Originally published by Tim Redpath
Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.
Eli Fathi is a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits in launching innovative technology companies in North America that serve a global customer base. He has founded or co-founded companies that currently employ over 300 people and have generated over $500 million in salaries and net benefits to the economy. Eli is passionate about personal growth, challenging oneself and others to be held to a higher standard and scaling up businesses around world-class products that solve real-world problems. He is currently the CEO of MindBridge Analytics Inc.
I learned English by listening to the Flintstones
I was born in Israel and came to Canada after spending three years in the Israeli army to join my two sisters and brother. I went to Algonquin College and had a tough first year because I did not speak English well. I always remember a physics lecture on acceleration and velocity. I did not understand most of what was being said so I had to go to the library afterward to find the words. I learned English by listening to the Flintstones. On graduation, I went to Ottawa University and did my engineering degree in two years, finishing summa cum laude, and then completed a Master’s degree.
We were nine people in one room when I was born
Growing up in Israel, my family was not very rich; as a matter of fact, we were fairly poor. We were nine people in one room when I was born. When I was six, we moved to a bigger house where my parents had one room, and the six children, plus occasionally grandma, had the second room. I never felt poor because we were no different than our neighbours.
If I asked my dad for money he would say, “Take what you need.”
My father taught me the value of hard work. He woke up at four AM every morning to go to the market, pick up the fruit and vegetables, came home at seven AM for breakfast. He stayed in the store until six PM, went home, had dinner, watched a little TV and went to bed, just to repeat the process the next day. Friday was shorter obviously because it was start of the sabbath in Israel.
I also learned honesty from my father. After school, I spent time in my father’s store. I learned about customers; I learned about selling; I learned about money; I learned about responsibility. If I asked my dad for money he would say, “Take what you need.” He had money to buy the next day’s fruit and vegetables and he trusted me to take only what I needed and no more.
Honesty and my work ethic are gifts from my parents and have been constants in my life.
I learned about leadership when I became a staff sergeant
When I was conscripted into the army, everything changed. Suddenly I realized I was dealing with life and death and I realized what was important. I learned about leadership when I became a staff sergeant. You take care of the needs of others first; you take the last shower; you eat the last meal; you sleep last. You get all your people fed and taken care of before you take care of yourself.
A good leader has empathy
Is a leader born or is a leader made? Nature or nurture? I think you have some leadership qualities you are born with and others you acquire over time. My army experience nurtured a lot of my leadership skills.
I discovered that for people to follow you, they must trust you and believe you are more capable than them. If they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you and when you need them the most, they won’t be there. A good leader has empathy to understand the plight of others. Without empathy for those around you, it’s very difficult to lead.
I told my wife, “I really need this challenge”
I stumbled into entrepreneurship and, once I was in the trenches, I took the leadership position.
I had a well-paid data engineering job with the RCMP, while I finished my Masters. I quit that position for a short-term contract with an entrepreneurial professor who had started his own company. He wanted me to help and I told my wife, “I really need this challenge”. She was totally supportive, even though our daughter was born just as I was stepping into this unknown.
The hero in my life is my wife, Arleen. We have been married for 44 years and I could not have become a successful leader without her. Especially when the children were young.
I want to make a difference
The company went well and, when the professor went back home to the USA after three years, I started my own business. I looked for funding but, in the end, I decided to do it the poor man’s way – to start from scratch. I built it into a 50-person, $5 million revenue entity, before a successful exit.
I live to work. I need the mental challenge of creating successful companies. To me, it is what defines me. I want to make a difference. Each company is a vehicle to allow me to make a difference.
“Don’t match the person to the work, match the work to the person”
The best leadership advice I ever got was from my old RCMP boss 30 years ago who told me, “Don’t match the person to the work, match the work to the person”. What he meant was, find great people, see their strengths and give them work where they will succeed.
There are two ways you can manage people. The easiest way is to use the stick because it gets a rapid response. I prefer the consensus conductor approach with a carrot and understanding. It takes a lot more effort, a lot more. If you try to understand people, you can do a better job at leading them.
We have a “No Jerks” rule
The first thing I do is look at the cultural fit. I want to make sure the potential candidate is a caring person, so I ask them questions related to volunteering. I will ask: ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ ‘What do you do for the community?’ ‘Is there anything you do outside your working hours?’ If they don’t do anything, it worries me.
We have a “No Jerks” rule in the company so I ask: ‘Do you lead with a stick, or with a carrot?’ ‘Are you someone who beats people up or are you a conductor?’
So, these are the two things I look for – cultural fit and “no jerks”. If these two are established, I look at the person’s ability.
You must have passion in your life
If you are passionate for something, I don’t care what, that is huge. You must have passion in your life, otherwise it is a red flag for me. Passion tells me you have ability to focus on something. If we make the environment, the company policies and the work interesting, it triangulates to success because you know how to have passion for something.
I invite people on my team to buy into my vision and to trust me by spending time with them, mentoring them. I treat everybody equally. It so happens my job is the CEO. It doesn’t mean I am any better than the person doing the design work or the coding. We all do our own job and to succeed we need to work together as a team.
I built the leadership team by recruiting the best people. We must maintain respect for each other, and our respective teams, in good times and in bad times.
Millennials don’t seem to want to own anything
We employ younger people and the biggest thing I see with millennials is the shared economy. Millennials don’t seem to want to own anything. They are totally connected, have the desire to be recognized and acknowledged. And they want to make a difference, which is great.
If you can point them in the right direction to make a difference, they can become very significant contributors, although they sometimes require more hand-holding. It requires a different management style as you must treat them differently.
You are used to eating ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches
I talk to young leaders on leadership and I tell them to make sure they have a team around them which supports them and believes in the vision. It’s not easy to start a company. If it was easy, everyone would go and start one. You must have everyone rowing in the same direction and believing in the vision. If they don’t, things start to collapse when there is some difficulty.
I tell them it’s okay to pivot in a start-up. Always be on the look-out, when you are digging for gold, to be sure there really is some there, or whether you have just found a few nuggets on the surface.
I tell them advisors are extremely important, especially when you are a young company. We have had as many as 25 advisors who we use to open doors.
When advising young entrepreneurs, I say “do it”. Go where your heart is, because you don’t want to be on your rocking chair when you are 80 saying, “I should have done that”. It’s the best time to do it when you are young. You have nothing, you are used to eating ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches. Then, understand it’s a journey, it’s not instantaneous, and it takes a lot of effort.
The only thing you have is your integrity
I once worked with a tough leader who was extremely successful. But he was a jerk – he was not a nice person at all. I saw how he interfaced with his subordinates and how poorly he treated them. Being demanding is one thing – you don’t need to insult people. Ultimately, the only thing you have is your integrity, so you need to protect it. If you don’t have high integrity, if you don’t have the right behavior, we cannot work together.