The Next Big Question

Episode 1
Hosted by: Drew Lazzara and Liz Ramey

Mike Zachman


Zebra Technologies

Before taking on the role at Zebra, Mike served as the chief information security officer for Forsyth Technology, Eco Lab, and for Caterpillar. He's also an alumnus of the FBI's CISO Academy.

What is the Future of Servant Leadership?

JULY 6, 2020

In this episode, we discuss leadership strategies and the concept of servant leadership with Mike Zachman, CSO of Zebra Technologies. Mike shares, “The servant aspect is about, ‘How can I, as the leader, help the team succeed?’ It’s not about, ‘What can the team can do for me?’”


Drew Lazzara (00:14):

Welcome to The Next Big Question, a weekly podcast with senior business leaders, sharing their vision for tomorrow, brought to you by Evanta, a Gartner company.

Liz Ramey (00:24):

Each episode features a conversation with C-suite executives about the future of their roles, organizations, and industry.

Drew Lazzara (00:33):

My name is Drew Lazzara.

Liz Ramey (00:34):

And I'm Liz Ramey. We're your co-hosts. So Drew, what's the next big question?

Drew Lazzara (00:40):

Well, Liz, this week's question is, 'Where can a servant leadership philosophy take your career and your organization? To help us answer this big question is Mike Zachman. Mike is the chief security officer with Zebra Technologies. Prior to taking on this role at Zebra, Mike served as the chief information security officer for Forsyth Technology, Eco Lab, and for Caterpillar. He's also an alumnus of the FBI's CISO Academy. Mike reflects on how he came to embrace servant leadership, what his take on the philosophy means in practice, and the ways it plays out in his organization when he's developing new leaders and making an impact for the business. Before this week's conversation, we wanted to take a moment to thank you for listening. To ensure you don't miss out on the next, Next Big Question, be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show so that we can continue to grow and improve. Thanks again, and enjoy.

Drew Lazzara (01:50):

Well, Mike, thank you so much for being on The Next Big Question. We appreciate you joining us.

Mike Zachman (01:55):

I'm looking forward to it. Thank you.

Liz Ramey (01:57):

Great, Mike. I am so excited to be talking to you to you today. I have a couple of questions. Just want to get to know you outside of just being an executive. So, I'm going to start with, if you had an entrance song that played every time you walked into a room, what would that be?

Mike Zachman (02:16):

Oh, goodness. I think I'd have to go with Walk This Way by Aerosmith.

Liz Ramey (02:21):

Ooh, I like it. Aerosmith. Good choice. What was your favorite high school or college job?

Mike Zachman (02:27):

Believe it or not. when I was in high school, I was a dance DJ, and I did that for almost three years throughout high school.

Liz Ramey (02:35):

Oh my gosh. How fun!

Mike Zachman (02:37):

Going to two, sometimes three, dances every weekend for seven months out of the year. It was pretty fun.

Drew Lazzara (02:44):

I'm curious what the look was? Was there a particular shirt? What era are we talking about here? Just give us a visual to hang our hats on.

Mike Zachman (02:52):

Yeah, it was pretty eighties. So think, cutoff denim shorts, think a tight, white button-down shirt with a skinny black tie.

Drew Lazzara (03:03):

Ooh, I like it! Timeless, I would say.

Liz Ramey (03:07):

That's fantastic. Well, I had an opportunity to DJ a little bit, as well, Mike. When I was in high school, my high school job was at the local skating rink. So if you recall the DJ at the skating rinks, that was my job. Well, great. So Mike, what would you like to be known for among your peers?

Mike Zachman (03:27):

You know, I've been asked this before, and I always come back to, I'd love to be known as the guy that developed a lot of people and advanced a lot of careers. I'd like people to say, you know, Mike, there's a lot of CSOs out there today that are there because Mike.

