I really believe that taking care of your body really helps keep you in peak performance. This is something I learned in the Army and it’s something I carry with me. Part of the reason why soldiers train physically is to help prepare them for the stressful situations they will be in. Staying healthy, eating well, getting enough sleep are all important strategies. They seem obvious and like common sense. The problem is it is so easy, particularly as leaders, to forget to take care of yourself. But as the saying goes, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Edwin Lee.
Michael Edwin Lee is the President and Chief Executive Officer of FinDec and has been employed with the company in some capacity for nearly 25 years.
Michael is most passionate about helping clients achieve goals they thought were not achievable. Specifically, he provides the resources to FinDec advisors so they can deliver and help clients reach aspirational financial goals. He loves to mentor people and provide leadership and direction in their careers.
He nurtures the team so they can help clients stay focused on their long-term financial goals and retirement planning. In today’s world of immediate information and quick decisions, people have to be reminded that planning and preparing for retirement is a marathon, not a sprint. Michael trains the FinDec team so they can instill in clients to keep their eye on the finish line.
Michael is consistent and grounded in strong professional habits. People who work with Michael also put in a great deal of effort — people want to cultivate success together and be around leaders who are also working tirelessly to obtain a goal. Leading by example and building a strong team has helped Michael advance FinDec. He believes that you are truly only as successful as the team you build around you.
Michael’s leadership skills were sharpened through years of serving his country. He obtained the rank of Major, spending 13 years as a military police officer in the United States Army after graduating from college. He also served three years as a civilian law enforcement officer.
An experienced executive and leader, Michael excels at mentoring people and guiding them through difficult situations. He has a knack for remaining calm during challenging moments. He has a kind of clarity during stressful situations that is often hard to come by. He also has a photographic memory, which comes in handy when traveling or in unfamiliar places.
Michael holds a BS in history from CSU Stanislaus and a Master’s in business and organizational security management. He is passionate about his family and living life to the fullest.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My childhood was filled with athletics. From football to basketball to soccer and baseball, I was busy year-round. I also was in Boy Scouts and obtained the rank of Eagle Scout. In elementary school, I participated in student council; in high school I was part of the drama club. My first job was as a janitor at a hair salon. After that, I worked at the local college snack bar for sporting events.
Something else that was always present in my youth: My parents were small business owners. They started FinDec, the company I’m now the CEO of, more than 30 years ago. I watched them lead a team, grow a business and witnessed all the excitement and challenges of entrepreneurship firsthand. It inspired me — it’s the reason why, after serving in the military and in law enforcement, I found my way back home, so to speak, to manage and continue growing FinDec.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
My parents started the business in the early 1980s and I was born in 1981. They were both working parents with four boys — I am the youngest — so everyone had to chip in to help the family. We all had chores to make sure we could take care of ourselves as needed. My parents were focused on getting their business going and needed our help to make that happen. Every day while attending elementary school I would go to my parent’s office after school because they had to be at work until they closed, sometimes later. I would do my homework, but I was always listening to what was going on around me. They were helping people with financial planning and had employees they took care of. I would sit in their offices and hear all their conversations and think to myself: this is something I want to do when I grow up! There was one time where I was at the office and I was sitting under one of the employees’ desks. I peeked my head out and told that employee that I was going to be their boss one day. Well, that employee still works for us, so my statement came to be true!
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
That would be Mike Clark, whom I met in the military. I first met Mike back in 2005 when I first enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. I was at a training exercise for our first unit together. He was sitting on the steps to a barracks, in his uniform. Without having to show me how smart he was (I knew he was a veteran) or make a big deal about his position, he just spoke to me like a normal person. He treated me with respect because I outranked him. He was fair, but strict. He gave respect but expected it in return based on his actions and leadership, not rank or position. He showed me how to be a good person and leader. He never waited for someone to tell him what to do or to figure something out. He did his own research on his craft in order to be the best at it — and that’s something I’ve tried to carry with me and instill in my team everywhere I’ve been, particularly in my current role leading a national financial solutions firm.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
This story is from my time in the Army. We were going through this large exercise, going through the desert. I assumed they would have A/C in our tents. However, when we showed up to our area, our tents were already set up — without A/C. Mind you, the temperature was in the triple digits Fahrenheit…it was really, really hot.
