As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Bart McDonough.
Bart McDonough is CEO and Founder of Agio, a hybrid managed IT and cybersecurity services provider specializing in the financial services, health care and payments industries. Bart has deep institutional investment knowledge, with more than 20 years of experience working in cybersecurity, business development and IT management within the hedge fund industry. His core strengths are assessing, defining, advocating, and driving the adoption of risk management strategies, controls, and models that enabled organizations to advance cybersecurity resiliency while successfully complying with evolving regulatory requirements, and behavioral transformations.
Harnessing his expertise in alternative investments, Bart and his team of more than 200 employees have developed cybersecurity and managed IT tools tailored to protect financial businesses’ most precious assets: money and reputation. Just one example of Agio’s industry-changing work included finding and repairing a Bloomberg Professional Services setting that could have compromised over 300,000 subscribers. As CEO, Bart has grown Agio’s roster of clients to exceed 300, spanning hedge funds, private equity firms, asset managers, investment banks and health care providers.
Bart currently sits on the board of two cybersecurity firms, TwoSense.AI and Magnus Cloud, and has just launched his debut book, Cyber Smart: Five Habits to Protect Your Family, Money, and Identity from Cyber Criminals, in early 2019. Prior to founding Agio, he worked at SAC Capital Advisors, BlueStone Capital Partners, OptiMark Technologies, Sanford Bernstein and American Express. Bart attended the University of Oklahoma and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut. He is married to the two-time Emmy award winning television producer, Cheryl McDonough, and has three incredible children: Russell, Ava, and Kya.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always had a passion and an instinct for technology. My first job in college was at the Oklahoma City Law Library, because I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Within a month I was assigned to the computer lab because I was always fixing everyone’s computers.
After college, I secured a position at American Express to pursue a career in finance, but within a few months I was hired as a technologist because — to no one’s surprise — I was fixing everyone’s computer problems again.
A decade later, I was working as Managing Director of System Architecture at SAC Capital Advisors. In that role, I realized there was an industry need for a technology provider that could provide enterprise-level support but in a way that understands the culture and the demands of a large hedge fund. In 2009, after nearly nine years, I left SAC to start Agio.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s not necessarily “funny,” but we hired poorly. We were so desperate for people to join Agio that we rushed the interview process and relied on industry certifications, which proved to be a disaster. We quickly learned that we had to test people beyond a certification–just because someone passes the right test doesn’t mean they actually know how to do the work.
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?
Definitely my mom and dad — they’ve always been super encouraging. Together they gave me something to aspire to and the confidence that I could make it happen.
My mom taught me the importance of writing and my dad passed down his love of reading. A small business owner himself, my dad inspired me and showed me what it means to have a strong, self-motivating work ethic.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our vision has always been the same: to empower clients with the most secure, reliable, and resilient information systems. At Agio, we’ve always wanted to make IT services easier for people — whether those people were users or technical managers.
We believed (and still do) that if we hired and worked with like-minded people who strive to help others, that we could achieve our vision.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The global pandemic threw us a curveball like we’d never seen before. To guide us through the uncertainty, I heavily leaned into three key principles. These values are extremely important — not only during stressful situations, but also during the good times. If I ever felt like I made a mistake, it was because I didn’t follow one of them.
- Be as transparent as you can. This applies to colleagues, employees, and clients.
- With new facts, make new decisions. Don’t get anchored on a previous decision just because you already made it.
- Communicate fearlessly. Throughout the pandemic, it was (and still is) impossible to overcommunicate to employees about our thoughts, concerns and plans.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up isn’t really one of my attributes. I run marathons — I do difficult things. My problem is that I don’t always understand when to quit. For me, there’s the balance of “Am I doing this because it’s hard or am I doing it because it’s hard but I’m confident we’ll get to the other side?” Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, discusses how some people thrive in in difficult situations. It’s a positive character trait, but it can also mean they spend too much time focusing on a lost cause.
I like persevering. I like the daily grind that leads to accomplishment. I like the idea that you can spend 30 minutes a day on something and come out on the other side. When I was writing my book, I broke it into daily 30- or 60-minute sessions. It was a grind, but knowing the outcome kept me going. That perspective sustains my drive — I visualize the long-term goal, and then focus each day to achieve it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Transparent, frequent communication.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
When you communicate transparently you build trust, and that’s an excellent way to boost morale. No one expects smooth sailing on everything.
It’s also important to remind your team of the vision you’re working towards. Sometimes the grind can drain people, and if you don’t know where you’re going, the feeling of fulfillment can get lost. In Agio’s case, our vision to make technology easier and safer is inspiring, so reminding people of that end game helps to motivate them.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Quickly and directly. Difficult news doesn’t age well.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I believe the challenge isn’t making the plan, it’s adjusting to the plan. This goes back to what I mentioned previously: with new facts make new decisions. You need to be flexible as you move forward.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Communicate fearlessly. When you leave people in the dark, their minds go to dark places, whereas communicating to illuminate yields trust.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Not communicating transparently. Sometimes this happens because leaders are afraid to deliver bad news, but it’s critical to treat people as fully formed adults who can handle the truth. Children can’t.
- Not explaining business decisions. During challenging times, leaders need to fully explain to their teams the “why” behind the decisions they make — not just the “what.”
- Not allowing team members to speak up about problems within the organization. Oftentimes, leaders only encourage employees to speak up only when they have a solution to an issue, and that’s not always a fair expectation.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
To forge ahead during difficult times, you need a combination of the right data, the right metrics, the right KPIs, and the right instrumentation — at the right time. With those tools, you can then pivot appropriately.
As I mentioned before, with new data we make new decisions. For example, you might have invested in something you thought would pay off at some point. But if it’s not yielding that payback, you must know when to pivot. In the same vein, an investment might be paying off tremendously, which means you should consider adjusting your strategy and double down on it.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communicate fearlessly. Throughout the pandemic, we made sure to overcommunicate with our employees. We also established multiple communication channels and forums to ensure messages didn’t get lost.
- Treat people like fully formed adults. We expect everyone at Agio to exhibit good judgment with each other, clients, and partners. We also ask our managers to display empathy toward the teams they lead. This was especially important when it came to the fully remote work situation we found ourselves in last year.
- With new facts make new decisions. It’s important that leaders don’t get anchored in their decisions, especially during unpredictable times. You must be open to pivoting, and then pivoting again if it means a better business outcome.
- Be transparent. Transparency is the currency of trust, and trust builds loyalty. This means not sugarcoating bad news, and delivering candid feedback.
- Allow people to speak up. This is the heart of our organization and we welcome opinions and questions with open arms — especially during uncertain times. We consider feedback as a lifeline to our continued and future success. You see it? You feel it? Say it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” -Muhammad Ali
As a business, you need to have a deep conviction in what you’re doing. Once you have that conviction, action follows. Without it, action doesn’t follow.
The world is hard — people face roadblocks and challenges every day. Without being highly convicted about something, you can get knocked off course. We see this a lot with businesses that are just starting out. They aren’t highly convicted and so they radically adjust their strategy in a way that they shouldn’t.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m most active on Twitter — that’s where I share my point of view on industry news and trends. The best way for people to keep up with Agio’s technology innovations and thought leadership is to follow Agio on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.