Position: Chief executive of District-based health care information technology company MedicaSoft.
Mike O’Neill was 13 when his father bought him a kit to build his own microprocessor. That sparked a strong interest in technology. He started out designing microchips for IBM and then moved to a start-up where he learned about the world of marketing and sales. He eventually spent five years with a venture capital firm before realizing he was too removed from the day-to-day operations of building a tech business. A mentor asked him to come to the Department of Veterans Affairs to help develop health care technology, which put him on a path to his current job running MedicaSoft.
Mentors have played a big role in your career. What are the lessons you’ve learned from them?
One mentor spent almost all of her time with customers — with new customers and with existing customers. She taught me to be completely customer-driven. Her forte was getting customers engaged in talking about what they wanted. It’s not always so easy. Also, she just didn’t take no for an answer. When you work for a large company, a lot of people can vote on whether you do something or not. When she believed something was right, she didn’t take no for an answer.
Any other lessons?
Another mentor taught me to only work on things that are worth doing. It’s so easy to say but hard to do. He had many things he could do as a chief executive. I’ve learned technology can solve all kinds of problems, so it’s about picking the ones that will have an impact on your business and society.
You’ve worked with many chief executives in your career. What qualities mark effective leaders?
To be an effective chief executive, you have to be comfortable speaking to all people of all backgrounds at all levels. Some of that is humility. If you feel that as a chief executive you really can’t spend time with a nursing coordinator at a hospital, you will never get from that coordinator the kind of problems that, if solved, will make a difference to your business and to her. To the extent you can do that, I think you gain the right kind of feedback and knowledge to build a better business.
How did you best learn how to do that effectively?
There are people where it comes naturally. Others have to work at it. I definitely think I’m in the second category. The biggest thing is are you genuinely interested? Do you have a natural curiosity of the other person’s problem or point of view? If you do, then much of this follows. You’ll draw yourself in the right conversation and the next thing you know you are relating to that person. If you don’t have a natural curiosity it tends to cut conversation short and you tend to not build relationships. I constantly have to work at it.
What business books are you reading?
I’m reading two books at the moment: “Quantum Man” [by Lawrence M. Krauss] and “How to Write a Sentence” by Stanley Fish.
— Interview with Vanessa Small