The military from day one prepares you for leadership. I have also attended several leadership academies to further my education. The leadership skills taught in the military are unique. We are taught to lead in favorable and adverse conditions, sometimes in the most extreme circumstances. Learning how to lead in these environments really conditions us to handle the most stressful situations in life and work. Leadership and business go hand in hand. Veterans bring a lot to the table in terms of civilian work, as they know how to work in hard situations and overcome incredible odds. Nothing is easy. Veterans can be great team members, super-efficient, and they take responsibility. I tap into my military experiences every day in my role as a manager at SAC.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Cory Toner.
Rappelling down mountainsides and patrolling enemy territory was business as usual for Cory Toner during his 13 years as an officer in the United States Army. Cory’s familiarity with climbing, small group communication and leadership eventually landed him in a civilian career that draws on those experiences to this day.
Cory went through rigorous mountaineering training, deployed overseas and graduated from multiple military leadership schools, all of which he draws on in his current position as a Construction Operations Manager at SAC Wireless. Now, instead of leading reconnaissance teams through the desert, Cory leads 14 tower crews responsible for building out the infrastructure to support America’s 5G network.
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 was raised by my mother in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My father passed away when my two younger brothers and I were very young. As the oldest, I helped my mom as much as I could after my dad passed. I watched her work as hard as she could to support three boys. She had such a strong work ethic. On 9/11, I was a freshman in high school. As this attack unfolded, I made my mind up that once I was old enough, I would sign up for the military and help defend the nation.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
After leaving the military, I found a job climbing cell towers to install and maintain the nation’s wireless network. My experience with mountaineering, radio communications, and leadership in the Army gave me valuable experience. It also helped that I didn’t have a fear of heights. Through extreme hard work and dedication, I have managed to make a successful career. I am currently working as the Manager of Construction of Operations for SAC Wireless.
The road I took in life was not always an easy one to travel. Working for SAC has given me a great environment and culture to grow, learn, and advance. Building and repairing cell towers is a unique job. When I travel with my family, my boys always ask if I worked on the towers they see along the road. Most people are very interested to learn more about what I do, as I am able to answer the question ‘How does my phone work and who made this happen?’
There is a small group of men and women out there day and night working hard to ensure our communication infrastructure stays strong. Expanding coverage to reach more people is very satisfying. We keep people connected, this includes personal calls, work calls, and emergency calls to first responders, plus all the data that allows access to information and entertainment from just about anywhere.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served in the United States Army from 2006 to 2019 as a Forward Observer. Once I completed basic training at Fort Knox, I was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was a huge transition. I packed up and traveled across the country with my new wife, who was also pregnant with our first child. My specialties in Alaska were mountain warfare and artic warfare. I attended the Mountain Warfare School and trained as a Military Mountaineer.
I completed two tours in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. After completing active service in 2010, I join the Pennsylvania National Guard where I served until 2019.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I have so many stories, filled with lots of interesting characters. The first few weeks of basic training were extremely difficult both mentally and physically; it really pushes you to the limit. Most soldiers quickly realize they have joined an elite group. Everyone is different. While we come from all over the country and have unique backgrounds, we are all equal no matter what. We learn to care, help, and respect each other at all costs; this unity was amazing to see and feel. Service is about being proud of your differences and working together to do what we signed up to do as Americans.
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 have seen many examples of heroes, soldiers willingly putting their lives in direct danger to ensure their fellow comrades will survive; with some of those giving their lives. This is the ultimate sacrifice, to save someone else. It’s one thing to read about fallen soldiers in the news, it’s another to know them personally.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero is not always a member of the military. There are many examples of heroes across the world every day. I believe all heroes share three core characteristics: selfless service, moral values, and personal courage.
To me, selfless service is the willingness to help anyone with no gain possible — or sacrificing something for someone else. Having moral values means doing what is right for others no matter what happens. Sometimes doing what is right is the hardest thing to do when no one is looking; knowing that the right road may be the toughest and roughest ride. Personal courage is the ability to dig down deep, mustering heart and soul to find the ability to push harder, challenge yourself, and keep moving forward — no matter what and never quitting. You will not meet any heroes that decide to quit because the task was too hard. They find ways to overcome adversity on their own or with others to accomplish amazing tasks.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Absolutely! The military from day one prepares you for leadership. I have also attended several leadership academies to further my education. The leadership skills taught in the military are unique. We are taught to lead in favorable and adverse conditions, sometimes in the most extreme circumstances. Learning how to lead in these environments really conditions us to handle the most stressful situations in life and work. Leadership and business go hand in hand. Veterans bring a lot to the table in terms of civilian work, as they know how to work in hard situations and overcome incredible odds. Nothing is easy. Veterans can be great team members, super-efficient, and they take responsibility. I tap into my military experiences every day in my role as a manager at SAC.
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?
