Paul Sohl is CEO of the Florida High Tech Corridor Councils, a position he has held for 14 months.
What implications do you see for your organization resulting from the coronavirus and how are you mitigating the potential risks and challenges?
At The Corridor, our three mission-into-action words are “Connect. Collaborate. Convene.” We do that across our 23 counties, spanning the state from Tampa/St. Pete, through Orlando and Gainesville, and out to the Space Coast. That’s a big territory to serve. And because I started as CEO on June 1, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I’ve known no other way of doing business than how we do it today. Instead of driving around meeting people, our small but mighty team spends a lot of time on Zoom calls. Looking back over this past year, I think that’s helped me on my listening and learning journey. I’ve met many more people in my first year using technologies like Zoom than I could have met driving across Florida. But of course, relationships forged only through video technology aren’t very deep. The good news is—those critical face-to-face discussions are beginning to happen. Yay!
What actions have you taken or will take to return to the growth expectations you had as 2019 ended? When will it be achieved?
Being a non-profit, I would put “growth expectations” in terms of how we can better connect, collaborate, and convene with stakeholders across the region to positively impact more of Florida’s communities—not just the high-tech ones. Here’s something I’ve learned in my first year: Tech for tech’s sake misses the point. All the varieties of technology around the Corridor are, quite frankly, mind-blowing. There’s energy and environment technology, gaming and entertainment, life sciences, modeling and simulation, agriculture and farming tech, financial tech, space tech, manufacturing tech, optics and photonics, learning and human performance tech. And that just scratches the surface. Fascinating stuff for sure. But at the end of the day, I want to learn much more about how technology benefits humanity, solving our biggest challenges, and focus on what The Corridor can do in service to all our communities.
An organization’s culture flows from the top down. What leadership skills do you find effective in promoting the agency’s mission and vision to employees, clients and customers?
My plan from the very first day on the job just over a year ago was to 1) Listen, 2) Learn, 3) Help, and 4) Lead. And I credit General Jim Mattis for those four words with my approach to this job. I was blessed with many opportunities to lead Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians during my 33 years in the Navy. And yet, leading an organization like The Corridor was absolutely new to me, way out of my comfort zone. I think those first two leadership skills, listening and learning, have been key for me in this new world outside the Navy. I plan to be on my listening and learning journey for a long time to come.
At EVOLVE we have a shared belief that leaders develop their success skills by overcoming the challenges and adversity they face. Do you believe that hypothesis and if so, what adversity have you faced and overcome that helped put you where you are today?
Absolutely. If you’re going through life and everything is falling into place, nicely and neatly, what are you actually learning? I would argue, “not much.” I think challenges, adversity and especially failure are great teachers. I’ve had a ton of experiences like that. Here’s an example from over 30 years ago that I remember like it was yesterday. I was learning to fly the F/A-18 Hornet (a fighter jet) out in Lemoore, CA and was ready to finish my last phase of training—landing on an aircraft carrier. I had done it before in T-2s and A-4s. I thought I was ready. It turns out, I wasn’t. I failed the phase and was sent back to the beach for more training, a friendly way of saying, “Go home. You’re not cutting it.” I really thought my career was over. I’d be useless to the Navy if I couldn’t land on a ship. I was ready to give up. Luckily for me, I got two new instructors, Mike “Elrod” Cross and Carlos “Juice” Ayuso, who had faith in me. They were great teachers and great mentors. Folks who care about you even when you may not care about yourself are priceless. I’ve tried to pay that back when I meet anyone who might be struggling. We’ve all been there.
What closing comments or counsel would you offer to emerging business leaders and entrepreneurs to continue their path to success?
Never forget that it pays to be humble. I think humility is way underrated in the leadership world. I’m a Stephen Covey-trained guy. My favorite “habit” of Stephen’s is: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In my mind, that means we need to spend more time listening and thinking and less time speaking. Perhaps that’s why Gen Mattis’ view of leadership is in that order: Listen, Learn, Help, Lead!