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Michael May: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO

Every day now is different; every day is interesting because you never know what new challenges you’re going to face that you get to turn into a new opportunity for growth.

As a part of our series called Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEOwe had the pleasure of interviewing Michael May.

Michael May is President & CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands, producer of the leading natural sweetener brand, SweetLeaf®. He holds a PhD in military history and strategy and taught military officers before switching careers to the private sector.

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?

My father started this business 40 years ago, so I grew up with it. I worked in the warehouse in high school. I did sales in college. I oversaw research, business development and consumer education while finishing up my Ph.D.

After completing my Ph.D., I got a job teaching military history, strategy and leadership for the Air Force at the Air Command and General Staff College. I had always been interested in applying the lessons of history to the problems of today. After I was gone for two years, my parents started asking me to return to the business. About six years later, they got their wish. Talking with my wife, we thought that it was time to switch careers and go back to the family business.

When back with the company, I was placed in charge of international business development, so now as CEO, I am constantly looking at expanding the boundaries of where we do business. Soon after, I ran the company’s day-to-day operations as the Chief Operating Officer. Most of my preparation as CEO came in this more traditional way — confronting challenges as COO. Although I served as company President for a long time, years passed before I became the CEO.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Sometimes dealing with the aftereffects of COVID-19 and the corresponding supply chain and market volatility, seems like a never-ending story. Every day now is different; every day is interesting because you never know what new challenges you’re going to face that you get to turn into a new opportunity for growth.

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 firmly believe that we are all products of the people we keep around us. I had mentors and friends throughout my life that left their mark on me. In grad school, my Ph.D. adviser, Don Mrozek, doused my papers in red ink with corrections, questions, and clarifications. And, as I would thumb through the pages, noticing more red ink than type and feeling like maybe I chose the wrong path, he would say something like: “It’s really good because if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t care enough to challenge you to fix it.”

When I got my job with the Air Force, I was young — younger than any of my students. More experienced colleagues took me under their wing. Military officers that I worked for, and eventually worked for me, taught me the importance of leadership, teamwork and getting things done. My current executives are who make me successful today. But no one has had a greater impact on whom I am than my wife, Christine.

She and I got married while we were still in college. She is supportive but has high expectations. She is organized and driven. I have often thought that she would be much better at my job than I am. We built a family together, and that is our joint focus, but she inspires me to be better than I am and to do more than I currently have done.

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?

Diversity is an essential characteristic of any viable team, not just an Executive team. Diversity in backgrounds, opinions, world views, experiences, and cultures only make a team better and, if differing points of view are truly respected, diversity unites that team in a textured but meaningful way that engenders real success. Our consumer base is a diverse consumer base. Not only is it right to promote diversity, but it’s also good business to engage with consumers on those things that matter most to them. Only then can we create the products and services necessary to help them fulfill their desires and dreams.

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.

We have to not simply tolerate different points of view; we have to embrace them. We have to look at them and see what we can add to our own perspectives that make it more representative, more holistic, and more inclusive.

Although I think we can do better than just being inclusive and representative of different voices. I think we can be more integrative and unified in many aspects of society. But, in order to do this, we can’t have the hate, the vitriol, the silencing of different opinions. We have to stop approaching every situation thinking that we have the answers, and the other side just needs to agree with us. That is not unity and that is not cooperation. A well-known Air Force general once said about working with his counterparts in the Army — and there was always conflict between the Army and Air Force — “cooperation will not be achieved unless the will to cooperate is present.” We have to want to work together. We have to want to hear each other. We have to want to understand each other. And, finally, when we want to, that old cliché, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” will kick in.

Ok, thank you for that. Lets 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?

CEOs strive to ensure that the company advances toward its chosen future amid challenges, constraints, and unforeseen difficulties on the horizon. More importantly, a good CEO is going to turn those challenges into opportunities, those constraints into levers for success, and those unforeseen difficulties into new ways to re-cast products and services or re-define marketplaces. No other leader in a company has the singular responsibility to maintain a holistic balance between all corporate priorities and funnel them toward a single future or vision.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I expected that there would be a lot of networking responsibilities — constantly meeting counterparts in this or other industries and building relationships for the future. And, while there is some of that, I spend the majority of my time navigating through and adapting to the dynamic effects of the global pandemic. I used to have a very good idea of how the year was going to go just two to three months in. Last year, I realized that I couldn’t tell how the year was going to play out until mid-November. All the old rules seem to no longer to apply. Experience gained in the past appears to be less translatable to current operations. I have been constantly reading and reflecting on as much information as I can get to gain a better handle on the present, so I can more confidently lead my company into the future.

