Retired Navy SEAL Marty Strong: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Think boldly and strategically: Thinking boldly and strategically means looking at the horizon, envisioning you or your company in a year, two years, a decade from now. What are you doing? What is the competition doing? What are your customers doing? I had a strong hunch healthcare was ripe for a revolutionary change. In late 2015, I started my search, and by the end of 2016 we’d made our acquisition. That one employee company is in seven states today delivering different service lines and employing one hundred and seventy professionals, all while delivering superior care to our patients.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Marty Strong.
Marty’s suffered the loss of his oldest son, beat cancer twice, and has been shot at in a few exotic countries. He is a retired Navy SEAL officer and combat veteran who’s currently serving as a middle market CEO and serves on the board of two companies. While he is the author of nine novels, his expertise and passion are leading dynamic organizations. His insights are captured in his two business books, Be Nimble: How the Creative Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business and Be Visionary: Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent twenty years in the Navy’s elite SEAL Teams where I learned through trial and error how to apply creativity and guile to achieve positive tactical results. Along the way I picked up an undergraduate degree in business administration and a graduate degree in management. While I was prepared to lead after retiring from the service, I wasn’t prepared to sell. That shock was only the beginning of a new and painfully long learning curve. In time I learned how to sell and became a successful portfolio manager. After seven years I moved on to join a company in senior management, starting and scaling divisions and companies. Yet another interesting learning process. Today I’m a CEO and Chief Strategy Officer for a middle market employee-owned enterprise.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Most of my funniest moments are from those early years when, straight out of uniform, I struggled as a sales professional. I tried everything, cold calling, cold walking businesses, trade show booths, and seminars. My young kids were all in at the time. Licking stamps for seminar invitations and helping me set up crazy booth displays after the mall or trade show venue closed for the night. My first booth experience demonstrated how green I was to the selling game. I was required to purchase any promotional materials or company swag out of my own pocket. I purchased about two hundred of these special three-sided pens with my name and phone number proudly displayed on all three sides. When the event center opened in the morning a crowd of senior citizens swooped into the venue and began grabbing up the free stuff, including my special pens. After a few raids the man in the booth next to me advised me to hide the swag until the real customers showed up for the event. I was lucky he intervened, and I learned a lesson about the value (or lack thereof) of promotional gimmicks. Selling was about trust, not free swag.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, of course there are quite a few people who pointed the way, mentored me, and took time to help me through that learning curve I referenced earlier. One person stands out though. Again, it is from the initial, formative period right after leaving the Navy when I was trying to find myself. What I mean is the financial services industry is so diverse you get confused as to your niche, your unique value proposition in a crowded market. Doug Tichenor was a wholesaler with Nike Securities. A former stock broker, he’d changed professions to reduce anxiety and stabilize his income. I was a “new” 37-year-old financial advisor and he took the time to sit down with me and ask how things were going. My response wasn’t upbeat. After a few minutes of focused questioning, Doug asked the question that eventually set me on the path to success for the next seven plus years. “Are you comfortable speaking in front of people?” Well, my answer was yes. I’d given speeches in the Navy, had thousands of hours of time teaching, and wasn’t half bad at expressing myself. Doug supported my first professional seminar, teaching how to plan and execute a successful event. I gained nine new clients that first seminar and they in turn generated at least one hundred referrals over the next few years.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I’ve been involved in a few new businesses over the last ten years and there is a commonality when it comes to a sense of purpose. A winning purpose is one that improves a client’s or customer’s condition, an experience of true value delivered and received. One of the businesses I lead is responsible for delivering high quality, geriatric care. The core focus of that business is the patient’s health. We could execute by cutting corners, hiring less capable or less committed medical professionals, willing to work faster and see more patients, but we don’t. We don’t do this because the margin isn’t the key metric. Patient satisfaction and well-being is the KPI we value. Staying true to a purpose driven deliverable is challenging because exceptional value is often at odds with lean execution and the optimization that lean thinking offers. In my opinion, lean leads to lean client/customer outcomes, lean service delivery experience, and in the long run, less than spectacular strategic outcomes.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The most recent example is from September 2021. Our employee-owned enterprise consists of two operating entities: a healthcare company and a government contracting company. We’d struggled to survive the aftermath and secondary effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020 and 2021 and actually grew market share slightly in both companies. Then in September 2021 the administration announced a federal COVID-19 vax mandate for three segments of the country, government contractors and healthcare were two of the three segments identified. Within 24 hours of that announcement 60% of our 450 contract employees and 30% of our 145 healthcare professionals communicated to management they were not getting the vaccine. This was a crisis for us, eighteen months after the start of COVID we were suddenly at serious risk of business failure and collapse. My response was focused. I gathered the senior leaders and created a project plan to first create a census tracker and second, begin a drumbeat campaign of effective communications to our employees. We also created a census related continuity of operations “battle book” for our government customers. We were told repeatedly that we were the only contracting company doing this level of impact management and it was greatly appreciated. Eventually we were able to retain 90% of our employees and after six months stand down the project. Facing a crisis head on and taking action is effective.