Every Friday, we get the C-level overview on Tampa tech companies. But we’ve never gotten the EA perspective before. Being that executive assistants get a very deep understanding of companies, we thought it would be good to interview one: Michael French, EA to Arnie Bellini (prior to the sale) at ConnectWise.
On the ConnectWise culture
Roxanne Williams: I wrote a piece about two years ago – The Top 10 Tech Companies To Work For In Tampa. The first year, ConnectWise was first. This year, it’s second, which is still pretty darn good. In your own words, what can you tell us about ConnectWise in terms of why it’s such a great place to work?
Michael French: I have limited experience as far as different jobs, but this is by far and above the best culture, place, people – everything about it is just perfect. It starts at the base: hiring. We actually use a book called The Ideal Team Player, and we use that as a filtering mechanism, as a guide for all hiring managers to hire the ideal team player every single time.
The ideal team player is hungry, humble, and smart. Hungry for hard work, promotions, and getting things done right. Humble, as far as great with working in teams, and okay with letting somebody else take the praise on something. Smart, can get along with people, but also smart as far as finding unique approaches to questions and problems and solutions. So, we do that to hire the right people, and then when you have the right people as the baseline, you can build a great culture on top of that quite easily. You don’t build on quicksand. You build on concrete.
Roxanne: In terms of the culture, do you guys run fun events here?
Michael: Actually, tomorrow, we’re doing ‘take your child to work’ day, which I’m in charge of coordinating. We have a panel of colleagues coming in. They’ll be talking about all the different departments, what they do, how they interact with our partners, and with their own colleagues. And then, we’ll be doing different group activities. They’re all going to make their own Avengers team. Each kid is going to be their own superhero with their own superpower.
We teamed up with the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. In fact, they use Garfield as a mascot to teach cybersecurity awareness to children. So, we’re going to do a cybersecurity training exercise, and the kids will get a certificate that says, “I am a certified safe cybersecurity kid.”
[Edited to add: at the time of publishing, the event has happened – here’s a really cute picture from the day.]
Otherwise, for culture, we do company picnics at the zoo annually. The company throws a holiday party every year. We do mid-year trips for each department for high performers. We do weekly things. It’s interesting enough that you’re interviewing me today. Today is Administrative Professionals Day. So, yay me! Yesterday after work, I took all the executive assistants out and we had a couple drinks and some food. We work hard together, and we play hard together.
It’s really important for us to let everyone know that it’s not the end of the world if you have to take two days off. We try not to micromanage, and we give everyone individual freedom to decorate their desks and play as hard as they work.
On what an EA at ConnectWise does
Matt Vaughn: You mentioned that it was part of your responsibilities to plan the ‘bring your kid to work’ day, and executive assistants everywhere definitely don’t do the same job. In your words, what are your responsibilities here at ConnectWise at the level you’re at?
Michael: I make sure that everyone is as happy as could be in every capacity. People will tell you: I am truly the office cheerleader. You can’t come to me without me cracking a joke, smiling, and trying to improve everybody’s demeanor. I believe that you are what you leave to the world, and so, I try to leave everybody in a better mood than I found them. Even if they’re in the happiest mood ever, I just go a step higher.
As an EA, what I try to do is to touch as many people as possible in a day, see what’s going on around the office, and try to anticipate any potential shifts or problems or catch anything ahead of time and keep everyone moving forward as best as possible.
Matt: Excellent. What has been your proudest accomplishment at ConnectWise?
Michael: I was originally the assistant to the executive assistants. That was my first job when I came here – I was the assistants’ assistant.
Every executive assistant is in a department, so being the assistants’ assistant allowed me to basically assist all departments. I spread my roots really wide at first, and got to know as many people as possible. Two or three months in, I got called into the office with the COO and head of HR and they’re like, “How are you doing today?” And I was like, “I was doing really well.”
And then they go, “Well you are now Arnie Bellini’s (the CEO) executive assistant, congratulations. Do you have any questions?” I said, “No. I’m going to have think about this.”