Do you think 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 am unconvinced that there is anything innately special to being a leader. Leaders are not born; they’re created. Even though not everyone has the same opportunities for education, even more important is the fact that not everyone has or responds to challenges, struggles, setbacks, and roadblocks in similar ways for a variety of reasons. I fundamentally believe that struggle is important to growth. Self-reliance, resilience, and never giving up are often by-products of having to struggle and fight for what you want. I think those are good attributes for a leader to cultivate.

A lot of people in business are driven. I recommend coupling that drive with patience. That might seem contradictory on the surface, but it isn’t. If somebody who runs an eight-minute mile wants to run a five-minute mile, is it possible? Of course, it is. But not today, tomorrow, next week, or next month. They need to work at it every day. Maybe they need to change their diet or their sleep schedule. Regardless, they have to work every day. The patient drive over time — the consistent effort and relentless discipline — will almost inevitably bring success.

I think another really important characteristic that all leaders need is to be a listener. I am not a fan of a leader that thinks they are the smartest in the room — because they, very likely, are not. We can learn from everybody if we allow ourselves to. Along these lines, hire the type of people you want to listen to. I didn’t become the CEO by being a Yes-Man. I had an opinion — often a differing opinion — and I shared it. Share your voice. Stand and deliver. But really listen when others do.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Nothing sets a good work culture more than having everyone work together on a single project toward a common goal. I have an Executive Vice President that brought together team members from sales and marketing, sourcing and production, and finance and accounting to work together on various light production projects. I also went down and helped for a time. He reported to me on the positive morale boost just from various team members contributing just a few hours here and there toward the same project.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Being a food and beverage company, our company supports efforts to alleviate hunger and provide clean water. More than this, however, my parents, our founders, benefitted local hospitals and set aside a significant portion of their company assets to directly benefit multiple charities and charitable organizations.

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.)

The first one isn’t really a mystery. I think everyone knows, at least on a theoretical level, that you don’t get a chance to “disengage,” “go home,” or “turn it off.” But knowing that, in theory, is a lot different than experiencing it first-hand. The constant concern over strategy, finances, sales and marketing initiatives, supply chain, consumer engagement, retention and recruitment, and the list goes on and on, never ends. Recently, I was speaking at a company meeting. I talked to everyone pretty openly about the difficulties we had been facing with the aftereffects of Covid 19, distribution and supply chain pressures, the competitive marketplace, and changing consumer buying patterns. I talked frankly about my concerns. I told them that I often wake up in the middle of the night with different aspects of the business on my mind. I get up and write an email to myself on the topic I want to confront the next day. I told my employees in that meeting that I had five emails from myself waiting for me that morning that I had written during the middle of the night. I think they were fairly amazed that I lost that much sleep over the business. That was just one ordinary night.

Secondly, nothing is easy — so don’t expect it to be. I think there is a general misunderstanding that CEOs just fly around the country and make big deals. We tend to glamorize things we don’t really understand like watching a TV show with lawyers questioning a defendant on the stand. They don’t show you on the TV program the hundreds of hours of hard work, research and serious reflection that went into that one pivotal, “gotcha” question that wins the case. Hard work isn’t glamorous, but that is exactly what wins the day.

When asked what I do, my son once answered that I talk and think. In the end, there is a lot of truth to that. I did not properly understand just how much I need to communicate and re-communicate, at all levels in the company, by word and example. And to be honest, I am still trying to do that better. Also, I think the difficulty, sometimes, is knowing exactly where you are needed that day. From my military history teaching days, I know that a general can give an order and trust that his lieutenants will execute it according to the means they have in the best way possible, but in the heat of battle (or in this case business), the unexpected happens. Immediately a decisive point can emerge where my influence, at that point, can make the difference that day. I am beginning to better understand that much of my communicating, assessing and reflecting needs to be on where I can best serve that day.

