Drive, Motivation and Tenacity

A combination of drive, motivation, and tenacity is the first thing Michael Singer looks for in talented young people. Mr. Singer has over 25 years of executive leadership in the operating, healthcare, and financial fields. Currently, as the CEO of BrainScope, Mr. Singer has guided the company from internal technology development and clinical studies to commercial launch of the first FDA-cleared medical device for assessment of the full spectrum of brain injury.

In an interview with BT (Grace Guan), Mr. Singer described his career journey, which was filled with drive, motivation, and tenacity, and offered advice to young undergraduates looking to break into business. His own journey began as an undergraduate, where he was a political science major at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He was very interested in the international affairs and public affairs aspect of political science, so he got his master’s degree at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University since it was well-known for its public administration programs. Then, Mr. Singer decided to get a PhD in international political economy, heavily focused on comparative economics in European countries from the London School of Economics. He went nearly straight through his education without taking a break, except for a one year stint working at the European Commission in Brussels between his masters and PhD.

Regarding his education in political science compared to his position as a businessman today, Mr. Singer offered advice to “match the things that you love with an element of something practical that you can carry forward that will allow you to do something that will get you into business. Do not be fearful of taking those philosophy courses or those courses that allow you to expand your brain and mind and answer those difficult questions in life. At the same time, have the same level of capability or aptitude that can be marketable, such as mathematical capability, communication, a foreign language, or some sort of scientific or technical skill that you can carry with you. For those that are trying to move forward in their first job, go with that with you are passionate about and marry it with a tangible skill.”

With a lot of education in political science and public affairs and not a lot of work experience, Mr. Singer then went on to work for Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich. After being at Union Bank for a couple of years, Mr. Singer brought his very unusual background to join an investment bank in NY called Wolfensohn & Co. Wolfensohn & Co. was one of the most interesting, boutique investment banks on Wall Street. The founder, James Wolfensohn, eventually went on to become the ninth president of the World Bank, and the chairman of Wolfensohn & Co. was Paul Volcker, who had just retired from being the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. There were maybe fifty investment bankers in Wolfensohn, and they worked on very large corporate mergers and acquisitions. Companies included Bank of America, American Express, and other similar groups.

At his job as an investment banker at Wolfensohn & Co., Mr. Singer welcomed the drive, motivation, and tenacity of the business world, noting that “probably what I’ve enjoyed most is really embracing without fear those areas where [your job] becomes a whiteboard of new learnings. A humorous example is when I was an IB at Wolfensohn [& Co.]. Every person there was an MBA from UChicago or Harvard or Wharton, and I was this international political economist. The others were asking me to do some comparables for these companies, and it was due tomorrow. And I had one question for them: ‘What is a comparable?’”

Expanding upon this memorable experience of his to apply it to undergraduate students, Mr. Singer advocated “embracing the completely new stuff that you would call new ways of thinking about things. Do those early in your career. Do those different kinds of experiences. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. When you get more senior in your career, you’ll draw on all of your experiences. You will be all the more equipped to be a better manager or leader and strategic thinker in your later years. But it’s not easy.”

Several years into this job, Mr. Singer decided that he wanted to work with smaller companies, and he moved to the west coast, working for Alex Brown and Montgomery Securities as a medical device consumer banking in the Bay Area, California. Then, recruited to be a CFO of a VC backed company named Data Critical, Mr. Singer took the company from scratch and sold it to General Electric. After that, Mr. Singer moved to the Seattle area, joined Microsoft, and worked for the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft in healthcare. At Microsoft, Mr. Singer realized that he was probably not well suited to work at a large organization, and decided to move on with his career.

About a dozen years ago, Mr. Singer moved to the DC area after he was recruited to work for a group called Revolution, which was started by the founder of AOL, Steve Case. At the time, Revolution was investing in healthcare companies, so Mr. Singer led the healthcare investments for a couple of years. Then, when Revolution sold off all of its healthcare companies, nine years ago, Mr. Singer accepted the job as CEO of BrainScope, which was the last healthcare investment that Revolution had made, and that is where he is now.

Problem-solving and resilience are two skills that Mr. Singer practices today at BrainScope. BrainScope has raised over 90 million dollars, but that obviously came at a price since it is such a small company. Mr. Singer believes that it is vital in young people to be able to take a good punch, stand up, dust yourself off, and move on. Not only at BrainScope did he have to live through a tremendous amount of headwind, but also during his break into investment banking, he had to utilize his ability to do analytics and his ability to deconstruct a problem to find how a company can strategically move in a positive or new direction that can be transformative.

At the moment, when he looks at young people, Mr. Singer would say that he looks for traits of drive, motivation, and tenacity. Mr. Singer sees younger people from all kinds of great schools, such as Princeton or University of Michigan or University of Texas, and all of these students are incredibly smart. However, Mr. Singer believes that while the school brand will carry you to get an interview, during and after the interview, what matters most is drive and motivation. Other important skills to cultivate according to Mr. Singer are individual thinking, the ability to break problems apart, and a questioning mind.

However, most important is the drive, motivation, and tenacity. Older people are looking for millennials that have the hunger and desire, and if you have that as an undergraduate student, then you are one step ahead.