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Active Listening and Grit with John Belizaire, pt. 2 — Scaling Clean Ep. 11

on • 15 min. read

Hey #cleantechers, this week we’re back with part two of our conversation with Soluna Computing CEO John Belizaire. John’s current company is building modular green data centers that run on renewable energy. And though he just turned 50, John has already sold two companies.

Our conversation for Scaling Clean was incredibly rich. You can hear the first half of the conversation on last week’s episode. In last week’s episode, John described the attributes such as active listening and mentorship that are keys to successful entrepreneurship. 

Part two is just as interesting. John and I discuss hiring, how an effective CEO inspires change in his team, and the key determinants of success in cleantech companies.



Mike Casey:
This is Scaling Clean, the podcast for clean economy CEOs, investors, and the people who advise them. I'm your host, Mike Casey. My day job is running Tigercomm, the firm that counsels companies that are helping move the US economy onto a more sustainable footing. I get to meet the people who are succeeding at building, funding, or advising the most successful companies in your sectors. At each show, we try to bring you usable insights from these leaders so you can apply them to the business of running your business. In this episode, we have the second part of my conversation with Soluna Computing CEO John Belizaire. If you missed the first half, I strongly encourage you to listen to it. You don't need to do that to get value from this episode, but you have to listen to that if you want to get all the usable stuff that John has to offer. And that's a lot. Last week we discussed the innovation in the burgeoning cleantech sector. 

The 5 Key Jobs of a CEO

Mike Casey:
We'll pick up our conversation today talking about John's lessons for aspiring CEOs. Tomorrow, you are asked on the fly by a friend to come down to Columbia University and speak to an MBA class. And your talk is the role of the effective CEO, the things that you have to do as a CEO and do them well and do a lot of them to make a company scale and succeed. What's on the list?

Team Building

John Belizaire:
There are five things. I think there are five key jobs that a CEO needs to master, and they change. Actually, the nature of the jobs changes over time as the company matures, but the buckets are the same if you will. The first is the CEO has to be a great team builder. Companies are made of living, breathing people. They're not just bits and infrastructure technologies and so forth. Everything that works and makes a company successful is about the people. So you have to not only decide the types of people that you're gonna want in your company, and that means sort of sitting, taking a step back, and writing a set of principles that define what that looks like. You have to envision the type of company that you're gonna be creating. What is the cultural experience I want people to have?

Why do I want people to come to work? And what's ultimately the mission of the enterprise? And then what you do is you go find the best possible people you can find out here to sit in every single seat that you're shaping in the company and it's uber-important that you develop a clear and repeatable process for doing that. And continue to do it on a continuous basis cause what got you here won't necessarily get you there. Sometimes you have folks that can grow up to a certain point with the company, and then you have to find the next leader to take the company to the next step. 

Being an Operator

John Belizaire:
The second is that CEOs have to be real operators just talking about what the company has to do to investors. And you raise the capital and you think everything's gonna be hunky-dory.
No, actually, you've gotta take that team of people and get them to execute really well against a set of clearly defined goals. So being an operator means defining a set of operating systems that the company is going to live by, your role in helping to shape that and operate that and really beat the drum on a continuous basis. So the ability to execute and operate isn't really important. You have to be a leader. 

Being a Servant-Leader

John Belizaire:
And I talked earlier about the importance of an effective CEO really being a servant leader. So you are going out and finding all the obstacles that your team is dealing with and giving them clear and succinct advice on how to deal with it. And also help them see their blind spots and the places where they can improve, and provide clear and effective feedback on things that people are doing well and not doing well.

Fiduciary Responsibility

John Belizaire:
The fourth is you're a fiduciary. You are responsible for essentially running a company that has investment capital in it ideally. And even if you're bootstrapping the company, it's your capital. So it's your job to turn that capital into real significant value for those investors and make sure that their money is protected and is doing what you said it would do. And so the CEO's relationship with the board of directors is really important in helping them to do their fiduciary role. They hire you to act as their person, if you will, at the company to run it. Most founders don't realize how important these different roles are. I have said four out of five of them, and I'll say the fifth one in a second, but it's really important to say on this fiduciary point, the moment you take in outside capital - someone else's money -  into your company the dynamic, who you are, completely changes.

See, before you were just a founder and you were excited. You're putting all these cool technologies together. You got a team and you're starting to write some code. Now you take series A, you take series B, you take series C, you are a CEO. Your job is to be a professional and build out the company. Yes, you're a founder, and so you have that passion, but fundamentally you have a fiduciary role as the operator and chief executive of the company. 

Being the Primary Storyteller

John Belizaire:
The last one, and I wanted to save this for last. I find that this is super-super important. The CEO is the primary storyteller for the company. Every single company that gets created is created around a story. A company itself is actually a story. It doesn't really fundamentally exist as a corporation that's registered in Delaware or some other state.