From this experience, I learned to not take anything for granted when preparing for something, particularly if you’re going to be caring for others. At the time, I was a young commander in my mid-20s. Now, as an experienced executive, I double check all our plans. I always try to poke holes and also find any of the obvious things we might be missing in our plans.
The story literally has a “cool” ending — and it taught me another lesson. During our exercise, we met with a civilian medical unit team working on the civilian side in the exercise. Fortunately, they had a bunch of extra A/C units. We struck a deal and provided them with some resources they didn’t have. In return, they gave us cool tents! I learned from this experience that you can’t do everything by yourself — life is a give and take and helping each other is how the world turns.
I carry this idea of developing partnerships into our business, FinDec. It’s how we develop some of our best partnerships, including those with our insurance partners. Now, we bring more to our clients than ever before because we’re able to partner with other professionals to provide the best possible service.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
This is a great one for me, both as a son who followed in his parents’ footsteps and as a father raising children to follow their own path to success. In today’s world it is very easy to have access to a lot of information — and have it quickly. You can travel to any place in the world you want. You can have a job online and make money quickly, and then change to another career. I am old enough to remember when you chose a career that you wanted to pursue and then pursued it. The idea of moving forward down a path is that you have to learn your craft — you have to apprentice for a bit, learn from people who are wiser than you are to gain wisdom yourself. You then have to focus on what you do best and maximize those abilities. You have to be careful not to chase results or other’s success.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. Major Richard Winters was a famous WWII Soldier and his book outlines how he was successful as a leader. When you read the book, you realize that he was not successful because he was a soldier — it was actually the fact that he was first a good leader that made him so successful. When I read the book, I realized that if you have the right mindset, training and attitude, among other qualities, you will be successful in whatever you do.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
This one also comes from Major Winters: “A bad leader is not one that makes bad decisions, but one that does not make any decisions.” It resonates with me. Look, no one is perfect, and I think Winters is acknowledging this in his quote We all make mistakes — everyone knows that. But when you are in a leadership position, you have to make decisions. It comes with the job description. Unfortunately, not all your decisions will be right, but sometimes the wrong ones can either get you to the right decisions or teach you a lesson that makes you a better, wiser leader.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now, we are working on opening more offices throughout the country to service current and new clients. Our service model is based on seeing clients in person to provide financial and retirement planning. Studies show that over 50 percent of people would rather have an advisor sit with them in person to help with planning than to go it alone or solely through a digital app. In a world where technology rules, apps and websites provide really useful tools to help with planning — but they are ultimately just that. A tool is only as good as the expert who knows how to use it, and our experts who’ve studied financial planning and understand personal situations can apply strategies based on the circumstances of every client we work with.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
The first strategy is to be comfortable with the fact that there will be pressure and stress. It comes with the territory. Pressure and stress are an inherent part of being a leader and you must embrace that fact. Once you embrace that challenge, you will have a clearer mind when confronted with challenges or roadblocks. Second, develop a response to those types of situations that are habitual. Maybe step back and take a minute to focus. It sometimes helps to literally say out loud that you need a minute to process or think about something. Have something you will do that will keep you calm. You do not want to be presented with pressure and stress and react in a tense way, building on that stress. Third, make a decision. Pressure and stress will continue to build if you don’t take action. Of course, there will be pressure and stress when taking action, but that’s okay. You can process that. If you don’t make a decision, the pressure and stress from not only yourself but the people you are leading will be overwhelming.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
I really believe that taking care of your body really helps keep you in peak performance. This is something I learned in the Army and it’s something I carry with me. Part of the reason why soldiers train physically is to help prepare them for the stressful situations they will be in.
Staying healthy, eating well, getting enough sleep are all important strategies. They seem obvious and like common sense. The problem is it is so easy, particularly as leaders, to forget to take care of yourself. But as the saying goes, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. .
