Eric Wyss: “Action not Reaction”

The mantra for our decision-making process was “Action not Reaction” because immediate but blind action may compound a crisis. — Eric Wyss 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 […]

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The mantra for our decision-making process was “Action not Reaction” because immediate but blind action may compound a crisis. — Eric Wyss

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 Eric Wyss.

Eric Wyss, MBA, CFP®, CTFA®, AEP®, CLU® is a director of financial planning and risk management for Heritage Financial Consultants, LLC. Eric provides thorough and innovative planning solutions for Heritage clients. His expertise ranges from meticulous analytics for cash flow sustainability to complex estate planning techniques for business owners and wealthy families. Eric earned an MBA from the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon University and a Bachelor degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He served as an officer in the Naval Nuclear Submarine force.

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 outside Knoxville, TN in a different era than parents today would recognize. Neighborhood doors were unlocked and kids on the block would play games with whatever toys, equipment or fields we had available — hours were never regimented and scheduled the way they are now. Most of my family had experience with some branch of the military, and I was always intrigued by submarine movies and shows. I favored math and science through school and those endeavors paved the way to a Navy ROTC scholarship at Georgia Tech and a subsequent career in the nuclear submarine force.

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

Today, I enjoy seeking challenges and making an impact on the lives of our clients at Heritage Financial Consultants through my work in financial planning and risk management. I use the skills developed in the service to help families preserve and grow their wealth for this generation and those to come. Providing a sense of security to individuals wracked by anxiety about complex financial situations tends to provide me with the highest level of personal satisfaction. Several years ago, I met a couple where the husband owned a lucrative but stressful business. The wife had clearly had enough of the stress, but the husband couldn’t see how to stop. We worked out a sale value that would allow them to retire, and they found a buyer toprovide a multiple of that number. Now they’re still married and much happier enjoying retirement!

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

As I mentioned earlier, most of the males in my family had served in various branches. For me, it started when I earned that Navy ROTC scholarship to Georgia Tech. After receiving my commission in 1989, the pipeline took me to Nuclear Power School and Prototype in Orlando and Charleston, respectively. My first submarine was the USS Memphis out of Norfolk, VA. I spent that junior officer tour with some of the best professionals I’ve ever met and we’re still friends to this day. I followed that duty with a shore tour in Hawaii as a Submarine Tactics instructor for two years. At that point, I’d decided to leave the service after my next tour. I landed on the USS Pintado as the Combat Systems Officer (affectionately known as “Weps”) and served until her decommissioning in the shipyard in 1997.

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

I can’t be specific, but I can say that when a very serious casualty event actually occurred, I was amazed at how professionally, successfully and matter-of-factly the entire crew responded. I attribute that reaction to constant realistic training and the types of people drawn to the submarine force.

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 don’t have a modern experience to share. However, every year the submarine force honors those submarines who have been lost at sea and are on Eternal Patrol. It’s hard to imagine the courage and fortitude the old submariners must have had. Boats from WWII could probably fit inside the vessels we make now. Their amenities were non-existent and their survival rates were sub-par. Every day they faced peril from the ocean and enemy and still proved instrumental in stemming the Japanese expansion during the war.

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

In general, I tend to see actions as heroic rather than specific individuals. I’ll modify this question slightly to reflect a vessel as one “heroic person.” The heroism of the WWII submarine crews: A sustained, ship-wide focus, by the captain and crew, on dangerous missions in a constant environment of adversity.

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

The answer is a resounding “yes!” The well-known cliché is “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” There probably isn’t a greater “training school” for that concept than the military. Every drill we ever practiced on the submarine involved at least one failed solution: a ruptured fire hose, a broken alarm, injured personnel blocking a path, etc. As a tactics instructor, I always ensured that the scenario developed in the trainer for submarine crews was substantially more difficult than the expected mission. I mentioned focus earlier and part of that concept is the ability to keep options available for completing the mission when the situation changes. We anticipate that the situation will change rather than assuming it won’t.