Liz Ramey (03:45):


Drew Lazzara (03:47):

Well, Mike, thanks for having a little fun and giving us a window into your personality a bit. I think it's a great primer for this episode's big question, which is, 'Where can a servant leadership approach take you and your organization?' I think often one of the most important things to understand about someone's approach to leadership is how they got where they are, how they got started on their career path, and what led them into their current role. So before we dive into your leadership philosophy, it would be great to learn a bit more about your background and how you got into senior security roles.

Mike Zachman (04:19):

So I would say, my personality has always kind of had me leaning into leadership roles. Another way of putting that is if you ask my sister or my brothers, they'd say that I was always a bossy kid. But the reality is, I just sort of gravitate to openings when there's kind of a vacancy in leadership. In high school I was part of Junior Achievement. And back then, Junior Achievement was an after-school activity, where you actually formed companies, you had advisors, and you went and built and sold products or services. And for three of those four years, I was an officer in my company. I was president the last year, and I just sort of enjoyed… having that leadership perspective. It continued in college, where several student organizations, I'd join them and then eventually by the time it was over, I'd be in a leadership role within the organizations. So when I finally started my professional career, it was always my intention to be a leader. It took me about six years in my first... At Caterpillar, it took me about six years before I finally got a team leadership role. And it was probably another three years before I finally got a formal, supervisory role. So that's kind of how I got myself into it.

Liz Ramey (05:57):

Mike, have you had anybody in your career that you've really looked to to help shape your own leadership style?

Mike Zachman (06:06):

I've been lucky. I've had a lot of really good leaders that I could admire, several of them who went on to be good mentors for me. A theme that came from them was that there's always this sort of nature versus nurture approach to leadership, or can you teach leadership? And, I kind of fall in the middle there. I do believe that there are aspects of leadership that are born. I kind of take myself, like I said, from an early age, I think I kind of gravitated towards leadership, but those mentors taught me that it takes more than that quote, natural talent. Leadership is a skill that you have to work at, it's a discipline you need to study. And, so those early leaders of mine really helped kind of angle me in that... that says, okay, it's great you want to be a leader, it's great that you've got some natural talent in that space, but you've also got to work at it.

Drew Lazzara (07:12):

Mike, I wanted to actually just drill down on that for a quick second. And this may seem like a simplistic question, maybe an obvious question, but leadership is one of those things that, like you said, you have to practice. And there's clearly something in you that inclines you toward some of the aspects of leadership, but can you walk us through a little bit about what you think is the true, bottom line function of a leader? Why is it so important for an organization or a group or even a circle of friends to have a leader? And what does that actually do for an organization that couldn't be replaced if you took it away?

Mike Zachman (07:46):

It's a great question. I believe that the role of leadership is to ensure purpose, to ensure a vision, a direction, and then to really make sure that you're moving and advancing towards it. Otherwise, it's the old thing - if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. I think it's about providing or solidifying, or sometimes it's just communicating, not creating, but communicating, the purpose of, 'why are we here'? And then, how do we achieve that 'why'?

Drew Lazzara (08:28):

So, what is your specific version of leadership? I know you embrace a servant leadership style and that's an approach that has been adopted and adapted over time, but how did you develop your specific philosophy for leadership, and how do you articulate it?

Mike Zachman (08:42):

