Digineer CEO Michael Lacey considers nurturing talent and boosting community worthwhile investments
When Michael Lacey founded Digineer in 1998, he says, "I didn't know what I was doing, and nobody told me that I couldn't." He did well nonetheless. Today his Plymouth-based management and technology consulting firm has 100-plus employees and a wide variety of clients. Yet despite a busy schedule, Lacey takes time to invest in both employee training and, through his position as vice chairman at the Minnesota High Tech Association, his professional community's growth. Before starting Digineer, he worked at GE Capital Consulting and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, where exposure to a variety of consulting firms prompted him to want to start his own.
What is your philosophy in terms of developing the talents of your employees?
If you don't understand people, you probably don't understand business. Adding to the talents and abilities of the people on your team is the No. 1 way to increase the value that your company can provide for its customers.
What we've seen — and obviously this is germane to a consulting firm in particular, because we're a very people-dependent business, but even in manufacturing and other high-tech areas — the more talented the people you have at the right levels in the organization, the sharper your strategy is going to be, the more effective you're going to be at coordinating your efforts in order to execute, and ultimately the more, I think, you can glean from feedback you get from customers and employees.
What are your thoughts on the mentor-apprentice relationship?
There are probably six people who have been very instrumental in my career. If I look across all of them, there are really three things they all share. The first one is a passion for helping entrepreneurs — who by definition are novices in what they do — learn and grow themselves. The second one is they bring the appropriate balance of guidance that gets shared typically as relevant experience — as opposed to formal advice-giving that oftentimes can be perceived as judgmental. They don't ever take on the accountability for the problems that they're helping you solve. They just help me think through them and solve them. Last but not least, there's a degree of empathy, I think: "Yep, we've been there and we've been through that," or "We've seen other people go through that before." There are times you want to talk to somebody about something and all you really want to do is get it off your chest. They're good at helping people think through that.
I have mentored a number of younger entrepreneurs, and I actually still do that. One of the things that I've noticed is that they oftentimes come looking for the answer. It's really, really tempting if you have more knowledge and expertise to dive in and give somebody the answer. As I look at some of the mentoring I've done over time, and then I see what some of my mentors have done with me, I'm very impressed at their level of self-discipline and willingness to share without diving in and telling me what to do.
You're involved with the Minnesota High Tech Association. What's your philosophy in regards to helping the tech community in Minnesota?
I think MHTA's broader mission is really to help Minnesota become one of the top high-technology states in the country. It's both inspiring and a little humbling to see all of the companies that are part of MHTA working together to make that happen. You have United Health Group all the way down to small entrepreneurial firms. Part of what I'm really impressed with, and why I was attracted to it, is just the community aspect of it. They've been able to bring together a lot of folks who otherwise wouldn't necessarily come together to try and accomplish a broader mission.
In what ways do you play the role of a connector in your industry?
I have clients, employees, vendors, and others who know my name and know who I am, and they may have some thought that I could either help them or help a friend connect with others in the industry. I routinely have coffees and lunches with folks who are either in a career transition or who are currently gainfully employed but just looking to learn more or to connect with other folks. I don't always have as much time to do that as I'd like, frankly, but to the extent that I do, I think I've been able to help a number of people get connected. As the founder and CEO of Digineer, it's actually something we do as a business. We help our clients connect with other clients that may have the same or similar issues or problems.
How do you try to achieve work-life balance?
I personally have evolved to have a slightly different, I guess, mental model for it. I call it work-life blend as opposed to balance because the assumption around balance is the two have to be equal or somewhere balanced. The reality of it is with both the pervasiveness of communication technology, as well as people's interests and passions, oftentimes their bright ideas come to them when they're on a beach, not when they're in the office.
There are a couple of things that I do pretty regularly. One, I don't typically take really long vacations. I'll take long weekends. I do that fairly regularly. It helps me to both decompress and focus on other things. Being involved in some of the activities that I have outside of Digineer, like the MHTA, there's also a charity that I'm involved in, gives me something to do that is both intellectually stimulating but not stressful, not in the same way work is.
I also like to golf and do that fairly regularly. I'm also into photography, and I'm a bit of an amateur shutterbug — I like to tell people I have more equipment than my abilities will allow me to get real use out of. In addition to that, my wife and I live in a condo downtown, and, especially when the weather's good, we usually take a walk every night along the Mississippi and long bike rides on the trails on the weekend.