Michelle Bates and Nate Kaeding pose for a photo in the BluPrairie conference room. PHOTO ADAM MOORE
Sponsored by West Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s Q&A feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Read more about the idea for the series here, and watch the video interview at the CBJ’s YouTube channel.
By Nate Kaeding
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
– Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard
Michelle Bates, the president and founder of Coralville-based BluPrairie Technologies [and now chief innovation officer of Involta], knows how to make the most out of each day. She’s taken the independent cloud strategy and design firm from zero to 100 mph since establishing it in June of 2016 following decades of guiding growth for Rockwell Collins, where she served as director of IT architecture services. Along the way, she’s confronted the challenge of designing a productive, purposeful and ever-nimble daily schedule head-on.
As Ms. Bates described in our conversation at the BluPrairie headquarters in Coralville’s Oakdale neighborhood, creating and managing a demanding schedule is a task in and of itself – something that she’s still learning to perfect.
NK: How has your day-to-day changed now that you’re in the small business world, leading your own company, compared to your previous role with Rockwell in a more corporate environment?
MB: It’s interesting because I’ve been in IT for over 25 years, which is kind of a 24/7 world. So you’re always on, you’re always waiting for things to happen. And you learn, just through being in IT, that you have to pause and take those moments of downtime when they come to you – it doesn’t matter what time of the day it is. So my life as an entrepreneur hasn’t really changed that much because of that career upbringing that I had.
I’m definitely a planner and an organizer, there’s no doubt about that. I kind of live by the world of, what are my top five things [to do] for the week, because I have to make sure I’m focusing on priorities and not just the fire drills of the day – and there are definitely fire drills, but it’s all about prioritizing what those things mean. Obviously, customers come first, and internal things and process improvements come after that; always a top priority is balancing sales. As I’ve gotten started, the hardest part has been wearing all of the hats, in terms of being the CEO and founder, the CFO and the VP of sales.
How do you handle that juggling act?
As we’ve grown, being able to delegate those activities to other people is terrific. My team is also really helpful in the prioritization process, because everyone is a utility player – no one has a singular role, so it makes it easy for me to hand off things when I need to and for them to be able to kind of pass things amongst themselves. So we really handle prioritization in terms of our paying gigs and our paying projects for customers, our sales activity and then dealing with stuff internally.
We come together weekly and talk about that as a group, and just make sure that everybody knows who’s doing what when. Then, when all of the sudden one of those fire drills jumps up, the good part is you’re not handling it alone. Everybody is right there with you, jumping and reprioritizing and juggling, because everyone knows what the general priorities are.
You mentioned identifying your five priorities for the week – is there a specific time and/or day of the week you set aside for planning?
For me, it’s usually Sunday evening. I’m typically always working on Saturday until mid-day. I take a little bit of a break Saturday evening, and then Sunday is usually when I’m prioritizing for the week. Tools like Google Keep are great for me, because I can just do it on my phone, and I can also have checkboxes – checked boxes are really important to me. [laughs]
That time on Sunday, is that something you’re doing at your house? Or are you coming into the office?
No, I’m usually doing that at home, and if I can, I do that outside when the weather is nice – sitting on the deck and thinking through stuff. For me, getting out in the great outdoors is really an important thing. I think that’s from being a girl in the land of the Amish, making sure you’re getting outside and staying grounded, so I usually try to do it in that capacity.
How about the nuts and bolts of how your time is allocated throughout the week? You mentioned Google Keep for your checklist. What’s your strategy for organizing the hour-to-hour of a day?
It really is about customer meetings and customer priorities. We structure all of our projects so that we know what the deliverables are, as we work in a deliverable-based kind of world. So we typically know what’s coming up, what’s due that week, if there are checkpoints that I have to do with the team, and whether or not there’s sales activity – new stuff that comes in the pipeline that I have to work my way through.
I try to stay focused on sales, and I’m really fortunate to have a great director of finance now who saves my day on a very regular basis. And we have just recently hired a new sales person, which is terrific. She is helping me with lead generation and sales activity, so I can go a little further down the pipeline.
We use a lot of collaboration tools, as well. We are a Google shop, so that allows us to collaborate in real time on a very regular basis. We use a lot of chat capability, a lot of Google Hangout and Meet capabilities to be able to accomplish those things, so meetings don’t have to take so long.
How about outside of work – what else needs to happen during the day for you to consider it a success?
I mean, I always want to make sure that at least a couple times a week I’m getting a solid workout in, and I do that with a trainer, because I treat that like a meeting to make sure that I’m there and attending so that it doesn’t get prioritized over. I have to block that on my schedule to make sure that I can get that in. It’s a mix of cardio and strength with Carrie Van Orden, who is my trainer, or “tiny torturer” as I like to refer to her. For two hours a week, someone else is the boss of me – I like to turn that over to her and she’s a great partner in the process there.
