About Steven Zylstra
Steven Zylstra has been the president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council since 2007. He came into his position after serving as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Catalyst Connection, the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center, and the Doyle Center for Manufacturing Technology. He has served in leadership roles on councils across the country since the 1980s.
Lesson 1: Yes, Dad really was right. 05m 12s.
Lesson 2: Know the man in the mirror 06m 39s.
Lesson 3: Mistake, rinse, don’t repeat 08m 53s.
Lesson 4: Risky business is more than a movie 10m 58s.
Lesson 5: Believe me when I say…….13m 19s.
Lesson 6: No need to go it alone 15m 54s.
Lesson 7: There’s something about the company that you keep 19m 10s.
Lesson 8: Thank you goes a long, long way 21m 11s.
Lesson 9: Chart a course for your adventure 23m 35s.
Lesson 10: Don’t make it your little secret 25m 18s.
Steve Zylstra: [00:00:00] (intro) But I eventually realized I was standing in my own way that I was inhibiting my own ability to be successful. You always want to believe in yourself. You’ll actually discover that you can do more than you ever thought was possible. This is really an important lesson.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:00:22] Hello, and welcome to our podcast, 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn where we dispense wisdom, not just information, not mere facts to an audience of future leaders at any age around the globe. In other words, we will be talking to interesting people about your interesting experiences. This podcast is sponsored by PDF.
The professional development forum PDF helps up and coming professionals accelerate their performance into modern workplace. My name is Siebe Van Der Zee and I’m your host. I’m originally from the Netherlands currently living in the state of Arizona in the United States. Also known as the Dutchman in the desert.
My company is involved in executive search and performance coaching and Oh yeah. In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to live in four countries on three continents. I hope you will enjoy this program. Our guest today is Steve Zylstra. welcome, Steve. Thank you so much for joining us.
Steve Zylstra: [00:01:21] Absolutely. It’s great to be here.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:01:22] Steve is president and CEO of the Arizona technology council, a growing non-profit industry organization with I believe, close to 1000 corporate members at this moment. He has been in this role since 2007, before arriving in Phoenix. Steve served as the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh technology council.
Steve is a highly respected spokesman for the value technology can bring in raising social and economic standards, not only in Arizona, but throughout the United States. He is also a leading advocate for improving STEM, education, science, technology, engineering, and math. He holds a degree in automotive engineering technology.
And he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of science in technology from the university of advancing technology. There’s a lot of technology there. Steve. He was named leader of the year in the technology field by the Arizona capital times and most admired leader by the business journal. Very welcome, Steve.
I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Steve Zylstra: [00:02:25] Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m looking forward to this.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:02:29] I got, got to ask. Sure. Before we get into the 10 lessons, Arizona is a magical place in, in, in many ways. But if I look at industry going back to perhaps the 1950s technology has been such an important element of our structure. And today the city of Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the United States. We are, I believe still one of the fastest growing States in the United States. Technology has been such an important element, including emerging technologies, electric vehicles. I know you and I spoke about photonics artificial intelligence, FinTech, Agritech where is this coming from? And where are we going?
Steve Zylstra: [00:03:11] Well as you suggest it started fairly early here, it was actually in 1949 that Galvin. Brought Motorola here and really started this semiconductor industry. And it was right after world war II that the aerospace and defence industry started to grow here.
And today every prime contractor that serves the federal government has an operation here in Arizona. And it’s a lot of things I would say that one of the most important is our business climate. We were sort of light on regulation. We have a. So low tax structure, corporate taxes are, are modest or moderate for our region.
We it’s just a really great place. If you’re running a business to locate that business, it’s easier to attract talent here because of our weather. As you know, we have over 300 days of sunshine every year, so we have a great quality of life. A high standard of living in a relatively low cost of living, particularly when you compare us to the other tech areas around the country like Austin and Denver and Seattle, and of course Silicon Valley.