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Navy SEALs are tested from day one to ensure they are reliable under the worst conditions. Reliable to do their job, to support their teammates, and to complete insane missions. Never quit is a mantra, albeit an intelligent one. It doesn’t mean SEALs have a superpower allowing them to deflect doubt and ignore stress. It means we address the drivers of stress, fear, and fatigue and rationalize it as a justifiable reality in the profession we volunteered to pursue. Having said that, I feel like hanging up the gloves almost every week. The challenges of running dynamic businesses in uncertain and often chaotic economies are daunting and never ending. As a CEO you don’t work a shift, you are on call and in the limelight twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. My thoughts occasionally drift to a day when I’m not so intensely engaged with work and more involved with activities that make me smile. I know that day is coming soon, and knowing that, I’m motivated to cross that finish line having achieved my professional goals.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, was a fundamentally enlightening read for me when it was published. I’ve probably read it three or four times and purchased copies for all of my management team. He bases his thesis on work by the CDC and their research into how viruses evolve until they become a wider problem, a tipping point where the virus multiplies exponentially instead of linearly. He then takes this thesis and shows how it is a driver in other aspects of our world, such as personal life connections, wider social networks, and marketing applications to name a few. It seems like old news now, but the viral power of networks wasn’t a thing back when Gladwell published his book. It opened my eyes to a reality that was always right there in front of me. How to communicate better, how to message more effectively, and of course, how to refocus promotional and marketing efforts to drive brand awareness and eventually market share and financial outcomes. I’ve used this understanding specifically in recruiting difficult to find skill sets. Instead of relying only on commercial recruiting platforms I’ve had teams reach out directly to associations, groups, retirement communities, active-duty military units, to start the wave of interest and drive candidates back into the arms of our recruiters. Try it — it works.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership is best understood in the context of the challenges one faces. In my opinion, handling the day-to-day normal operations related to systems, processes, and talent performance is the very definition of management, not leadership. Leadership is what you do when those systems, processes, and talent fail dramatically. This may be caused by a lingering infrastructure deficiency held together with glue and band aids, by a management decision to double up the pace of growth. It can also be caused by external factors such as aggressive competition, or macro-economics, even a pandemic. When it all goes sideways leaders need to stand up and be counted, at all levels of an organization. Leading usually requires intellectual humility and a high emotional IQ. You may have to rethink everything to survive, reimagine the business, the next product or service, or totally reinvent the way you do everything. True leaders are rare but often adversity reveals the leaders all around us waiting for the moment to shine.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Without a doubt, humor is the best medicine in times of crisis. I don’t mean puppet shows and stand up comedy, I’m talking about a good sense of humor. In the SEAL teams having this trait was a prerequisite. Laughing with your freezing cold or boiling hot, is a way to relieve frustration and negative energy in a positive way. This attitude is contagious and every leader should pay close attention to that fact. Professionals respond to firmness, intelligence, emotional control, and humor in times of crisis. Leaders should ponder the possibility their day will come and prepare to be the cheerleader in charge if required. Accept the reality, galvanize the troops, and start making a plan to fix things, all with a smile on your face. Believe me, it works!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Holding on to difficult news is debilitating, emotionally draining, and counterproductive. I’ve always believed that bad news doesn’t age well, so it’s critical for me to get that information to the people affected by the impact and to those on my team who can roll up their sleeves and start working to solve or correct the root cause of that adverse outcome. Facing these moments head on, with courage, is the best way to pave the way to improvement. Candor in communications of this kind is the best way to cut through the nerves and get to the point. I’ve found this approach is hard to receive but almost always appreciated by teammates and customers.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In the special operations world planning for worse case scenarios is a way of life and a way of leading. I’ve found that training my management team (and encouraging them to train their respective teams) to anticipate challenges is always better than waiting for the challenge to materialize. Contingency policies and scenario-based training (case studies and hypotheticals) groom leaders to accept disruptive events are real and that you don’t have to get caught flat footed unless you choose to. Another key insight to instill is that the future is in fact unpredictable, and that’s okay. It’s the way of the universe. It is far stranger to believe the world is a static construct. Embrace change, embrace chaos, meet disruption head on.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
If there is one principle it is the idea that change is natural and continuous. Change is only a negative concept if you focus on the destructive elements instead of the creative elements. Change informs you, guides you, change points the way to a new order of things. Ignore this information at your peril. Many companies hide their head in the sand, they live in denial, grieving over the death of the status quo. Take a deep breath and accept the reality of our world. Nothing is static, everything is changing. Seize the moment and leap through the open door of opportunity!
