Prepare:On the battlefield, before every patrol, you plan your combat patrol route and rehearse battle drills for possible contingencies, including reacting to an ambush.In the data center, even before you begin operations, you plan for emergency operating procedures, including the loss of utility power. You constantly review the procedures and conduct rehearsals so that if the event occurs, you can execute efficiently.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Kirby.
Lee has more than 40 years of experience in information systems, strategic business development, finance, planning, human resources and administration, both in the private and public sectors. He is known for developing world-class teams while closing the data center industry’s talent gap by connecting veterans with long-term careers. Lee has successfully led several technology startups and turnarounds as well as built and run global operations. His many years as a technology industry leader helped him masterfully balance a successful military career spanning 36 years (Ret. Colonel), and he continues to serve as an advisor to many veteran support organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in rural Appalachia in East Tennessee. We were farmers and I learned the value of hard work and family. With Tennessee being “The Volunteer” state, military service was important and I wanted to serve from an early age. As I became a teenager, the added attraction was the ability to fund my college education.From there it became a foregone conclusion. So, I enlisted in 1976 and entered as a 17 year old with no clue how much I would learn and grow as I embarked on a journey that would span 36 years.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am Chairman and Co-Founder of Salute Mission Critical. We are a global data center services company and known for our unique higher mission of hiring veterans and turning them into data center technicians. We set up our training and development program to help all veterans who desire a career in our industry, regardless of the specialty they served in the military (from infantry and cooks to telecom and submariners).
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I initially enlisted for 4 years and then went into the reserves. In 1982, I received my commission and continued to serve in the reserves from that point until 2012. When I retired, I had two careers; military and civilian. I was recalled to active duty in the mid-90s for the Haiti invasion and then after 9/11 for another 6 years, so a total of 10.5 years active duty and the rest were very active reserve time. My basic branch was Infantry and then as a Captain, I transitioned to Civil Affairs (CA). CA is a challenging and complex mission that even many in the military do not understand but I loved it because it is a key link between the military and the civilian worlds. This plays a key role in counter insurgency operations and humanitarian assistance missions.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career?
What “take away” did you learn from that story? Civil Affairs teams are dispersed throughout the country to engage with local leadership and restore civilian capacity in key areas such as Rule of Law, Public Health and Governance. Productive working relationships are built locally, whether in business or the military. In either environment, you have to engage personally on the ground with the local leadership and work through the details to establish a tempo that results in real changes. We saw this in both Iraq and Afghanistan as our Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) drove lasting changes by engaging with the elected, tribal and religious leaders to re-establish essential services and build civilian capacity to ensure ongoing public health and welfare in the midst of hostilities. Seeing soldiers typically 25–35 years old negotiating with the local leaders to establish priority reconstruction activity and sourcing of local labor to achieve those goals is amazing just in itself and realizing that these young men and women will return home having mastered these complex skills that will propel a civilian career if given the chance.
More about Civil Affairs soldiers at https://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/special-operations/civil-affairs/civil-affairs-req.html
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
Fairy tales and war stories are very similar. One starts out “Once upon a time” and the other typically starts out with “You ain’t gonna believe this but” and after that they are about the same. But seriously, I have had the great fortune of working with so many heroes in so many different situations that it is hard to choose just one example. Hollywood does a better job of showing the extreme situations that all combat veterans have experienced whether with IEDs, EFPs, rockets or small arms fire. So rather than tell you one of many stories of combat, I would like to tell you what a hero looks like to me. After 9/11, we entered into a global multi-generational conflict combating extremists and terrorists. Every young person who raised their hand after that knew that they were headed into harm’s way. I was always amazed with the young men and women that I fought with in Iraq and Afghanistan. They came from every walk of life and wanted only to do their job to the best of their ability because they knew that was their part of the mission. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the ability to operate effectively in a hostile environment regardless of your fear or chance of survival. In an asymmetrical battlefield, there is no “front line”. Rocket attacks can kill you while you’re sleeping in a fortified position. And a small arms fire or IED/EFPs can kill you while you are out on patrol.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
To me, the heroes are the young men and women who volunteered to serve their country after 9/11. My oldest son and daughter are both in the military and are my heroes. Just by weird coincidence, I fought alongside my son in Afghanistan and while it makes a great father-son story around the campfire, it is just one of many stories that show ordinary people doing extraordinary things by just doing their job.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Absolutely, yes. As a reservist with multiple deployments, many people thought my civilian career may have suffered but I think it was stronger because of my experiences and training. Over my 36 year career, I had increased professional development to train me as a leader at every Army level. That training helped me in my civilian career with communications and planning so that I could rise to lead several companies through different stages of growth. My experience in the military, whether during peace time or on the battlefield, taught me so many valuable lessons on decision making and operating in a constantly changing environment that I believe this has helped me operate as a civilian leader ahead of the pack and been the foundation of having a fulfilling dual career.