So, a very good business climate an attractive place to live and work. And as far as the future, it’s accelerating. I think our growth is Now exponential and soon we’re going to be on the top of that list. Like those States, I just mentioned,
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:04:38] it’s impressive. Maybe a silly remark, but the future looks sunny right in Arizona? Again, your, your background you have been involved with so many companies and, and you have your own experience. So, to talk about the lessons that you have learned is something that we’re all looking forward to. The first lesson that you provided is yes, Dad really was right.
Steve Zylstra: [00:05:04] So I inherited my work ethic from my father to get through the years of traveling constantly on his job, getting stuck on the road.
He was a truck driver. Really was no excuse for him ever being late. He lived by the rule, always be early, rather than late. It still works for me all these years later, add to that, the need to put an extra effort. Where the job requires that you do that every day, going through the motions really doesn’t cut it.
You have to be reliable. I think reliability is something that others look for to remain confident in your contributions. So Always be a model for the type of behaviour you’re expecting of others after all. How can you want the best of other people if you don’t expect the best of yourself?
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:05:54] Yeah. Now of course it takes either a father or a mother that really looks out for their child. It can also be that you go through the motions yourself or perhaps through adversity, but lessons that you learned and as you said to serve as a role model right, because circumstances can be different for people, but that’s, that’s an interesting concept to use to look at what you learn and to use that, to teach and educate others.
Exactly. Lesson number two. Know the man in the mirror.
Steve Zylstra: [00:06:31] Well, as you know, we all, we have our strengths and weaknesses, many people pride themselves in being quick studies of the other guy, looking for an angle or a way to gain an upper hand. Yeah. Unfortunately, many also know more about others than they do about themselves.
Self-reflection is a very important thing. Everyone should know their own weaknesses, as well as their strong suits. We gained skills and knowledge over the course of her career. And if we work to our strengths, we’ll be happier in our job. And that’s really what leads to longevity in any job is the fulfillment and the happiness that we have for those areas where we need help address them, you know, through a formal or on the job training.
This is one of the reasons my organization, the Arizona technology council focuses on taking people to the, to a higher level. But the learning shouldn’t be a career centric, develop new skills through your life. We’re all hearing over and over again. The importance of lifelong learning. None of us ever know everything.
We can always learn something new. And I think knowing yourself, and understanding those strengths and weaknesses is a critical characteristic. You need to be successful.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:07:49] There’s a lot to this point, perhaps the challenge is, and I typically like to point at myself that we all have, can I say blind spots when it comes to weaknesses, it’s sometimes very difficult for people, no matter how talented they are to recognize perhaps their weak spots.
And that’s something that we all have to be aware of, that we may not recognize our own weak spots or blind spots, and that’s one of them. But I think working with the concept that we all have weak spots. And blind spots. That’s already a start of awareness, right. To recognize that, and that puts you in a, in a more balanced position, but it’s not always an easy process.
Absolutely. Yeah. The next one boy, strong mistake, rinse don’t repeat. Excellent.
Steve Zylstra: [00:08:43] One of the important things is we really never want to stifle creativity and innovation is critical to our success. We also do not want to repeatedly make the same mistakes. It was actually the character in the author, Rita Mae Brown book sudden death, not Albert Einstein, who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
We’ve heard that many times over careers. I think learning from all our experiences helps eliminate unnecessarily repeating things that we know do not work in certain situations.
And this is true, whether you’re building the next great thing or building your own career path. Too often, as we all know, history repeats itself and being conscious of the things that we learn along the way, applying them to both our job and our career. I think are also critical to our success.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:09:43] I think persistence, resilience, all of those things we’re living in a different time period. Right now, we have to adjust pivot, but we all recognize that’s for some people is very tough. It’s very tough. And I think to be able to learn and stay resilient, I think that’s a, that’s definitely very important concept to apply.
Steve Zylstra: [00:10:07] In fact, to your point, resilience should be the word of 2020, right?
As a world, as a nation, as a state, as an organization, as an individual, we all found ourselves having to Be resilient and a year that threw many curve balls at us yet. We’re all still here. Well, not all of us are here. It’s unfortunate for the 500,000 Americans who have passed away, but the rest of us have become more resilient.
