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Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “In the military, mistakes get people killed. In our business, thankfully, there are very few real life-and-death decisions. But that doesn’t mean we get to think about it that way.”

An interview with Coby Pachmayr and Marco Dehry


In the military, mistakes get people killed. In our business, thankfully, there are very few real life-and-death decisions. But that doesn’t mean we get to think about it that way. Clients are the life of the company, and we can make a thousand clients happy, but one unhappy client can kill a business. Especially in today’s amplified social-media driven world.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Coby Pachmayr, entrepreneur and the founder and owner of IdeaSpring, LLC located in Phoenix, AZ. He is an expert at helping firms differentiate and compete in highly competitive, commoditized and regulated industries. While mostly focused on the professional services market, especially independent wealth management firms, he also spends time working with and coaching small businesses and startups looking to build and grow their brands.


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

With my childhood, that’s kind of complicated answer — in fact, that’s probably the best way to describe my childhood: “complicated.” Every person has a story and their own struggles, so I always hesitate to share too much of my backstory because I know there’s always someone who had it worse. But at the same time, I’ve also learned the value of sharing my story, because you never know who is going to be inspired by it, and I’m certainly proud of what I’ve overcome to get where I am at today.

In short, I’ve had to endure physical, mental and even sexual abuse as a child. I was placed in a foster home for a while, and spent most of childhood not knowing my father, or having a father figure in my life. And while my family “loved” me, I wouldn’t say that “encouraged” and “positive” were words that define my childhood. In fact, I actually thought I had a severe learning disability, and that I was “stupid” until I was a senior in high school. I thought people just weren’t telling me to my face because that would be rude.

It wasn’t until a high school friend had a serious heart-to-heart conversation with me, that also coincided with a couple of teachers who invested in me personally, that I even began to question whether my opinion of myself was accurate, and question whether in fact I was stupid at all. In some ways, that was a big part of why I went into the military right out of high school. My family was convinced I wouldn’t last a week, but I felt like I needed to test out my hypothesis that perhaps this whole time I might be “normal.”

While I had failed several courses and barely graduated from high school, once I entered the military, I discovered that I actually wasn’t stupid, but pretty smart — and I say that with all humility, given where I was coming from mentally.

In contrast to high school, the military offered me two years of rigorous technical training in electronics, electrical systems, hydraulics, air crew training, and more. And I continually graduated at the top of my class.

Fast forward to college, and I got virtually straight A’s, which was quite amazing considering that I considered a C a good grade in high school. I can’t say enough about the teachers who invested their time in me in high school and showed me that I could get A’s… it was a major turning point in my life. Those teachers remarked that I often did well on the tests, but my poor grades were reflected my lack of effort on the homework.

As I look back from adulthood, I believe my problem in high school was that I had lived under the persistent belief that I wasn’t any good. And I fully lived up to that belief. Now, in retrospect, I see that what plagued me was my belief that the effort wasn’t worth it. On top of that, as I’ve said often, there was a lot of punishment in my home, but there wasn’t much discipline. I wasn’t taught how to do the things that help us function under expectations. The military training and experience not only helped me with my own self-confidence, but with the much-needed discipline. There was also a teacher in my first class after bootcamp that spotted my potential, and was instrumental in encouraging me, helping steer me in the right direction.

But to be clear, for all the negative things that happened, I wouldn’t change a thing. Those experiences have shaped who I am today, and I’ve also learned that my past, and even my present, doesn’t have to define my tomorrow. So, while I’m proud that I’ve overcome a lot, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it now… I focus on what I’m going to do next.

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

Today, I run IdeaSpring, LLC, which is a business that my wife and I started shortly after getting married. In large part our business life and personal life have been completely intertwined, such that as our personal life has changed, our business has had to adapt. And as our business has needed to shift, our personal life has had to adapt.

