“Be thankful for what you have right now, and be joyful to move forward.” — Coy West
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 Coy West.
Coy is the CEO of Divining Point, LLC, a full-service marketing agency based out of Austin, TX. He has provided branding, marketing, and digital strategies for businesses across a wide variety of industry verticals since 1995. He is a US Navy veteran (1989–1992) who served with distinction in the Gulf War.
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 Richardson, TX, which is a suburb in the North Dallas area. My parents instilled in me the importance of hard work and a “do it yourself” mentality. We were not struggling like some families, but we were not exactly comfortable, either. Whenever I wanted something, like music lessons or any kind of extracurricular interests, my parents encouraged me to find ways to earn money to pay for it myself. If I was stuck mentally or having difficulties putting together a plan, the standard answer from my dad was “figure it out.” I learned to be self-reliant pretty quickly.
I left home at an early age to join the United States Navy and served four years on a Spruance Class Destroyer in the Pacific Ocean. After leaving the military, I moved to Austin, TX, where I studied Psychology at the University of Texas.
As I was paying my way through college, I held a position as a managing residential treatment counselor at a camp for Level 4 and Level 5 juvenile offenders. Through that experience I decided psychology wasn’t the right career path for me. This coincided with a burgeoning music career, which eventually led me to sales and marketing. The music industry is extremely competitive, and I learned how to market myself and others along with street marketing and event promotions.
From about 1995 to 2013 I worked at various marketing and advertising companies while promoting myself as a music producer and DJ. This mix of activities — all marketing in a sense — really informed me on how to effectively push campaigns to drive consumer spending behavior. The childhood mantra of “figure it out” guided me through this phase of my career. If I needed to do something for a client, I’d learn about it, experiment, and explore the results. I did a ton of reading and research to figure out how I could generate the results my clients needed, and then I’d try it out. With some success, I continued to grow and develop the skills I use today.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am the CEO of a full-service marketing firm in Austin, TX. We work across multiple industries, however, our value proposition is to provide high-quality service, measurable results, and develop a rich partnership with our clients to lead them to success. Many of our clients count on us to tackle tough challenges for them, and we work incredibly hard to steer them towards greater conversions and market share.
Maintaining a diverse portfolio of clients has allowed us to grow despite any volatility in the market. When one industry vertical experiences a shock, we are insulated from the natural fallout that occurs. It’s also allowed us to learn how industries interact with one another and develop better marketing strategies. For example, there are rich connections between the outdoor sports, travel, e-commerce, and hospitality industries. This positions us to build complex strategies for our customers in these industries.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1989. I entered boot camp at the age of 17 and trained as a Damage Controlman. The rating of Damage Control encompasses, as the name suggests, “controlling damage” that may impact the integrity of the ship. It involves stability, firefighting, fire prevention, and chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) warfare defense. There is also a heavy leadership and instructional component, as we were required to train and lead interdepartmental response teams in the methods of damage control, CBR defense, and how to repair damage control equipment and systems.
As a firefighter and damage controlman, I was thrust into a variety of situations where I had to use quick thinking, sound judgment, and persistence to find success. Damage control is a team effort, and each person is not only responsible for their own safety, but also for supporting every part of the emergency response unit. The margin for error is really small, so I had to be calm in the face of some really uncomfortable situations while helping others to achieve our objectives.
I quickly moved into a leadership role of an emergency response hub on the ship, called a “repair locker”, located in the core of the ship. If the center of the ship is irreparably damaged, it doesn’t bode well for the entire crew. There was a lot of weight on my shoulders to keep that section of the ship in good condition.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I received a few honors for performance, but perhaps my proudest accomplishment was earning DESRON 13 Sailor of the Quarter in 1992. This was shortly after the wind-down of the Persian Gulf War, and in my opinion there were plenty of sailors worthy of the distinction. I earned the award for being a leader of an interdepartmental maintenance and repair unit as a Third Class Petty Officer. The role was actually designated for a more senior person, a First Class or Chief, but I was placed in the position because of my organizational skills and ability to work with a wide variety of personalities.
Going back to “figure it out,” I was given pretty clear instructions that my position was temporary until they found a suitable replacement with the proper rank. I really poured myself into that role, because I wanted to hand it over to the next person in better shape than I found it. Putting this in context, I idolized the two sailors who managed the department before me, so I had some big boots to fill. I also had to manage people who were much older and far more experienced than I, and I learned how to inspire them despite my obvious youth and inexperience. My superiors enjoyed my performance so much, they kept me in place after I earned Second Class Petty Officer.