It’s built our character and it’s important for our future success.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:10:39] Yeah. Yeah. Lesson number four, risky business is more than a movie. I remember that.
Steve Zylstra: [00:10:47] Yeah, that was a Tom cruise, I believe. So, in order to achieve a new objective or to jump over hurdles in business, there’s a certain amount of risk-taking that’s required.
I think we; we all know that in the founders of some of the technology mega giants, including the likes of Intel and Google will tell you just that. And I’ve lived through that too. When building the organizations that I’ve led in my own career, my members have experienced that to members of the Arizona technology council too often being a risk averse, inhibits our ability to be innovative and create new things.
It’s. It’s important to cultivate a culture. That’s also okay to fail, right? This is especially important when you’re a leader for the people that look to you for the vision of the organization is to give them this sense that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try new things. Again, we don’t want to be insane.
We don’t want to keep repeating the same mistakes, but we do want to take risks in our business because they’re important to develop that next new thing, that next new service that we need, because we need to continuously innovate. The world is constantly changing around us. And as a consequence, the product that worked yesterday may not work in the future.
So, we’ve got to be willing to take risks.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:12:13] It’s a topic that I think we can devote a full podcast to just, just that one, right? The importance of that. And I, I see in, in several countries, and definitely the United States, the spirit of entrepreneurship that is being promoted as part of the culture. And at the same time, as you said, sometimes things go wrong.
You fail, you learn from those failures and you pick yourself up because no one else will pick you up and you go into it. With new ideas, new ways and lessons learned. So, I think very valuable and, and obviously worldwide to this applies because we’re all individuals and this is this is helpful.
The next one Steve Believe me when I say….
Steve Zylstra: [00:13:02] Well, show me someone who claims to have been born confident. And all I can say to that is, really? People who know me now likely would be surprised to learn that my earliest and most important lesson was to overcome my lack of self-confidence, especially when I hadn’t yet developed any experience of note.
So, grew up in a fairly small town. Didn’t have a lot of life experiences. You know, the world that I knew was somewhat small, but I eventually realized I was standing in my own way that I was inhibiting my own ability to be successful. You always want to believe in yourself. You’ll actually discover that you can do more than you ever thought was possible.
This is really an important lesson by going beyond what at first you believe you were capable of achieving you continuously ratchet up that success ladder. So never sell yourself short. You have to believe in yourself. And when you get to that other side, it’ll be amazing to you, how easy that was when you believed in yourself.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:14:15] Wow. Is there, is there a particular moment in your life that, that triggered that? Or was it sort of a
Steve Zylstra: [00:14:22] I would say that, you know, again, coming from a small town and then getting a college education, I was the first in my family and the only one in my family to get a college education. You don’t really know what’s ahead of you.
You don’t know what that job is going to be like or working for that company is going to be like, and so it inhibits you from wanting to, to gain additional ground and overcoming that, you know, once I overcame that in the, my first and second job, I realized that going forward that while I may not know what’s on the other side, I know I’ll be fine when I get there.
And as long as you have all these other sorts of inherent characteristics, you know, your drive. Your ability to work hard being reliable, all these fundamentals, you’ll be fine. And so, it’s those experiences where I saw a challenge ahead of me, particularly career oriented, not knowing whether it’s going to be able to do that job but forcing myself forward was critical to myself.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:15:26] Yes. Interesting, interesting, and powerful. Self-confidence lesson number six. No need to go it alone.
Steve Zylstra: [00:15:34] Well, mentors are critically important. I was lucky enough to have had several individuals in my career who listened to me, advise me, supported me, believed in me. And even when I was bordering on being a non-believer myself, that self-confidence issue, it’s reassuring to be able to turn to someone who has the wisdom and the experience that can help you envision.
