“Grit is the most critical life skill honed and developed while in the military that sets military veterans apart from the average corporate professionals” — Grace Park
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 Grace Park.
Grace is the Co-Founder & President of DocDoc, the world’s first patient intelligence company. Prior to DocDoc, Grace was the Managing Director at Medtronic, expanding the access of life-saving and enhancing medical devices to developing markets in Southeast Asia. For nearly a decade, Grace held various leadership roles in Fortune 500 pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the US, Africa, and Asia. Grace started her career as a Military Intelligence Officer after graduating from West Point with honors. Subsequently, Grace graduated with dual masters degrees from Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and arrived in Singapore 16 years ago on a Fulbright Fellowship.
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 born in a Korean American household in Los Angeles, California. Most of my childhood years were spent in a quiet suburban town called Federal Way, Washington before our family moved to Andover, Massachusetts. My parents, who had lived through the Korean War and moved to the US to give their children the opportunity for a better life, viewed general officers from West Point as their childhood heroes.
I first heard of West Point from my parents when they were trying to convince my younger brother to apply. It was my year to apply to college, and I believed that if the school was good enough for my brother, then it would be good enough for me to try.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Today, I am the co-founder of DocDoc, the world’s first patient intelligence company. The purpose of what DocDoc is today originates from a personal story of when my infant daughter was diagnosed with a rare liver condition. The surgeon who broke the news to us insisted that my husband and I admit her into the hospital immediately to do a major surgery. Our lives had forever changed at that moment.
We asked the doctor a few questions to feel more confident that we were passing our child to the right medical team. “How many times have you done a liver transplant? How much will it cost? Are your other patients thriving today post-transplant?” The doctor was not willing to give us guidance on his qualifications to perform the procedure. Instinctively, I contacted a close personal friend who was a doctor within the same hospital. We had done a medical mission together a few years prior, and I knew he would be our patient advocate. He walked us out of that room and helped us in our global search to find the right doctor for our baby daughter. Our chosen doctor was one of the pioneers of live liver transplants who had performed thousands of live liver transplants. Thanks to the expertise of this medical team, our daughter is thriving today. Surprisingly, despite having performed a higher volume of procedures, this team charged us 60% less than what was originally quoted to us by the initial team that had diagnosed the condition.
We realized that in healthcare, price and quality are not always correlated. Patients often lack sufficient information regarding the background of medical practitioners and are forced to make decisions in an information vacuum. As my husband and Co-Founder of DocDoc who donated his liver to our daughter was recovering in the ICU, we realized that what we needed to do at DocDoc is to empower patients with relevant and meaningful data points to make more informed decisions in their healthcare journey. We took up a challenge to change the status quo and provide the much needed transparency in the healthcare sector.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
It felt daunting to step foot at the United States Military Academy based on knowing that so many history books were written about the leaders who once studied there. As an Asian American female, I worked hard to fit in despite not looking the part. What kept me focused and to feel a sense of belonging was the mission statement. I resonated with the ideals of West Point: to develop as a leader of character.
As all West Point cadets are athletes, I chose Judo as my new sport and placed third nationally with All-American honors all four years. My achievements in judo led me to walk on the National Judo Team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before the Olympic Games in 1996. Other highlights of my military career include becoming the first female leader of a platoon in the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York, rappelling from helicopters and parachuting from planes to earn badges in the Army’s Air Assault School and Airborne School, leading a Joint Task Force mission on the Mexican border, and becoming the first cadet in West Point’s nearly 200 year history to undergo a semester exchange program at a foreign military academy — Saint Cyr, France. At that time, the French cadets were less accepting of women in the military and there were no exceptions in my case despite being from West Point. Nevertheless, I confidently demonstrated that women were physically capable. It was a test of resilience as I faced mental challenges in front of those who believed the military should be open to only males.
Following my years at Fort Drum, I soon volunteered to go to Korea for a year, which was a special experience given my Korean heritage. Working alongside Korean general officers to strengthen US-Korea relations, assessing North Korean capabilities, and testing the readiness of our joint forces were the main focus of my tour. Coming back stateside for my final year of service, I was selected to be a part of Task Force XXI at the Pentagon under Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, the highest-ranking Military Intelligence Officer. Our mission was to “Prepare the Military for the 21st Century.” In mid-1999, I completed my service as a Captain with an honorable discharge.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
While there are several interesting experiences throughout my years in the military, I will share one in which the outcome genuinely surprised me.
During my final duty station at the Pentagon, I was selected to join a special task force called Task Force XXI to specifically transform the Army, brainstorming innovative solutions on how we train, what we wear, how we were armed, how we are organized and much more based on imagining the enemy of the future. Scenarios such as if a hostage situation occurred in which terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center were played out. We planned what we would do and more importantly, how would we prevent these threats from ever happening. We invited hundreds of military and civilian experts around the world to convene in Washington D.C. to deliver a final recommendation to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We were proud of our work and believed that should the recommendations be approved, we would be in a strong place to embrace the technology shifts ahead of its curve.
Unfortunately, after completing my military service, I soon learned that the project was “shelved” due to budget constraints. The politicians had other priorities and so were not supportive. Two years later, 9/11 happened. While the world watched on in disbelief, I was a gasp. We had convened the brightest military and civilian strategists and tacticians to prepare for and prevent such an event. Yet, due to political reasons, the world witnessed in disbelief a significant blow to America as the world’s superpower.
