…stand up for causes and people you believe in. When you know you have the right people on your team, part of being a good leader is demonstrating confidence in them. My aviation battalion was going through mobilization exercises at Fort Dix and had to qualify with our weapons. My unit had 300 soldiers that needed to qualify in one day. At 10 p.m., we had about 15 soldiers left to qualify. They each had failed twice already, and none of them wanted to try again. I sat with them and offered encouragement. I asked for one final try, promising we would go to the barracks after that. Seven more qualified. I kept my promise and dismissed my team, against the Range Operations Officer’s orders. I was reprimanded by my general the next morning, but I stood by my decision. Not only did we qualify approximately 95% of my unit, but the best infantry unit only qualified 67% their first day. We were by far the best unit to ever qualify that high in Fort Dix history. I was confident in my decision and my soldiers. Case in point: our unit, the Vandals, lost no one in battle.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing… Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Robert F. Vicci. Robert is a veteran of 34 years of service, both active duty and New Jersey Army National Guard, in the United States Army, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was commissioned from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1981 as an Infantry Officer and holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He is a vocal advocate for returning service members, military veterans and their families as the CEO of VetREST. He is also a Senior Vice President of Asset Services at Transwestern Commercial Services, a national commercial real estate services provider.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I had a truly wonderful childhood. I grew up in Cranford, New Jersey, as the second-oldest of four children. We were a very athletic and competitive family. My father was the captain of the Cranford High School football team, and my two brothers and I each upheld that mantle when we were on the team. My mother, the queen of our family, was the captain of the cheerleading squad, as was my younger sister. In addition to football, I played baseball, basketball and ran track, and I was named captain for each. When I was a senior in high school, I knew that I wanted to continue playing football after graduation and was courted by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I pride myself on working hard and following the lessons learned from my parents, so I was up for the challenge. As the fullback for the Army football team, I played with the greatest group of men that I have ever met. We played high-profile teams such as University of Notre Dame, University of Pittsburgh, Baylor University, Stanford University, and Pennsylvania State University. We didn’t have many winning seasons, but the lessons I learned on teamwork, dedication and loyalty remain with me today.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Currently, I am the Senior Vice President of Asset Services in the Northeast for Transwestern Commercial Services. Our team provides property management services for a diverse portfolio of commercial and industrial buildings throughout the Northeast. My goal is to grow the platform and increase the visibility of the first-class services that Transwestern brings to the marketplace. Throughout my career, I have been a senior project manager within the Empire State Building and at other trophy properties throughout the Eastern U.S. Combined with 34 years of military service and a combat tour in Iraq from 2004 through 2005, I assert a calm, planned approach to leadership, mentoring and completing projects. While in the military, I experienced gunfire, explosions, and aircraft fires. Those experiences have enabled me to maintain a calm demeanor and be prepared for any situation. As a leader and team member, I try to apply this wisdom and adapt to changing environments and dynamics.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
Upon graduating from West Point, I was offered the chance to attend helicopter flight school. I graduated top of my class and was first stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. At 23 years old, I was a Platoon Commander for D Troop 2/9 Cavalry, where I was in charge of 13 helicopters, 24 vehicles, training, 45 servicemen, and over $50 million worth of assets. While stationed in Savannah, my son and daughter were born. I left active duty after six years and joined the New Jersey Army National Guard, where I spent the next 26 years of my service. I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and took command of the 1–150th GSAB that I named the VANDALS (our call sign). I was fortunate to have the best group of men and women that our military has seen for Operation Iraqi Freedom 3 from November 2004 through November 2005. The proudest of my accomplishments was becoming a Blackhawk Helicopter Battalion Commander. In May 2009, I retired with a total of 34 years of service, and I continue to mentor and work with my successors, watching great young men and women carry on our legacy.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Never lose your ability to laugh, whether it be at yourself or something else. A little humor was especially necessary in the military. A week before I deployed, I took my senior staff to a comedy club in Princeton to lighten the mood. After the show I met the comedian, Joey Carroll. He mentioned that he performed for troops in combat zones, so we exchanged information and coordinated a show for the troops in Iraq. When that day came, I arranged for him to be brought to my base for coffee and a meet and greet. On the side, I also organized a practical joke. I had the Vandals crew chiefs secretly unbuckle Joey’s seat belt when they landed. While wearing a mask, I swung open the door and pulled him out of the Blackhawk. My joke did the job, but he recovered from the shock after a while and was still able to entertain the troops. He has become a life-long friend and mentor. He helps me when I do television and radio appearances in support of veterans. He counsels men and women though drug addiction. He is a genuine veteran supporter and a great man. You never know who your next hero and friend may be.