I say it’s cheesy just because everything else that I have accomplished and done here is predicated on the fact that I’ve been able to work as the CEO’s assistant. A CEO doesn’t have a department – all departments are his department. So now I lead the executive assistants. Just so that we’re all organized, making sure that someone’s not working on the same project as someone else, or if they need somebody to talk to then they can come to a leader.
Everything that I have done and accomplished here leads back to being given the opportunity to support Arnie in the very beginning.
Roxanne: Why did you have to think about it?
Michael: Really, I was so surprised. It was just like, oh, this is completely out of left field. It was great, it really was. That whole thing of being able to go around to every office and be supportive of every single person is what I love to do, and it’s the perfect place for me to be.
Roxanne: On the flip side of that, are there any projects that didn’t go as planned? Any, “Oh shit” moments?”
Michael: Every project has its challenges. What I do in any project is anticipate as many problems as possible and do my best to avoid them. So, not one really stands out. You just roll with the punches and pivot, pivot, pivot. We go by Agile here.
Roxanne: You have that mentality where you try to figure out everything that could go wrong.
Michael: Indeed – I’m always thinking of every possibility. I think outside the box as much as possible, so when something goes wrong, I’ll usually have a backup plan. Or, “This is the backup plan for that.” And, “The backup plan for that backup plan is this backup plan.” You have to have as much as possible.
On the company’s sale, and what’s to come
Matt: Tell us about your experience through the sale of ConnectWise. What was it like from an EA perspective? Were you very involved in it?
Michael: It was an incredible experience. I’ve been in board meetings with the company, I’ve been in executive leadership meetings, I’ve seen how our company runs, I’ve seen how Arnie thinks, I’ve seen how Jason thinks, and this was just on another level.
Everyone had to work at 150%. This made them go above and beyond, that and actually really put what the company was doing, where it was headed, what its goals were, what its strategy was, all right in front.
I got to sit in one of the first meetings with Thoma Bravo and ConnectWise with Arnie and Jason and all of them. They were pitching the company, basically selling them on us, and it was wonderful. It was incredible to see that much passion and strength of what we have, and what our potential could be. I was like, “Oh wow, the next five years are going to be crazy.”
Being given the responsibility and the trust to be in that position, and be involved with those high-level people, was interesting. It’s an experience that somebody my age could only ever dream of at this point in life.
Roxanne: How did it come about? I know through whispers that Arnie had been looking to exit for a while, but how did that initially happen? Who reached out to who?
Michael: I don’t really know for sure. It’s kind of the same thing with, even if you’re not trying to, you’re always playing around.
Roxanne: If the right offer comes, yeah.
Michael: Right. We had a board of directors outside of the company advising us and whatnot. So, I don’t think there was anything like ‘you have to sell’ or ‘Arnie, you need to get out.’ I think it was just a collaborative decision.
We matured so fast through our brand. We used to be ConnectWise, LabTech, and ScreenConnect. Then we rebranded to ConnectWise Manage, Control, Automate, and Sell.
Going through that rebranding took a lot of hard work, and then it was like, “Okay, now that we’ve done that, what’s our next step?” We were getting to a point in our maturity where we had to look at other options to keep growing exponentially, and that’s really as much as I know as far as how it all went down.
Roxanne: I know it hasn’t been long, but how’s the company doing since Jason took over as CEO? What are the most obvious differences in his management style, as opposed to Arnie?
Michael: I haven’t really noticed any change. It was a lot of restructuring – teams moved, and people went under different people.
Roxanne: Craig moved from operations to customer success.
Michael: Right, and we built an entire customer success organization on top of our services and education that we already had. We’re still settling in. People are still getting used to having new managers, and working in different buildings. Teams are moving all over the place right now, but it feels very good. Everyone’s doing well, everyone’s happy, just working through the kinks of essentially having a whole new organization.
Matt: Good chaos is still chaos. Does Arnie still play a big part in the company as a senior advisor? What does that entail?
Michael: Since the acquisition, I’ve seen him twice for board meetings. I know he’s dropped in once or twice. He’s always a welcome sight. He’s the founder, he’s dad, essentially. He always saw this company as his family, and it always perks everyone up when he’s around. But to my knowledge, he’s in his advisory role and that’s what he’s doing. Hopefully we’ll still see him at the company picnic. He always loved that.
