As a Leader, You Shouldn’t Be in The Driver’s Seat or the Passenger Seat, You Should Be Paving the Road: With Mike Hilton
By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
“One of the things that people who take leadership roles need to understand is that leading isn’t always about giving direction, it’s about giving people a platform to do their best work.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Hilton, CEO of Genesis Robotics. Mike is passionate about providing solutions and support that empower organizations to realize the successful execution of their business plans and objectives. Benefiting from over 20 years of diverse experience in Software Development and Solutions, Telecommunications, CCTV and Access Control, Data Communications and Business Consulting, Mike has lead teams in Business Operations, Sales, Marketing and Technical Services.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
Ever since high school, I’ve had a strong entrepreneurial drive. I even employed my Algebra teacher’s son in a landscaping business that I operated. After University, I founded a software company that I merged with another software company which specialized in the telecommunication space. I stayed in telecommunications for a few years, and then made my way into business consulting right after the dot com crash in 2001. I sold that company in 2005, and ended up at Microsoft for 10 years prior to starting at Genesis Robotics.
My career at Genesis manifested from a relationship with one of the advisors within the organization. This person who had helped sell my company in 2005, prior to Microsoft, was an advisor to the management team at Genesis. He suggested that there might be an interesting opportunity to come and work with this up-and-coming robotics company. I always had an affinity to robotics so that sparked my initial attraction.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve always had an earnest interest in all things mechanical, but I didn’t have specialized training in it because my education is in computer software and computer science. It’s always fun to be in a conversation and be the only non-engineer in the room and have people assume that you are one. It’s exciting to be able to hold your own to a certain degree. I’m able to participate in those discussions, but after a certain amount of time, it gets past my level. It’s always interesting to see people’s reaction when they find out that I don’t come from a mechanical engineering background.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First of all, it helps to have “robotics” in our name. There’s no question that in this day and age, when you are associated with robotics, that immediately draws attention. Robotics are becoming important and a highly discussed industry, so curiosity is immediately piqued.
There’s a lot of activity and publicity around robotics that involve vision systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning. What really makes Genesis different is that we have a distinct message: You can have all of the computing power and vision systems in the world, but if the robot can’t move something, do it safely, efficiently and with great strength, you don’t have a robot at all.
Genesis Robotics is all about bringing to life the promise of true robotics, where the robot has the physical capabilities to do whatever you need it to do. That’s an area of robotics, and engineering in general, that hasn’t had a lot of attention over the last several decades.
Mechanical functions such as moving the robot, picking up a heavy load, or moving at high speeds to increase productivity, are all critical. These mechanical activities are what we need to focus on within robotics as there’s no benefit in building millions and millions of factory robots if they’re slow moving. This scenario, with a factory being worked by slow robots, is not any more productive than a human-run factory. Using mechanical innovation to help robots operate at 20 or 30 percent faster speed — even if it’s just within one segment of the assembly line — would have a huge impact on output.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
When I think about what gives people great joy, it’s the empowerment and autonomy to do what’s exciting and passionate to them. I want to see employees bring all of their skills and passions to a job that allows them to bring their creativity to the table. If people feel as though they are accomplishing something on their own, they put more energy behind it.
When employees are being micromanaged, they’re given no creative flexibility, and as a result, motivation decreases. Human beings inherently want to be creative, as it allows them to feel as though they’ve accomplished something on the merit of their own inner skills and capabilities. If you don’t give people a vehicle to exercise creativity, they won’t be engaged.
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?
There’s a lot of knowledge that I’ve gained from the myriad of people who I’ve worked with over the decades — each of those people have delivered great value to my growth.
That being said, even the worst human interactions that I’ve experienced have resulted in a positive impact on my career because they helped me clarify what I didn’t want to do or the type of people I didn’t want to work with.