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.
Heroes are everyday people doing their job with passion, focus, and sometimes fearlessness. Mostly, they are ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. During battle when people’s mettle is tested, they are capable of executing unthinkable acts of heroism, and they are the humblest people you will ever meet. A few specific people come to mind when I think of who I would call a hero. Colonel Jack Jacobs, Dakota Meyers, and Flo Grohberg, for starters. One of my college classmates is now a Four-Star General. My best friend retired as a Two-Star General. My friend Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Robert Vaucher recently turned 100 years old. He was the lead pilot in a 525-plane formation that flew over the deck of the battleship USS Missouri that was anchored in Tokyo Bay as General Douglas MacArthur signed the peace treaty with the Japanese, ending World War II.
I met a recently retired Staff Sergeant, called Bandit 1, at Picatinny Arsenal who has been struggling with PTSD. As you mentioned at the beginning, I assist veterans struggling with PTSD to help stem the 22 suicides each day in our military community. Bandit 1 was a 21-year-old in Iraq when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, commonly known as an IED. All three of his teammates were killed. He brought home his comrades’ remains for proper burial. He risked his safety to ensure that no man or woman is ever left behind. He continued to serve through several more deployments, helping accomplish great things. I am blessed to know Bandit 1. To think that our men and women can survive these types of events reassures me that God is present and there to help on the darkest days.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
The people I’ve just discussed are my heroes, and they join my mother, father, brothers, sister and wife as heroes in my life. I especially consider my late mother to be a hero. My mom always supported me and was there to mentor, guide, lead and follow. She was my safety net. She has helped me throughout my life, and I continue to feel her spirit guide me every day.
I also consider the family members of all who serve and sacrifice to be heroes. And not only those who serve in combat but also everyday military and civilian life. Steven Siller gave his life during rescue efforts on 9/11. People like Steven, our military, and my family give their all for the good of the many and make difficult decisions rather than take the easy way out. They always give back to their community and people in need. That’s how I would define a hero.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Not at all. I have had the blessing to meet many people I would call heroes. They are people I admire for who they are and how they treat others. A few examples are Major General (Retired) George Garret, 42nd Infantry Division Commander, Brigadier General Ken Wondrack and Major General Maria Falca-Dodson. They share principles of discipline, compassion, and leading by example. They held us accountable and are accountable themselves. Another hero, my father, worked hard his entire life, but he always spent time with us. He taught us that hard work, loyalty, dignity and love will make us successful. They are the everyday heroes in my world.
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.)
Find the best people at what they do, and then let them do their jobs. While mobilizing at Fort Dix, New Jersey, we spent six months with the Vandals getting certified for combat operations. The active duty unit was skeptical of the National Guard’s skills, but we proved we were more than capable of handling tough situations. We trained hard, logged thousands of hours of flying, rehearsed everything, and had as much grit as anyone else. We went on to be the №1 unit that ever graduated from six months of grueling training at Fort Dix. I am proud to work with leaders at Transwestern who share this approach to leadership.
Always give your absolute best effort, regardless of what the task is. When I was on the Army football team, we played against the Pittsburgh Panthers, one of the best football teams of the era. We were outmanned in size and skill, but we were up to the challenge just the same. With 90 yards rushing, I had my best game ever. Pittsburgh still beat us soundly, but we kept our heads high and did the best we could. We left our hearts on the field, and this had so much to do with preparing us for life.