Well, I certainly… I broadly describe my approach as a servant leader. And there's a lot of leadership models out there and a lot of leadership training. And as I mentioned before, I was taught early on that you need to study it, you need to practice. So for me... when I really, officially was reading about and being taught about the servant leader model, it just made complete sense. Right off the bat, in my mind, it aligns with the golden rule – treat others as you want to be treated. And it doesn't mean that it's a model distinct from all others. There's still situational leadership. It doesn't mean that you behave the same way with every person in every situation. But it means that you step back and you try to determine, okay, how can I, as a leader, help my team achieve these common objectives that we've agreed upon? And as I mentioned before, first off is making sure everyone's aligned. Do you have a shared vision? Sometimes it's that simple. You've got a team, and people are pulling in different directions because they don't know what are we actually trying to accomplish? But then that servant aspect is about, how can I, as the leader, help the team succeed? It's not about, what can the team do for me? And I've worked for those leaders. I think a lot of people have worked for those leaders where you feel like your role is just to make the boss' job easier, or your role is to do whatever they tell you. I don't think that's an engaging model. I don't think that that's a sustainable model. And it's certainly not one that I've ever enjoyed being a part of. The leaders that I liked, the mentors that resonated with me, I could see the times when they removed obstacles for me, they provided me help, they offered coaching, right? And now, they're still situational. They're still flexible. They're still adaptive. But the underlying principle was, my job is to help you be successful. And, it's a simple but powerful construct.

Liz Ramey (11:23):

Mike, I so often feel like, in life and in business, that we learn often the best lessons when we're faced with adversity, or some sort of conflict that we have to work through. So I'm curious, if with the philosophy that you've kind of created for yourself, have you ever had an experience where your style of leadership was maybe unappreciated or possibly rejected by somebody on your team or even on your peer staff?

Mike Zachman (12:00):

Well, I'd love to say no. But you know, just by the fact of you asking the question, I think it's pretty... I think everyone's had that. And yes, I certainly have, and this goes back to the fact that you can't behave the same way with everybody in every situation. So, one of those underlying principles that I also have is to assume positive intent. I always kind of go in with that concept that says, look, everybody wants to do the right thing. If you can make it clear, what is the right thing, they're going to want to do it. But the reality is, there are people out there that just want the paycheck, or for whatever reason, they've got an ax to grind, or they're disengaged. And it doesn't really matter if you share a vision; it doesn't really matter if you remove obstacles. They're not going to pull in the same direction as you. And I would say that it's one of, maybe a weakness, if you want to call it that, that perhaps I give people too much rope, and then eventually, we do have to clean things up. And so that's what I am on the lookout for – is that while you assume positive intent, you have to be clear enough to know that the world is not a perfect place and every person is not a perfect employee.

Drew Lazzara (13:41):

Speaking as a lifetime employee myself, I wanted to ask a quick question about that. When you're thinking about your approach to leadership and the impact that has on your teams, how important is it that your staff or the people that you're leading understand what's happening? I guess I'm wondering what role they have in the process as those being led, and how important to you is it that they understand that you're taking a specific approach to leadership? What's that conversation like with you and your teams when you're establishing this dynamic?

Mike Zachman (14:12):

It's a balance… because I could understand the argument of someone who says, look, I don't care what your approach is; we've got a job to get done. So I always try to make sure that it's not... When we're setting objectives, when we're creating a vision, when we're defining that next set of hills to conquer, the conversation isn't about, 'Here's how I'm going to use servant leadership model to help us get there.' Or, ‘If we do these three things, that will align with my preferred approach to management.’ In fact, that servant leader model would tell you that those aren't even part of the conversation. So now I'm clear, I try to provide to my team a clear way that says, look, this is my preferred approach to working, right. I prefer... I don't like to be directive. I prefer a collaborative approach. But if that's not getting the job done, then, we'll switch. Did that make sense?

Drew Lazzara (15:31):

Absolutely. And what I really like about that, and I guess what I would really respond to as someone who was working for you, is that adaptability of your perspective. I think sometimes people think of a framework, and they think, okay, that's the rubric by which I'm going to make all my decisions. I've built my professional life around this set of rules. And then the people that report to them can either take it or leave it. And either it works for them and they're really successful, or it doesn't, and maybe they have to move on from the company or the situation. So I love the idea that servant leadership allows for that flexibility. So you can meet people where they are. Now, I could also imagine that would take a lot of your energy in getting to know the way your people individually respond to your style. So, how do you set aside time in your professional life to really connect with your people and understand if those messages are resonating? Or, is it just something where the results just kind of speak for themselves?

