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Heroes Among Us: “To me, a hero is someone that puts himself at great risk or does something against his or her own interest for the sake of others.” with Alex Saric and Marco Dehry

I feel today we often celebrate people as heroes simply for doing the right thing, or sometimes even less, as when a sports start is called a hero for dying in an accident while competing for fame and fortune. I feel that loses the core essence. To me, a hero is someone that puts himself […]


I feel today we often celebrate people as heroes simply for doing the right thing, or sometimes even less, as when a sports start is called a hero for dying in an accident while competing for fame and fortune. I feel that loses the core essence. To me, a hero is someone that puts himself at great risk or does something against his or her own interest for the sake of others. Some element of sacrifice or likely sacrifice is essential. That can be an obvious scenario of a soldier risking his or her life for the success of the mission or to save another soldier, as in my military example from above. The Staff Sergeant ignored the policy which protected him for the sake of protecting a child.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Saric, CMO at Ivalua, a provider of Cloud-based Spend Management solutions. Alex Saric is the Chief Marketing Officer at Ivalua, a provider of Cloud-based Spend Management solutions. He has spent over 15 years of his career evangelizing Spend Management, shaping its evolution and working closely with hundreds of customers to support their Digital Transformation journeys. As CMO at Ivalua, Alex leads overall marketing strategy and thought leadership programs. Alex also spent 12 years at Ariba, first building and running the spend analytics business as General Manager. He then built and led Ariba’s international marketing team until successful acquisition by SAP, transitioning to lead business network marketing globally. Earlier, Alex was a founding member of Zeborg (acquired by Emptoris) where he developed vertical procurement applications. He began his career in the U.S. Cavalry, leading tank and scout platoons through 2 combat deployments. Alex holds a B.S. in Economics from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an international M.B.A. from INSEAD.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in New York City in the 70s and 80s. The city was very different then — I’d describe it as an urban wild West. While it was incredibly dangerous compared to today, I loved it and think I learned so much from my experiences. My parents divorced when I was 5 and my mother was working and finishing her degree so I had lots of time to plan my own activities. With all my friends being in walking distance and also mostly free to plan their own schedule after school or during holidays, we spent a lot of time roaming the streets and parks. I had different groups of friends and learned quickly how to get along with very different types of people. I also learned how to quickly assess a situation. That type of self-sufficiency has stuck with me ever since and I think is something that is lost in today’s overprotective world, where many parents seem to plan every minute of their children’s lives, leaving little room for self-sufficiency or responsibility.

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

Today I am Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Ivalua, a private technology company that creates cloud-based software to help companies maximize the value of their supply chains and spend. While not as noble a pursuit as military service, we actually provide many benefits to our customers and the global economy, empowering companies to eliminate paper by digitizing processes, effectively collaborate with their suppliers to improve relationships, innovate and much more. And Ivalua is quite unique in our space as it’s a very humble, straightforward company. Of course, we want new business but we are very straightforward in what we can and can’t do and hence nearly 100% of our customers stay with us year after year, which is very rare in the complex world of enterprise software.

While we work with hundreds of the world’s most admired brands, I’m especially excited about recent work we have been doing with all levels of government. There is so much inefficiency in government and so much pressure on budgets with growing entitlement spending, that we are really helping get more value for taxpayers and improving government services. For example, we helped the city of New York digitize their supplier registration process. What used to take over a year and consume 14 pounds of paper per supplier is now fully electronic and takes days. That helps the environment, suppliers and taxpayers.

After being commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Cavalry from West Point, I deployed to the division cavalry squadron for the 1st Armored Division, 1–1 Cavalry, in Germany, where I spent my 5-year active duty career leading tank and scout platoons and then as assistant squadron and brigade operations officer. While assigned, 1–1 Cavalry was the most deployed unit in the US Army to my knowledge and it was a great place to be. Most of the time I spent either in the field on training exercise or deployed, starting with my first week at my unit. We were the first NATO unit deployed to Bosnia when the conflict was still ongoing and I immediately deployed after arriving in Germany. My very first job is a great example of the type of challenge soldiers face. Upon deploying to Bosnia and being assigned to a tank platoon, my first job was to ensure the first democratic elections in Bosnia later that year were a success in the city of Srebrenik and the surrounding area. Here’s your platoon, here’s your mission, Good luck with that. There isn’t any class or training you can take that prepares you for that. Later I was assigned a scout platoon and various operations staff positions, including another tour in Bosnia so was able to see the changes brought about by our intervention, with women and families returning home. It was amazing to see the country that had been torn apart start to heal.