Be prepared for the worst and have a backup plan — or three. Practice those plans and make sure everyone knows their responsibilities. Then, execute every move with precision and accuracy. Afterward, debrief the entire team. Discuss what went well, what went wrong, and what you can do next time to improve. On a mission in Iraq in mid-2005, we were flying our Division Commander, a Major General, to a funeral ceremony in a region near the Iran border. We always flew with a complement of three Blackhawks, so no threat knew which aircraft carried him. As we approached one of our Forward Operating Bases, the runway was blown up from beneath us. If the explosion had been a mere 10 seconds later, we would have potentially lost the General, many senior staff officials, 42 other personnel and me, as well as our three Blackhawks with all our equipment. Our aircrews are the most highly trained and skilled professionals that one could ever meet. We executed our escape plan with precision, evaded the hostile fire, and flew to safety. We moved the General to an alternate Forward Operating Base and continued with a secondary mission.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. We all tend to gravitate toward people we perceive as similar to us, such as veterans leaning on other veterans, but loved ones and other civilians may have the answers we need. For example, my wife, Nanette, who has never served in the military, has stood by me as I navigated moments of transition, sleepless nights, overworking and being hyper sensitive. She has taken the time and patience to learn what the veteran community must deal with and offers nothing short of the best advice to families and friends of struggling veterans. When I had a speaking engagement at the Gold Star Mothers’ national convention in Austin, we met five women whose sons had taken their own lives. They were looking for answers that the military was not able to offer them. Nanette spent the next five hours learning about them. Together, we were able to offer enough assistance to bring them peace.
Lastly, stand up for causes and people you believe in. When you know you have the right people on your team, part of being a good leader is demonstrating confidence in them. My aviation battalion was going through mobilization exercises at Fort Dix and had to qualify with our weapons. My unit had 300 soldiers that needed to qualify in one day. At 10 p.m., we had about 15 soldiers left to qualify. They each had failed twice already, and none of them wanted to try again. I sat with them and offered encouragement. I asked for one final try, promising we would go to the barracks after that. Seven more qualified. I kept my promise and dismissed my team, against the Range Operations Officer’s orders. I was reprimanded by my general the next morning, but I stood by my decision. Not only did we qualify approximately 95% of my unit, but the best infantry unit only qualified 67% their first day. We were by far the best unit to ever qualify that high in Fort Dix history. I was confident in my decision and my soldiers. Case in point: our unit, the Vandals, lost no one in battle.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Absolutely. The military runs like a well-oiled machine, and I’ve transferred that streamlined approach to my role at Transwestern. My biggest takeaways that have impacted my career revolve around teamwork and preparation. I do my best to keep everyone informed on a project and prepare for any potential issues. In the military, we planned forward, backward, and sideways to analyze all potential risks. We do the same at Transwestern. We rehearse business pitches and safety drills, and we study previous projects to continuously improve. However, we don’t always have the luxury of time. This is where I rely on my team’s experience and skills, which is why it’s so important to make sure you have the best people for the job. We can work on an expedited timeline or with less than 100% of the information because of the experience of each of my team members. This knowledge is invaluable.
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?
This topic is one that is very close to my heart. As I mentioned, I was married and had two children before I deployed to Iraq. At the time, I was a Vice President for Trammell Crow. When I was mobilized, my civilian career was over. Being away from my family for 18 months was a struggle. My aviation team worked 18-hour days in preparation for the first National Guard mobilization since World War 1. When I returned from Iraq, I had no civilian job. I looked for months and finally landed a property management job three levels below my last position. I didn’t sleep well for two years and turned to alcohol as a vice. I retired from the military on May 31, 2009, and I lost my job the same day. My life took a dark turn at that point. I lost a house I was trying to buy, and, to complete the circle, my wife left me.
