Michael Cully is the Executive Director of the League of Oregon Cities, (LOC), a governmental organization that advocates for the state’s 241 cities on the state and federal level. His passion has always been active, engaged and transformational leadership, bringing elements from his prior experiences in the public and private sectors. He was brought in to reimagine and rebuild the organization because of his vision and his desire to build a world-class organization. After nearly 4-and-a-half years in that position, that is exactly the result. The LOC is now widely recognized as a powerhouse advocacy institution in the state and the nation and is lauded for its model diversity, equity, and inclusion approach which completely transformed the organization.
Reaching this point and realizing this vision came through Michael Cully’s experience and background in a number of different industries, from journalism to finance, corporate executive leadership to start-up visionary and leader. Cully attributes his success to taking the most relevant and impactful elements from each of his careers and using them selectively to build great, high-performance organizations in the public, private and government sectors. Cully also attributes his leadership style – one of empowerment, trust, and autonomy – to building great operations. “When you build a team that is invested in the mission and vision of the company, just give them the tools and empower them to do the job,” says Mike Cully. “Ultimately as a leader, I want to lift them up and facilitate their success, and that, in turn, leads to success as an organization.”
Another cornerstone to the success of his business ventures has been the ability to scan for external opportunities to collaborate and partner to achieve even higher levels of success. “Stronger Together,” has been a catchphrase he often uses to describe the power of partnerships and alignments. Collaboration is key, and important when building a brand, business or reputation.
How did you get started in this business?
There was no direct path to leadership, but there was intent and vision. It came through a series of successes and failures in positions and careers that – while from an outsider’s perspective would seem unrelated – ultimately led to progressively more responsibility and public exposure and respect in the long run.
My career began as an on-air television journalist, working for different affiliates around the country. This career gave me the opportunity to do something I loved: learn about people from all walks of life. It also suited my results-driven personality by pushing my creative side and embedding in me a strong work ethic.
My internal drive pushed me to continue to achieve. I knew I ultimately wanted a leadership role. I knew I did not want to be just another cog in the wheel. So I worked to that end. I wanted to bring my big picture ideas and turn them into reality in the business world so I focused on the next step: a CEO role at a respected chamber of commerce in California’s Central Valley, Visalia. Here I built my team, I built membership, I created new revenue streams…and I had fun. I loved being able to visualize and execute. These successes eventually got me noticed and opened even more doors in leadership.
To quell my curiosity I stepped out of public service and dove into the private sector. The opportunity to join a global company – Daimler/Mercedes Benz AG – and help build an innovative, start-up vertical line of business was too good to pass up. After launching the world’s 1st all-electric car-sharing fleet as a general manager for car2go NA, I ascended to a leadership role at the corporate headquarters in Austin, TX, where I became part of the global leadership team for the organization.
As those operations wound down, I had established myself as a subject-matter expert (SME) in disruptive mobility, and began a rewarding consulting career for several years.
Ultimately I was called back to public service as a servant leader as the CEO for the San Diego North Economic Development Corporation and most recently as the Executive Director of the League of Oregon Cities.
How do you make money?
As a state association formed by a governmental agreement, the League of Oregon Cities does have limitations as to how it is able to generate capital and revenue. While city membership dues account for a sizable portion of the budget, the entrepreneurial side of me dramatically enhanced the organization’s worth through creating business affiliate programs, strong fundraising and sponsorship efforts, and finding complementary business lines to add to our repertoire to enhance working capital.
While a non-for-profit entity does not have the same direct goal as that of a private sector business, (to satisfy shareholders), my goal was to create new and enhance existing revenue streams to create new business lines that would provide a value-add to the membership. In short, the more revenue we generated, the more programs we could put in place.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
In the case of the start-up car2go, NA, the business was ahead of its time on many levels, and its parent company, Daimler, had budgeted for significant losses in the early years. Many of North America’s 15 markets did reach break-even and eventually profitability, but the timeline did not match shareholder expectations. Eventually, we merged the business in a joint venture with BMW, and from there, mostly wound down the U.S. operations.
At the League of Oregon Cities, profitability, as mentioned previously, is not the intended goal per se. With profitability and good financial stead comes the opportunity to do more for stakeholders, and that is exactly what the League has been able to do. With each strategic plan defined by the board of directors, we were able to add programming and invest in our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts like never before.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
One philosophy that I share regularly with employees: Mistakes happen. But in my eyes, they are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them. Use the opportunity to learn from what happened and grow. This is the attitude and outlook I have adapted for myself. No one is perfect, and life, by design, is not easy. Stay optimistic, don’t dwell on the past, (but learn from it) and keep moving forward.
How did you get your first customer?
Car2go, NA, LLC
Being a first-to-market business in North America with respect to the pioneering, free-floating car-share service car2go, building a community – a user base – that would trust and adopt our service…was truly unknown. To build this business relied heavily on the talents of a very small, but powerful marketing team. As a company, we were tasked first with an education campaign. Since this concept was new and revolutionary…we needed to change consumer behavior, on a grand scale.
To build our base, we used a creative “activation team,” of brand ambassadors that attended community events and ingrained themselves throughout the city of San Diego. When we flipped the switch and went live with our operation, we started with a core group of customers who quickly became an extension of our own ambassadors, and in a short period of time, showed their loyalty to the brand.
