Dr. Matt Poepsel of The Predictive Index: “Be prepared to maneuver”

Be prepared to maneuver. — The Marines practice a fluid form of combat known as maneuver warfare. Instead of favoring a large-scale, brute force approach, maneuver warfare emphasizes creating tactical opportunities, bold action, and initiative from leaders at every level. Playing it safe and hesitating can ironically be the risky play during a crisis. Rather than make large […]

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Be prepared to maneuver. — The Marines practice a fluid form of combat known as maneuver warfare. Instead of favoring a large-scale, brute force approach, maneuver warfare emphasizes creating tactical opportunities, bold action, and initiative from leaders at every level.

Playing it safe and hesitating can ironically be the risky play during a crisis. Rather than make large scale adjustments, however, favor actions that maintain flexibility in light of uncertainty. Just as Marines have a bias for action, lean into the crisis situation and be bold.

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 Dr. Matt Poepsel [pronounced “pep-sull”].

Matt is “The Godfather of Talent Optimization” and the Vice President of Partner Growth at The Predictive Index, the leading talent optimization platform. He has served in product and partner empowerment roles at The Predictive Index for the past 7 years. He holds a PhD in Psychology from Capella University and is a U.S. Marine and IRONMAN triathlon finisher.

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 Columbia, Missouri in the heart of the U.S. Midwest. I was a shy kid — bright but more interested in making my friends laugh than earning stellar grades. I enjoyed playing team sports, although neither the teams nor I were ever very good. From as early as the 5th grade, I distinctly remember dreaming of becoming a U.S. Marine. I wanted to prove something to myself and to the world, and I relished the thought of “earning the title”.

After a failed first attempt at college, I enlisted for a 6-year stint in the Marine Corps — much to the chagrin of my loving but concerned parents. When they flew to San Diego to attend my graduation from boot camp, I beamed with pride and satisfaction. I went on to earn other lofty titles — PhD, IRONMAN — but “Marine” changed the course of my life like no other.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

As the Vice President of Partner Growth, I provide our global team of talent optimization consultants with the tools and essential skills they need to serve our clients. These consultants help clients align people strategy with business strategy to optimize business results. As “The Godfather of Talent Optimization,” I serve as the chief architect of this new discipline. It’s my job to evolve the talent optimization framework in pursuit of our mission of Better Work, Better World.

The best part of my job today is the diverse set of activities I perform on a daily basis. On a given day, I may deliver an educational program to our consultants, collaborate with a client on best practices in implementing new people practices to support the bottom line and employee engagement, work alongside a cross-functional team on a critical initiative, and lead my own team as we build and test new solutions that make it easier for us to create value for consultants and their clients.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I’ve always had a love of languages. In grade school and high school, I studied French, Spanish, and German. In my brief time at college, I studied Russian. When I enlisted, I committed to 6 years of service to guarantee my Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) as a linguist. After boot camp, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California where I studied Arabic for 67 weeks. I won the Provost’s Award for academic excellence in the Arabic program.

Next, it was off to Cryptography training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas before my fleet assignment at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. I had chosen the Marines because they had the reputation of being the toughest among the service branches. When I arrived at 2nd Radio Battalion at Camp LeJeune, I again looked for the toughest assignment. That meant the Radio Reconnaissance Platoon and its small teams of intelligence assets who were trained as parachutists, amphibious specialists, and survivalists.

After my acceptance into the elite Radio Reconnaissance program and initial training, I was ready for my first overseas deployment as part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. I was attached to the U.S.S. Inchon, and we headed to Mogadishu, Somalia in support of Operation Restore Hope. I later served on a deployment on the U.S.S Trenton off the coast of Haiti and the U.S.S. Kearsarge on various missions throughout the Mediterranean Sea.

I spent my last year in the service training other Marines to fulfill their duties as a part of the Radio Reconnaissance Platoon. My bride is also a Marine linguist, and we separated from the Marine Corps within one month of one another. We are proud to be a part of that lineage and to have had the opportunity to serve our country.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Early in my Recon training, I was sent to Brunswick, Maine. The U.S. Navy operates a training facility there that simulates a prisoner of war camp through its SERE School which stands for Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape. After spending several days learning survival skills and practicing how to evade would-be captors, all students are processed as “war criminals”.