Your own path forward, knowing you have someone in your corner who cares about your being successful can be helpful in identifying both opportunities and pitfalls and avoiding the pitfalls. This is extremely useful to help shape your decision-making process. So, you know, I’ve been fortunate throughout my life, whether it’s been in high school or college, whether it’s a teacher professor or in my career to have people that I could rely on that I could trust that believed in me and were willing to give me Frank advice about the next steps I was taking. So, don’t try and go it alone. Involve family, friends, mentors to make those hard choices, or particularly earlier in your career.
Right. When you don’t have a lot of experience and you’re still lacking a little bit of self-confidence, don’t go it alone.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:16:54] Now I have a question because of course we can all appreciate and value a mentor. Did you look for a mentor or were there mentors that reached out to you?
Steve Zylstra: [00:17:05] A really good question.
I’ve been lucky in my life not to have to go. Search for mentors. It just happened to be people. I was around either through my family life, my friends, or through my career that allowed me to benefit from, from their experience. I would say one of my Best mentors, particularly for the stuff that I do in this phase of my career.
The last 20 years I met my career is guy by the name of Milton Stewart, who helped create at the federal level, the small business innovation research program, he found that my organization was being very successful in that program and reached out to me, saw that I had some leadership qualities. And helped me establish the first precursor to the Arizona technology council in 1985, it was called the Arizona innovation network.
And it was because of his belief in me that I was able to do that.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:18:01] Yeah, very, very important. And you wish that many people have the opportunity to have mentors and at the same time, people that have experience. That they are willing and perhaps actively look for opportunities to assist and mentor others because it has to be a two-way street. Right?
Steve Zylstra: [00:18:20] And I find myself giving back at this stage in my career when I’m in the mentor to a young boy who I’ve mentored him since he was in high school. And now that he’s at Grand Canyon university, I’m at your people on a regular basis from a career standpoint or trying to enter the tech industry.
So, it’s critical to give back.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:18:40] Thank you for that. The next lesson, there is something about the company that you keep.
Steve Zylstra: [00:18:45] Well, people sometimes think I have dozens and dozens of staff and, we’re not that big my team is really very good at what they do. And that’s not an accident as a manager. I feel that I need to find the best, most capable people that I can and surround myself with them and then get out of their way and let them perform, let them do what they do.
You truly are only as good as the team that you assemble. And while a good leader takes into account, every member’s team, every member. The team’s strengths and weaknesses to support them in unique ways. You should never micromanage them. That is something I think, kills that team spirit. So, don’t be intimidated is what I say by hiring people who are a lot smarter than you are.
It will pay dividends over and over and over again. I’ve been again, very lucky to surround myself with exceptional people. And as a result, we, we have an exceptional organization. It’s not simply because of my leadership. It’s because of the contributions that every single team member makes every day of the week.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:19:57] I can attest to that. And with a joke, I think that’s why you and I are friends. Right. It’s very, very true and relevant again, to surround yourself with quote unquote, the right people, especially in a, in a, in a professional career type of situation that is important.
Steve Zylstra: [00:20:16] Another responsibility of leadership is getting the right people in the right seats.
Right? You could put people in a job that you know, they don’t have either the inclination for, or the experience or the skillset. Right. But that’s your job as a leader to make sure you have the right people. And then you have them in the right seat.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:20:36] It’s very important part of management. And, and so is the next lesson that you provided thank you goes a long, long way. Empathy, we talk about leadership and, and surrounding yourself and setting people up for success, but saying thank you very relevant.
Steve Zylstra: [00:20:53] Well, keep in mind that I head up a not-for-profit organization, not a big tech company. And while I’d love to pay my staff even more than our budget would allow, I’ve learned there is a motivator better than most currencies, and that is giving words of appreciation to your team and doing it on a regular basis.
I think it’s important to compliment your team. People are always looking for affirmation that what they’re doing made sure approval. That’s one of the things that leaders often miss, right? You’re in that. Seat and people are constantly looking to you and when you give them that affirmation it goes such a long way.