But the story around why that entity exists and what its role is in the world is super important for someone to define, help shape and then help disseminate to the entire world in order for the company to be successful. I don't know if the listeners have read  ‘Sapiens’, but one of the key points in that book is how humans are wired for storytelling. The success of our species has been driven around our incredible ability because we had big brains to tell stories and create fictions actually, that help drive tribes and small groups of people to go make things happen. And build everything that we currently see now and why we’ve become a dominant species on the planet for better or worse because we have this ability to tell stories. And so as a CEO, your job is to be that tribal leader, if you will, to go out there and help people understand, why what you're doing is important to them and how it will shape their industry. And no one else can do better that, than the CEO. And if you don't know how to do it, well, learn how to do it better, because it's part of the job. It's the five key jobs.

Mike Casey:
I'm gonna jump ahead on the question list because you really springboarded naturally to this part of the conversation. Hiring is always said to be one of the most challenging parts of leading companies. What have you learned about hiring, particularly at the senior level?

John Belizaire:
What I've learned is that many times people make, I'd say, a fundamental mistake. Let's say, you're building this cool new software company and it has some relationship to Google or another big company. And so you take in the BC dollars and what you do is you run right away and go hire someone from Google and expect that they're gonna just expand and blow up the role and make you super successful. So the challenge with that is that person was at Google, they had access to Google resources, they've been living the Google culture. They have networks that are Google focused. When you grab them and drop them into your enterprise, there's a lot of reprogramming that you have to do because, as I said earlier you've gotta shape the culture and give them a sense of what the core principles are.
So you have to align and make sure that person can fit into that environment in order to be successful. Because otherwise what they're essentially gonna try to do is turn your organization into Google, because that's what they're used to and what's important to them. So when we're hiring senior-level people, one of the things we do at Soluna is we spend a tremendous amount of time understanding their programming. We do behavioral assessments and so forth. We're really testing for not just if this person has the experience that we need to be successful, but are they going to drink our Kool-Aid and become a Soluna person rather than bring their company's way of doing things to the environment. That's super-super important. And it's learning through experience that I have, each of these roles has to be carefully thought through and be careful about sort of cultural dynamics.

Mike Casey:
John, if I may, how do you suss that out? So I totally get the concept. How have you found in recruitment or identifying recruitment, interviewing? How do you scout for that? I guess I'll call it potential compatibility with the new place.

John Belizaire:
So there’s a number of characteristics I guess we're looking for. How has the person adapted in their environment and in their career. We test for their sort of personal mission. Like why are they looking for the roles? What do they need in their next role? And then we're spending a lot of time studying the decisions they've made in their lives. So there's this thing we do at Soluna - topgrading, and it's a very detailed interview process and its purpose really is to understand how this person became the person they are today and we look at those decisions throughout their career. And very quickly you start to see patterns and you can tell whether those patterns of decision-making, approaches to obstacles and innovation will fit within our environment. And those are some of the things that we do to help suss out whether a C-level person is gonna be a good fit here.

Mike Casey:
Do you do anything extra or different to attract diverse talent? I know that one thing a lot of white CEOs wrestle with, I think quietly, is what should I do to increase the flow of diverse talent so I can meet my aspirations and my goals for diversity equity inclusion.

John Belizaire:
So we do a lot, the challenge you're talking about, or maybe the excuse you're talking about, is the fact that I want to hire diverse people, but I don't know anybody, right? I can't seem to find them. And the reason is because, going back to the whole storytelling thing, humans are also driven around networks. And so if you don't have diversity in your network, it's gonna be hard for you to find a diverse person. So as a leader, what you want to do is continuously expand your network such that you get access to more diverse networks. And you can start with the people in your company that are diverse and get them to give you access to their networks and so on and so forth. So I spend a lot of time meeting with organizations that are focused on diversity.

I spend a lot of time speaking at them. And so I get exposed to young professionals that are looking for the next great experience and they wanna learn. And so that gives us access to folks. We create a lot of content around the diversity mix of our industry, which attracts folks who have an affinity to companies that care about that. And that draws people our way. It draws women our way. Cause we talk a lot about the lack of women in the crypto space and the renewable energy space. We go after universities and we spend time with different departments that can give us access to those pools of people who can increase the diversity of our organization and we consciously try our best to do it.

What Determines Success?

Mike Casey:
Okay. Coming to a close here, two final questions. First, in your experience in growing and scaling, and selling companies, what determines success more - what you choose to do or what you choose not to do?

John Belizaire:
Definitely what I've chosen not to do. I have this blog that I write and it's all about the lessons I've learned being a CEO of technology companies. And there's this one article I wrote a few years back about advice for first-time CEOs and founders. And one of the key pieces of advice really far up at the top, I got during, remember those interviews I was talking about where I called the Cornell alumni? And it was this one guy, who had built at least four companies and he said ‘Look, we just went through a lot here, but if we never talk again, there's one thing I want you to remember - be laser-focused’. Being laser-focused and being focused as a leader, CEO, and founder is one of the most challenging things. In the CEO forums that I go to, where we talk about wins and losses and it's a peer group of CEOs and we're talking about our businesses. One of the most common things we do is catching people when they're becoming defocused with their business. It's like you're being attracted to shiny objects, you should drop this. There's this one company, this CEO, who's really successful, an analytics platform for e-marketing. And the company was just growing gangbusters. And he had this idea to go into this completely different sector because he thought no one else was doing it and he should do it.