Mike Zachman (16:28):

Well, a little bit of both, but it goes back to a point I said before, and that is, if you really want to focus on leadership, it doesn't just magically happen. So you have to put your time where your mouth is. And I'm a big believer in one-on-one meetings. And in fact, depending upon the size of the organization I've been in, I've had one-on-ones with not only my directs, but my skip levels. I wish I could remember the seminar where I got this little technique so I could give it due credit, but a technique that was shown to me a long time ago, and I use it really effectively is, not every time, but every so often in the one-on-one meetings, I'll just say, okay. And once I start, they know the question, but it's – on a scale of one to 10, how well am I meeting your expectations? And I make them give me a number, and then I follow up with, so what are one, two or three concrete things I could do that would cause you to increase that score? I don't always agree to do them. Don't get me wrong.

Drew Lazzara (17:51):

That's leadership too, right? You’ve got to make those tough calls.

Mike Zachman (17:54):

It sort of forces... that conversation about, okay, how are things from your perspective, right? As the employee, I'm asking you, how well am I doing meeting your needs? How am I helping you be successful? And, if they're giving me a five or six, I don't like it. It'll motivate me to try.... But the bottom lines is, it does take energy, and that's a choice, right? That is a choice. And, I think that's where some of the more traditional, hierarchical, I-dictate-you-do approaches to leadership fall down. Because the energy is all spent elsewhere and often not constructively. And so the team never does really get to operate at its full potential.

Drew Lazzara (19:09):

I think people in senior leadership positions within their organizations constantly wrestle with what you're talking about. I do think, at least in my experience, most people have an appetite for getting better as a leader. And I think a lot of people recognize the need for leadership to exist, but when it goes wrong, there are just so many different ways that it can happen and so many different variables for leaders to account for. So if someone's practicing leadership in the way you're describing, and they're thinking about their next steps, how can they more conscientiously build that acumen? What are some concrete practices for bringing more leadership ability into the organization and, not only for their own careers, but how are they making that leadership practice infectious for other senior leaders in the organization?

Mike Zachman (19:59):

That's a great one. And of course, I'll use the old, 'It depends.' We can bring our leadership styles into any organization, but you have to adjust for the culture of the organization. So I'll make some assumptions that the organization's culture provides you this flexibility. But one of the things I would quickly look for is if there's a misalignment in the reward structures. And I guess a simple example of this would be – and you see it a lot of times – where managers get rewarded if they make budget, or they beat budget, but then they're turning around and talking to their teams, and they're holding them accountable to things like customer response time or system uptime or other things. And the manager may be making decisions that hurt the organization's capability to meet those objectives, but it helps them personally because that's what they're being rewarded on. So the first thing that I would tell someone is to really ensure that there is alignment of objectives and the reward structures support that alignment of objectives.

Drew Lazzara (21:31):

One quick follow up on that, and it's around this idea of alignment because I think a lot of times, and this is not just leaders, but with any kind of communication or transmission of values, there can be a breakdown in the chain, like a game of telephone where messages start from one place and when they are spat out the other end, they look totally different. And, it seems like in a large organization, especially, it would be really, really hard to control that chain of culture that you're describing. So, how are you certain as a leader that your personal values are reflecting the values of the organization? How are you calibrating your own messaging to make sure you're representing both the people that you're leading and the organization that you're leading for?

Mike Zachman (22:18):

Well, so one of the ways is – when you are entering an organization, so let's assume you are interviewing for a job, I always would ask, and I would expect other leaders to, is to try and understand –  what is that culture? What are the values? Does the company have a documented set of values? Or, can you assess what the value structure is? You really should know that going in. Now, if you've grown up in a company, then once again, you should know these things, and if it's not the place for you, obviously you can try and drive change, or you can try and find a place that's a better fit.