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

I’d say my most interesting story is around the mission in Bosnia I mentioned before, being responsible for the first elections in Bosnia proceeding successfully and peacefully in Srebrenik. Elections are complicated matters and many parties were involved. Besides being given my mission, I was introduced to various stakeholders, including local political leaders from the various warring sides, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and various security and NATO forces. The OSCE representatives seemed skeptical of military personnel and many of the locals hated us as they were winning the war when NATO intervened. So I basically had to collaborate with about as diverse a group as possible, some of which hated me from the start. My approach was to be quite open with everyone and treat everyone fairly but strictly. I took the OSCE reps with me on patrols, spent much of my time with locals and in the end, found everyone pulled together. It was a great example of how to bring a diverse group with very different perspectives and prejudices together to achieve a common objective. Ultimately, if you show people you are fair and competent, you’ll win them over.

I’m 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.

When one spends any real time in the military, especially in combat environments, it is hard not to have first-hand experience of heroism. One case I recall well took place when I was part of the IFOR mission, NATO’s first mission in Bosnia in 1995–1996. My unit, 1–1 Cavalry was the first NATO unit deployed in Bosnia, when still considered a war zone. The biggest threat at the time was the huge number of unmarked mines in the country. A staff sergeant in a different troop in my squadron was on a patrol when he came upon a mine. He marked it off and called in the mine for demolition, as was the process. But there were local children playing near the mine that were curious and not staying away. He tried to have engineers come sooner, but they were so backlogged that they could not come for some time, days if not weeks. He knew the odds were high that the mine would kill a child before then and he had some experience defusing mines so ignored the policy and attempted to disarm the mine himself. The mine exploded. Killing him.

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

I feel today we often celebrate people as heroes simply for doing the right thing, or sometimes even less, as when a sports start is called a hero for dying in an accident while competing for fame and fortune. I feel that loses the core essence. To me, a hero is someone that puts himself at great risk or does something against his or her own interest for the sake of others. Some element of sacrifice or likely sacrifice is essential. That can be an obvious scenario of a soldier risking his or her life for the success of the mission or to save another soldier, as in my military example from above. The Staff Sergeant ignored the policy which protected him for the sake of protecting a child.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No — heroism can be much more subtle than that. It can translate to less obvious cases, often in civilian life., as long as there is some aspect of sacrifice or potential sacrifice for the sake of what’s right. For example, a politician that sacrifices his/her own career by pushing through legislation that prevents a future crisis but is political suicide. Or a parent that gives up the career he/she always wanted because it would mean not being there for children. Heroism can take many forms.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Take care of your people. You have to actually care and take time out to coach your team, back them up, learn their career and personal goals and keep those in mind. Without your team backing you up, you won’t make it far. People may think that soldiers have no choice but to follow orders but don’t be fooled. There are ways of following orders so you can’t get in trouble and following orders to actually succeed. If soldiers don’t believe that their leader cares about them, you can be sure how they’ll follow orders. I recall a commander who clearly did not care about the troops. When we were at a critical point of evaluations, mysteriously units lost radio contact with him and stopped responding so he was in the dark and his evaluation reflected that.

Commander’s guidance is for business too. One of the most useful concepts in the U.S. Cavalry is commander’s guidance. Basically, everyone knows what the ultimate objective is and what they should do so even if contact is lost or chaos breaks out, individuals can continue contributing to the mission. This is key whenever you work with dispersed teams to keep everyone productive and contributing to success. And its critical to having an empowered team and avoiding micromanagement. As a scout, there were times when I or one of my section leaders was out of radio contact for key times of our mission, but I never had to worry that they weren’t working towards our objective.

Focus on results. In the military, in business and in life what matters most is results. Don’t get caught up focusing on tasks if they aren’t delivering the results you want. Set objectives for yourself and your team based on those results. You may need to change tactics, but if you set task-based objectives you’ll likely get caught up in them and change too late, if at all. Working hard and being busy is not enough. You must work smart, directing your energy the right way. Measure yourself and your team to that yardstick.

