The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 13, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Dec. 8.
Next is Cybersecurity Industry Executive of the Year (Private Company) finalist Tony D’Angelo, who’s vice president, North America – Public Sector at Lookout. Here, he talks taking professional risks, career advice, proud career moments and more.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Having worked with both the public and private sector, I have a good understanding of how various types of business define “mission critical.” The financial sector in NYC, for example, tends to measure “downtime” in dollars lost, but the U.S. Department of Defense measures “downtime” in terms of lives lost if they can’t communicate with troops on the battlefield.
In the early 2000s when the U.S. was getting deep into the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, my company was supplying networking technology to the U.S. Army. I spent many sleepless nights worried about what might happen if our equipment failed in the desert heat. Would communication be cut off? Would soldiers die as a result?
Fortunately, our company and our equipment performed well, but I learned a valuable lesson from high-ranking military officers. Our equipment was seen as a weapons system — a force multiplier to achieve the combat mission and win the war on terror. We didn’t supply traditional weapons. We manufactured electronic communication equipment, but that was seen as a critical component of their overall offensive measures.
Today, the world is a lot different and so is technology. State-sponsored cyberattacks are occurring on a near-daily basis. There are ransomware threats to private companies, government agencies, schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure.
My team and I can offer cutting-edge cybersecurity solutions to thwart these attacks and we see this as our obligation to keep America safe. The ransomware attacks to date have largely been inconvenient, but what happens if power grids go down? What if all electronic commerce shuts down? Do people have enough cash on hand to purchase food and other necessities? These scenarios could cause civil unrest and create dangerous, life-threatening situations.
For me and any team I lead for the remainder of my career, our primary focus will be to ensure we do our part to keep the U.S. as safe as we can make it from cyberattacks.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
In 2007, I was a sales director managing a DOD business unit for a networking hardware company. The worldwide vice president of sales was two levels above me, but was quietly acting as my mentor. He was a tough, intimidating individual, but for some reason, he took a liking to me and took it upon himself to help shape my career.
At this point, I was about 16 years into my career and nearly all of it was working with the federal government. He told me he wanted to promote me to VP, and that he wanted me to lead the commercial enterprise team in the east. This was a complete departure from what I had done to this point, and frankly, I had no experience with the likes of large financial accounts in New York City.
While the promotion was exciting, I was a bit scared to make this move. He assured me this would be good for my career, that it would round me out and position me for larger roles later. Needless to say, I took the job and loved it!
It did take me some time to understand the differences between public and private sector clients, but it worked out. We were successful, and I learned that taking these risks not only kept me fresh and excited about the industry, but rounded me out and made me better, as he suggested it would.
I still find myself thirsting for new and complex projects, setting difficult goals for myself and my team. If someone thinks something is too hard and can’t be done…that’s the project I want!
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
I think a lot of business leaders think they need to be tough and intimidating with their direct reports to achieve desired goals. That’s one of the biggest mistakes leaders make.
While we certainly need accountability and the ability to measure results, I believe you can be kind, build positive rapport with your extended team, and create a positive work culture people want to be a part of. When people are happy, they’re more productive and will stay at a company longer.
When I’m recruiting new team members, the biggest reason they cite for leaving their current company is they don’t like the culture. I never set out to brand myself as someone who creates a great work culture, but I realize that’s one key reason why my teams have been successful over the years.
I’m most proud of my ability to create a great work culture — one that allows people to be vulnerable, take risks, try new things, make mistakes and at the same time is fun, upbeat and full of positive energy.
I work hard to connect with everyone on a personal level and let them know they’re all critical elements of making the team successful.
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
I discovered early in my life I had the ability to connect well with people one on one and in small groups. I also had a fear of public speaking. The first years of my sales career were painful when I had to stand and speak with all eyes on me! Within 2 or 3 minutes, the fear was gone, and I could perform and actually enjoy it.
To overcome the stage fright, I would stand near where I would be speaking and engage in 5-10 minutes of social conversations with the audience just prior to my presentation. That preparation seemed to melt away the anxiety and allowed me to start the presentation feeling great.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have great mentors who helped guide and shape my career. A few years ago, I realized I’m now a mentor to the next generation and take that responsibility very seriously.
My advice is to find a way to keep your passion. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this industry wear people out and create cynicism, but you have to fight that. Find ways to stay excited about the industry the way you did when you first started.
Try to surround yourself with others who share your drive, passion and positive attitude. If you can do that, it can be an incredible and satisfying journey!