How do you build a company out of a crazy idea? With Meg Clancy and Jean MacMillan

October 27, 2020 Daniel Serfaty Season 1 Episode 5
How do you build a company out of a crazy idea? With Meg Clancy and Jean MacMillan
How do you build a company out of a crazy idea? With Meg Clancy and Jean MacMillan
Oct 27, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Daniel Serfaty

Once upon a time three friends set off to build a company made up of equal parts technologies and human scientists. They believed that they could build systems in which humans and technologies can coexist in harmony—they called it “Human-Centered Engineering.” They believed at the same time they could build a human-centered company as well. Join MINDWORKS host Daniel Serfaty, as he talks with his Aptima, Inc. co-founders Meg Clancy and Dr. Jean MacMillan about how they built a successful company out of a crazy idea, where the human is at the center of everything they do.

Show Notes Transcript

Once upon a time three friends set off to build a company made up of equal parts technologies and human scientists. They believed that they could build systems in which humans and technologies can coexist in harmony—they called it “Human-Centered Engineering.” They believed at the same time they could build a human-centered company as well. Join MINDWORKS host Daniel Serfaty, as he talks with his Aptima, Inc. co-founders Meg Clancy and Dr. Jean MacMillan about how they built a successful company out of a crazy idea, where the human is at the center of everything they do.

Jean MacMillan: I think one of the key strengths about Aptima is from the beginning, we worked so hard at our shared value of fairness. The most capable person gets the job and that's really built into Aptima’s DNA and it has been from the beginning.

Daniel Serfaty: Welcome to MINDWORKS. This is your host, Daniel Serfaty. Today, I have two special guests. By that I mean really special guests. They are my partners in life, at work, in crime. They are the people who helped me build Aptima from the ground up. First, Meg Clancy, who not only co-founded Aptima with me, but made sure from a business perspective that Aptima was valuable and continues to be valuable to this day. And Dr. Jean MacMillan, who is our former chief scientist and now consultant with Aptima. So let's start with Jean. Tell us a little bit about your role at Aptima over the years.

Jean MacMillan: Well, it's a real challenge to be the chief scientist of a company like Aptima, that's so intensely multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. My own personal academic training is in cognitive psychology, but we have such a diverse and talented bunch of people at Aptima from many different fields.

So the way I define the job of chief scientist was really to focus on the clarity of written communication across disciplines. That in a practical sense, played out in terms of writing competitive technical proposals. But I felt I was in a good position to tell people how they could clearly communicate their particular expertise to other people who might not share their academic training. So I would say that was really my specialty. My role at Aptima.

Daniel Serfaty: Did it evolve over the years? And in what way?

Jean MacMillan: I got a sense of how to do it better. Particularly on technical proposals, I worked very hard to get people to think ahead of time, about what they wanted to write. I ran what we call six story meetings when people were planning proposals, because I saw people just sit down and write proposals with no thought about what they were trying to communicate.

I would say my primary contribution at Aptima was forcing people to say clearly ahead of time, what story they were trying to tell in the proposal. So we could figure out how to communicate it clearly to the people who were making the funding decisions about our work.

Daniel Serfaty: Well, storytelling is certainly a skill that is difficult to acquire in one shot and we've been honing that skill Aptima more and more. Thanks a lot to your leadership in telling the scientific story, as well as the business story, but you joined Aptima when we were a handful. And now we're about 250 people. How did your role really change? You were writing all the proposals at the beginning.

Jean MacMillan: Well, I went from writing all the proposals to conducting these story meetings before other people wrote the proposals to trying to train other people and how to do these meetings and trying to multiply my viewpoint so other people would be able to do the same thing that I had done. So it got really more into a teaching role as the company got bigger, I couldn't write all the proposals. I couldn't even run all the story meetings. Other people need to learn to do that. And I needed to try to do some how to do it.

Daniel Serfaty: Thank you. Well, we've come back to that. I have any more question in that direction, but I'd to introduce my other guests today. Meg Clancy was the founding CFO of Aptima and has been with the company for its entire existence to this day. So, Meg, about a quarter century ago. I'm sorry to say that word, but it's been 25 years. You decided, "Yeah. Let's build a company with Daniel." Tell us about your role over the years since those early days in the mid ‘90s.