Matt: And with that, have you been moved over to being Jason’s assistant now?
Michael: Jason already had an assistant, and she was already in the weeds of his calendar and his inbox and all of what he does. I worked very closely with Jason previously anyway, so I was very close with him too. I assist him whenever I can, or whenever he needs a little extra help.
As of now, I’m more focused on the company stuff. We’re doing Strat Op this week, which is our upper leadership strategy system. I helped organize that.
On Tampa, tech, and talent
Roxanne: Are you involved in the tech community in Tampa? What events can we spot you at?
Michael: Definitely Synapse. I love Synapse. Outside of ConnectWise, as far as an EA role, I try to take a leadership and networking stance on that. We have the Tampa Bay Executive Assistant group on Facebook. We get together once a quarter, and there are a lot of techies, financiers, law firms and all that. Last week, we did axe throwing.
Roxanne: If you haven’t connected with Jeff Fudge, he runs the High Tech Connect meetup. They usually get around 200 attendees, and they do it every month. I think it’s the 3rd Thursday of every month. If that’s something you guys would be into, it’s a great connector event.
Michael: Jeff Fudge. Alright. I’ll look into that.
Matt: What do you think Tampa as a whole should do to increase talent retention? We’re seeing a lot of workers go out of state, or work fully-remote for companies located elsewhere. What do you think should be done to increase talent retention?
Michael: Treat people right. Treat people how you want to be treated, every day, in every situation, as much as possible.
We have core values here, and those are pillars that our company stands on. The main one, for this specifically, is ‘your company, your voice.’ Unless there’s an important meeting going on, all the executives have open door policies. Stop in, and they’ll take the time to talk to you and hear you out. I’ve gotten career pathing advice from at least three different executives.
Our company spends a lot of time and money on culture. We feed our colleagues lunch every day – they get an $8 stipend, and fully-stocked kitchens. We also give teams a budget so they can do activities together. Our Service and Education team rented out an entire theater, and saw Avengers: Endgame.
Matt: Did you guys do the same thing for Star Wars as well?
Michael: We did it for Star Wars, we did it for Infinity War, we did it for Thor: Ragnarok. We have a lot of nerds here, so it works out. Everybody that was born after 1980 is in that boat where we’re all just like, “Yeah, Star Wars, Marvel, sure, yep.” Let our nerd flag fly.
For example, see below: we made a sticky note Pikachu for one of our coworkers’ birthdays.
Tampa is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s in Florida, it doesn’t snow here, it’s near the beach. It’s a great place to be, and a great place to raise a family. The education here is incredible. Traffic is questionable, but I hear that they’re working on that. Really it’s where people want to be. You just have to treat people well. That’s it. It shouldn’t be that hard to be kind to people.
Roxanne: I read a study that stated 75% of remote workers are saying they would never work in an office again. That’s one of the pain points that Tampa has, because a lot of companies here refuse to have any sort of work from home option. Knowing remote work is something that’s taking talent away from us, do you guys have remote options?
Michael: It depends on the role. For example, a regional salesperson for the midwest. We don’t have an office in the midwest, so it makes sense to have someone in the midwest that can do it in the same timezone. I know certain teams use it as an incentive, like whoever hits their best numbers this month gets three remote days this month.
To talk back a little bit more to culture and benefits, we have flexible time away. You don’t earn PTO anymore. When I go in to take time off, I have 999 hours and when I hit it, it goes right back to 999. That allows leadership to show colleagues that they trust them to be responsible with their time and to not abuse that responsibility.
Roxanne: Unlimited PTO?
Michael: Basically, yes.
Roxanne: Okay, wow.
Michael: Mothers would come to work sick months out because they’re like, “Alright, I have to save X amount of PTO when I give birth and my maternity leave is so long and I want to take another 3 weeks, so I’ve got to save up all this PTO.” Not with us. At that point, you don’t have to have remote, you can just tell us, “Hey, cable guy’s coming today. He said he could be here any time between 8 and 6.”
Flexible time away gives control to the managers and to the colleagues. We don’t micromanage. It’s definitely something that we talked about, it comes up probably every quarter or so. How do we feel about remote days now? Stuff like that.