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.
Everyday, I experienced heroism throughout the military. Pinpointing one soldier’s story means not highlighting many others that equally deserve the spotlight. The soldiers’ life is about dedicating to a purpose greater than themselves. Committing to a profession that consistently challenges one mentally and physically, prioritizes the organization’s needs and desires ahead of one’s own, and takes the one precious thing that is in limited supply — time — and usually away from loved ones, the everyday soldier and countless veterans who had served is who I believe should be celebrated as heroes.
In addition, the decision to be a soldier impacts the entire family. When orders come to transition to a different base every 12 to 24 months or to deploy into a war zone, spouses dutifully follow. Children too are greatly impacted by the frequent change of schools during their formative years and to patiently wait for their parent(s) to come back home after long deployments. The sacrifice of the military family is not insignificant. They don’t simply quit. If you ask soldiers or their families whether they see themselves as heroes, they will most likely say “no” because in their eyes, they are just doing their job.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
My definition of a “hero” is someone who believes in a mission far greater than himself or herself and does the right thing to make a significant and positive impact.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Yes. While many colleagues with no military background may have had a hard time translating my military experience into equivalent corporate roles, I found the military has prepared me for business in many ways, the most important factor being grit. Grit is the most critical life skill honed and developed while in the military that sets military veterans apart from the average corporate professionals. From numerous physical, mental, strategic and operational tests, we develop a high threshold for pain. We never give up easily. We “fight the good fight.”
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?
There have been so many supporters along the way from customers, colleagues, and investors to name a few. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my husband and co-founder of DocDoc, Cole Sirucek. He has been by my side every step of the way — during the highs and lows — in this journey so far. While being a husband and wife co-founding team might be uncommon, we have been able to work out a way for each of us to focus on individual areas of strength without much overlap.
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?
While the dictionary defines a crisis as a “time of intense difficulty or danger” or “when a difficult decision needs to be made” I liken a crisis as what my beloved and respected friend, mentor, and former professor, the late Warren Bennis, had coined as a “crucible experience.” This means a deeply challenging yet transformative experience in which a leader or manager may emerge stronger from it.
“trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, and hone their judgment.”
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
In the military, we went through multiple simulations of potential scenarios and debriefed after every training exercise so that the team and its leaders learn and are ready for any situation. Similarly, in the business world, we need to do the same by undergoing regular contingency planning to reduce risk. Having this mindset is typically a norm in the startup world as limited resources need to be optimally used. In general, however, leaders should think and plan through the 3 Ps:
- People — do you have the right people in the right roles or are you hanging on to any low performers?
- Product — are you focused on building the critical aspects of your product or diffused on several nice features to have?
- Process — is your process efficient and effective to deliver the product or service at the right time?
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 of all, as the leader, it is about calming the mind and not allowing fear to be your driver in decision making. Pause to take many deep breaths. Train your brain to believe that you are not in a fight or flight situation, which impacts your body and may lead to suboptimal decision making.
In a crisis, the character of the leader is revealed. It is an opportunity for the leader to rise to the occasion and to face adversity by truly demonstrating servant leadership. Employees look to the leader in moments of crisis and so “what’s next” should be to authentically communicate with the employees on the company’s plan on how to navigate through the crisis together.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Being able to control the fear and emotions to have clear thinking and continue to be guided by vision and mission of the company.
In a crisis, the true characteristics of a person comes out. In periods of abundance, it is easy to claim servant leadership as one’s style. It is tested during crisis situations. Those leaders with character will think of others before themselves.
Usually the crisis lasts a while. I think those who do not have a victim mentality outlast the crisis. Those who tackle the challenge and embrace the pain, move forward.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I do not think of one person but my classmates and graduates of West Point where our values are formed. The work of graduates is imbued by West Point’s mission to be “leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation…”
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 believe that pushing beyond boundaries throughout my life meant that I was typically the minority in the room and that rejections were aplenty. What has been a gift is that early on, I did not see rejection as setbacks but as challenges to overcome. I reframed it so I saw myself not a victim but a victor — these were opportunities to make me stronger and better, personally and professionally.
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.
- Take time for yourself doing an activity that rejuvenates and relaxes you. This might be exercise, prayer, and meditation, sleep, reading, etc.
- Go back to the basics if possible. This means to eat well, sleep well, and drink plenty of water to keep your mind clear and sharp to make important decisions.
- Communication is key….know that different people react to stress differently. Being empathetic to others and using language that connects rather than attacks will be useful.
- Perspective is interesting. See the problem in a different way — what are the silver linings? What good can come from the crisis because there may be opportunities to consider.
- Think about what you can do to help others.
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. 🙂
If we could spread the word on what DocDoc can do, we would be able to transform the status quo and rebuild the healthcare ecosystem to one that is more transparent. Covid-19 has exposed the great need to transform the healthcare industry. With greater transparency, patients would be able to make more informed decisions which would decrease overall healthcare costs, reduce anxiety, and lead to better healthcare outcomes.
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 🙂
It would be a dream to meet Tony Robbins and share with him what DocDoc does. He is a masterful communicator and strategist who would convey to the world that the status quo in healthcare based on the lack of transparency today is no longer acceptable. We cannot make decisions in information vacuums. Healthcare decisions are one of the most important decisions someone would make in their lifetime. It should not be left to chance.
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