“it is less important to identify everything that might go wrong than it is to nurture procedures, structures, and systems within your organization” — Carlos Perez
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 Carlos Perez, Treasurer of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA). Prior to joining AAFMAA, he served over 26 years as an Army Officer in a variety of command and staff assignments, including battalion command in the United States and operational and combat deployments to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Carlos holds a B.S. in Mathematical Economics from West Point, a M.B.A. from Stanford University, and an M.S. in National Resource Strategy from The Eisenhower School.
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 a small, blue-collar town about 30 minutes north of New York City. The oldest of five children, my dad was a home repairman and my mom sewed industrial awnings. I attended Catholic School through 8th grade and then went to a public high school. Uncertain about our ability to afford college, I applied to West Point through its Early Admissions program and got accepted. This led me to a rewarding, life-changing career of over 26 years of military service.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I joined AAFMAA in 2015 and today serve as its Treasurer. As Treasurer, I am responsible for the overall financial integration of AAFMAA’s assets across all of its operating entities. In service for over 141 years, AAFMAA is our nation’s longest-standing non-profit provider of financial services to our military, veterans, and their families. Our services include life insurance, financial planning and mortgages, as well as member and survivor services to ensure that every military family receives all the benefits they deserve.
We seek to provide superlative personal services to our members. As an example, we once had the child of a deceased veteran who stood to receive a sizeable death benefit upon the passing of her father. We learned that the child had been placed in the care of individuals that did not always have her best interests at heart and essentially consumed all of the benefit she had received from one of her father’s other insurance policies. At the time, she wasn’t able to pay for college and had no transportation. Our Survivor Assistance team connected her with financial experts from our wealth management division, who developed a financial plan for her, using her death benefit from her father’s AAFMAA life insurance policy. As a result, she is now attending college, owns a vehicle, and is on a path to independence.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served in the Army Engineer Branch, mostly as a “Combat Engineer.” Combat Engineers shape terrain and take measures to ensure the ability of friendly units to maneuver in an area of operations and deny the enemy the ability to do the same. It was an awesome experience. Missions ranged from the employment of demolitions and explosives to the repair and construction of airfields and everything in between.
When not serving in an Engineer unit, I spent a significant amount of time developing and using expertise in programming and budgeting, national security policy, and economic policy. I was privileged to serve on the economics faculty at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School and at the United States Military Academy at West Point and was the Professor of Military Science at the University of Hawaii.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
As a young Company Commander, my engineer company was in the lead task force that crossed the Sava River in Bosnia on December 31st, 1995. That mission was part of the largest river crossing operation since World War II and was accomplished in the winter, in an austere environment, amid 100-year flood levels.
Getting there took days of preparation, with the final days marked by historic rains and flooding. A significant lesson from that experience is that often in a time of crisis, you have to arrive at a solution with the resources you have on hand. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the Army you have.” That could not have been more true here. We spent weeks of preparation at our home station in Germany recognizing that we would deploy with the equipment and vehicles on hand. This made it imperative to focus on that equipment’s readiness and serviceability.
We are seeing this dynamic here at AAFMAA now in the middle of the current pandemic crisis. Many of our employees have identified, recommended, and implemented innovative solutions to enhance our ability to work remotely by digitizing processes that were formerly heavily paper-based. They did so with the IT infrastructure and software on hand today and not new systems.
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.
I served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. We once received a mission to escort some equipment from North of Baghdad down to Kuwait and we assigned that to one of our engineer platoons. During that mission, the platoon was engaged in an enemy ambush. We lost two soldiers to enemy fire that day. In addition, two soldiers were missing in action. Both of these were noncommissioned officers and the unit was not able to locate them.
One of the young soldiers had served in U.S. Special Forces before joining our unit. He took it upon himself to ensure that he and the other soldier would survive. Using his training, he evaded the enemy for a couple of days and eventually made his way to an Iraqi police station. He wasn’t sure if they were going to be friendly or hostile, but he knew that offered the best chances of reconnecting with friendly coalition forces. His instincts paid off, and that Police Department linked him up with a British unit that was operating in the area. Finally, that British unit was able to finally connect him with American forces. His actions unquestionably saved his own life and that of the other soldier.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
This incident demonstrated to me several characteristics of what it means to be a hero. First, the young soldier put the needs of another ahead of his own. He knew he had to take care of the other soldier who did not have the same experience as he did. In fact, his chances of survival may have been better alone because he was more fit and the environment was punishing. However, would not leave the other soldier behind.
Second, a hero needs to maintain the presence of mind and perform under pressure. This soldier did just that and leaned on his training to survive. He knew that he could make it. And, he knew he had to take care of the other soldier who did not have the same experience as he did.
Third, a hero trusts others. He trusted that the other soldier would work with him to survive, and, although not without risk, he trusted that the Iraqi police would connect him with friendly forces.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Military experience prepares you for business and leadership in many ways. Leadership training is a fundamental part of serving in the military. You learn how to lead at the individual, small group, and large collective level. The military teaches basic leadership principles and then provides the opportunity for service members to exercise them in positions of increasing responsibility.
In addition to leadership training, the military also trains service members how to manage resources and people to accomplish a mission, often in very austere conditions. These skills translate directly to business, where resources may be limited and you have to motivate individuals and teams to meet your business objectives.
The military also provides opportunities to develop unique skill sets. So, service members may acquire skills in communications, logistics, electronics, information technology, and much more. Training opportunities such as these arise in military schools and in civilian schools, as well.