My takeaway was that if you have a plan and dedicate yourself to a goal, you can be successful despite your inexperience.
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.
You run across examples of heroes quite frequently in the military. They may not earn medals or receive any accolades for their service, but they give selflessly for the benefit of others or for the success of the mission. I was surrounded by hardworking people who, to me, exemplified heroism.
I met my ship in dry dock in Subic Bay, Philippines, where it was recovering from a major collision. I was not on board when this occurred, but I saw the damage first hand and worked closely with the individuals who were responsible for the damage control and navigation during this crisis.
The USS Kinkaid (DD-965) collided with a Panamanian freighter in the Strait of Malacca in the early morning hours. The ship nearly collided head-on with the freighter, but the quick thinking of the crew on the bridge steered the ship so that it hit the Kinkaid on the starboard side. This resulted in one death and fifteen casualties.
A major fire erupted, a berthing area was submerged in saltwater and fuel, and the teams on board mobilized quickly to stop the spread of the damage while attempting to rescue as many trapped sailors in the affected area. I consider it a miracle that there were not more casualties or extensive damage, given that many of the crew were bunked down in the berthing areas.
I certainly experienced some harrowing events as a damage controlman, but nothing compared to that collision. I didn’t know about the collision when I flew to meet my ship in the Philippines. I’ll never forget crossing the gangplank when I first arrived and seeing the boat sitting in the air with a massive area under construction where the damage occurred. I was thinking, “What the hell happened?”
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero is someone who courageously and mindfully faces incredibly difficult situations with the purpose of helping others. The circumstances may not be life-threatening, but a hero tackles a challenge that others cannot or will not do. I think heroes come in many different forms. Parents are heroes. First responders are definitely heroes. Great leaders are heroes. They are selfless, they approach the challenge with clear thinking, and they do everything possible to achieve success.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Definitely. I learned so much from working in close quarters with a diverse group of military personnel. I learned to be calm under pressure. I learned to think clearly and set an organized plan of action under stressful settings. I continue to draw on my past experiences in the military to help me be a better leader or servant to our clients.
There are simple things that seem odd to some people, habits that I learned from being in the military. Being punctual. Being prepared. Being respectful, even to people whose behavior doesn’t warrant mutual respect. Being unflappable in the face of unpleasant situations.
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’s a really tough one. Pinpointing one is really difficult, because there are so many people who have helped me along the way.
I am grateful to my dad, Michael West, who, in a caring way, gave me tough love to “figure it out” and “do it yourself.” He was trying to build me up and make me stronger and more self-reliant.
I am thankful for my grandfather, Donald Clark, who demonstrated a cheerful, humorous, and generous attitude even during the tough times. He lived through the Great Depression, and yet he exuded a joyful personality. I try to take that light-hearted spirit with everything I do. It makes me happier as a person even when things are pretty dark.
I give thanks to Chief Randy Christopherson, who challenged me at every turn in the Navy. He forced me to be smarter than my young emotions would allow at the time. I was pretty headstrong, like most young men, and he whipped me into shape. There were times when I didn’t like him very much, but I idolized the guy. I knew he was helping me become a better person.
I had a sales manager named Frank Heffern who was a very blunt person… I once asked how salespeople at the company generated leads. He tossed a phone book at me and told me, “Get to work, kid.” I was used to “dialing for dollars,” so his frankness — no pun intended — was one more case of “figure it out,” which really resonated with me.
All of these people taught me lessons that helped me along the way.
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 define a crisis as a stressful situation outside of one’s control that brings about unplanned and unwanted negative results.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Business owners should be prepared for setbacks. They will come. I firmly believe in being proactive, which involves a fair amount of planning. I tend to operate with a long term forecast of what might happen measured against my goals and objectives.
When making business decisions you have to think through multiple scenarios that could happen and then create a path to survive the most difficult situations. If you are a risk-taker, that’s great. There are high rewards that come from that, but you also stand to suffer negative fallout from factors outside of your control. If you have a clear plan to achieve your objectives, you can quickly adapt to challenges to get you back on track.
Hardly anyone was prepared for the COVID-19 crisis, and yet we made decisions as a company many years ago that have been somewhat fortuitous. Some of my colleagues thought those decisions were conservative or “slow growth”, but we are weathering the storm rather well all things considered. At the moment I’m at ease with what’s happening, and we continue to push forward without losing substantial ground.