Meg Clancy: Well, I like to think that I helped set up the framework or infrastructure for the business to be successful, which was at time zero, me being both bookkeeper, accountant security officer, I think for a brief time, I was even the ISTP manager, as crazy as that sounds, but in a small startup, one must wear many hats, but the company grew and we needed to bring in more expertise.

And I was very happy when a number of people that we had worked with over the years decided to apply to open job description. So we had, so we had a little microcosm of the company where we all worked in mat after some period of time. And these were really professional, experienced people, and many of them are still with us today.

Daniel Serfaty: Okay. But as the company grew, at some point you stepped out of the role of CFO and you hire a former colleague of yours Tom, who's our current CFO. How did you see your role at this point from the board, from looking at the different aspect, as you say that any entrepreneur needs to have, we all wear multiple hats and we continued to wear multiple hats way after the founding of the company. So how did you see that role evolve for you?

Meg Clancy: Well, I think it extracted me from the day to day operations of accounting and finance and allowed me to get more involved with strategic. Decision-making where to open offices and how to open offices and complying with new regulations that came out. So I think it lifted me out of the day-to-day enough to start contributing in the areas where we needed to grow and needed to get smart so that we could continue to grow with all the new regulations in the human resource area and the new security regulations. I tried to get us going on those fronts, other more capable people have taken over as we were able to hire professionals with deep experience in those areas. But I think that it helped me contribute at a higher even higher level because I had everybody's problems rolling into my office, including if petty cash didn't balance.

Daniel Serfaty: Well, thank you. It seems there's a lot of similarity between your two stories, because even though you come from very different fields, accounting, cognitive psychology, in the case of Jean as an entrepreneur, we went through the doing to the teaching, how to do to the supervising of the teaching, how to do, and that's an evolution that is very healthy for us because at the end of the day, a company, I believe Aptima can only grow if the new contributors make it grow.

And the best job that all of us can do again, as builders of company is to coach other folks so that they can grow the company. So that evolution from doer to coach is one that the three of us have in common. So Aptima as being founded on the premise of, okay, we believe that we can build systems in which humans and technologies can co-exist in some kind of harmony or at least how many States at the end of the day, this is still our belief.

After 25 years, we are talking about much more complex system now, because that technology we're talking about is an intelligent technologies and new technologies that adapt that maybe artificial intelligence, but it's a technology that learn and changes. So the premise was there. Yeah. Let's build a company that build those systems and that is made of equal part of technologies and human scientists.

And why not? Let's jump. We have no financing. We can start from zero, let's start a company. This was crazy. Wasn't it? Especially looking back. We all had very comfortable and successful careers before we started actually for the audience Meg and Jean and myself met a few years before the founding of Aptima in another company called alpha tech where we were colleagues and we enjoy each other's company.

But one day Jean was not with alpha tech anymore. We decided to jump and to build that company. So all the professional choices you could have made at the time. And that's the question for both of you, what made you leave your very comfortable, successful previous job and join Aptima you took a risk, a major risk. Did you take that risk? What were your hopes? What were your fears actually, Jean, can we start with you?

Jean MacMillan: Of course. And I have to admit when Daniel first approached me about the idea of starting a company, I told him he was out of his mind. I said, do you know how scary? And I've used how hard that is? You have work. It is to have no, how many small companies go out of business. And as I say, in retrospect, of course I was right, but ultimately what pulled me into abdomen was Megan Daniel.

They were two of the best people I ever worked with. And I was also just extremely fond of them. In addition to the respect I had for them. And I just couldn't pass it by, I couldn't let the boat leave without me. I couldn't pass up the chance to work with them in growing a company and the fears and the hopes are pretty much the same thing for me. I was very frightened.

I was terrified. In fact, I was sure that I wouldn't be able to give it enough. It felt an incredible adult responsibilities. if the company goes under, this is going to be my fault. And I was afraid that I wouldn't really be able to make the contribution that I wanted to, but I took the plunge, maybe the scariest thing I ever did.

Daniel Serfaty: We are fortunate that to do that launch because you shape the company in ways. Now, even when you are in kind of a semi-retirement now you're still attached to Aptima, but we don't see you as much as we used to do. So many folks have joined Aptima now that you have yet to meet and they still are speaking your language.

You see folks in the hall talking about six stories, meeting and talking storytelling in proposal. And I said, well, they don't know what those words are coming from, but they were invented by Jean. So certainly I'm glad you made the jump. Meg, you were a CFO in your 20s of a company that was quite successful. You had a family, you had a baby and you still decided to jump and co-found this company where you crazy?