Furthermore, one of the constants in the military overall is change. Each subdivision of any branch is expected to perform at a high standard. However, staffing is in constant flux due to normal rotations, injuries, and emergencies. Because of this environment, bench strength is hard-wired into the culture of the US military. In top-performing units, each member knows that he or she has to step up in the event of a roster change or casualty. In every position I’ve held after I left the service, I always trained my team to understand the larger picture and continue moving forward if I’m not available.

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?

Although I’ve worked with many great professionals and had several outstanding teachers in my career, I’ll take the experience that my parents provided me. They constantly instilled a great sense of moral clarity and civic responsibility in my life. At the same time, they were very lenient when it came time to let me explore and earn my bumps and bruises. Instead of “helicopter parents,” I suppose you could say I was the helicopter child — coming in for fueling, servicing, and debriefing. I owe them everything.

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?

In the context of our current circumstances, I’ll constrain “crisis” to something an entire population faces (rather than an individual having a heart attack or a moral dilemma). In particular, a crisis is a widespread event that eliminates our normal routines for providing health, safety and financial security to our households. A pandemic poses an atypical threat because it can’t be overcome by physicality or extraordinary effort the way a hurricane or earthquake recovery could be.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, job losses became a crisis because the newly unemployed are trapped at home and can’t find another job or interview to recover lost income. The greatest economic powerhouse in the world, the United States, is driven by its consumers and every part of the spectrum has been disrupted from raw products to services. Financial markets have suffered accordingly as company earnings have been reduced.

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

Have a clear and first-hand understanding of the vulnerabilities and risks existing in your organization when you design a recovery strategy. Contingency plans have been drafted or created for most business or government entities, but the real question is whether or not those plans have been sufficiently vetted. A periodic spot check of phone communications doesn’t count as preparation. Individuals will rapidly figure out how to get in touch with their teams. The real question is, how do operations continue in the short time it takes to get everyone talking? What if the crisis doesn’t end in a couple of weeks?

Look no further than schools. Teachers and administrators are performing admirably now, but earlier preparation certainly could have reduced the stress they’re suffering now. I won’t argue that schools should have been perfectly prepared for a pandemic, but having at least one day per quarter taught remotely would have exposed most of the shortcomings in classroom interactions and given teachers some experience in that new world.

Nearly as important as having the written contingency plan, how are systems, servers, supplies, and material actually deployed in practice? A great action plan quickly unravels when equipment isn’t stowed properly, fire extinguishers aren’t in service, or electricity has been cut off for maintenance. Mark Twain allegedly said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” Constant inspections and audits represent part of the weekly military grind but couldn’t be more critical to disaster recovery.

Our national inventory of ventilators and respirators has come under scrutiny. We’ve planned for pandemics conceptually for decades — what equipment was actually ready for service? When called upon to stay home during COVID-19, do you have the supplies and capability to run your business and household under the same roof? What are the back-up sources of liquidity and access to capital during a financial crisis? Routine inventories and system checks for your home and business should be interwoven with your operations — particularly when many people are involved.

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?

Take a deep breath and separate the noise from the problem.We are constantly being interrupted and bombarded with “news” and “information.” The argument could be made that social media intentionally and dramatically increases false alarms for the sake of “clicks” and “likes.” Most of these “signals” aren’t critical to our families or professions but they drain energy and focus regardless. In a crisis, clear thinking can save lives and return a sense of control to your disrupted routine.

Each emergency drill on my submarine started with an intentionally distracting signal or contained spurious information that needed to be disregarded while solving the problem. For example, a radiation alarm might go off prior to a flooding drill to sow confusion for a damage control party. Determining the true priorities in a timely fashion conserves material and focuses effort where most needed. The mantra for our decision-making process was “Action not Reaction” because immediate but blind action may compound a crisis.