Just to feel words in a few seconds can make all the difference in the world and make people feel appreciated. And that goes for your other team too, by the way, the people at home that are supporting you and your friends that are supporting you so often, you know, you. Get embedded in your work. And you may forget to thank those people around you.
In addition to the people that work with you every day,
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:21:58] you take time to think about that when you go through your daily or weekly routines that you say, I got to make sure I acknowledged this person or say hello to that person. Is that something that you do deliberately or is it just a spur of the moment?
Steve Zylstra: [00:22:15] It’s both. I think it should be spontaneous sometimes those spontaneous thank yous really have an impact, but I have a weekly staff meeting and as I’m praying, preparing the agenda for my weekly staff meeting, I try and think through, you know, one of the various staff members done over the course of that week that deserve accolades in front of their other team members.
Right. And making sure you know, spread that out evenly over time to make sure you compliment everyone, not just. It’s a select few, otherwise it can have a counter effect. Right? So, it’s both, it really is.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:22:50] Interesting. And the fact that you are aware of it definitely says something about you as an individual. The spontaneous aspects of course is, is very, very important as well. The next lesson chart a course for your adventure.
Steve Zylstra: [00:23:04] Well, you always want to continue to be an opportunist that is recognize opportunities and take advantage of them when they come along. You don’t want to run your organization with that as your business plan, both strategic planning and business planning are really two different animals.
Strategic planning really helps chart a course for your enterprise. And it’s essential having a clear vision for where you want to be in three years, five years, 10 years, and making sure that you’re. Team understands that vision and embraces that vision is critically important, making it part of the exercise and help them realize their own passion for, for whatever your cause is.
And then defining goals with metrics that are clear and objective and allow you to determine when you’ve arrived at the destination that you’ve set out to achieve. So, it’s really important for your team members to have buy-in. When you’re doing strategic planning. So, their involvement is critical to setting that path.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:24:11] Yeah. Great point. I typically think a strategy that it includes a set of choices. That’s correct. Right. You look at different options. And when you think about a business plan, it is more well-defined action steps, and most likely with measurable results. That’s part of the business plan and you need the strategy plan or strategic plan and strategy planning, but ultimately that existing business plan that’s, what’s going to drive your, your day-to-day activities.
That’s correct. Good point. Don’t make it your little secret. That’s lesson number 10. What does that all about Steve?
Steve Zylstra: [00:24:47] Well, I can’t believe we’re to number 10 already. But I learned long ago that no one likes surprises, unless of course it’s a cake with candles. So, you know, remember to tell your team heck, tell the world where you’re headed. I just spoke to the need to make sure that your team understands your visit vision. I don’t think that you can over communicate, you know, we have a well-developed sales strategy, thoroughly trained sales staff, so that they understand that the focus is our customer success. That’s particularly important when you run.
A trade association and you’re providing services to a set of members. So, to help the sales team succeed, make certain that you have in place the appropriate tools that they need, like a website, collateral materials, a CRM, a good commission system. And These days, you have to do that in both print and digital formats, of course, ensure that your marketing and communications approach uses all the appropriate channels that are available to us today.
Of course, there’s less direct mail today, more emails, social media advertising, and. Public relations, I think is one of the things that a lot of companies don’t focus enough attention on both for building their brand and building awareness of their organization. But I think to educate your customers about the features, advantages, and benefits of your products and services, you need to use PR it’s a, it’s a very inexpensive way to promote your brand, your company, and its solutions to your customer’s problems.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:26:31] Why do you think that’s not optimized by, by companies?
Steve Zylstra: [00:26:34] You know, there are some entrepreneurs, that’s a really good question. There are some entrepreneurs that in, in business owners that see that it’s bragging, right? And there’s a lot of humble people that run companies and organizations and this idea of, you know, getting media attention for what they do seems arrogant.
To them, but you know, how our customers supposed to find out about you. If you’re not willing to use these tools that are available again, build your brand and create awareness for the products and services that you’re providing. It’s, it’s relatively inexpensive. You got to have a good writing talent on staff.