Meg Clancy: Well, I have to admit, I had many friends that told me that they thought I was doing something crazy, but my late husband got on board eventually and then became very supportive of the decision. Because we both stupidly thought that it would take time to ramp up and I would only be working part-time hours. And I would be able to enjoy more time with my son. Well, it took off like a rocket actually. As Daniel said earlier, we were profitable from day one.

We didn't have to seek outside capital, but we had a stay on top of performance so that we got continued business. And then we tried to penetrate new markets like Costco contracting for the government, and we need a special accounting system for that. And then secure personnel clearances. And then we needed to get the company cleared. So I was really busy from one that wasn't what I was planning, but it was fun. And we always met payroll.

The one time that we were short on cash, my husband loaned me $40,000 for a week and we made payroll and he got it back with interest. So it was fun. It was exciting. I never really worried about failing, which I'm a worrywart so it's surprising that I of all people would not worry about that. But I knew how hard I was willing to work and I saw how hard Daniel was working in when Jean joined us. I just thought, "Well, it's trifecta."

Daniel Serfaty: Thank you, Meg. I think one of the reasons many startup fails is because they cannot afford a person of your caliber at the time, to be able to run the business while somebody was on the road, drumming up some new business. And usually what happens is that after a year there is not enough energy in the system to continue. There is not enough infrastructure.

I was extremely fortunate that you set up that infrastructure in such an expert way that sustain us through these days. It's interesting that you were not fearful about failing. That surprised me because I know that entrepreneurs need to be a little more optimistic that their general population, otherwise they will immediately stop what they're doing and go back to their paying job. And in this particular case, you mentioned that you were never doubting in a sense, why is that?

Meg Clancy: Well, I think you treated me in a way that I felt a true partner. I mean, I had equity from the start and you gave Jean equity when she joined. You made it very clear to us that we were valuable to you. I knew that we all had the necessary skills, you and science and development, and Jean certainly in science, writing and technology, and proposal production. We were all playing I think the right rules for success.

Daniel Serfaty: Well, one of the rules, I remember you were talking about you borrowing from your late husband, Larry, $40,000 to make payroll. I remember the two of us going around the 30th of December with a shopping cart, literally because we have a little more money left on overhead that we needed to spend in the current year before turning the leaf over to January. And we're just buying staples and paper and other things like that, just to be able to balance the budget with the shopping cart.

I think if we were doing that today, we'll need a much larger shopping cart so that it fit to the same story. Jean, back to you. Imagine you have a young woman with a PhD in psychology, a couple of years, maybe out of grad school, who's coming to you today and say, "Hey, I have these job at a large corporation, but I'm thinking about going and joining this startup." What would your advice be?

Jean MacMillan: Well, I think I would ask that person to think very carefully about the people. People talk about companies as though they were an abstract thing. I mean, what are the people like, who are running this startup? Do you know them? Do you trust them? Because that I think is the key question. It certainly was for me. I joined Aptima on the strength of my relationship with you and Nick.

Daniel Serfaty: No, I agree. That's a good answer. That's also very relevant to the choice of many people and not just many scientists, but especially many young women are doing today in the high-tech field. It is a field that is not as welcoming to women as other fields. And therefore the question of that, do you trust the people that the people that are going to bring you in that startup? Are they going to be able to give you all the possibilities to move vertically, laterally, et cetera? I think what you say is so true.

And at the end of the day, we know, especially in our business, when we are not truly manufacturing anything tangible, all we are selling is ourselves in a sense, that relationships with our colleagues, teammates as well as with our potential customers, is what build the business. So I wonder whether or not, and Meg, maybe you can comment on that too, whether or not being a woman, a female performer in that environment that has particular challenges. And whether Meg you've seen some changes from say 25 years ago or 30 years ago, even when you started your career to today.

Meg Clancy: Yes. Have seen a lot since I got out of college in 1979, the workplace was a completely different beast then. But the thing I liked about ALPHATECH and Aptima were the caliber of people that this type of business attracts. I felt as a woman, I was assessed based on my capabilities. They're quantitative people.

They are going to look at results and they gave me a fair shot. And we continue to do that. I think over 50% of our managers might be women now, I'm not sure, but yes, I've seen the landscape change tremendously, but I was always fortunate enough to work in companies that were ahead of the curve on that.