After hours of confinement and interrogation, the training exercise thankfully ends. While the experience itself was memorable, it’s the debrief that I will never forget. At the end of the role-playing scenario, the instructors come out of their captor characters and gave us performance evaluations. My instructor reviewed my results, and he suggested that my behavior was similar to that of many young enlisted Marines. I didn’t give away any critical information, but I was too compliant when given orders by my captors. In certain situations, I should learn to push back and “price tag” my compliance. I found that observation to be accurate and the unexpected advice fascinating.

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.

While I was attached to the U.S.S. Kearsarge off the coast of the former Yugoslavia in June 1995, Air Force pilot Captain Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia and Herzegovina. For six days, he employed his own SERE training to evade real-life captors.

After making radio contact with the downed pilot, a rescue mission was ordered. Two helicopters laden with heavily armed Marines landed in hostile territory, setup a perimeter, collected Captain O’Grady, and flew back toward the ship. They came under enemy fire, but they touched down safely on the deck of the Kearsarge. Captain O’Grady looked bedraggled, but he was alive thanks to his courage, his training, and his instincts.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

For me, a hero can’t control the circumstances, only their mindset, decisions, and actions in the moment. Captain O’Grady was executing his orders and doing his job when his circumstances changed dramatically and in an instant. His dedication to serving his country had put him in a precarious situation, but he didn’t have the luxury to second-guess or complain. He took swift and decisive action, and he survived his ordeal minute-by-minute.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

My experience in the U.S. Marine Corps prepared me for leadership in many ways. The Marines emphasize foundational leadership traits and principles that have continued to serve me well in civilian life. This includes such traits such as integrity, endurance, and tact translated to leadership success. The same is true for principles such as “aim for the 70% solution” and “train your Marines as a team”. I’ve done my best to carry over these practices in the business world, and I’ve been very pleased with the results.

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?

Nancy Martini is the former CEO of The Predictive Index. Beyond being the strongest salesperson I’ve ever met, she gave me the opportunity to meld my work and my passion for harnessing the power of psychology, technology, and business building to serve others in a scalable way. She recognized my enthusiasm and potential. and she opened a door for me for which I will always be grateful.

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?

To me, a crisis is the acute arrival of a potentially negative outcome. A crisis situation — such as a public relations disaster, a hostage situation, or a rapidly escalating pandemic — are most often unexpected and require immediate action. A crisis is also high stakes. The consequences of inaction or improper action are dire. This potent combination defines a crisis.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

It’s important to develop and maintain a proper mindset. Even during periods of prosperity, leaders need to remember that adversity is inevitable. The key is to remain flexible. When adversity strikes, a flexible leader is more easily able to accept the new operating reality and adjust.

During a crisis, leaders need to shorten planning and response cycles. They should focus on removing friction in the flow of information up and down the organization. Leaders need to broadcast confidence and reality while pushing decision-making as close to the action as possible. Misalignment, a lack of confidence, and indecisiveness tend to exacerbate challenges during a crisis response.

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?

Slow down to speed up. During a crisis, a reactionary response may feel right but turn out wrong. Special forces teams have a saying, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. This is good leadership advice during a crisis. Pause long enough to properly acknowledge the situation, gather a baseline of intelligence information, and develop and execute an initial response plan — one that bridges you to your next opportunity to re-assess and adjust.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Temperament, self-discipline, empathy, endurance, and critical thinking are all essential leadership traits during a time of crisis.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Kevin McKay was a Ponderosa Elementary School bus driver who rushed 22 students to safety when wildfires swept through Paradise, California in 2018. As smoke filled the bus, he and the students began to sputter and cough. He tore off his t-shirt, and two teachers on the bus ripped it into pieces, soaked the rags, and distributed them to Kevin and the terrified passengers.

Over five hours, McKay drove more than 30 miles to get those schoolchildren to safety. Throughout the ordeal, he kept his composure, stayed mindful about the welfare of his passengers, and focused on the result — getting everyone to safety. Even more amazing was the fact that McKay performed these duties after learning that his own home had burned to the ground. That type of selflessness and leadership when things are at their worst is inspiring.

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?

After I finished my doctoral program, I launched a technology software startup. We built a coaching platform that was designed to help managers foster better personal relationships with their direct reports and coach their teams to higher levels of performance and productivity by using research-based exercises. There was a lot of interest in the concept, but I wasn’t able to fully capitalize the business, and I had to shut it down.