And the most common question we asked ‘Why do you feel you need to do that? Why? Why don't you just focus and become better at what you actually do?’ And I think that if there's one thing that I would like the listeners to this podcast, who are CEOs of cleantech companies, to understand is that you have to be laser-focused. Be laser-focused. You should do one thing fundamentally really well and do it better than anybody else. You don't have to do four things to be successful, you just have to do one thing really really well. That means you have to say ‘no’ a lot. And I can tell you how many times Mike, people in our team say ‘John, we should do, what about this?’ And I'm like ‘Nah, we're not doing that. That doesn't seem like a good use of our time right now’. So I've developed many ways to say basically ‘No, we're not doing that’. And that's what drives success in a company - not saying yes to more things, but saying no to more things and yes to one primary thing. And from that you get clarity, serenity, the team knows where, and what you're doing, you can double down. There's a learning curve you can build on, and ultimately your company becomes extremely successful.

Storytelling and Community Building as Keys to Success

Mike Casey:
Last question. Of all of our firm's clients you have taken to content and inbound marketing more than anyone else, can you share what you have found executing this approach and what it's done for your company?

John Belizaire:
Yes. I can, and it goes back to my point about storytelling. There are common misconceptions about how companies become successful. Some people think you just need a really good PR firm and they're gonna get you in the Wall Street Journal and you've made it. Actually, that's not true. You actually end up spending a lot of money and not getting a lot of results. The real secret is that if you wanna change a sector, or change the world, you have first to help people understand why they need to change. If there's a problem that you solve as a company, you need to start talking about that problem all the time and getting the problem out there and all the different ways in which you can solve that problem, yours among them, obviously. And suddenly, by doing this persistently and consistently over time, you start to build an audience, people who connect to that problem, people who live that pain every day. I like to call it back pain

People who live that challenge every day. And they really wanna understand, does anyone else remember, back to my point about tribes? Does anyone else have this problem? How are they dealing with it? What solutions are out there for me? And because we all have a supercomputer in our pockets now, we're all constantly serving content for different reasons to influence our behavior and change our mindset. Your storytelling about this problem and how important it is and how it needs to change and reshape and how things aren't done that way anymore, and they're going to change down the road and you need to shape that is eventually going to trickle into people's psyche. One of my favorite movies ‘Inception’, right? They will suddenly believe that they thought of this idea, the solution to my problem is this thing over here, this is the way I should be going.

And they will start to look for companies that can address the issue. And guess what? Because they're part of your audience, your company will be among the first companies that they call. So we have used this approach. 

The Power of Content and Inbound Marketing

Our marketing team is effectively a media company. We produce podcasts like this one. We put out blogs cause we're trying to educate people about the problem. We do research, we study the problem, and talk to different members of the industry, partly because we're trying to learn, but we're sharing that learning. We also go to conferences as I talked about, and try to convince people to think beyond the sort of conventional thinking, if you will. And essentially through that storytelling and content development, we were able to sort of inform our audiences of renewable energy's biggest problem - wasted energy.

We've introduced our turnkey solution to an audience of potential partners and investors that were otherwise familiar. I can't tell you how many times people have said ‘Wow, I never thought about it, I never knew there was this kind of solution available to me’. And we've established ourselves as a premier brand to those potential power partners, and we've dispelled a lot of misconceptions about the industry that we're in. Some of the computing we're doing is in the crypto and bitcoin space, and there's so much negative narrative around there. And so we develop the positive narratives, how people understand the positive externalities that can be created by this very disruptive technology. And finally, by creating this content, you build a community. And again, humans are attracted to storytelling. They're attracted to communities and tribes. And we've built the community of entrepreneurs, investors, thought leaders all around the broad tech and clean energy industry where we have conversations about how to shape and get the industry to accelerate, what it's doing to become the dominant source of power on the planet.

Mike Casey:
John Belizaire, I think this is going to be our best episode yet, and I am really pleased that you joined us. Thank you so, so much. I wanna make sure we put that article you referenced into the show notes. So John, if you're able to just grab the URL and send it to us, we'll make sure it goes in the show notes. And I think your answer to the last question is so good. I might do a separate post on LinkedIn about it and just script it out if you don't mind. It's so good. Well, John Belizaire, thank you for joining us. A lot of wisdom in a short period of time and I so appreciate you doing this. Thank you, my friend.

John Belizaire:
Thanks, Mike. I had a great time as always, and thanks for having me on the show.

Mike Casey:
Our thanks to Soluna Computing CEO, John Belizaire. This is Scaling Clean, the production of Tigercomm. And I'm Mike Casey. Thanks for joining us. You can subscribe to our show for free anywhere you get your podcast. And while you're there, please leave us a five-star rating and a review. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks for listening.