Jean MacMillan: Can I second that? I worked for many years for a company called Abt Associates in Cambridge. And a number of my managers and the people I worked with and the CEO, Vice Presidents in the company were women. And I was just out of my first round of grad school. It didn't occur to me that that was anything unusual. I just took it for granted because they were capable people and that's why they had those jobs and never crossed my mind. And you know, I was down with a team of people who were doing the best and final briefing for a competitive procurement.

And, it turned out that everybody on the team we took down were women. I was leading the team, someone from the customer asked me why our entire team was women. And the question just kind of took me a back somehow because they were our best people and the person said, "Oh." So I came out of that environment. I kind of got my first professional training in an environment where it was simply taken for granted that the best person got the job.

Daniel Serfaty: And I think this notion of being good at what you do, being excelling at what you do, especially as you as founding executives of the company, I was so proud to be quite often in the early days of the company to say, "Well my right hand and my left hand are both women in the business side and the technology side and science side," At the time, I was the exception.

The leadership of many other companies this at my experience, startups et cetera, had very few women in them, especially in leadership position. I think that your both roles, Meg and Jean, and you certainly not what defines you only your gender, but you continue to be today either explicitly or sometime implicitly role models for a lot of young scientists, engineers, administrators, accountants, et cetera, that are working at Aptima.

Because they saw very early on that, "Yeah. If you're good, it really doesn't matter. That's what defines your ability to move up in the organization. And here two out of the three founders of the company are women." I think that's one thing that I'm quite proud of, but it's something that has to be sustained and managed over the years.

I found out it doesn't always happen naturally. We took it as you said, Jean, you took it for granted. We were there, "Well, they were the best team I had. Therefore they just happened to be all women." It's not something that's very natural in the business environment, even in 2020.

Jean MacMillan: Well it ought to be.

Daniel Serfaty: [inaudible]

Jean MacMillan: I mean, I think one of the key strengths of Aptima is from the beginning, we worked so hard at our shared value of fairness. The most capable person gets the job.

Daniel Serfaty: Yeah.

Jean MacMillan: And that's really built in to an Aptima's DNA and it has been from the beginning. And I think that's very important.

Daniel Serfaty: Jean, as you were driving from Cambridge to Woburn every day, for a day's work at Aptima, what would you characterize made your life interesting? What made you want to go to work every day?

Jean MacMillan: Well, of course I was often interested in the technical content of what we were doing, but what really pulled me into Aptima, that made me go to work every day was the sense that I had my hand on the tiller. That I had some control over building a company in the way that I thought it ought to be. I wasn't kidding when I said to Meg we built a company we wanted to work for. I had never had that experience of having control at that level of the direction of the company.

Daniel Serfaty: And the truth is that none of us had before, because that was the first company we built too.

Jean MacMillan: Yep.

Daniel Serfaty: It may be the last one, but it is the first, certainly. What about the answer to that same question, Meg? What made you drive to work? What were you looking forward to?

Meg Clancy: I don't know if interesting is right but challenging certainly. I always love doing a puzzle, solving a problem, and sometimes it might be a new regulation from the State government. Figuring out how we're going to do this, how we're going to adapt the systems, or trying to implement one of your ideas designing the policy around it. I took it as little challenges or puzzles that had to be solved.

I get obsessive about stuff like that. So I have to see it through to the end. So I was driven to solve all the puzzles that you presented, that Aptima presented to me and my team. I didn't do it alone. I mean, I had to do it with my team, but that's how I looked at.

Jean MacMillan: I want to say that Meg is only person I've ever known who showed excitement at the prospect of needing to dive into the federal acquisition regulations. "See? here on page 432, paragraph 145 B, it says this. This is what we have to do."

Meg Clancy: Oh, come on, I'm not that boring.

Jean MacMillan: Meg gets a kick out of that.

Daniel Serfaty: I think we need one obsessive detail-oriented person on every team. Don't we? Because I think that I slept better at night and I felt more energized on the road knowing that Meg was worrying about paragraph 1246 in the federal regulation document, because that's what enables things to happen and to actually turn into real business. I know that one of the feeling I remember, rather, an anecdote I remember what made me so excited at the beginning, it was a mixture of anticipation and frantic energy on most.