I was heartbroken. I had set out to create better working conditions for so many employees by taking human-intensive coaching methods and using technology to make them work at scale. As the primary breadwinner for a family of five, I didn’t have time to dwell on what might have been. I needed to find gainful employment — fast.

I had the opportunity to return to my prior high tech software life. I still had many contacts in the industry and jobs were plentiful. At the same time, I felt this would be a step backward and a departure from my passion and deeply held values. I committed myself to do the hard work of securing a role that was directly congruent with my values of service, innovation, and professional development.

My resolve paid off, and I have loved working at The Predictive Index company for every bit of the 7+ years I have been here since Nancy Martini offered me a lifeline.

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.

1. “Make ready.”

Every Marine — regardless of their job function — is trained to be proficient with a rifle. On the rifle range, a command of “make ready” signals a shift from relative weapons safety to impending action — that moment just prior to engaging a target.

When a crisis arises, you need to make a mental shift and prepare for a situation that is about to become very intense very quickly. This is a time to put yourself into a competitive mindset.

2. Cut down planning cycles.

The Marines have developed a Rapid Response Planning Process which is an abbreviated yet highly effective method of gathering the right people and information, engaging in consideration and debate, and issuing the final order. Every hour counts, and this accelerated process allows the Marines to conduct an operation nearly anywhere in the world in a matter of days and hours rather than months and weeks.

During a crisis, you will not have sufficient time nor information to be comfortable. You will have to cast your annual and quarterly plans aside — they are likely outdated now. You may find that even daily plans are insufficient to match a rapidly evolving situation or landscape in the grip of a crisis situation.

3. Be prepared to maneuver.

The Marines practice a fluid form of combat known as maneuver warfare. Instead of favoring a large-scale, brute force approach, maneuver warfare emphasizes creating tactical opportunities, bold action, and initiative from leaders at every level.

Playing it safe and hesitating can ironically be the risky play during a crisis. Rather than make large scale adjustments, however, favor actions that maintain flexibility in light of uncertainty. Just as Marines have a bias for action, lean into the crisis situation and be bold.

4. Stay close to your people.

A critical Marine Corps leadership principle is to “know your Marines and look out for their welfare”. While a commander will be taxed with planning, decision-making, and tactics during a crisis, they must also keep abreast of the mental and physical welfare of their team members.

Your own team members will respond differently over time during a crisis response. Understand their limits and take the initiative to inquire about how they are holding up under duress. Don’t let the technical and tactical demands of your station prevent you from keeping close to your people and doing what you can to ensure their welfare.

5. Practice self-care.

A Marine’s most lethal weapon is his or her mind. Crisis response is challenging even for the most experienced warriors. Marines recognize that none of us can remain on offense in perpetuity. At some point, it will be essential for you to fall back, rest, and recover before returning to the front lines.

During a crisis situation, it’s important to prioritize your mental health and self-care. There’s a saying, “I’ll take care of me for you; You take care of you for me.” This is even more critical during a crisis. Check in with yourself frequently, and don’t try to tough it out beyond your limit. Lead by example, and show others that it’s okay to take an afternoon or a day when they need it.

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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 inspire every manager to commit themselves to learning the craft of leadership. When I served in the Marine Corps, I was awash in leadership training. As a young adult, I thought this was how professional life worked. When I entered the civilian world, I was astonished at how little companies invest in leadership development. Managers spend more time on technical training and the “hard” aspects of their businesses instead.

Leaders need to take accountability for their own education and development. They need deliberate practice in order to improve over time. We spend so much of our adult lives at work. We need our leaders to be at their very best so that we can be at our best, and our organizations deserve leaders at every level.

I would inspire everyone in a position of authority to stop managing the business and start leading the people.

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 🙂

John C. Maxwell has spent decades learning and writing about leadership. He has influenced thousands of leaders who have in turn influenced countless followers. The positive impact he has manifested through his writing, speaking, and entrepreneurship is staggering. I would love to have the opportunity to learn from him just as he has learned from so many great leaders who went before him.

How can our readers follow you online?

I share leadership insights and tips on LinkedIn every day. If you want to develop your leadership mindset and abilities, follow me!

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

It was my sincere pleasure! If I can ever be of service in any way, please let me know.

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