There’s one particular person who I’m particularly grateful for, a boss who I worked with for a number of years. He was very passionate and loved to share his thoughts, which he did in an engaging way. But, the minute anybody else in the room spoke, he would stop and give them his undivided attention. He was always trying to draw other information out of people, which I always recognized that as an incredibly valuable skill that’s contributed to my success.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The work that we’re doing at Genesis Robotics is not just about robotics in an industrial or business sense, but how we can use robotics to further society and quality of life. Everything we try to do is aimed at creating sustainable solutions that will live well past our lifetimes. We believe that by creating more effective actuators, robotic motion will be better. As a result, we will have safer, faster and more precise rehabilitative robotics, such as exoskeletons, that empower people who have lost their ability to walk.
Genesis is constantly thinking of the elderly population that’s emerging around us. With baby boomers coming out of the workforce, they’re looking to live independently and to have a sense of purpose. Having safe robots in the home to help with household heavy lifting is the key to our elders living independently for longer. Robots will provide support to elders with limited strength without having to rely on full-time homecare from humans.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?
- Leadership isn’t just about giving direction. One of the things that people who take leadership roles need to understand is that leading isn’t always about giving direction, it’s about giving people a platform to do their best work. I use the analogy of learning how to drive. My management style is not to drive the car or even sit in the passenger seat and tell you how to drive. Instead, I’d prefer to pave the road and make sure that you have the smoothest drive possible with the least number of obstacles, so that you can do your best work and not worry about how to get to the destination.
- Leaders need to have a clear definition of the type of team they want and need. If you don’t have a skill set involved in identifying, acquiring, retaining, and nurturing talented people, you are not going to be very successful. You have to be able to draw employees into your vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. If you fail at creating this shared vision, you will constantly be wasting resources by replacing and training new talent.
- Lifestyle becomes a huge adjustment for people who reach this level. There’s no question that when you’re in a senior leadership role, it becomes time consuming. Always being accessible to a global organization means having phone calls at 5:00 a.m. or at 9:00 p.m. to coincide with contacts all over the world. More people are using the term work-life balance but I prefer work-life integration because we have the benefit of tools like cell phones and computers to manage work anywhere. I’ve found myself taking conference calls on Sunday nights, but I also have the freedom to occasionally pick up my kids from school on a Tuesday afternoon. Flexibility is a huge contributor to being successful.
- Always expect someone to hold you accountable. No matter what, we always have a boss, even if you’re a commercial entity, because the customers need to be satisfied. CEOs have an obligation to report to their founders and board of directors. Even as a startup, venture capitalists and the banking institutions are similar to a boss. We all work for somebody.
- Having a simple vision is critical to being an effective leader. Visions can’t be complex, 20-page mission statements that are difficult for stakeholders to synthesize. There has to be a degree of focus. Typically, people can focus on two or three concepts at once, so a vision statement needs to be simplified to a few core messages that are critical to success. Think about the sport of rowing, where in order to win a race, every competitor on the boat needs to stroke in unison. Business is similar in that a clear mission statement allows every employee to work in the same direction to reach the company goals.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?
I had a discussion about work-life integration with a CEO of an organization that acquired one of mine. He told me to always do my “home-work” first. What he meant was that we consider family very important, but we spend much more time with colleagues at work than our own families. Without the support of our families, it can make such a large investment of time difficult to manage. Doing home-work really means looking after your obligations at home in order to support your hard work outside of the house.
Alternatively, as an employer we need to recognize that we don’t employ individuals, we employ families at the end of the day. If I don’t give employees the ability to have work-life integration, we won’t be successful.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I’ve always considered Malala Yousafzai to be one of the most remarkable people. She was 15-years old when the Taliban shot her in the head for speaking out about female education in an area that was under oppression from the regime. She not only survived, but her family brought her to the U.K. where she underwent a full recovery. Today, she commits her life to creating new opportunities for women and young girls across the world.
This is an important lesson for any society. My favorite hashtag is #fatherswithdaughters because of my own daughter. I always want her to have the same opportunities that I had. The work Malala does, contributes to equality regardless of race, gender or nationality. It would be a great inspiration to spend an hour over a meal with someone who overcame a tremendous injustice, but turned it around to create a better world for everyone. Malala’s story is a powerful learning experience that we can all stand behind.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series in Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.