Is the fact that here I was going to potential customer at the Navy, or at the Air Force Research Labs and convincing them to something without showing them anything concrete, just based on idea. And here they were ready to sign a half a million dollar check based on that. The kid in me was wondering about that and I still wonder to these days, what is it that our customers are really able to sign a check for? It's pretty magical to this day.

I don't tell that to everybody at Aptima because, you know, you have to play the role of the serious CEO who has all planned. But the truth is that it's still very magical that at the end of the day, you think of a crazy idea. You put a little structure around it and somebody on the other side, all you have to do is to convince them through a brilliant proposal like you put together, Jean, or business proposal that you put together, Meg, that, "Okay. You know what? I'll sign you a check for a million dollar. How about you go and play for a couple of years and come back, tell me what you found." Isn't that amazing?

Meg Clancy: That was always the first thing in a six-story meeting for proposal. I would say, "Tell me briefly why they should give us this money?" And people were shocked and amazed. That is something they could think about.

Daniel Serfaty: Yes.

Meg Clancy: The look in someone's eyes the first time they are part of a team that puts a proposal together and we wanted it. Then made something happen is wonderful.

Daniel Serfaty: It is. At the end of the day. I think that's what's so satisfying in this business is that you start from an idea from really nothing concrete, other than your own energy, commitment, and perhaps madness of starting a business and putting your livelihood and your ability to feed your family on the table and good things happen. I mean, we've been very fortunate. I know for our audience here that the three of us are very different individual, but we are also very dear friends.

And so it was not always full agreement amongst the three of us. From there, we had some memorable fights about business choice we had to make, but the fight was compensated by the fact that we had infinite trust in each other. We knew that whatever the other was arguing for was really for the good of the team. That's what kept us together, I think, and kept eventually the company together.

And that has value propagated throughout the company. That's one of the things I'm very proud of. At Aptima is, people will come from the outside with very deep and very business experience in which they have reviewed hundreds of businesses. That's the first thing that strike them at Aptima. It's the degree to which folks are trying to be supporting of each other, this notion of intangible, perhaps, but certainly observable teamness.

And I think it came from the three of us, frankly. People were able to observe you're three very different individuals, with very different skills, with very different experience with very different opinions that are able to put a coherent business strategy together and do it. I wanted to say that because I think that that's something I am personally very proud of.

So if you look at, a little bit of free thinking here, can you think of one anecdote during your tenure of Aptima, that taught you in important business lesson, an important lesson that maybe where you actually learned something? Either in a pleasant way or sometime in a painful way. Think of one, share it with us. Would you mind? Anybody can start, Jean?

Jean MacMillan: Well, I'll go first. This is an unpleasant lesson, but it was a very important lesson. And I'm remembering there was a time when we brought somebody into our team that didn't really share our values. And particularly I think the values of fairness, the way we wanted to do business, and the way we wanted to treat other people with respect.

And it created an extremely toxic effect. It taught me this person had other advantages and other things we thought they could contribute, but they far outweighed by the fact that they didn't operate on our values. It created a lot of tension and a lot of bad feelings and undermined our business effectiveness. It's not about whether you liked somebody, it's a matter of do they share your values about the right way to do things.

Daniel Serfaty: But Aptima, as you said earlier, Jean, is built on the notion that the secret sauce, what our customer pay for, is a diversity of expertise, a diversity of opinion, that what we call the interdisciplinary magic in a sense. Are you saying that even in that interdisciplinary composition of putting together of the team, there are things that we shouldn't do?

Jean MacMillan: Yeah. They have to be shared core values. Why the job goes to the best person, not to the person who did you a favor last week. That's what I mean by shared values. There's nothing to do with differences in opinion about the right way to do the job, differences in training and background and perspective. Those are all good and can be worked out. But if you have a disconnect with basically what's ethical and moral behavior with someone, I don't know how you get past that.

Daniel Serfaty: Okay. Well, that's certainly very big lessons learned. I assume that you're going to tell the audience, how did that problem got resolved? Eventually.

Jean MacMillan: The person left.

Daniel Serfaty: Okay.

Jean MacMillan: Is how that one got resolved. And we did a bunch of damage control afterwards. And only after we'd found out some of the really, I have to say unethical things that person had done.

Daniel Serfaty: I think it's also perhaps for our audience. We're thinking also about building new teams or building new companies. I believe that this notion of everything is not going to be rosy all the time. I mean, you're going to have failures as well as successes, but what's important here is not to fail. And you have all kinds of literature in management theory now about failing fast, failing quick, failing small, but rather what do you learn from those failures and whether or not you are able to take those lessons and apply them in the future?

