Smartly Student Spotlight: Michael Morales

Smartly’s student body is incredibly diverse, bringing together learners from around the globe and across industries. But for all the unique experiences and perspectives each student brings to their cohort, there are a few defining characteristics that embody what Smartly stands for: the passion to keep learning and the drive to push oneself to the next level. Perhaps no one better embodies this mentality than Air Force veteran and White House Fellow Michael Morales.

Mike’s accomplishments range from mentoring fellow veterans, being a TEDx speaker, and holding a delegate post for an international leadership program. How is one person capable of doing all of this? Mike has an answer: curiosity and work ethic.

Curiosity and work ethic have always been major characteristics that have guided Mike throughout his life. As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, he dreamt of being an astronaut, but in order to be one, he would first have to become a pilot. To do that, he worked extremely hard, taking the SAT starting in the 7th grade and set his sights on attending the United States Air Force Academy. He soon achieved this goal, and at the Academy, Mike earned his B.S. in Legal Studies, but his education did not stop there. His curiosity propelled him to earn more degrees, including an M.S. in Logistics from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Arts in Religion from Liberty University, and then finally, he earned his Executive MBA from Smartly Institute. Clearly, Mike believes that having a broad knowledge-base is important for a successful career and fulfilling life.

“There’s a lot to be said for cross-discipline approaches to leadership, career, and the way we problem-solve,” said Mike. “I think that by being hyper-focused, we’ve closed off potential avenues of wisdom, intellect, and so on.”

Later in life Mike became a speaker for TEDx in Tysons Corner, VA where he talked about the importance of curiosity. He believes that curiosity is something that can drive people to make the most of themselves and that can also be an antidote for the fast growing epidemic: loneliness. “At the end of the day, curiosity can be a scary thing,” said Mike. “You have to be willing to consistently put yourself out there, and that’s not something that’s easy to do. But it’s worth it.”

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Mike spent another 20 years serving as an Air Force pilot, flying over 200 airlift missions into Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked his way up, eventually becoming the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan where he led a team responsible for developing the fledgling Afghan Air Force. Throughout his multiple positions in the Air Force, Mike learned a great deal about leadership that would carry over into the rest of his career.

This photo took place when Mike was the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is standing next to his Afghan Squadron Commander counterpart.

Mike believes that energy, positivity, and work ethic are some of the most important qualities that a leader can have, but he says there’s no one way to becoming a great leader — there’s value in doing things differently and in your own way. In fact, Mike says that some of the best leaders are those who surround themselves with people with diverse strengths, ideas, and perspectives. “In the military, we have this saying: ducks pick ducks,” said Mike. “People pick leaders that look just like them, think just like them, and act just like them. I think if you can be humble and intellectually curious enough to not pick people who are all of those things, pick people who are different than you, which means it might frustrate you, you have a better organization because of it.”

Through the Veterans in Global Leadership program, Mike put his understanding of people and teams to good use by mentoring other veterans. Mentorship is something that is very important to Mike who said, “If I’ve achieved anything of value, I attribute it to two things: work ethic and to the people throughout my life who have given up their time and wisdom to teach me things I wouldn’t have learned on my own.”

He went on to say, “One of the most powerful leadership qualities that any human being could have is intense self-awareness. I think when we’re young, there’s a really great divide between who we think we are and who people see us as. I think as we grow and mature, we realize that the truth is somewhere in between. But mentors help us get to that in-between place much more quickly, because they are giving us that outside perspective.”

Mike went so far as to say that negative feedback is a “gift”, as it is vital to growing in one’s career and becoming a better person. He encourages people to be open to feedback and take it in stride. “If you are one of those people who doesn’t take negative feedback well, then that mentor may never give you that gift again,” said Mike.

Towards the end of his military career, Mike applied to the White House Fellowship and was one of 16 extraordinarily accomplished professionals selected for that prestigious program, where he served as a Senior Advisor to the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. While there, Mike ran a public-private partnership called the Small Business Technology Coalition, which partnered with 30 tech companies to help small businesses feasibly leverage technology to grow and become more efficient. This initiative held events around the country and reached over a million small businesses in the first year alone.

Mike was also tasked with developing policies to kickstart the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Puerto Rico. At the time, Puerto Rico’s $74B debt crisis made the island a difficult place for entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses. Mike worked with the federal and local governments to try to solve this challenge.

Mike’s deep curiosity and desire to expand his horizons led to even more avenues where his abilities could shine. He was a delegate to the United States-Japan Leadership Program, he was selected as a French-American Foundation Young Leader, and he is an advisory board member for The Factual, an organization with the goal of identifying biased news and exposing readers to high quality journalism. All of this he’s done while simultaneously earning his Executive MBA with Smartly. 

Mike’s advice for up-and-coming leaders is simple: “don’t take yourself too seriously.” By having a sense of humility, it allows people to empathize and see situations from another perspective — it helps keep us honest and open to other points of view. Though Mike always tries to remain open-minded, he values the power of having a plan. “Have a plan, figure out where you want to go, and be as detailed about that plan as possible, but also know yourself enough to be willing to deviate from that plan when other opportunities come your way, both forced and voluntary.”

Mike now lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and his four sons. He recently started a new job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. as an Executive Director in their Performance Consulting practice — yet another station where Mike is fulfilling his innate curiosity, exercising his leadership skills, and using his Smartly Executive MBA education to push himself to the next level.