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I do a lot of my planning through visualizations. If I am looking at numbers, I will create a forecast to study. If I am looking at employee resources, I will create organizational charts and move things around. If I am putting a strategy together, I will write it out on a sand table. A sand table is an exercise I learned through the military where you take your written plan and put it on a table (sand sometimes) and walk through your plan. During this exercise you go through your courses of actions based on your plans to see if they are actually realistic. Sometimes what you write on a piece of paper looks different once it is in a model format. During this exercise, you make changes to your plan before fully executing it.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I don’t believe it is a special technique — it is more an experience-based plan that helps me. Serving 13 years in the military gave me plenty of experiences where I had to focus in a split second. Being a part of the police department also assisted me in that skill. So, I believe I have been able to internalize what it feels like in those situations so I can respond focused, not distracted. Life experience can be a powerful tool and serve as one of the best ways to build successful techniques we can carry with us in our everyday moments.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?’
Habits have played a huge role in life, ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in a military family and eventually joined the military, so having habits and being disciplined was instilled in me at a young age. Sometimes, discipline has a somewhat negative connotation, but it really can be a good thing. If you are disciplined in what you do, how you react and think, you are able to take on more stress and pressure. In a sense, discipline centers you — it puts you in a mindset that helps you in tense situations.
I think habits can sometimes be seen as too challenging, things that are really hard to do or will take too much time to master. But habits play a crucial role in the simple activities of our daily lives — mastering habits help us focus on the more difficult parts of life. An example would be when you are getting ready for work in the morning: If you have a habit or routine of getting ready, going to your personal office, gathering your things and then going to the car, you should be able to do that without thinking about it and not forgetting anything because it is your daily habit. Now, taking that example, say you get an important work call while getting ready. Because you have an established habit of getting ready you can take that call and put all your energy into that call knowing your habit of getting out of the house will happen on its own. My wife once said that she always knows what time it is in the morning because of where I am in the house when I’m getting ready. I stick to my habits because I want to make sure I have all my energy to deal with those stressful and pressured situations.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
First you have to understand how habits work. The book Atomic Habits by James Clear provides a great foundation to create good habits at the personal level. I believe that you must have good habits in your personal life before expecting to create good habits in your professional life and at work. If you do not have good habits, then when you wake up every day and are getting ready for work, you’re probably going to work with a lot of little things on your mind that are taking away the ability for optimal performance throughout the workday. This is particularly true for people who work by necessity or choice at home or remotely. You need to have good habits throughout the day that help you focus on what needs to get accomplished. By continuing your habits throughout life, you can slowly remove the bad habits because you lean on your good ones.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I believe the best way to achieve flow is by focusing on what flow is: a pleasurable state when doing something you are skilled at, challenging and meaningful. In today’s world there are a lot of things going on around us. Although all these things keep us busy, occupied and sometimes happy, there is a lot going on. Are you really focused on what is important to you? Are you doing something that you are really good at? Does it bring meaning to your life? I have found through my young life that I had to figure out what is important to me and what I want out of it. No one was going to do that for me. Early on, it sometimes felt like I was working — sometimes, it was just work. It did not bring meaning to me. I loved serving in the military and was very skilled at my positions, but the military is tough on your family life. I wanted meaning from my family life, so I chose a profession that I had skills in. This was challenging and brought meaning to me personally and professionally.
Ok, we are nearly done. 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 am not really sure about a movement but maybe something around personal financial freedom. I don’t want people to be held hostage by their finances when most people just need to walk through with a trained professional in their personal life. It is not about picking the right stock or having a bunch of money. Financial freedom can be achieved so many different ways depending on your personal situation. Individuality still plays a central role in financial planning. You cannot group people together because no one family is the same. But one thing is for certain — the more people control their money, the less it can control them.
We are very blessed that 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, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Elon Musk always seems to be looking to the future, or on ways to make things better for humankind. Our business is centered around financial planning and making our clients’ lives better for retirement. I would love to have a conversation with him about what drives him to keep pushing the boundaries on making things better. He takes a lot of risks in order to push us into the future. At FinDec, we help out clients take calculated risks because we invest it in the market, so I want to make sure we always are pushing the boundaries but in a way that puts the clients first.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: Financial Decisions
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Personal: Michael Lee