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Michael: It’s weird, because that’s what we’ve been talking about. This was Arnie’s idea so I can’t take credit for it, but I agree with them: Tech Bay.
I think we’re working towards being a leader in the southeast. I know Raleigh’s pretty big and Boston’s pretty big and Chicago’s pretty big. So, it’s really a footrace with them – but who wants to go there? Tampa’s where it’s at. I’ve already established this is the place to be.
I would love to see it become Tech Bay and really truly take over as a tech hub.
Roxanne: We’re getting there.
Michael: Synapse is really riling up, and we’re doing our best to invigorate the local tech people. It’s not too hard of a sell to give someone in Minnesota a job and be like, “Come on down. We want you, you’re good. No snow. Come on down to Tampa.”
We always bring people in. I have helped schedule many hotel stays and flights. Of course, we pay for all of it, but it’s just like, “Why don’t you just come down? Just interview with us. Why don’t you stop by the beach while you’re down here, by the way?” That kind of stuff. So, I think we can do it. I think we’re on the cusp of it. And again, credit where credit is due, Arnie always saw the wave and always tried to get out in front of it.
Matt: And outside of tech, what do you hope to see in the next few years when it comes to just Tampa Bay in general?
Michael: Better roads. Interstate system. I’d love to see the Rays have a stadium here. I’m a big baseball fan and it’s such a pain to drive all the way over there.
Jeff Vinik is doing an incredible job with Embarc Collective, Amalie, Channelside, and Water street.
Matt: He’s in some way involved with everything.
Michael: Of course. I know Arnie’s talking to people, Arnie’s in a group with people that are working on environmental changes here, making better roads. The new roads that they’re putting down are supposed to be environmental concrete, however that works or whatever that means, but it’s supposed to be much better for the environment.
I’m a millennial at heart, I care about the people, and I care about the environment. If you want people to come here, it has to stay beautiful, and we have to keep our oceans and waterways clean.
Roxanne: Absolutely. Who is someone in Tampa that you think is doing something cool and innovative in the tech sector, outside of ConnectWise?
Michael: I’m not a software engineer, but from what I’ve heard and what I know, Perch Security has one of the best cybersecurity products on the market. Once it gets popular, it’s going to change the game for cybersecurity. I’m really excited about Perch and all the stuff they’re doing.
Roxanne: It’s fantastic that Arnie is on the board and contributed $9 million as seed. I interviewed Aharon for one of our Tech Leaders interviews.
Michael: Aharon’s awesome. He’s an interesting guy. I don’t know anything tech-specific, but I know people who know security, and I’ve seen their eyes light up when they come out of a Perch pitch meeting. They’re just like, “I don’t, this is, oh my God, this is the best ever.”
Book and podcast recs!
Matt: What are books and podcasts that you would recommend to the readership?
Fiction, I am in the deepest of A Song of Ice and Fire. Oh yeah. I’ve read the books. I’m one of those, “It didn’t happen like that in the book” types.
Matt: Any further thoughts you’d like to share, anything exciting coming down the pipeline for ConnectWise or for yourself?
Michael: I’m just excited about the future. There’s so much going on. I don’t know how everything happens, I just know what’s happening and how they’re moving those pieces around a little bit from a top level.
We’re really building out our EA network, and while it’s not an underappreciated position, it’s very integral. I don’t think as many people appreciate how important the assistants to the executives can be. Maybe I’m a little biased, but, “What’s your job?” “I don’t know, but you’ll know it if I don’t.”
And so, just building out the EA community here. Joelle Paban, who nominated me, has the largest EA network in Florida. She’s head of the Tampa one. She organizes everything.
Being able to deal with high stress situations in immediacy and solve problems that haven’t happened yet or may never happen, while also being the cheery face at the end of the day for everyone, it takes a certain kind of person to do it well. I have the greatest team of EAs in all of Tampa Bay. And you can come at me any time you want to talk about that because every one of them on their own could stand up a company. They’re all incredible, they all work hard, and they never let anything get them down.
Want to nominate a tech leader for us to interview? Fill out the form below!