I have benefited from my service in the Army. I attended all of the Army’s school systems up to and including senior service college level. I also earned my Bachelor’s degree and two Master’s Degrees while serving. All of these have been invaluable in the civilian workplace.
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?
Without a doubt, I am most grateful to my parents. They moved from Puerto Rico as young children with their parents and started new lives here in the U.S., essentially from scratch. My dad worked initially in restaurants and, as mentioned earlier, later moved into the home repair business. My mom was a seamstress for an awning company. As parents, they taught me the value of hard work and earning your way in life. Nothing was given to them. They also taught me about sacrifice. They put everything they earned towards caring for their children and they gave up their time for us. They were model parents. I distinctly remember them taking me to academic workshops, sporting events, scouting activities, church, and more, in order to provide opportunities for me that they did not have. Finally, they instilled in me a faith in God and an understanding that we cannot succeed alone.
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?
That’s a great question. I would define a crisis as an event or occurrence, oftentimes (but not always) unexpected, that stresses an individual’s or an organization’s ability to adequately respond to the challenge presented. This could be due to a lack preparation, a lack of resources, or lack of an approach to deal with a novel problem.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
It is important for business owners and leaders to consider what might prevent them from responding in a crisis. This could take three forms: an inability to respond because they lack sufficient information about the crisis, an inability due to a lack of resources, an inability due to lack of prioritization or perceived threat.
One of the things I learned while serving in the military is that it is impossible to anticipate everything that might go wrong in the future. Therefore, it is less important to identify everything that might go wrong than it is to nurture procedures, structures, and systems within your organization that possess the requisite resilience to respond rapidly when a crisis occurs. And, planning should address each of the challenges of quickly obtaining information about the threat, having a way to resource the response, and ensuring that it receives the necessary attention by leaders and employees charged with responding.
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?
When a crisis strikes, it is often natural for individuals to panic. While that is a normal response, it is the leader that must maintain calm and demonstrate the presence of mind to respond to the threat. More importantly, if the leader panics, subordinates will as well, endangering the ability to remedy the crisis. So, the first thing people should do is try to stay calm. The next thing is to define the problem. By defining the problem, one is able to develop, analyze and implement possible courses of action to fix the problem.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
In order to survive a crisis, you need leaders that remain cool under pressure, you need resiliency in individuals and systems, and you need adequate resources. These three things in combination will enable a person or organization to deal with almost any challenge.
I alluded to some these characteristics already. A key one is presence of mind and the ability to remain calm in a crisis. In doing so, you can instill confidence in those working with you to resolve the crisis. You also need resiliency of self and in the systems you’ve put in place to respond to the unexpected. There is no way to know everything that may come your way; resilience enables you to adapt existing processes and procedures to new challenges in ways that will prevent you and your organization from collapsing under the challenge.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
As we conduct this interview, the U.S. is experiencing a pandemic unlike any seen since the Flu Pandemic of 1918. As I learn about the responses of the medical community to the crisis, it is clear that those doing so best exhibit these traits. They are meeting the needs of their patients and community with the systems and resources on hand as they respond to a crisis without parallel in their lifetime. I remain optimistic that they will see us through this tremendous challenge.
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?
As you may expect, physical fitness is one of the most important expectations of service members. A few years ago, shortly after retiring from the Army, I suffered an unexpected medical setback. That event made me take my personal fitness much more seriously. While in the Army, I worked out in order to do well on fitness tests. Having retired from service, I now view fitness a part of an overall healthy approach to life and try to make healthy choices as best I can. I do have one weakness, though: chocolate cake.
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?
- I’ve already shared a story about physical fitness. But this is just one facet. Other dimensions of fitness include spiritual, mental, and social fitness and we should try to work on each.
Know what’s important to you.
- Time and resources are limited. Don’t waste time on what’s not important. Understand the difference between urgent and important. Some things that are urgent may actually not be important. Identify your priorities and focus on those things that are important.
Know how what you do fits into the bigger picture.
- Many successful organizations develop and publish mission and/or vision statements. Those that are able to accomplish them often take time to explain to their workers, staff sections, and operating entities how what they do fits into the big picture. This lets them work with guidance and intent to make that mission happen and improves morale because they understand how what they do contributes to a larger cause.
Leverage the skills of others
- We don’t know everything. Top performing teams are often marked by members of different backgrounds and skillsets. This trait enables resiliency and allows organizations to succeed because many can contribute, from their unique perspective, to arrive at good solutions to problems.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. We want to always do our best and succeed, but so do other people and they can make substantial contributions. Recognize their talent and don’t be threatened by it. Use it to enable the success of the team. And, don’t underestimate the value of a good sense of humor. It makes coping with difficult times a little easier.
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.
As a veteran, it is heartening to see the great strides our communities have made to support service members after they leave military service. I would like to see continued recognition that veterans can bring critical skill sets to civilian organizations. They possess leadership training, experience in working with other cultures, schooling on a wide range of topics, and more. I encourage employers to actively seek veterans when looking to grow their companies.
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 🙂
I would enjoy breakfast or lunch with Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. I have always been interested in technology and in leadership of very large, complex organizations. Tim Cook operates in that space and I think his insights would be invaluable at all levels of leadership.
How can our readers follow you online?
I encourage your readers to check out AAFMAA’s Learning Hub (https://www.aafmaa.com/learning-hub), where I and others provide timely content on issues affecting our military, veterans, and their families. They can also reach me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/perezcarlosjr/.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.