Upon arriving at my permanent unit in Alaska, I was young, nervous, and little overwhelmed from moving across the continent, being newly married, and having a child on the way with no family or support structure nearby. My new team leader had been in the Army for some time and had served in Iraq; his story upon arrival was similar to mine. He spent extra time with me that he didn’t have to, ensuring I stayed on the right path. He taught me how to handle life in this situation and work hard while never quitting. Just those first several weeks had a huge impact on my life. I witnessed firsthand what a true leader does. At SAC, I try to mentor new recruits whenever possible.
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?
I would define a crisis as anytime you are faced with adverse conditions, important choices, and foreseeable meaningful outcomes.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
The first task is to have a plan. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I don’t know any one person or business that has not experienced some type of crisis. Some crises are more extreme than others, but having plans helps you make tough decisions and helps lighten stress in the moment.
SAC has a business continuity unit that is often the first boots on the ground when natural disasters strike. Even the best designed tower or rooftop system can’t stand up to a direct strike from hurricane level winds, a tornado or wildfire. All we can do is get that site back online as soon as it is safe to do so. We have well-thought-out plans in place beforehand, so that when it’s time to act, we’re not making up our plan as we go. This includes having replacement gear, tools. bottled water, fuel, food provisions, and cash on hand for our crews, as restaurants, hotels and gas stations might not be back in operation when we arrive. This type of tactical thinking directly leverages my army experience.
I was a non-commissioned officer in the Army. Our main tasks were to train, care for soldier’s wellbeing, and accomplish the assigned mission. All business owners can follow this model. Train your staff for these crises, ensure employee wellbeing, and manage your business through the crisis to accomplish your goals.
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?
First step is to evaluate all available facts and perspectives and assess the risks. I learned a fantastic approach to all situations that I use in my daily life: the OODA Loop. The OODA Loop stands for: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It was created by Air Force Colonel John Boyd. This is a crucial decision-making cycle that can help identify where attention is needed and how to better understand a developing situation. I use this model all the time at SAC when unexpected issues arise in the field. In many ways, I am constantly prepared for unforeseeable events.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
The best characteristic to have is to NOT QUIT! No matter the level of difficulty: never give up. Continue to fight for what you believe and what needs to happen to survive the crisis. We cannot be scared of the possibility of failure. Instead we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other — no matter how big the steps.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I am a huge world history fan. I always look to the many prominent figures throughout the world for any valuable traits I can apply to different situations. In times of crisis, I usually look at two main figures: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Both gentlemen have a lot to offer from their handling of difficult situations. Both gentlemen were thrown into some of the biggest crises ever: a nation trying to gain independence and a civil war. Neither quit. Neither said, “This is too hard, so let’s not do it.” Neither gave up on their people.
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?
My largest setback was leaving the active service in 2010 and returning home. I was dealing with several personal mental health issues after a deployment to Iraq. I then had two young boys, and could not find employment to care for my family. It was an extremely stressful time. Without my wife and children, I am not sure if I could maintain focus on what I needed to do. My wife always kept telling me to keep moving forward. She said we will get through it and be stronger people for it. Luckily, I was able to find full-time employment while working part-time jobs. I also went to a local community college to ensure I kept putting myself in better and better situations every day. I never quit and was consistently moving forward, sometimes with baby steps. Eventually, I was able to reward my family and I with some success and stability. SAC welcomes veterans and is constantly recruiting discharged soldiers. They like the way we think — and they set us up for success. The Veterans ERG (Employee Resource Group) at SAC was started by a veteran to provide us with the resources, tools, and community we need to succeed in our new civilian roles.
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. (Answer can be found above)
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 want to inspire a movement that creates a positive culture for others both at the workplace and in their personal lives. The best thing about this world is that we are all different. Creating a culture where, at every level, we respect each other, care for each other, and can lean on one another when needed is great. It’s important to accept people for their strengths and weaknesses. When you have a diverse environment that is open and positive, it is amazing what people can accomplish. Camaraderie is an asset in times of crisis. We are given one chance at life. We have all made choices both right and wrong. Let’s not waste our short time on the negative when we can focus on the positive. Leave the world better than you found it. The individuals that follow this example will be set up for success.
At SAC, we have our core values of 100% Safe, Integrity, Customers First, Learn & Grow, and One Team. These concepts resonate with our teams and help us sustain positive culture where people can thrive.
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 love to meet with several people I admire to get their opinions and thoughts on different subjects. Sir Richard Branson for his entrepreneurship, Arnold Schwarzenegger for his work ethic and success, and Elon Musk for his vision.
How can our readers follow you online?
I use LinkedIn for business purposes, so I welcome readers to follow me there. I also encourage fellow veterans to follow SAC and the company’s leadership team, as they are always sharing job opportunities, useful advice, and thought leadership on a variety of interesting topics.
Here is SAC’s LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/sac-wireless/
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.