. That’s confidence-building. To have that happen at a young age was probably very valuable, even if I did hate it immensely at the time.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’re trying at CalAmp. Going back to this public safety effort, we are committed to seeing this through, and if we’re successful, we really think we can save lives. That’s what’s important to us.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s harder than it looks — You’re always carrying around an immense amount of material, nonpublic information. Whether financial results, organization changes, or an acquisition you’re involved in, you just have to have a poker face. You can’t even talk about these things at home, because the kids have friends and you can’t let anything leak, which can be pretty hard. Some people can’t do it.
- Try to hire people who are smarter than you — This took me a while. It’s hard for people to grasp, especially as they’re working their way through management, because they’re so used to being the best at everything, that’s why they got into the leadership position to begin with. But the reality is, if you think you’ve got to be the best at everything, you will not be successful. So, it’s important you hire the best people you can, even if they challenge you, you’ve got to do it. Amazing things can happen if you do.
- You can’t be good at everything — Just accept it. CEO’s have to be particularly good at something or they would have never stood out, but no one is ever going to be the best at everything.
- Even if you think you’re in a position of power, you’re not omnipotent — Organizations are incredibly robust and can often fight back and resist change in ways that you wouldn’t believe is possible. You think that you’re in a position of authority and you’ll be able to dictate outcomes but that is absolutely not true. There is an entire organization with goals and agendas as well.
- It’s really important to acknowledge achievements — When you’re CEO, you’ve got a lot of really good people working for you and you assume they understand that they’re really good at what they do, or they understand that they’ve done something well, but sometimes they may not. I’ve come to learn that it’s important to acknowledge achievements along the way, even for those really talented people in leadership roles. It makes a difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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.
Again, I go back to what we could do from a road safety and first responder perspective. I think that’s a big mission, and I think we can have an amazing impact. I’m not sure we, as a company, really understand that. But if we can collectively understand this initiative, and if we can execute it fully, then this is a really profound cause.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you have a belief, live it,” and, “Be honest with yourself, even if it hurts.” These have been relevant almost all the way along the way. You can’t be great at everything, so just be honest with yourself in that, and then hire people who have those skills. Trust them.
As CEO, you get a lot of adoration and support and reverence due to your title, and a lot of that quite frankly isn’t warranted. I understand that pretty profoundly when I go home at the end of the day. I think it’s really important to stay grounded, because if you’re not, you won’t be able to connect with people and organizations and customers and all the rest, because people won’t want to connect with you.
Some of the biggest 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 :-)
Jack Welch. I feel like he and I are very much cut from the same cloth. He’s a rebel, an agent of change, and never really cared about what people thought of him or what he said or did. He’s his own guy.