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Conversation with a Leader With Courage: Michael Small, President & CEO of Gogo Inc. (Part I)

For years, doing business while traveling in the air was severely limited. However, Chicago-based Gogo is changing that experience, paving the way for in-flight Internet and entertainment services. Gogo customers can have their laptops, tablets and mobile devices Wi-Fi enabled, allowing them to surf the web, check email, access corporate VPNs and more.

At the helm of this rapidly growing company is Michael Small, who has been the President & CEO of Gogo for the last six years. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Small for a Leader With Courage conversation to learn how he is keeping Gogo on top of the in-flight connectivity experience.

Value Drivers: Your first job was managing your Dad’s chicken restaurants, is that right?

Michael Small: Yeah. I retired with eight years of service at age 21. I transitioned from that to University of Chicago for business school but I didn’t know an income statement from a balance sheet. Fortunately, upon graduation, I joined a company called Centel, which I chose because I figured it was a little smaller, I could get my head around the org chart and I could be noticed a bit better.

Sure enough, I got some opportunities really quickly, including when I was 29, to become CFO of a subsidiary that we were taking public. It turned out to be a wise career choice. I got a lot of great experience at Centel. Then it was sold to Sprint in 1993 and I left to become President of a public company at 35 years old called Lynch Corporation. After doing that for a couple of years, I went back to being the CFO of a mid-sized wireless company which merged into Altel. Then I got a job as full-fledged CEO. So Lynch was a kind of quasi-CEO job.

How did that second CEO role come about?

There was a buyout of a wireless company and I became CEO of that company when I was about 40 years old. I ran that company for over a decade before we sold it to AT&T for about $3 billion dollars in 2009. Not long after that deal was closed, I started here at Gogo in early 2010.

Why did you decide to come to Gogo?

Frankly, I was ready to do something a little different than telecom. As it turns out, it’s hard to get a totally different job as a CEO. This was telecom in the air, so that seemed a little different.

Where did this job rank among the others in the C-suite you’ve had?

Oh, it’s been by far the most challenging job. When I got here, they had just finished a $37 million dollar revenue year and last year we finished a $500 million dollar revenue year. All of that was due to a lot of people working really hard, including the people who were here before. A lot of people have put their soul into this company.

As a result of their efforts, we're by far the leader in our field. Every day, we have a competitor who is saying what's wrong with Gogo, but who’s saying that always seems to change. We just keep forging ahead.

Naturally, as number one, you'll always have a target painted on you, right?

Very true. It’s new in this business because I've always participated in huge industries, like cable TV or wireless in the early days. We kind of all knew that all boats rise with the tide. While there might have been sniping from one company to the next, it was understood that basically we were all in this together. Here, it seems everybody has to prove why they’re better than Gogo. I’ve never felt that before, where everybody is going after you. But it's an extra level of motivation.

Plus, you’ve got your own potential derailers to overcome. Actually, turning to some of our 9 derailers, which one jumps out at you as one of the biggest threats to a CEO’s success?

“Coming In With The Answer” is big. I think a CEO coming in with a particular approach is highly risky in today's world, as dynamics do change. Some days, there are core things about all of us that aren't changing, but you'd better be pretty adaptive to your circumstances.

One of the biggest challenges I have is, in the midst of chaos, rapid growth and rapid technical innovation, is when people say, "Just give me the answer, boss, and I'll go do that." That’s when I say, “If I could give you the answer, I would." The only thing worse than not having the answer is giving a wrong answer. Then you're going to start working on that and three months later, we're going say, "Stop that, do something different." I think there are very few industries in the world left where if you come in and say, "I have the answers," you're going to do well. It's about continuous improvement, learning, getting better all the time and figuring it out. It doesn't matter how good you are or how smart you are. It only matters how fast you're getting better. If you're 20% smarter than everybody else today and don't learn, a year from now you're going to be 20% dumber than everybody else. That's the bottom line.

In our continuation of our conversation with Michael Small of Gogo, we’ll tackle the age-old question that so many C-level executives must eventually face: Do we fix the strategy first or the culture?

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