We started out working with small businesses providing all the basic design services: website design, traditional print media design, logo design, etc. Over time, I started to realize that what I was passionate about was helping people grow their business and solve larger problems than just basic design and technology.

In an effort to expand our services, we used the initial services to get our foot in the door, hoping to expand our reach once inside. The problem was that whatever a client engaged us in, that was the bucket they kept us in. If we did their website, we were the “web folks”. If we redesigned and printed their marketing materials, we became “the printers.”

Skipping over a lot of details, at one point, our pendulum of service offerings had swung to the proposition, “hey, let us run your business.” Not surprisingly, starting as designers and later proposing that we run our clients’ businesses wasn’t a very successful approach.

I believe our journey brought us to find the right balance today. Using our technology, automation, design and business experience, we help companies with what they need — but we’re also much clearer about our approach and our goals up-front. Our business model now is really based around brand design and service design, and we’ve built several technical tools and processes that help our clients not just tell a better brand story, but also deliver a better brand experience for their clients.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

At the risk of establishing a pattern, I’d also describe my military background as “complicated.” I joined the military right out of high school in 1987, which was before the end of the Cold War. It was quite a different world back then. After my two years of various technical- and flight-related schools, I ended up in TACAMO, a top-secret squadron that has an incredible mission that continues to this day. When I served in TACAMO, it was common for people to take a break from the command by taking orders elsewhere. Because the training was so long, and the community was so tight-knit it was generally easy to get back to the squadron.

I chose to do exactly that at the end of my first enlistment, when my squadron relocated from Barbers Point, Hawaii to an Air Force base in Oklahoma. I wasn’t all that eager to leave Hawaii for land-locked Oklahoma, but I didn’t want to leave the squadron, and I didn’t want to leave the Navy. Because teachers had been so influential in my life, I decided I wanted to get orders for instructor duty somewhere else, figuring that I’d return to the squadron after my instructor duty.

My timing was poor. It was at about this time that the Cold War ended, budgets were cut, and the Navy went through its first-ever “draw down” — a reduction in force size. The net result was I couldn’t get new orders anywhere else, and the squadron had already filled all of the slots allocated to move to Oklahoma. So, I found myself suddenly “out” with no orders and living in Hawaii as a civilian doing a few “entrepreneurial” things, mainly so I could focus on scuba diving as much as possible. A couple of years later I moved back to my home state of California to start my professional life.

Fast forward again to age 34, and I had reconnected with several buddies still in the squadron that convinced me to try and come back to the squadron. Out of curiosity, I went down to the recruiter’s office and asked if it would even be possible to re-enlist, and what that might look like. Their response was, “Well, in three months you’ll be too old to find out.” I loved flying and being a part of the squadron so much; it had been so transformative in my life, and I had never wanted to leave. I had a mentor at the time that had really shaped my philosophy of living with no regrets — so after being out for twelve years, married, and self-employed at the time, I talked to my wife and we agreed that I should take a shot.

At age 34 I re-enlisted to try and get back to TACAMO. I didn’t have to return to bootcamp, but I did have to start almost completely over. I had to pursue special waivers to return to aircrew school, but in the end, those waivers were denied because I was “too old.” There was concern about my getting through the school at my age.

Ironically, I eventually ended up at a coastal warfare combat unit that had me working out daily for three years far more intensely than anything I would have temporarily experienced in aircrew. But this assignment also proved to be very fulfilling. The command was a brand-new startup designed to help protect against attacks like the USS Cole bombing. As we grew from just a handful of people, I was able to put my entrepreneurial, business, and technology skills learned in the commercial world to great use at the command. I believe things happen for a reason, and although it wasn’t what I expected, it felt great to contribute.

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

Well, in the military, and TACAMO is no exception, it is often said that the stories make the experience. In my case, the stories that I created and was a part of became a big part of my military experience. And I’d say my story of being in the military with a 12-year gap is one of the most interesting — and there were lots of take-aways from that experience.

