What We Learned: CEOs Share Lessons From The U.S. Military

‘Every Position Pulls Its Own Weight’

Chris Hall, CEO, Talking Rain: A longtime executive at the company behind the Sparkling
Ice beverage brand, Hall is a third-generation U.S. military veteran. He served on the U.S. Navy nuclear submarines USS Pennsylvania and USS Georgia from 2000 to 2005. Hall became CEO of the Seattle-based company in 2018.

The most important thing I took away from my military service was the concept of teamwork. From the beginning of boot camp to the end, the military instills in you the team mentality. And on a submarine, you actually live together or die together. Every position pulls its own weight.

The submarine community is very small. There is a high level of trust. You only succeed if there is integrity, because you’re putting your life in other people’s hands in a boat that goes underwater. It’s a huge demonstration of teamwork. I have carried that with me. I’ve applied that principle to building our culture at Talking Rain. For us, those priorities come through in every decision. It’s company, first; team, second; and self, third.

In the U.S. Navy, we learned the pillars of honor, courage and commitment. So when I came up through the sales department of Talking Rain, I created leadership and management pillars that were similar. Only, I called them “curiosity,” “execution” and “forward-looking.”

When I became CEO, I carried forward the three-pillars idea to formulate the company “purpose,” “foundation” and “vision.” When you create a purpose and get everyone rallied behind it, it drives people. Purpose creates an environment of priorities for everyone. Every time you’re on a submarine, you have a mission, and that’s what a company must do.

In the business world, our purpose is to create value. At Talking Rain, I have worked closely with our president to create a group of value goals, and a group of value drivers. We had a group get together and identify key areas of the organization on which to focus our resources. This has been close to the concept of what your mission is on a sub.

Another important way I applied military principles was through the 100-day plan rolled out when I took over as CEO. When a new captain takes over a boat, he rolls out his agenda during the transition. So when I became CEO of Talking Rain, I communicated to the entire company what the plan was, what the deliverables were and what we were going to achieve in those first 100 days.

It’s not often put this way in the military, but it’s also difficult to overlook the importance of passion. When you know you have an important mission, an awesome team and the transparency of knowing what you want to accomplish, passion simply comes out of that. And without that passion and drive in business, it’s really tough for a company to stay relevant.

‘Know Your People’

Jennifer Pritzker, CEO, Tawani Enterprises: Over a 27-year career, she served as an enlisted soldier and as an officer in the U.S. Army and Illinois Army National Guard, retiring as a lieutenant colonel with an honorary promotion to full colonel in the Illinois National guard upon retirement. In addition to running the Chicago-based umbrella company that invests in various ventures, Pritzker is founder and chairwoman of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in her home city.

I had a number of learning experiences in the military, positive and negative—but all very useful. For instance, one superior who eventually retired as a four-star general made an effort to invite his 20 to 30 lieutenants to lunch every couple of months. He’d reserve a meeting space at the officers’ club and tell us we could say whatever we wanted, for a couple of hours. That was very effective: The lesson was to know your people and take an interest in them and listen to them.

Another thing I learned after I decided to wear the jump wings on my hat instead of air-assault wings. What you wore was voluntary, but the battalion commander wanted everyone to do the latter to encourage people to go to air-assault school. When I didn’t he told my immediate boss, a captain, that “Pritzker needs to fix that hat.” He didn’t scream at me. But I learned that if I’m supposed to be the leader of a few dozen soldiers, I need to set a good example and encourage them to be constantly improving themselves—by improving yourself.

Yet another time, a private in basic training lost his bolt group for his M-16—a series of parts that are critical to enabling the rifle to fire. The drill sergeant made all of us spend six hours in the barracks looking for that four-inch carrier, until two in the morning. I can’t remember if we ever found it, but it made a deep impression: You don’t want to be in a combat situation with a rifle that won’t shoot. You can get that lesson across to a large group in business: Make sure your team has the right tools to get the job done and is always prepared.

The Army has the famous intelligence-reporting acronym: SALUTE, which means Size, Activity, Location, Uniform, Time, Equipment. For myself, my troops and now my  employees, I came up with the decision acronym SLEEP: Is something Safe, Legal, Ethical, Efficient and Cost Effective and Profitable? It’s a handy filter for all decisions because you’ll hit the main points to evaluate.

I’m also a big believer in the slogan that President Reagan used in his defense strategy: Trust, but verify. You need to be accountable for what you do and keep yourself informed, and help your people be informed. What you tell people must help them gain confidence and an understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish, why it’s worth doing, and how they fit into it.

I also learned in the military a lot about trust. For example, if you’re going to jump out of an airplane at night with 300 other people with rifles strapped to them, you’ve got to trust a lot of people. Everyone has to be aware of what they’re doing and contribute by doing it in a confident and timely manner. And no one has time to explain everything they’re doing to everyone on the aircraft.

In the same way, when you’re running a company, you have to trust everyone to do their job because all roles are important to success. This covers everyone from upper management to the cleaning staff. If the building isn’t cleaned well, for example, people are more likely to get sick and not be able to work at their full capacity.

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