Taking life’s hard road from working dead end jobs to now advising global corporations
I graduate high school not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. My family nor high school career counselors ever advised me about “what does my next chapter look like”. In fact, I never even thought about college so when my friends were being accepted to various major universities, I was a bit caught off guard. I was a good student and heavily involved in student organizations but I had no clue what I was supposed to do next.
My next two years were truly wasted years in my life. I had eventually enrolled in a local university, worked several part-time jobs and just living life on “cruise control”. I had no real focus, no mentor and no one I could really to talk to about what is going on with me. Honestly, this was a low point for me. I felt never felt so alone.
Then I made the most important decision that would change my life forever…I joined the United States Navy.
Honor, Courage, and Commitment
The moment I stepped off that bus in Chicago, IL to attend bootcamp in the dead of winter, I knew I had made the right decision. All 2000+ recruits were all on equal ground and treated exactly the same. The expectations were simple…serve with “Honor, Courage, and Commitment”. These three words turned out to be the core to of my leadership style that shaped the rest of my life.
The Navy training was to be provided based on our physical condition, ASVAB score and request. The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was in great shape, scored in the 95th percentile on the ASVAB test all of which translated to I could pick any job in the Navy. Did I want to be a nuclear engineer, deep sea diver, a mechanic? I did not know what to do.
Thankfully, my Navy counselor told me about the undesignated program. It was designed for recruits like me that simply didn’t know what to do. He did “advise” me that they would put me in any job the Navy needed me but I could pick my duty station anywhere in the world if there was a spot. I chose Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily which was about as far away as my home as I could go.
During my various tours with the Navy, I had failed fast but learned from my mistakes. I made minor history with my achievements paving the path for future generations of sailors behind me. My life path was back on track and I spent the next 7+years learning from some of the best leaders in the world. They didn’t have fancy degrees or titles. My senior leaders had real world operational experience they had earned the hard way.
5 Lessons Learned the Hard Way…
These five simple lessons that I learned in the Navy can translate into almost any situation. Each has a snippet to provide context on what I learned and how it could be applicable to anyone.
1. Ducks in a row (The most important lesson)
The Navy gave me everything I ever asked for and took away everything I deserved. These are the words I speak when people ask me about my service. The Navy was 100% accurate about the undesignated program in which it reserved the right to place me in any job it deemed necessary based on the duty station I selected.
It turned out the Navy wanted me to be a postal clerk but not any ordinary postal clerk. NAS Sigonella is the “Hub of the Med” so all the postal mail went through this station. I had to work six 12 hour shifts in row on a 3-day, 3-night and 3-off rotation. My job was to pick up a 50+ lb bag and throw it onto a shelf above my head. An average load was about 1-2 semitrucks of mail. Christmas time was about 4-6 truck loads of mail.
I quickly determined that I did not want to be a postal clerk and working on an airbase I was exposed to a lot of other cool jobs. One in particular was working on various aircraft electrical systems. This meant once my tour was up, I probably could find a good paying job in the civilian world.
The problem. No one who went in the undesignated program at NAS Sigonella ever left the job they went in to fill. To leave that assignment meant passing a test. In order to take that test you were required to complete months of long hours of qualification requirements. My only option was when I completed my 12 hours at the postal warehouse, I would work an additional 6 hours with the other Aviation Electricians (AE) at their workshop. Once I completed my requirements the hard part was next.
I had to request to take the AE test to the senior most enlisted person on base…the Master Chief. He was generally a nice guy unless you tried to mess with his shop….and me wanting to leave was definitely messing with his shop.
When he saw my request, he proceeded to give me the normal Navy third degree which included several “choice” words but when he saw my signatures, verified with the Chief at the AE workshop The Master Chief then gave me the best leadership lesson of my life.
“You can do anything as long as you have your ducks in the row. Translation. If your decision is backed by data or has the right executive support, you are cleared to make the tough calls.”
I passed the AE test and became the 1st sailor to do this evolution on NAS Sigonella. Later, many other undesignated sailors heard about my actions and went down their own path to achieve something greater than what they originally intended.
2. Always be the student
Throughout my Navy career I was required to learn all aspects of my assigned tasks. This was critical because if I failed to due a quality Pre-Flight inspection or I took a shortcut in maintenance it could put the flight crew in jeopardy. As a result, I was always studying and reading technical manuals. I became qualified to train others and ensured they met the high standards of the workshop.
“Learn, Adapt and Be Open.”
I took this lesson and applied it to my professional career. It was not enough to simply do my job well. I needed to learn my supervisor’s job. This attitude pushed me to not only complete my Bachelor’s and MBA but continually learn new technologies and certify if possible. This makes me an attractive candidate both internally and externally for future opportunities.
3. Surround yourself with positive people
One of the 1st lessons I learned in boot camp was about teamwork. The Navy did not care about your gender or race. They only saw you as a valuable member of a team and you always support your team. If there was a shipmate struggling you needed to help them. If a shipmate was promoted then you celebrated with them.
“Always be a valuable member of the team”
This lesson in my opinion is servant leadership. You do not need a title to be a leader. You lead by example. Avoid those that try to hold you back. If you want to succeed then surround yourself with people that care about you and will be there when you need it.
4. Okay to ask for help
Navy life can be difficult. Time away from friends and family while enduring long hours in dangerous conditions can take a personal toll. I was fortunate enough not to see live combat. However, the deck of an aircraft carrier still ranks as one of the most dangerous places you can work and I still had to experience death either due to an accident or worse. As a veteran, I thought my time losing shipmates was over. Unfortunately, veteran suicide is inexcusably high. I lost a very dear friend this way and if he had picked up the phone, I would have dropped everything to be there to help.
“Fail Fast but Learn”
My friend’s loss, although very personal, taught me a lot especially in business. Trying to look smart or all knowing could have serious consequences. If you do not know how to do something required for your role ask for help. A business decision resulted in poor results what did you learn? Failure can have advantages and they are only failures if you don’t extract the lessons.
5. Believe in the Art of the Possible
The military should get credit for the “Art of the Possible”. Why? They are tasks of doing the impossible time and time again. Great generals and several military heroes understood this as well. They saw the objective and against incredible odds would take the hill to win the battle that led to winning the war. The military understood that establishing key milestones were essential towards completing the mission and everyone had a part to play.
“Dream Big to Win Big”
I always knew I wanted to serve in the military. It took me a couple of years to figure that out. Once I was serving, I had to think bigger than the “today”. I had to position my career to have the best possible outcome 2-5 years later. I had to set “mini-goals” for myself not to lose sight. I endured many hardships along the way but once I achieved my primary goal it motivated me to push even harder.
I hope you find some “golden nuggets” in these lessons. Honestly, they have accelerated my career faster than I expected. My sense of urgency, continual learning, and advising how to dream big all have contributed to me success. Today, I consult for small business leaders to corporate executives in mentoring or helping them simply define “What is possible” in today’s chaotic landscape.
Just remember one thing, always start by getting a set of ducks and putting them in a row.