Then, my life started over. A dear friend of mine advised me to help others while helping myself. I started assisting struggling veterans. I regained focus and found another job. Fast forward to today, I am a Senior Vice President for Transwestern and very happily married. Giving back to my community and supporting those in need has always been a driving force in my life. I was able to turn that into a larger purpose to get my life back on track. I’m proud to say I still help veterans on a national scale.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am concentrating on expanding Transwestern’s property management portfolio in the Northeast. My team is working tirelessly to secure new assignments while ensuring that our current buildings are functioning well above standards. We have had some exciting successes recently, including the sale of 300 Kimball Drive in Parsippany, New Jersey. Transwestern oversaw the complete transformation of that property from a single-tenant building to a state-of-the-art, multitenant facility. We also oversaw a substantial capital improvement program at 170 and 180 Park Ave. in Florham Park, New Jersey, that has led to tremendous leasing activity. We are greatly looking forward to continuing this momentum to provide tenants with a productive, welcoming and healthy work environment.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be a servant leader. People gravitate to positive energy and those who are honest, loyal, and empathetic. Even though you should strive for perfection, understand that perfection is difficult to attain. Having a solid plan (and backup plan) will get you close. Lastly, respect the work/life balance of your team members. When people work hard day in and day out, they deserve to leave work at the office and enjoy time with their families. Make sure your team knows you support them in this regard.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Empower your team members to execute their role efficiently. At Transwestern, we provide our teams with every resource possible to be successful, including training, equipment and support. This frees managers from feeling like they need to get into the weeds of every issue, and it gives team members the confidence they need to move a project forward. Emphasize people’s strengths and support them where they need it.
None of us can 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 about that?
I have several key mentors in my life, both military and civilian. My greatest civilian mentor is a man named Michael McCurdy. He was my Trammell Crow leader for two years. He allowed me to execute, grow and learn from my mistakes. He was always available when I needed guidance and still is today. He wouldn’t give me all the answers, but he would help me think critically through an issue. I am forever grateful for his servant leadership.
I would also have to acknowledge my wife, Nanette. She has truly been the strongest influence in the most recent chapter of my life by helping me work through the emotional issues from my deployment. She makes sure that I am focused and on track every day. Everything she does is for our family, and she has truly been a blessing for the past 10 years. Our marriage is teamwork at its finest.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am the volunteer CEO of VetREST, a nonprofit that helps veterans, family members and all who wear or wore a uniform — including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical services, first responders, etc. It breaks my heart to see veterans and their family members struggle. Mostly, I connect the dots with other charitable organizations, and we work together on solutions. We try to provide for their basic needs, help them find employment, and support them as they work through emotional issues. All I ask in return is that they do the same for someone else.
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.
Everyone needs a purpose in life, and everyone has a talent. If we could identify that talent, we could let people feel needed and valued. In a war zone, everyone is important, regardless of rank. This is what can make the transition back to civilian life difficult for some veterans. They do not feel useful any more. Veterans, and everyone else, need a purpose to provide meaning in their life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have several phrases and quotes that are special to me. “Carpe diem” means seize the day. It reminds me that every day is a gift, so make it count. “It’s another great day in paradise” helps me view each day as paradise. After all, no one is shooting at me anymore. The call sign of my unit, “Vandals For Life,” is another. It reminds me of the hard work, diligence, skill, loyalty and dedication that is a testament to the 300 soldiers in my unit. Also, “duty, honor, country.” These three words are the foundation of the principles I live by. They span all boundaries and encompass all aspects of life. Lastly, “God Bless America,” the greatest nation in the world. I am proud to have fought for our freedom.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 if we tag them.
I would have loved to dine with President Reagan. He is one of my heroes, and he happened to hand me my diploma at my graduation from West Point. In keeping with a presidential theme, I would also enjoy sitting with President Trump, even though I have met him before. He embraces my love for America.
Alternately, I would like to sit with Tom Lawyer, President of Transwestern Commercial Services. I plan on being at Transwestern for many years to come, and I want to be the best I can be. Learning from the best would be a privilege and an inspiration.
Lastly, I have to include Zac Brown. He writes and plays some of the most heartfelt songs that I have ever heard, and he always honors veterans. I have dear friends who are singers and songwriters, and they have some material that embodies the spirit of veterans returning home. Nothing would make me prouder than to have Zac Brown hear those songs.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.