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?
That list is so long for me. As a child, my family raised me to respect everyone and be a lifelong learner. Coaches, Scout Masters, Drill Sergeants, Trainers and Leaders guided me and helped me grow throughout my life. Role models like Colin Powell influenced me early in my career and so many others that are servant-leaders.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
There are a lot of definitions but they all revolve around an unexpected situation that is impactful and must be addressed. A crisis tests your foundation and depending on the crisis, it may impact you physically, mentally, or emotionally. As leaders, we should understand the difference between changing how you are doing things from what you are doing because “the what” is who you are as an organization and must be maintained but “the how” should be an ever-evolving path towards client experience and efficiency.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
A balance between planning and action is key. There is a risk of over or under reacting but the first step is to leverage your preparation to date. Even if it is not the scope or type of crisis you expected, the planning for any crisis will help you start on consequence management. Gathering information and acting on it is difficult when the information is partial and frequently changing, but it is key to have effective processes in place to continually adjust to the situation.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Quickly assess the situation and triage the initial response while moving to seize control of the situation. The immediate response to a flood will look different from a pandemic but the triage approach helps you orient and assess as life safety is the first priority. While responding to any immediate threats, you should initiate effective communications and begin to organize accordingly. Very much like a battle, the situation is going to be fluid and the pace will vary but your ability to organize and communicate during the crisis will set you on the path to success. It is important to understand that you cannot control the crisis but you can control your response.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
It is easier to respond to a crisis if you have prepared for one. It does not have to be the exact scenario you planned for but we have seen this to be true with a global pandemic. Regionally focused crisis management plans have been key to companies quickly responding meaningfully. Preparedness will save us every time; and that could be lives and money alike. After Preparedness, the way you survive a crisis is with sound leadership and that evidenced in communications and decision making and should address the immediate threat but also a position for a sustained operation.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are so many great leaders that I have worked with both on the battlefield and in the corporate world. The industry’s leadership team at Salute was recently recognized for its response to the COVID crisis. The case study about CloudFlare was one of many examples that show the benefit to clients of having a partner that can lead through a crisis. Jason Okroy and Kristen Vosmaer had prepared for continuous operations and as the pandemic took hold, they implemented effective changes to the day-to-day operations of the company. These changes have allowed us to not just survive, but to thrive during this crisis. The complexity of working globally exponentiated with the fact that each government entity was responding differently made it so the procedures were adapted to accommodate national, regional, state, city and country deviations. Salute has the advantage of experience gained in extreme circumstances, so the staff is familiar with operating in a rapidly changing landscape and with the right leaders in place you see communication and coordination excellence rise to the top.