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I’m a very optimistic guy (think glass overflowing). So, I kick myself when I’m risk mitigated by my peers, my board, or technical experts, into a safe place without sizzle only to find out later my instincts were spot on. This happens frequently as many professionals are tasked with slowing it all down, keeping it “real”, and few are tasked with attacking the hill or risking it all for the big prize. I waited way too long one time creating a medical billing division because no one believed the medical services company would grow very fast, it did. The result was a billing division that couldn’t keep pace once it was established. My top four common mistakes are: failure to see an opportunity, failure to see a threat, failure to make that optimistic leap, and failure to trust my entrepreneurial instincts.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Think boldly and strategically: Thinking boldly and strategically means looking at the horizon, envisioning you or your company in a year, two years, a decade from now. What are you doing? What is the competition doing? What are your customers doing? I had a strong hunch healthcare was ripe for a revolutionary change. In late 2015, I started my search, and by the end of 2016 we’d made our acquisition. That one employee company is in seven states today delivering different service lines and employing one hundred and seventy professionals, all while delivering superior care to our patients.
- Align operations with the bold vision: Having a bold vision is nice but if the operational functions and goals are not aligned with that vision, your business is incoherent. Push the vision down the timeline from end state to current state and evaluate the disconnects, fire upon your management team and technical expertise, challenge them to figure out how to get to the new destination in an exciting and competent manner. I’ve been in companies where I was privy to the vision presentation but realized nobody else below a certain tear line on the organizational chart, had a clue. I encouraged broader communications and project plans that involved the true drivers of change, the employees. It worked.
- Hire resilient professionals: It’s easy to say “Hire happy, competent people who fit in around here.” It’s a reasonable request for HR to make that happen, but if you really want to create a culture of resilience and courage under fire, you need to pay closer attention to your hiring and onboarding process. I was with a dynamic company once that grew from $175 million in revenue a year to one billion in the span of four years. We were all like-minded, team players in the beginning. Ready to lead or follow in equal measure. We also shared the hiring interview duties to ensure the people we hired were ready and able to roll with the punches. After the second year of crazy growth, we created an HR department and stopped participating in the interview process. A year later we are surrounded by hundreds of new hires, all competent, but few willing to stay late, or work weekends to get the task done. I never forgot that lesson in culture development.
- Scenario train your leaders: In the SEAL teams we used scenario-based training to expose the entire mission team to the variables of combat reality. This same method can be applied to the commercial world. Sales teams, design teams, management teams of every size and shape, can all benefit from grinding through case studies or hypothetical setups that challenge their current construct and demand ingenuity and innovation to complete. I do this frequently associated with budget development. Looking out toward the next business year and challenging leaders to game out various positive, neutral, and negative outcomes. Once created, these potential versions of the future can provide the basis for scenario-based training, and analysis. Usually everyone Is solid on the neutral and negative possibilities. It’s the aspirational future that takes a bit of nudging from me.
- Maintain a positive perspective: Leaders need to remember that they are always being watched, always being listened to by their people. What they do and say matters, if fact, it is over amplified, especially in turbulent times. I learned as a young SEAL that some leaders are better at this than others. The calm visage of a leader standing tall in the storm inspires confidence and resolve. This is a wonderful thing to behold. Appearing shaken and concerned to your team, not so much. As a combat leader I was once stricken with a lack of confidence. I got my SEAL platoon miserably lost in a vast mangrove swamp. The clock was ticking and our coordinated seizure of a key enemy compound and the capture of a high value personality residing there, was at stake. My demeanor was pointed out by my Chief, a wise old SEAL who knew the men were used to me being upbeat and confident. He said “Sir, you need to get your act together and start figuring this out!” He was right and I did.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes early in my SEAL experience was a quote from the 19th Century French Chemist Louis Pasteur, famous for his discoveries related to the effectiveness of vaccinations. He observed that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” This insight resonated with me and as I matured and grew wiser, I realized that being a lifelong learner, being open to a wide range of information, insights, and opinions, did prepare me for challenges I encountered, but never saw coming my way. I believe this is more than a mere quote, it is an inspirational formula for success in life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find my articles, podcast interviews, and links to my books at martystrongbenimble.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Retired Navy SEAL Marty Strong: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.