You’ve got to have access to the media outlets and that kind of thing. But once you do, you can get your message out there too. As a thought leader. Which can be critical. People are much more willing to follow you when they perceive you as a, as a thought leader in your industry. So, PR is one way to achieve that.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:27:32] It’s interesting that you raise that because I wonder when you talk about small, medium sized businesses with achy or, or a few key entrepreneurs driving that organization, that perhaps there is a. Humanity aspect and say, well, I don’t mean to promote myself. And when you are working for a major corporation, pick a company Intel corporation, then it’s not so much personal because you work for that big organization and you advertise a new brand and that’s all there is to it.
I hadn’t thought about that. Individual that perhaps says, well, you know, we just want to get our work done and, and it’s not about me. And you’re making the point it’s to promote your brand, to be successful, to make people aware of what your company and your organization is doing. And you may be that figurehead and well go for it.
Steve Zylstra: [00:28:24] I would say even in the large corporation today, it’s well accepted. That thought leadership is, is really important. You could have a, a unique capability in a, in a very small niche that you can build international thought leadership around it. Doesn’t put your corporate brand in the background. It puts it right up front.
But you as, as a thought leader within Intel or Honeywell or Avnet or a company like that is well accepted in today’s world. So, you’re right in an entrepreneurial environment, it’s a different scenario, but I think it works across the size of, of enterprise.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:29:02] Yeah. Good points. Steve, I’m thinking again of, in a way of how we started the conversation with Arizona, tremendous growth, and I can assure our listeners that what the Arizona technology council has done in Arizona over the years has been very successful. And under your leadership for 14 years, they have been very successful and expand it continuously. So that is, that is definitely part of your legacy. The things you have learned, the things you have taught, but I got to ask you before we close it, is there anything that you have unlearned in your years of experience.
Steve Zylstra: [00:29:42] Well, you, you indicated earlier my undergraduate degree is in automotive engineering technology. I actually spent the first 20 years of my life first in the automotive industry, but most of it in the aerospace and defence industry. So, you know, I have an engineering undergraduate and you know, I didn’t do engineering for maybe the first 10 years of my life.
And then through my success ascended into leadership in the aerospace and defence industry, then 20 years into my career, I took a whole different direction. Action. You know, I ran, as you said earlier, the Pittsburgh technology council for about seven years been running the Arizona technology council now for 13 years.
So, you know, for people starting out to think that you can plan your career or your business path, with any degree of accuracy, it’s just not going to happen. You know, I think you get an undergraduate degree. You B you really become an adult during those, those years, when you’re in college, you learn both inside and outside the classroom about the world.
But thinking that, you know, if I become, you know, if I can get a degree and, and being a dental hygienist, that that’s what I’m going to do the rest of my life. It’s not going to work that way. So again, Being opportunistic. You always have to look for an opportunity to apply your strengths in a way that’s going to have the most profound impact on other people.
Right? You want to leave a legacy and halfway through my career, I decided that this was an area that I could give more. Then I was giving in, in a highly technical field. So, don’t be alarmed if you’re a career, doesn’t go just as you planned it early on you know that you’re going to go from a to B to C if you go from a to L to Z that’s okay.
And So that’s, that’s the thing I sort of had to unlearn over time.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:31:38] Great information, very helpful. We all go through careers and, and, you know, even if we are, let’s say in, in an advanced career situation, I like to use that wisdom by saying, you know, my best years are still ahead of me and. Sure I add to add my chances of winning Wimbledon are long gone, and by the way, I never had a chance, but you got to be realistic about that, but very helpful, Steve, and, and again, thank you so much for participating in this podcast.
Steve Zylstra: [00:32:09] It’s been a great pleasure. I enjoyed this very much Siebe and I appreciate you doing this. And loved it. Thank you. Thank you.
Siebe Van Der Zee: [00:32:16] Dispensing wisdom around the globe, you have been listening to the international thought cast 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn produced by Robert Hossary and sponsored by the professional development forum.
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