Additionally, trust is very important. If you can find team members that you can trust — even if you disagree with them — then you can hand over entire areas of your business to them knowing that they achieve what you give them to do, even if they don’t do it as you would. This is essential in allowing you to focus in other areas in which your personal influence might be more necessary — maybe because that manager isn’t yet worthy of the same amount of trust. I think I have always been naturally a trusting person. I would rather trust a person and let them rise up to that trust given. However, I learned quickly that trust is not black and white, there are many shades of gray — not everyone can be trusted at the same level. The question: “How much can I entrust to this team member,” often determines how high they can go and how much effort I need to expend in helping them get there. The ones with the greatest potential — the most trustworthiness in anything they are given — I am willing to spend the most time with since the return on my investment will be the greatest even if they choose not to remain with my company.

Data is good, but you need to trust your gut. A few years ago, we made the shift to really become much more data-focused in our analysis and assessments and in developing our business strategy. We spent a lot of time and money acquiring all types of data — financial, market, consumer insights, supply chain, production, distribution, and retail data — both domestic and international. We could see new trends developing. We could identify new areas for opportunities. We could assess the strengths and weaknesses of our competition. I think the questions we started asking got better, too. But amid all the positives, I began to notice a concerning development: paralysis by analysis. Progress slowed because of all the data we wanted to acquire before making a decision. We spent so much time trying to eliminate all the uncertainty by analyzing and analyzing that we got away from executing and finishing. I needed to understand, or remember, that data didn’t give me my vision. My vision was based on faith — envisioning a reality that hadn’t happened yet and then going out and making it happen. As contradictory as it may sound, I noticed that spending too much time on analysis can get in the way of achieving what many might otherwise think is unlikely or even impossible.

This leads me to another aspect I needed to learn: councils, committees, and teams are great for implementation but bad for decision making. It’s in council that most of the paralysis by analysis occurs. Don’t get me wrong: councils and teams are absolutely essential for implementing and executing a vision, or creating a strategy to achieve one, but as decision making bodies, they leave a lot to be desired. When I first started, I wanted to make all decisions in council because I thought that would help with buy-in and empower team members but as time went on, I have noticed glaring weaknesses in that approach — team members rarely knew when a decision was actually made so they kept discussing it and adding more layers of analysis than were necessary to simply move forward and execute. I realized that it is my responsibility to make the decision, communicate the decision, and hold team members accountable for achieving the decision made.

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.

There seems to be a never-ending list of ways that we can help others if we truly want to. The movement I would inspire, if I could, is simple yet understandably ambitious: I would end the hatred, the disunity, the division, and the conflict. Not necessarily in a way that any one group or people have to give up their cultures or identity, but that all can see eye-to-eye and find common ground to build on. We see the need for this unity — as lofty as it sounds — everywhere, every day. We need this in our homes, in our communities, in our states, in our nation, and in our international community. That would be the goal — the movement.

I do realize, however, that in order to operationalize this ideal, we have a lot of work to do first. It’s hard to come together when there are people in the world without basic nutrition or clean sources of water. It’s hard to see eye to eye when there is inequality of educational opportunities to acquire basic employable skills so people can provide for their families and map out a future for themselves that they can be excited about.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Being a former educator, I am a quote person. So, there are so many I like and think about fairly often — two that I’ll share here. One that I have used many times is by Bill Creech. He was an Air Force general who led the Air Force’s fighter forces in Tactical Air Command and the developer of Total Quality Management (TQM) which became a big focus of companies in the 1980s and 1990s. He said, “The first responsibility of any leader is to create other leaders.” Basically, my first responsibility to my company is to ensure that I have a handful of people capable of taking my job away from me and running the company far better than I could.

The second is correlated to the first. And many have said different iterations of this, but I’ll cite George C Marshall’s version: “There is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” It is almost unheard of in business to not seek credit or accolades for something we achieve but focusing on that will limit the achievement you’re striving for.

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.

I fundamentally believe that you can learn from anyone. But if we’re talking about a businessperson, I think the short answer is Elon Musk. I don’t have a specific question for him, but I would love to hear first-hand his passion for what he does: what drives him to sleep on the factory floor of Tesla; how he thinks and confronts challenges and problems he faces on a day-to-day basis; and what vision pulls all his different interests together so that he can manage them all?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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