Liz Ramey (23:13):

That's what I was curious about, Mike. You seem like somebody who likes to tackle challenges, just like you said, you want to leave your mark. So are you the type of person who, when you assess whether or not the organization you're going to go to aligns with your values or has values that you can adapt to, or are you more the type of person who says, this organization needs some help, and I'm going to be the change manager and I'm going to help with that change?

Mike Zachman (23:48):

So I definitely consider myself a transformational leader. It's what moved me in my last several job changes in my career was that a transformation has been completed, another company is looking to do a transformation. I've been there. I've done that. I love that challenge. Let's go do that. Now I have to admit, I don't think I would want to try and drive transformational change if I didn't think that the company culture or company values would be supportive because another good part of leadership is knowing what battles to fight. And where I'm at in my career, the roles that I play, trying to change a company culture, or adjust a company's set of values is not the windmill I'm going to try and tilt. I hope that doesn't sound cowardly.

Drew Lazzara (24:57):

No, when I think about my responses to leadership as a team member... I just want to be able to have information to make decisions, right? You want to have some clear sense for what those values are from your company, what the culture is and what your leaders, how they transmit that. And as an employee, that's refreshing because then you can make up your mind about where you fit into that culture or whether you need to go someplace else. So, Mike, do you find yourself having hard conversations with people that are wrestling with your style or the company culture about the future of their careers?

Mike Zachman (25:38):

Yes. But the context is never that, 'Hey, the way you want to work doesn't fit my servant leadership style.' It's always about, 'Hey, this is the direction we're going as an organization. Are you aligned with that? Do you agree that that's a good place to go?' And if not, we need to figure that out. Or, it might be, look, are you willing to serve the role that you have been hired to do? I don't want servant leader to be mistaken as, I do whatever the employee wants me to do. If I've hired a manager for my security operations center, but they want me to be a directive, in the trenches, helping to respond to every incident on a 24-by-7 basis, and that's what they need, I'm going to be saying, that's not the role you signed up for. We can't conflate servant leadership with abdication of your role and responsibility.

Liz Ramey (27:05):

Where do you see some of the biggest gaps between leadership as it is and where you believe that leadership across roles and across companies should be going in the future?

Mike Zachman (27:20):

Sure. Obviously I can only opine on my own experiences, and I see this a lot in my particular profession, in security, is that old phrase, 'What got you here is not going to keep you here.' So you take people that are really good technicians, really good technical skills, and... over their career, they'd naturally progress to that next promotion, promotion, promotion, until at some point they go into a leadership role. But they're still a technician. They're still the technical person. So leaders who don't leave their previous comfort zones and continue to try to be the boss, but also the subject matter expert, the deep subject matter expert, and you see that far too often. And what you get then is disengaged employees because their boss micromanages them and/or challenges their technical decisions. But then that same boss isn't able to sway their leadership, their management to get the resources or to align the risk profiles because they're still speaking this technical language, and they're not speaking with – we call it the business acumen – that their new leadership would expect from them.

Drew Lazzara (29:06):

It's interesting. It seems as if, and I've worked for several organizations where this has been the case, where the people who are the highest achievers in their roles are the ones that are very naturally and logically up for promotions into leadership positions. But do you think that companies in the future should think more about leadership skills unto themselves, separate from the daily tasks or role that the individual was in? You were talking earlier about developing the next generation of security leaders. Do look for specific, inherent leadership ability and then value that? Or do you take people that have the functional skills and try to then introduce them to leadership principles?

Mike Zachman (29:52):

I think you absolutely have to provide alternate career paths. I think what's traditionally happened is that on that technical career path, people hit the last defined promotion for a technician. And they're the best person on the team. And so eventually the company goes, well, you know, if we're going to promote them, we've got to now make them a leader, right? But, that is often the mistake. So there's a couple of things to do. One is you have to continue to have a technical career path where you can… companies need to value their subject matter experts, as much as they do their leaders to a point. Obviously, you don't have the CEO and all that. But I ought to be able to, if I don't have the skill or desire to be a leader, I ought to be able to continue to grow in my career and be rewarded in my career without having to be forced into – this was the Peter principle, right? You get promoted to your level of incompetence, to your highest incompetence.