Smartly Student Spotlight: Amy Dalton

Smartly students are often initially attracted to the program for its flexibility and affordability, but there’s something deeper at play that draws people in — particularly those of a certain mindset. To truly be successful in the program one must be highly self-motivated, disciplined, and passionate about learning new skills. Amy Dalton, a Smartly Executive MBA student and Senior UX Designer at GE Aviation, has these traits in spades. Like many Smartly students and alumni, Amy’s resume credentials are impressive, yet they don’t convey the full scope of the accomplishments she’s had outside of her “standard” job description.

As a UX designer, Dalton has built her career in a male-dominated field and has placed an emphasis on attracting and empowering other women and girls to enter this line of work. Though she’s been met with obstacles in her own career, she has never stopped advocating for herself and others. From public speaking engagements, mentorship, charity work, and founding an award-winning program for GE Women, Dalton’s drive to improve her career prospects and those of others is something worth acknowledging. 

Dalton is from Toledo, Ohio and studied journalism at Ohio University. However, she was more interested in graphic design and after graduating, decided to pursue user experience (UX), eventually leading to her current position with GE. While her inevitable trajectory doesn’t directly apply to the degree she earned, Dalton said that her background in journalism has been incredibly valuable in her career because “communication and the ability to write well is such an important part of any job you have,” and it allows you to come up with ideas and communicate them clearly and succinctly.

This knack for communication is evident in her multiple public speaking engagements. Dalton was a guest speaker at the 2019 GE Women In Science & Engineering Symposium, the keynote speaker at Early Career Women Collective’s Co-Create Live 2019, and a guest speaker at New Orleans’ FrontEndParty. These experiences not only reaffirm Dalton’s ability to command the attention of a room, they are a testament to the value that her words and actions bring to others. In short — her words of wisdom are in high demand. 

Further proving her leadership abilities, Dalton was the recipient of the 2018 GE Women’s Network Empower and Inspire Award, which recognizes women across the 280,000 person company for outstanding work and engagement that supports the Women’s Network (WN). As a Co-Lead for the WN, Dalton is committed to supporting women in STEM fields. 

“I have a passion for bringing more women and girls into technology because it’s always been a struggle to achieve gender parity in the field,” said Dalton. “I’ve been in it my entire career and there are relatively few women in the field — and for those who are in it, there are a unique set of challenges we face everyday.”

Dalton said that getting more women into STEM fields starts early, “it’s about exposure at a young age to spark their interest in it.” This is why she helped start GE Girls Camp, a week-long free STEM camp for 12-14 year-old girls. During the camp, girls learn to code, are introduced to robotics, and can even learn about cybersecurity and other in-demand sectors of the industry. The importance of early involvement serves as a pathway for young women to envision a career that they may not have otherwise pursued. 

Dalton isn’t just working on opening doors for young minds, she also started a program aimed at empowering women in the GE Women’s Network called Bragging Rights. Dalton initially had the idea to start the program after meeting a few of the GE interns. Even though they were just out of high school, they had accomplished amazing things and few people in the company knew much about them. This experience mirrored another observation Dalton had had — too few women spoke up about their accomplishments in the workplace. This had implications for career progression too, as she learned that women are often less likely to seek acknowledgement for their work than men. In fact, men are four times more likely to ask for a raise than women. Bragging Rights became a forum to enable and encourage women to openly and proudly share their accomplishments and challenges in life and in their career. These stories have become powerful sources of validation for those sharing them and inspiration for others involved in the program. Bragging Rights, which started at Dalton’s hub in New Orleans, took off and is now available at nine locations and still expanding. Dalton describes the program as “inexpensive but so effective” in its ability to provide women with the opportunity to grow their confidence and learn about each other.

“I think a lot of times women feel isolated and don’t have the natural tendency to put themselves out there as much,” said Dalton. “If we as women band together and understand each other’s skill sets, then we can help each other get promoted and put each other out there. We’re more likely to give kudos and talk about the person sitting next to us, than talk about ourselves. We’re more likely to lift that person up than lift ourselves up.”

Dalton is a natural leader. Prior to working at GE, she spent six years working at Ochsner Health System, where she held a management position for three years. While in this role, Dalton received the highest “employee engagement” score, a figure determined by how her direct reports rated her as a manager. Dalton received a score 20 points higher than the next highest score.

The key to Dalton’s successful management style? A more personal approach. She wanted to learn about the people she managed as much as possible, identifying their strengths and weaknesses. “If you spend enough time getting to know people and listening, really listening, you’re going to understand them enough to guide them,” said Dalton. “I focus so much attention on helping them be better at their jobs.”

This ability to listen, empathize, and understand others is perhaps one reason why Dalton is such a talented UX designer.  “When you understand things from the user perspective and you put importance on that, that’s when your product is going to be successful,” said Dalton. “When I’ve had an awesome product owner, it’s because they put the person first and understood the value of UX.”

In her senior leadership role, Dalton emphasized the need for executives to have, at a minimum, a basic understanding of UX and design. In our digitally-driven world, having the ability to view and build online experiences from the perspective of the customer is essential. Being well-versed across disciplines is one reason Dalton decided to pursue an Executive MBA with Smartly. By adding business acumen to her technical expertise, Dalton is positioning herself to take on bigger roles and broaden her invaluable influence on her organization — and if past experiences are any indication, she’s more than ready to take on whatever is next.

A flexible course schedule is something that initially attracted Dalton to Smartly as it allows her to spend more time with her two children.