Read the Cloudflare case study here: https://salutemissioncritical.com/playbook-cloudflare/
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
War stories are too easy to use and you know my thoughts on them and fairy tales. I think a health crisis would resonate more with everyone. About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I needed to assess the situation and went into data gathering mode which produced several courses of action to choose from. We got a plan in place to monitor and treat without surgery and that went on for a few years but then things changed. With new information, we chose surgery to ensure that it did not spread further. Throughout the cycle, we followed good crisis management practices of executing on plans that include a feedback loop and as new data is available re-plan and execute accordingly. The surgery was successful and we reverted to recovery and ongoing monitoring. The aftermath was a success on both fronts in that I am cancer free and, through the process of recovery, made lifestyle changes that have me healthier now than before the surgery. Lessons learned are gaining control of the situation, assessing options, planning, executing, monitoring, refining, and repeating.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
I think you can summarize crisis response in five primary steps to survive and thrive in any situation. Those five steps are prepare, get control, assess, plan & execute, and monitor & refine. I am going to walk through some over simplified scenarios that show the response process is the same whether it occurs on the battlefield or the data center. You can rely on veterans to take the skills they have learned in extreme situations and apply them with precision to your data center. For the battlefield, I am going to use the example of a unit reacting to an ambush, or getting surprised by an enemy attack. For the data center, I am going to use the example of a power outage. Both of these situations can be resolved by using these five steps.
o On the battlefield, before every patrol, you plan your combat patrol route and rehearse battle drills for possible contingencies, including reacting to an ambush.
o In the data center, even before you begin operations, you plan for emergency operating procedures, including the loss of utility power. You constantly review the procedures and conduct rehearsals so that if the event occurs, you can execute efficiently.
· Get Control:
o On the battlefield, the moment the ambush occurs, you conduct your pre planned battle drill. Every team member knows how they are supposed to respond and acts simultaneously to respond to the threat, evacuate casualties and coordinate with adjacent units.
o In the data center, utility power is lost. While the batteries automatically kick in, the team executes the preplanned incident response protocols and focuses on ensuring power flows uninterrupted to the data halls.
o On the battlefield, you hastily gather information and determine the best course of action which can range from counterattack to hold and await the arrival of the quick reaction force.
o In the data center, you hastily gather information and determine courses of action, which range from restoring utility power to normal configuration or maintaining generator power and executing supply chain actions to ensure fuel resupply.
· Plan & execute:
o On the battlefield, you make your choice of alternatives and fight your way out of the ambush. You continuously assess the threat and the conditions so you can alter your plans as the situation develops.
o In the data center, your utility power is available and you restore the data center to normal conditions. You continuously assess the conditions and ensure that all procedures are followed to restore normal operations.
· Monitor & refine:
o On the battlefield, after the area is secured and the wounded are evacuated, additional measures are taken to ensure no follow-on attacks and the patrol continues. As changes occur, whether a new threat appears or equipment fails, the team will process the information and execute accordingly.
o In the data center, the power is restored, and incident documentation is entered into the system for review.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to challenge all companies to have a hiring goal of 10% veterans and military spouses. Census data shows that 7% of the population are veterans, so a 10% target would accommodate military spouses. The government should not have to offer incentives because the value has been proven time and again. When we started Salute in 2013 the unemployment for veterans 25–35 years old was almost 25% and that was 3X the average of their civilian counterparts. You can use the excuse that it was just following a big recession and “the surge” but it is still disgraceful, in my opinion. If we can teach you to fight for your country, we should be able to bring you home and integrate you into a job so that you can be a part of society.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
There are so many people that have done so much and are often overlooked but it would be a couple and I would love to have dinner with them and my wife. Bill and Melinda Gates are worthy of praise on all levels and if you look only at how the world is different in business the technological legacy of Microsoft would be more than enough. But the thing I admire most is their seemingly genuine push to make the world a better place whether it is stamping out disease or equal rights. They are meaningfully engaged globally on so many great initiatives, something either one of them would be a great honor but both would be the ultimate. One secret regret I have is that once, we were in an elevator in Lincoln Center in Bellevue and they were too. I was so starstruck, I could not think of anything clever to say without groveling and missed the opportunity to speak to two people I admire.
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Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.