It's very difficult when we fail in a society and frankly, a professional environment in which failure is not looked upon very well. To fail and to accept that, to learn and then to change as a result. When we fail, we tend to very quickly want to turn the page and move on. And I think there is a lot of lessons to be learned there. I'm going to ask each one of you to go back 20 years or so, 25 years. And with the benefit of hindsight, if there is one thing you would change, what would that be? Other than kicking me out of the company from day one, that doesn't care.

Meg Clancy: Daniel, I would have been nicer to you when we had all those arguments. You would have still been wrong of course, but I would have been nicer.

Daniel Serfaty: All right. That's one good one. But think about things, it's very difficult in life because life change, it's not like we were restarting the company today, but if there was one thing you wish we would have done differently, taking more risk, less risk, making a decision another way at any given point, what would that be? Such a difficult question to answer though.

Jean MacMillan: Well, in a perfect world, the three of us have a broad distribution of skills that cover many of the things that we needed to know about. But I wish we had had somebody who was part of our initial team who was more of an expert in software development. It's a place where I feel like at the highest levels of the company, we didn't know as much as we could have and should have.

Daniel Serfaty: Kind of our chief technology officers in software that could basically be your counterpart on the science part. Yes?

Jean MacMillan: Yes. There's always been involved in the company between the folks who know how to develop software and the people who are doing some of the thinking about ideas and what could be done. And I'm hoping that perhaps if we had had someone from the beginning to shape the culture and the attitudes, we could have made some better decisions.

Daniel Serfaty: That's a good insight. Thank you.

Meg Clancy: I would have to second what Jean said. I think our girls could have been turbocharged if we had that one missing link. I mean, you would get the demos. You are always pounding on the table for, sooner, in a project and we would have had more robust software deliverables. Nobody was unhappy with our deliverables that I know about or can name any way. But yeah, I second what Jean said.

Jean MacMillan: I want to add to that. If we had somebody at our level, from the beginning, they would have had the fights with you that Meg and I were not capable of having. I remember, and Meg was all that nice to you. She got very lost or two for one occasion that I had to go and buy M&M for everybody. But somehow you would say, "Daniel, that sounds so good, but we're never going to be able to do that." Why you would believe them?

Daniel Serfaty: Yes.

Jean MacMillan: Somebody you trusted that really knew their stuff. Who could tell you what was and wasn't feasible to expect in a way that would have made sense to you and that you would have accepted.

Daniel Serfaty: First, I agree with you that certainly something that my own personal naivete regarding how difficult developing good software, steady software is. Because my training is in engineering, but not in professional grade software. And therefore I made the jump, "Oh, I can develop a program that does that." But then there is a huge gap between developing a program that does a function and having an implemented software in the field that does its function.

I think my hope here is regarding that particular point, is that the new generation of scientists coming out of grad school in, say data science or artificial intelligence, or even frankly, in the human science, come already trained with quite a deeper understanding of software because most of the systems they've used in graduate school even are very software heavy, already. Software is not an add on. Software is an essential part of what they produce.

And as a result, I found that today, the dialogue between the scientists and the technologist is much more harmonious than it used to be. Because there is some kind of a mutual understanding of each other's needs. It's not perfect yet, but I think in a sense, we got a little closer over the years, but that's a good hindsight. Okay. So if we start a new company, we start it with a new software expert. You guys ready to jump?

Jean MacMillan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel Serfaty: Joking about, you have an opportunity now each one to ask me a question. If that's your time to interview me on the podcast, Meg, you want to start?

Meg Clancy: I can ask you any question?

Daniel Serfaty: Well, this is a PG rated program. So yes.

Meg Clancy: I would ask you what you think are the right attributes that your era parent, not that I know as you have one right now, but would have to possess in your opinion?

Daniel Serfaty: So, we've had a person at Aptima last year, she supported Aptima throughout. Her name is [Betsy Meyer]. She's a leadership expert. She used to run the leadership institute here at Harvard, and she consulted with us with two different groups. Not just consulting, she trained two different groups about leadership throughout the year or this year. She's actually, one-on-one coaching a few of our executives and senior manager.