Perspective is everything. It is amazing how much our own happiness is driven by perspective. It seems to be human nature to take whatever we have for granted and always yearn for more. That has benefits in that we continue to improve and we should embrace that aspect and stay hungry. But when it comes to happiness, it can be dangerous. After spending many nights without sleep or sleeping in a pool of mud or freezing in an unheated metal vehicle on the coldest night of the year in Germany, my perspective changed permanently. Every day since those days I appreciate laying down in a comfortable bed at night, not freezing or sweating through my clothes. You have to keep striving to improve but still appreciate what you have. If you haven’t had a humbler experience early on, it is much harder to gain that perspective, but you have to try. I see far too many people these days that seem genuinely unhappy because they don’t have a fancy car or luxury house or $5000 handbag and to me that is a hugely negative result of lacking perspective.

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

Without a doubt, in so many ways. It gave me the right mindset to drive to results and not make excuses. It gave me a global perspective on different cultures, so critical in today’s global economy. It instilled a strong work ethic and attention to detail. And on a lighter note, I learned to sleep anywhere and on command, great for those redeye flights to business meetings. That’s just a sample. I could go on and on here. Fundamentally, I can’t imagine any experience that could have prepared me better, other than perhaps starting a company.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

I was fortunate to not have experienced first-hand any true horror, which always seemed to occur in another unit. As a result, my adjustment was much more straightforward than that of other veterans. It was more of the little things, like getting used to stepping on grass without scanning for mines, or sleeping without being set to jump awake at the slightest sound.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

I feel empowering a team to thrive, both in terms of meeting professional objectives and personally, is really straightforward, yet somehow good managers are so hard to find. The number one lesson in my opinion is to simply picture yourself on your team. How would you like to be managed? What would make you more effective? Fundamentally, when you have good people, I find they want a manager to keep them informed, give them sufficient guidance on what you expect them to accomplish and be there to help them when they run into a challenge they don’t know how to overcome. When they success, give them credit. When they fail, take responsibility. If you do that, good employees will thrive and the team will rally around you and your goals. It’s not complicated, but so rarely done. I feel a big reason is that too few managers truly care about their employees. If you care, you take the time to see their perspective and do the right things.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I’ve had the opportunity to manage teams ranging from a few people to 100, spread across the globe. In today’s highly global economy, that is increasingly the norm. I’ve found 1 core elements to being effective in managing such a team. First, you have to trust and empower your managers and employees to take initiative and be effective. Micro-management is a formula for failure, but for many hard to resist. It is better to have employees that feel empowered, with clear guidance on what needs to be accomplished and the freedom to execute without running to you for approval, than to prescribe exactly how things should be done. Even if your approach may be better, the end result will be worse. Second, you have to communicate. Often and clearly. I’ve found the size of a team and its physical distribution is irrelevant if you follow those 2 principles. Many people assume when you were an officer in the military that you dictated exactly how everything should be done, but that is very often not the case. As a cavalry officer, I virtually never saw anyone in my platoon when on a mission. Yet we were highly effective because of a core principle called commander’s guidance. Everyone knew just what the mission was and the constraints and operated effectively even when all communication was lost. The same concept applies to the corporate world.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I can’t claim to have ever brought about some major, wide-reaching goodness. But I like to think that I have contributed to a better world in a way that can be best replicated and scale. What I’ve always tried to do is make the small part of the world around me better bit by bit and day by day. As a manager of larger and larger teams and now an executive, a big part of that has been to take care of my employees, as well as partners, suppliers and anyone else I interact with. That means being honest and courteous with everyone I engage with. When it comes to my team, giving them the credit for good work and supporting them in their personal and career objectives such as pushing through an international relocation important to a great employee’s family. I try to use my political capital to push for my employees’, making a difference in their lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Absolutely — I’m a stickler for great quotes so great question! Probably my absolute favorite is one from Henry Ford that goes “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.” I love it because it makes you think and so crisply points out that so much of life is a mindset. The most successful people I know don’t debate endlessly about whether they can accomplish something. They commit to a goal as something that must be done and spend their energy figuring out how to best accomplish it. I’ve seen over and over how when you take the latter approach, you consistently succeed. And with the former, you rarely do. The military is a great place to ingrain that type of thinking. When you get a mission, you can’t debate it. Its irrelevant — that is your mission. You automatically focus on planning and rehearsing to achieve it.

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

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