League of Oregon Cities
When I took the helm of this 100-year-old governmental organization, our membership base was already well established. Borrowing a page from my experience in the private sector, my goal from the outset was to find new business verticals and niches to fill in order to create new revenue opportunities. This meant looking to the private sector for partnership opportunities that would benefit both parties. In this respect, our alignments paid off. New external alignments were created bringing more revenue and the opportunity to expand staff and programs internally.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Having an active and dynamic web presence is essential for success. Your company website must be first-rate and interactive. Your social media presence needs to be hitting on all cylinders. These things aren’t just nice to have. They are essential.
If these are the only tools in your arsenal, however, your overall effectiveness beyond referrals may be limited. I have often argued that the marketing department of a business is the most important part of the operation. This is where a good team can control the narrative, craft the story of the company, personalize it, and bring it to life.
In every company and organization, I have run, my most successful tactic has been aggressively marketing through high-touch efforts. The “activation teams,” I referenced earlier, is one example. The people – your brand ambassadors – matter.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
It’s always a tough decision when contemplating when it is time to let go of what you built. As a change agent/transformative leader, I get my greatest satisfaction and fulfillment from building and rebuilding organizations and businesses. In the case of the League of Oregon Cities, I introduced wholesale change…a complete culture switch. I evaluated programs, assessed fit, deconstructed financials, and reinvigorated a tired, nearly 100-year-old company.
At some point in the life cycle of a company, I, as the face of the organization, need to take a hard and holistic look at where we have come from, where we are going and where we are.
The toughest decision in the past seven months was to take stock of this and assess my own fit. In the end, my conclusion was that it was time to hand the reins over to a leader who will better represent the changing dynamic of the organization.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I’m a realist and I always try to maintain a high level of self-awareness. I’ve been told I am humble, self-deprecating, and compassionate. All of these, I think, are the mark of a good leader.
For me personally, though, it is my burning desire to succeed and to make a difference. I would not be happy working a traditional 9 – 5 job. That’s just not how I was built. I need purpose in what I do, and I need to see that change happen externally.
My experience in the early years of car-sharing and EV mobility gave me that. We introduced the world to something new, and changed consumer behaviors along the way. We pioneered disruptive mobility, and that was fulfilling and meaningful. At the League of Oregon Cities, it was the satisfaction of repositioning, rebuilding, rebranding, and reenergizing a storied organization, as well as seeing the tangible impacts of our advocacy efforts in all cities in Oregon.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
In every venture upon which I have embarked, my satisfaction has come from growing and evolving the organization and making it relevant, and important, in consumers’ minds. It’s been finding a way to make what we do…indispensable and needed. Being able to create that sense of urgency and value is wholly fulfilling, and for me, that’s been a measure of success. It’s also telling as related to the lifespan of the product or service.
I live by the following: a company that gets complacent in what it is or what it does will ultimately render itself irrelevant. Those companies that seek to grow, create and innovate will find long-term success. It is essential to understand trends and gain consumer insight and act on that information.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
My talent lies in building/rebuilding organizations. I thrive on identifying opportunities. These opportunities can be new, as with a start-up operation, or by identifying opportunities to outperform in an established organization.
Throughout this article, I have been working to illustrate parallels and differences between my experience in the private sector (car2go) and the government sector, (League of Oregon Cities). And while there are many similarities in terms of my approach, my style, and my results, the two organizations could not have different paths forward. In the end, in fact, one company did not have a path forward in North America.
In the case of car2go, we employed a “fail fast” strategy once it became apparent that revenue targets were not tracking and would not meet shareholder expectations, the company began the process of closing unprofitable locations and ultimately mostly pulling out of the North American market entirely. The company needed more time to mature and establish itself, but that was a luxury we did not have.
With the League of Oregon Cities – at nearly 100-years-old, this operation will continue to serve the 241 cities in the state and will weather economic changes due to a stable operating base. The variable here is non-dues revenue: sponsorships and revenue-generating programming.
What business books have inspired you?
There are a slew of great, thoughtful and impactful books out there, but the one that spoke to me most recently is written by Chris Voss, a former top FBI negotiator, titled, “Never Split the Difference.” This book brings real world techniques and skills into the boardroom and gives you the tools to negotiate and create opportunity even in the most unlikely of circumstances. This book immediately gave me actionable advice and emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence without sacrificing the art of the deal. Well worth the read, and I guarantee – this will draw you in and change your approach when negotiating.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Simply this: never get complacent, never get comfortable. This advice could be applied to so many different situations.
In the workplace itself, unless you own your own business, always keep your head on a swivel and have situational awareness. Regardless of how secure you may feel in your position or at your company, the only constant is change. Be aware of this change, be it internal politics, board dynamics, or external societal pressures. You should always be looking out for yourself, staying one step ahead and being prepared.
The same advice applies to running a business. Once you get comfortable or complacent and fail to continue to innovate and adapt to an ever-changing landscape and consumer needs, the quicker you move through the lifecycle and make your company irrelevant. Always keep scanning the horizon. Keep your eye on trends and be prepared. Get ahead of the curve by anticipating trends and be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
One of the greatest joys I have had is the ability to give back. When at San Diego State University I was one of the core group to start a quickly scaling mentorship program for students. It has been awesome to see those whom I’ve mentored through the years excel in their careers and outperform on so many levels.