And she talks about something we all know instinctively, but there is more formal structure behind it today, about the head and heart part of leadership. The head as being strategic, intellectually fit, visionary perhaps, part of the leadership. Then the hard part being about what I considered to be number one quality that is important for a leader, which is empathy. And empathy in a more stricter definition of the word, not just as compassion, which is very important, but also the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other.

The other can be a person in the company, you're talking about the future leader. The other can be a customer, a partner, a person with whom you have a conflict, a person with whom you're negotiating a contract. This ability, I think is a key part of being a leader. Our business schools today produce leaders, future CEOs, perhaps that are primarily focusing on the head part.

Because the heart part is very often considered to be a nice to have or undefined quality. But I think personally, it's very trainable. You can develop it over time, but you don't have a leader that is only all heart. So you're asking me about eventually who will lead Aptima in the future? I would like to see a person who is able to balance head and heart, not as a 50, 50 arbitrary division, but more knowing when to tune up the heart part and to tune in down as well as the head part, depending on the situation.

So to be adaptive to the situation and you being able to be brave enough, to be compassionate and empathetic to the people at Aptima. These days it's even more important given COVID-19 and given the pandemic, given the stress under which people are with the protest and black lives matters, and anti-racism. This notion of trying really to understand what people are going through is going to be key to the future leaders. So that's my heir. I don't know if there is an apparent, but the person I would love to take Aptima to the next level.

Meg Clancy: Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel Serfaty: Thanks. Jean, any questions for me?

Jean MacMillan: My question is not as good as Meg's question. But, Daniel, looking back on, it's what? Basically 25 years now.

Daniel Serfaty: Yeah. Almost, yeah.

Jean MacMillan: You and Meg first took the plunge to now. What has surprised you most? You look back on how things have played out. What was the least predictable thing? What was the thing that surprised you the most?

Daniel Serfaty: To this day, I'm still surprised and in a wonderful way. When I interact with more junior folks or interns sometimes, we have plenty of interns roaming the virtual holes of Aptima this summer. And seeing how they see an old problem, an old technology that we've been playing with. How they see that with their new fresh eyes.

I'm always surprised because your first reaction is that, "Oh, they will not understand. I need to explain." But if you shut up a bit and listen, you're surprised by seeing that their own level of understanding may be drastically different from your level of understanding. So that constant discovery of the other continues to surprise me. But another thing that surprised me over the years is, when business goes up and down, we had a lot of very good years and I think we should all consider ourselves blessed with them.

But sometimes we had a couple of tough years or tough periods during which business was tight and we had to make tough decisions. And I was always surprised at the people, leaders or performers at Aptima that performed very well during good times. Who'd actually literally collapsed when the times were not good. And other folks were really maybe in the background, not necessarily shining during good times, were able actually to shine during tough times.

That surprised me. That notion of resilience as a quality, as opposed to performance as a quality, is really important. I think for me over time, being resilient in life, in business certainly, is more important. Because what keeps you through difficult periods, like the one we're having now, the business is doing very well, but the stress on the staff about all these virtualization of work, the kids at home, the economic stress, the social stress, eventually has an effect on folks who don't have all the resilience equipment to deal with that.

And so that's the second surprise. It takes different kinds of qualities to go through good times and to go through bad times. I'll give you an opportunity just for a few seconds, maybe to say a couple of sentences. You wanted to say about your life at Aptima. After all today, we went back memory lane trying to remember some episodes, but also some of the lessons learned. I hope our audience will benefit from whether they are at Aptima or not at Aptima, about what it takes sometimes to build a successful enterprise that people look forward to go to work into. So Meg, Jean, any last words of wisdom or partying?

Meg Clancy: Well, I'm very grateful for the opportunity I've had in my career to help build Aptima into what it is today and to have really created so many professional jobs, well-paying jobs now across the country.

Daniel Serfaty: Thank you. Jean?

Jean MacMillan: It's been a wild and wonderful ride and I am so proud to have been a part of it. You guys are the best.

Daniel Serfaty: Thank you, Gina and Meg.

Meg Clancy: Thank you.

Daniel Serfaty: Thank you for listening. This is Daniel Serfaty. Please join me again next week for the MINDWORKS Podcast and tweet us @mindworkspodcst or email us at [email protected] MINDWORKS is a production of Aptima Inc. My executive producer is Ms. Debra McNeely and my audio editor is Mr. [Connor Simmons]. To learn more or to find links mentioned during this episode, please visit aptima.com/mindworks. Thank you.