The other things that I make sure I take time to do – I have two daughters, one in Dallas and one in Denver, and they work night shifts as nurses, so making time for calls with them in the morning at 7 a.m. when they’re coming on shift or 7 p.m. when they’re coming off shift is really important for me, to make sure that we’re staying connected in the ways that I want to. That’s how I’m keeping life balanced. And then there are the home things that [wife Amy] and I enjoy doing. We like to play golf, we like to be outside – we’re big hikers – and just making sure that we make time to get those things in as well.
I’ve always enjoyed learning about the morning routine of high achievers like yourself. How do you get a good start to the day? Do you have a predetermined wakeup time?
Usually if I’m in bed around 11 p.m., that’s great. I’m up by 5 a.m., or sometimes 3:30 a.m., so my staff will tell you that it’s not uncommon to wake up and have a litany of emails or a whole bunch of chats that have come their way. They’ve just gotten used to knowing if it’s something that has to be taken care of quickly or not.
We all start the day with a predetermined calendar of events, but there always seem to be obstacles thrown into those well-laid plans …
Of course. And I wouldn’t really call them obstacles, I would call them opportunities, right? So if we get a sales opportunity that comes in and we were planning on working on a project-related item, but what have to turn a proposal really quickly for a customer, that’s just the nature of [the business] – it’s a good challenge to have. If there are issues that come up with a project where we have to make a decision in a timely manner – if we have to replace a technology, if the customer is having a challenge or issue, or we have to help a customer through a crisis time – part of being a good partner is making sure that we’re in it with them. That can throw a bit of a wrench in our day, but at the end of the day, it’s providing service that the customer needs.
How about big-picture planning? Talk a bit about how you approach strategic planning here at BluPrairie.
For us, that’s actually a pretty natural thing, because we start with the strategic technology plan for our customers, so we’re always starting with the big picture. I think, in part, that’s due to my business background – I didn’t come to technology as a technician, I came as an accountant by trade. So we very much take a big-picture approach to what we’re looking to do.
At the beginning of each year, we sit down and align our core goals for the year and make sure that we’re always doing a touchpoint back to those. I do that in conjunction with my staff – it’s not a top-down thing, it’s a “what do we want to do and accomplish together?” And then we just go through on a quarterly basis – we do checkpoints to associate with that, as well as with our trusted advisors. We don’t have a board of directors, but we have a group of trusted advisors that we turn to who have been a tremendous help in our growth and the management of the company.
We talked a bit about planning your day, but how about reflecting back at the end of the day or week? Do you allot time in your schedule for reflection?
Yeah, absolutely – and like I said, for me, it’s that checklist or being able to check a box. I might not be able to get it checked until later in the week when I have time to actually sit down and reflect on the list, so there’s always that feeling of satisfaction in that way. But I also try to make sure that I’m reflecting on saying “thank you.” That’s an important part of who I am – either thank you to my team or thank you to a customer, or placing a call to a customer just to do a check in and see how they’re doing. I always want to make sure that I’m looking back and serving others as a part of that process.
Is that “thank you” piece something you picked up throughout your professional career or during your upbringing?
I think it was really how I was raised. I was raised in Kalona by a small business owner – my dad owned an insurance agency, and my mom cleaned houses and was a sole proprietor for years. You’re always just taught that the customer and people matter most. I’m always making sure that I’m putting people at the center of what I do, and not just the transaction or the business or the sale. Everything starts with people and relationships, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. And if I’m shortsighted on that, then I feel as though I’m shortsighted on the values I was taught by the family business – and that business still stands 55 years later.
What are some other lessons you’ve learned from your dad in the insurance business?
I think one was always be available for customers. I mean, I’ve worked in IT, which is 24/7, but my dad was in the world of insurance. If he got a phone call at 2 a.m. in the morning that there was a fire at a farm, he wasn’t the guy that just waited until 8 a.m. and filed a claim. He was the guy who got out of bed, rolled up his sleeves and went out to help in any way that he could. I think that always resonated in terms of who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to work with my customers and partners.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Given the chance, what other profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d be an artist if I had the gifts and skills to do it – definitely painting. I wouldn’t even attempt vocal stylings.
Favorite business leader?
My dad was always that star for me and helped shape how I assessed other leaders that I had throughout my career.
Preferred news source?
I’m typically checking out CNN, and then a variety of things that I subscribe to through Flipboard – a lot of BBC News.
Favorite podcast or TV show?
I am a murder-mystery kind of a girl, so anything that falls into that category.
It’s that Ghandi adage, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think leading by example as people, as business leaders and as a parent, that’s an important thing for me.
Influential business book?
“Who Moved My Cheese?” Everything we do in technology is about changing how people work and engaging people in a different kind of way.
Extra 30 minutes in the day?
Phone calls with my kids.
How do you define success?
For me, it’s all about relationships. If I’ve built really good relationships that allow the customer and the people around me to grow, that creates mutually good outcomes.