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?
Calmly assess where you stand right now. Use an objective frame of mind to determine the nature of the crisis and how it impacts you. Engineer a solution to shore up your business while you continue to work on your goals. Don’t get emotional or discouraged, and definitely don’t get desperate.
I take the attitude that you can’t get upset about the things outside of your control. You are only responsible for those things you can change. I find this empowering, because if I don’t succumb to the pressure from things I can’t control, then I am emotionally in charge to take action.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Mindfulness, quick thinking, organization, and discipline to follow through on a plan. Being present in the moment and moving forward one step at a time no matter how difficult it may seem at first.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Marcus Aurelius. Many of the things I’ve listed today are principles of stoicism… perhaps a zen perspective on life. If you only look at the present moment and do it clearly, you can find a way to move forward. Aurelius was a Roman emperor who lived during a major plague, surrounded by death and ugly politics. He espoused the belief of doing the right virtuous thing as a method of moving forward. There’s a lot to love there.
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?
An interesting setback in my career was right about the time I was planning to launch my business. I was leaving a very lucrative position at an advertising company I really loved. Great team. Wonderful industry. It was tough to leave, and frankly, I was scared and somewhat doubtful. However, I knew I needed to do my own thing.
I’d planned my exit for a year and a half. I set myself up with enough business to comfortably leave the company. About three months before my exit, my wife told me she was expecting our child. I was nervous, of course, but she was an engineer working for a great company. I figured we’d be fine. However, she was laid off a week later. A more reasonable person would have slammed on the brakes and waited.
I spent a good two weeks thinking through what I should do. Should I immediately stop and wait for a safer time to launch, or should I keep pushing onward with the understanding that our household income would immediately shrink to about a fifth of what it was?
Once I got over the fear of the unknown and the discomfort we would experience, I resolved myself to stick to my plan. I’d be lying if I said the first year and a half were easy. It wasn’t. I sacrificed quite a bit during that time, but I’m way stronger now for having taken that approach.
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.
The first step is to ground yourself.
Take control of your emotions quickly. You hear these stories of people who get lost in the wilderness. Typically, the ones who survive are the ones who manage their fears and despair.
The second step is to take a good reading of the challenges you can control.
You have no control over the weather when you’re lost in the wilderness, but you can seek shelter — or make it. You can develop a plan to find your way back to a trail or make yourself conspicuous enough to be discovered by others. Putting this in a current business context, no one expected a pandemic to derail the economy. Yet, opportunities exist right now, and you can capitalize on them, even if you have to temporarily pivot.
The third step is to be disciplined.
Be dedicated to every step of your plan. Don’t just talk about the things you’re going to do. Do them.
Fourth, on a more emotional level, a positive spirit produces better health and clearer thinking.
Be thankful for what you have right now, and be joyful to move forward. This is much harder to do in practice, but if you allow your heart and mind to be soured by a crisis, it will be harder to succeed.
Fifth, on the relationship level, the people around you are experiencing their own stress, pain, and fear.
You can be an uplifting force to help them through a crisis. You can inspire people around you to follow your lead. You can guide them. You can calm them during the storm.
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’ve always enjoyed the Boy Scout slogan, “Do a good turn daily.” Find opportunities to help other people, even if it’s simply paying a sincere compliment to someone or taking joy in their success. Help people. Do something nice for a stranger. Say hello. Be friendly. An unsolicited act of kindness goes a long way to inspire people and help them through hard times. Do it with conviction.
I once went to a drive-through coffee shop, and the person in front of me paid for my ridiculously expensive coffee. I went ahead and paid for the person behind me who merely had a drip coffee. I kind of ended up with the better deal there, but I felt good that someone did that out of the kindness of their heart. I was having a horrible day. It immediately got better.
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 🙂
Mark Cuban. He has an incredibly interesting back story and a successful business career. He’s faced significant setbacks along the way and yet continues to find success. He’s pretty direct and frank, which I sincerely appreciate. I also think he’s wildly funny in his own way, so it would be a pretty entertaining meeting.
I’ve really enjoyed the advice he’s giving on LinkedIn for small business owners during this COVID-19 crisis. I’d love to hear more and see what we might be able to share with our clients, especially in the travel and hospitality industry, which has taken a real beating this year.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.