Drew Lazzara (31:09):

That's right.

Mike Zachman (31:09):

So number one, that's an HR issue. Don't force people to choose between stagnant career or going off on a path that I don't want, or I'm not good at.

Drew Lazzara (31:30):

And sorry to push on this point just a little bit, but I was just thinking, as you were walking through that, we talked before about the time and energy it takes to really, truly care about the job you're doing as a leader. And I feel like that time becomes even more scarce the further up the chain of leadership you go. So the CEO is going to be the leader who creates the vision for the organization, but he or she is going to have the least amount of time to decide whether one person should be a leader versus a high performer. And, in a sense that's part of your role in the C-suite to help make some of those decisions. But how do you reconcile the fact that the more leadership you take on in title, the less time you have to dedicate to making some of those nuanced decisions about career path and skillsets?

Mike Zachman (32:18):

You have to make sure that the organization is supporting this. So I am not... I expect my direct reports to be managing their direct reports and to be having those career conversations with them. There need to be good processes to ensure that leaders are being leaders at all levels from first line supervision up to C-suite. And then, typically you'll see that there are reconciliation processes where you go, okay, let me see, how did everybody rank everybody and who's being put up for promotion? And, there needs to be some checks and balances that those processes are working properly. But at the end of the day, I'm not subscribing to the fact that if I lead a large security organization, that I need to be personally, or that I have the time to be, or it's appropriate for me to be personally involved in every career discussion made in the organization. Every leader's got to be pulling their weight.

Liz Ramey (33:32):

Mike, you make a good point. And, I'd like to touch a little bit about this idea that you talked about – you expect your managers to manage their people, and so on and so forth. And within that statement, there's this innate level of trust that you have with your managers, and in a way, because you're allowing them that trust right away, then they can give trust to their own people from the beginning. That's actually, my question really is – do you, as a leader, find that you come into a new team with a certain level of trust that they will be competent and adult-like to get their job done? Or, do you think that it's important to have people kind of build that trust with you before you're able to give it away so freely?

Mike Zachman (34:34):

That's a situational answer. It kind of depends – when you come into a role, if you already know that this is a rebuild role or why are you coming into this role? Is it because they've done great things and now they want to do more? Or is it because they've been running into a brick wall and they don't know why? So you have to take that into account. But generally speaking, I would follow the sage advice of President Reagan and say, 'Trust, but verify.' I would, and I have, taken specific efforts to validate trust. Now, as opposed to – I haven't subscribed to the model of 'Withhold the trust until they earn it.'

Drew Lazzara (35:29):

Now, you are a big practicer of your leadership. So before we let you go, can you give people a few specific things that you do routinely that help you keep that leadership acumen sharp?

Mike Zachman (35:44):

Always assume positive intent from your team members until you're proven wrong. Be the one, take the blame for your team, but give the praise to your team. So those are kind of slogans, I would say. And every day we've got opportunities, micro opportunities, to execute against something as simple as 'Take the blame when things go wrong, give praise when things go right.'

Drew Lazzara (36:20):

Last question for you, Mike. Thinking even beyond leadership, what would be your next big question for executives?

Mike Zachman (36:28):

What is the future of the office?

Drew Lazzara (36:34):

That is a fantastic question. And it's one that we will definitely be posing to our next guest on the podcast. Mike Zachman, thank you so much for being here this week. This was a pleasure, and we really appreciate your time and all your perspectives on servant leadership.

Mike Zachman (36:50):

I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

Liz Ramey (36:54):

Thank you, again, for listening to The Next Big Question. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show so that we can continue to grow and improve. You can also visit to learn more about our C-level communities. Network, share, and learn with Evanta, a Gartner company.


Connect with your community