Once preliminary actions have been decided, communicate to the rest of the organization how the new model will work and what old procedures must be abandoned in the new system. The best leaders will ensure that the managers and key employees know exactly what to do next. Furthermore, there must be some level of adaptation when trusted advisors let you know that the “field” doesn’t match the drawing board.

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

Optimism, fortitude, communication skills and adaptability.

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

I’ll go with Winston Churchill during the outbreak of WWII. Defeat in France, evacuation at Dunkirk, and imminent invasion with limited supplies would constitute a grave crisis, but he never made any hint at negotiation or surrender.

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?

I don’t typically discuss it, but nearly 20 years ago I went through a very contentious divorce proceeding that included child custody. Up until that point, everything I ever touched in my life had “turned to gold,” and I took those outcomes for granted. My spouse at the time had substance and behavioral issues, but I always thought that they could be minimized or solved over the course of time. Instead, the problems worsened. My goals were safety and security, but hers were disruption and attention-seeking. Savings accounts were drained and abuse became violent at times. After two years of proceedings, the divorce was finalized.

That point was the first time that I realized some situations can’t be won or overcome, but need to be avoided entirely. From that painful lesson, I became much more empathetic for people than I ever was before. I believe I became a better person to others and certainly became much more knowledgeable about areas of risk and human behavior that I’d simply ignored previously.

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. Be clear-headed. The food, safety, and shelter foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is being disrupted. Everything not critical to those basic human needs should be set aside for the time being. Identify and nullify the biggest threats first. The movie “Apollo 13” comes to mind when one of the engineers informs the team that power usage in the spacecraft trumps everything else.
  2. Verification. Thinking that systems are in place or solutions have worked shouldn’t bring a wave of relief. Now is the time to actually verify that the biggest risks are really covered. Firefighters know that they have to sift through the rubble to ensure all sources of ignition are extinguished.
  3. Communication. In the absence of clear communications, your plans will fall apart or achieve limited success. Everyone should know what they must do and what they mustn’t do. Key leaders should also know what to report that could trigger further adaptation. Nobody communicated better than Churchill.
  4. Optimism. The situation is negative enough. Everyone needs to know that the crisis will be solved, and the organization will survive. Letting everyone know about the doubts and concerns you have to contemplate as a leader won’t help your situation. Be confident and your team can push through more effectively.
  5. Reflection. The “thriving” portion comes after the fact when some competitors didn’t pull through the crisis and others that did survive didn’t adopt best practices. Should your organization revert back to earlier operations with an updated contingency plan, or have your solutions under fire allowed you to change your business model and implement a permanent competitive advantage?

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 think I’d start with the education system. We’ve locked ourselves into a “machine” that may have worked when we had far fewer resources and opportunities to learn, but should be vastly different now. I think we tend to teach everyone in the same manner, but kids learn and absorb information in different ways. I was a good student but hated sitting still for long periods of time. Some pupils are just fine with that kind of environment.

Why does mastery of a subject need to be tied to a timeframe? If society determines trigonometry needs to be taught, why must it take two semesters and then rarely be covered again? Most of us can agree with exposing students to works of Shakespeare, but why push so hard that many end up hating the experience. I would say that most people who “hate math” weren’t taught effectively.

I certainly disagree with the excessive level of homework that modern school kids receive. I don’t know any families happy with the extra work, and I know plenty that face high stress with arguments and coercion to get it all done.

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.

At this stage of the lockdown, I would just be glad to interact with anyone in person again. It would be fascinating to talk with some of the oldest living submarine captains, though. Their wisdom would be invaluable.

How can our readers follow you online?

Lawrence Eric Wyss is a Registered Representative who supports registered associates of Heritage Financial Consultants, LLC who are registered representatives of Lincoln Financial Advisors. Securities and investment advisory services offered through Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp., a broker/dealer (Member SIPC) and registered funding advisor. Insurance offered through Lincoln affiliates and other fine companies. Heritage Financial Consultants, LLC is not an affiliate of Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp. CRN-3070991–050420

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