Bart McDonough on becoming “cyber smart”  Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Bart McDonough is the author of Cyber Smart: Five Habits to Protect Your Family, Money, and Identity from Cyber Criminals and CEO and Founder of Agio, a hybrid managed IT and cybersecurity services provider. Prior to founding Agio, Bart worked at SAC Capital Advisors, BlueStone Capital Partners, OptiMark Technologies, Sanford Bernstein and American Express.

Harnessing his expertise, Bart and the team he’s built of more than 250 employees have developed cybersecurity and managed IT tools tailored to protect businesses’ most precious assets: money and reputation. And they do all of this while having a blast doing what they do best every day with the people that matter. The culture at Agio is unlike any you’ve ever experienced. Once you’re in, you’re in, and everyone loves the Kool-Aid.

Bart currently sits on the board of two cybersecurity firms, TwoSense.AI, and Magnus Cloud. He attended the University of Oklahoma and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut.

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Before discussing Cyber Smart, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My mother has easily been the greatest influence on my life.  She always demanded excellence and valued critical thinking. She encouraged discussions and fostered arguments while emphasizing the importance of different perspectives.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I would say the period of time when I was working at S.A.C Capital. Being surrounded by incredibly intelligent ambitious individuals who demanded the best of each other really helped shape me.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

The most valuable education I received was from the courses which put a great emphasis on writing – especially concise writing. In addition, the courses where critical thinking was expected also ended up being very valuable in my career.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

When I entered the business world, I thought success would be determined by who knew the most “facts and figures” and was the smartest. What I’ve realized is how you do business or how you treat people is critically important. Also, it’s not about the knowledge one has today but rather the ability to learn and grow. I also was really afraid of failure and mistakes, now I really look forward to all the growth and improvement which comes from those failures and mistakes.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Well, the 1980s film Wall Street, featuring Charlie Sheen portraying stockbroker Bud Fox, is the epitome of what not to do but it is certainly entertaining. Then there’s always Glengarry Glen Ross and David Mamet’s emphasis on ABC: Always Be Selling.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I think there is something there that we have in our culture book – give context not control. What they refer to in the military as “commanders’ intent,” meaning let the team figure how to accomplish the task but as a leader, you need to provide purpose and the desired end result. That is what jumps out to me from the Lao-tse quote.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

This is incredibly true. In order to be great at choosing what NOT to do, your organization must have a clear vision. This clear vision allows to stay focused and not get distracted by “shiny objects.”

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Well, I think because the ability to read and write is so fundamental to the ability to learn, he actually contradicts himself. However, the capability to unlearn and challenge what you already know is incredibly important in order to grow.

Willy Sutton on why he robs banks: “That’s where the money is.”

The immediate thing that comes to mind is that revenue is king/cash is king. Stay focused on what will actually drive results.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

I think it is true that businesses can get so obsessed with innovation, they get so focused on coming up with the next “new thing” they forget to execute on the basics. A great example of this is customer service. Companies just forget to service their clients well – everyone knows how to do it, it’s not about innovation, it’s just executing on what most of us already know clients want and need.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

That insight complements the theme you must have a clear vision and maintain your focus. It’s not only about what you do, but also what you say “no” to as well; what you shouldn’t be doing; and what you ultimately stop doing to make sure your time is best utilized moving towards accomplishing your vision.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend? Why?

It would have to be Thomas Jefferson.  He was a visionary, a proponent of education, a fan of science and technology, a great patriot and so much more. He had a natural ability to navigate extraordinarily complex subjects and do it with grace while remaining focused on the big picture. He didn’t get lost in the minutiae when declaring independence from Britain or doubling the size of the country through a well negotiated deal. He loved fine French and Italian wine and great books. He overcame setbacks with poise and yet still sustained momentum in his life.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

If startup founders and business owners want their expectations to become foundational, they must first write these expectations down; distribute them around the firm; and periodically review them with staff. I’ve found if you don’t write core principles down, they’re unlikely to manifest across a company’s culture. The day you stop talking about culture is the day that it starts to fade.

We also issue frequent anonymous surveys to proactively identify and manage the less quantifiable aspects of Agio’s internal culture – the things we preach but do not execute. This is a holistic process that accounts for how often employees bring up company values internally, the client feedback we’ve received, the number of upcoming prospect meetings, historic sales volume and even the PTO our employees take. Collecting honest feedback from our employees allows management to determine what is working, what isn’t and how we can adapt accordingly.

The bottom line is this: creating replicable workplace processes is hard. In the words of Nike, it requires clear communication, persistence and discipline “Every. Damn. Day.”

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Speaking from my own experience creating and developing a company culture at Agio, we frame ours around five key characteristics:

o Master the Fundamentals. Crawl before you walk; walk before you run. Establish a groundwork of practice, discipline, and attention to detail. Cracks in an unstable foundation show over time. So, take the time to hone your craft and set yourself up for success.

o Speak Up. There are no wallflowers and shrinking violets at Agio. Say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. Ask the question everyone else is afraid to. It’s about being candid. Direct feedback and informed opinions are encouraged and expected.

o Evolve. Add, tweak, delete. Progress is impossible without change. Keep your mind open and remember to bite size it – incremental growth day-by-day yields massive results over time.

o Communicate Fearlessly to Build Trust. Communicate to illuminate, and then communicate some more. Don’t be afraid to commit to the client and establish expectations. Instill confidence and gain loyalty to create lasting relationships.

o Be Bigger Than Your Job. Risk your comfort zone to challenge the status quo. Weigh in cross-departmentally and stay curious. When you connect the dots and contribute to teams outside of your own, you create change that separates Agio from the rest.

Practicing what we preach, our senior leaderships enforces these core values using resources such as the Agio Academy. A series of in-person and online courses to train all employees on the habits and behaviors we expect of them, including refresher courses for our experienced employees, and, the Agio Company Culture Book: a written guide available to all online.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

It’s important to recognize that monetary reward is not the only means of incentivizing behavior. It can even be a de-motivator in certain scenarios. Using a gamification approach to training, we’ve found that friendly competition and comparative leaderboards are far more effective when addressing topics like cybersecurity awareness. By testing an employee’s ability to catch phishing attempts and recognizing their efforts they are more likely to become driven, attentive and engaged in the long-term.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

To streamline culture adoption and keep employees engaged, you must measure the process like a “checks and balances” system. Following the logic of Peter Drucker’s famous quote “if you don’t measure it, you won’t manage it,” measurement creates healthy internal competition, while showcasing what management considers important and where it can improve. This might take the form of a daily standup meeting, team focus groups, or a monthly ‘all-hands’ culture meeting to review our internal principles with new and existing employees.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Technology is advancing so fast that our educational system isn’t able to keep pace, so we have to train our own people. We in essence have to create mini universities within our organizations to rapidly train. Additionally, CEOs need to continually assess their people for cultural and role specific fit.

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Bart cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

The Agio link


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