June 29, 2022 | By Jason Randall
Every professional aims to master leadership skills, and all leaders have their own take on what those skills should look like. Jason Randall sat down with Sonoran Technology and Professional Services founder and president Paul Smiley to discuss Smiley’s leadership philosophy.
Sonoran Technology and Professional Services is a defense contractor that provides training services for Department of Defense employees, like simulator training for pilots. Smiley retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel, and he often recruits other veterans to work at Sonoran. He credits his Air Force experience for teaching him leadership skills and cites his strong Christian faith as another guiding force in his life.
Smiley founded Sonoran in 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession. While this was an especially difficult time to start a business, Smiley didn’t let the challenge stop him. He was never interested in starting a business, but when new management turned a great job into an unpleasant one, Smiley knew he needed to make a change. Reading the faith-based leadership book God Is My CEO helped with his outlook. Committed to people over profits, Smiley prayed for the right people to come into his life as he built his company. He remained true to his values, not taking a salary for the first two years while the business got started. The rest, he says, is history.
Military leadership is stereotypically rigid and authoritarian. Smiley rejects this idea – he learned to lead through influence, not only legal authority, during his time in the Air Force. Good leadership means working with the right people, giving them the resources to succeed and then letting them have the space to do their work. Smiley appreciates that his former military employees know how to be reliable, arrive on time, and listen to instructions. They also know how to stay focused on their mission despite any challenges. Smiley’s Air Force job involved running battles that included between 20 and 50 planes flying at once. He quickly learned how to multitask, plan while remaining flexible, and manage real-time danger. These skills are just as useful in a civilian leadership role.
While writing a dissertation on leadership, Smiley was tasked with coming up with a unique analogy for good management. There are two components to the chocolate cake image he used to describe his leadership philosophy. First, if he orders a cake, he doesn’t care what recipe the baker uses. He just wants the cake. A manager should tell their employees what end result they’re looking for and then let those employees work without micromanagement. Second, a cake isn’t just for one person. Chocolate cake, like the success of a business, should be shared among all the employees, not just the CEO.
Smiley values diversity. He’s African American and is proud to work with employees from a mix of races and ethnicities. However, he believes that diversity goes beyond race and needs to encompass thoughts and ideas as well. Good leaders should hire people who think differently than they do and create an environment where people are comfortable sharing their ideas and observations. With this in mind, Smiley prefers to hire based on more subjective indicators of excellence, rather than GPA or membership in a certain group. He looks for people who fit with the company culture and can contribute to the company’s success.
A leader’s job is to make sure all these different people work effectively together. Smiley compares this to a band director, who knows what the song is supposed to sound like and what notes should be played. He doesn’t necessarily know how to play all of the instruments, but he understands how they should sound. Good leadership means synthesizing the ideas that come from different voices to create the best possible result.
Leaders have a responsibility to their communities. Valuing his employees over his profit margin, Smiley feels a sense of responsibility for employees’ families as well. While he encourages different ideas, he has no tolerance for incivility in the workplace. Employees can disagree, but they need to be kind. Leaders need to respect their people as well. Smiley cites Sonoran’s 94% retention rate as a sign that employees feel that they and their contributions are being respected. When people do leave the company, he wants them to feel like the business they leave behind is better because of their work.
Outside of work, Smiley is active in the Arizona Tuskegee Airmen chapter. He strongly values their work and credits the Airmen for his ability to join and advance in the military. The organization is dedicated to preserving and advancing that legacy. Smiley’s faith is an important motivation for giving back. He believes that he can’t charge others for the skills God gave him, so he shares what he knows through mentoring and coaching. Contributing what you can is also part of his family values. He grew up in a diverse, integrated neighborhood that prioritized giving, and this has influenced how he sees community now.
Smiley’s company doesn’t have shareholders, so he’s not responsible to anyone else on earth. He’s guided by his faith and wants to share his talents with the world. He ends the conversation with optimistic advice: don’t throw in the towel, every day is a new opportunity, and don’t let the world’s negativity get you down.