First, I now understand why we recruit the youth… it’s because they’re young. It’s one thing to stay in the military for a 20-year career, it’s another thing altogether to go back in at age 34, almost 35. But it was a classic example of where there’s a will, there’s a way. I had to get back in shape, at the time I cold barely run a block, let alone complete the physical tests to get in. So I hired a personal trainer, and in 3-months got back in shape and ready for a second go at a military career.

The other big thing I learned was the difference in the military mindset before the end of the Cold War, versus a post 9/11 world. During the cold war era, the “war” wasn’t a location, it was a mindset. In other words, the key to winning was everyone doing their job, regardless of location. It was drilled into us that attention to detail was the how we won the daily battles — by being excellent at everything we did.

After 9/11, it seemed to me that the mindset had shifted to “the war” only being what was happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. In other words, the important war was only where the bullets were flying. And as a result, a lot of younger military personnel that I met didn’t feel like their desk job — or whatever they were doing that wasn’t where the action was — just wasn’t as important.

I’d summarize it this way. Before the end of the Cold War, the military mindset was more about being a part of something bigger than one’s self. It was a national and global cause. Post 9/11, what I experienced was that the military tried to become more “professional” (in their words), and it became much more of a job than a cause.

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.

This is the perfect question to illustrate the philosophy shift I experienced in the pre- versus post-9/11 military environment. With unprecedented coverage and visibility into the stories that happen in warfare, it’s easy to say heroism is defined by medal-of-honor type actions — actions like jumping on a grenade, single handedly fighting off an enemy attack, or whatever. And quite obviously those are heroic, by a long shot, and far exceed anything I ever had to experience in my military career.

But my mentality and philosophy, which was shaped so much by the Cold War era, also thinks about the everyday hero who does his or her job with such attention to detail, because that person understands how even their small part can have a big influence on outcomes. In the big scheme of things, the person ordering and shipping supplies to the soldier in the field is as important as the soldier in the field. Is one job more dangerous? Absolutely. Are both critical? Absolutely.

And personally, I believe the definition of heroes includes the military instructors and other military mentors that shaped all of us as persons — not only in our technical skills, but as we transitioned from young adults into responsible men and women. And of course, being married, I don’t think spouses get nearly enough credit for the sacrifices they make and there’s a lot of heroism in that too.

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

I’d consider a hero someone who simply does the right thing, at the right time, without any regard for what they get out of it; and that the only cause needed to spur action is the simple fact that it’s the right thing to do.

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

I don’t believe that people are born heroes, or that they need to be facing a life or death situation to be heroic. I believe heroes are defined by their willingness to do the right thing when it is needed.

People who jump on grenades to save their squad are clearly heroes, because we look at the act and realize how truly selfless it is. Heroes are often defined as disregarding any reward and even their own safety in order to help others. And we should absolutely sing their praises.

But I also think that people who invest in teaching, mentoring, and shaping young minds are heroes. And people who do the right thing for their clients, co-workers, or others regardless of what’s in it for them are also heroes — but they’re often the more “unsung” heroes.

Again, I’m not comparing the risk/reward in jumping on grenades with filling out paperwork — I just mean it’s the mindset of acting selflessly and with humility without regard to personal reward that is one of the common “hero” threads.

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.)

Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned in the military that have shaped me, and that probably consciously or sub-consciously drive my actions almost daily:

1. You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility.

In short, it’s okay to assign and delegate tasks. But ultimately, as a leader, you must take full responsibility for all the team’s activities. Taking responsibility means that when things go well, you give full credit to the team for their accomplishments. When it doesn’t go well, you take all the blame, and it’s your responsibility to ensure that the team is up to the task, and that they have the right training and resources to execute the task.

For example, as we outgrew our original bookkeeper, we hired a new accounting firm. Their slogan was, “Focus on your business, leave your accounting to us.” As someone who is good enough at accounting to loathe it as a daily grind, I was all too eager to leave our books fully in their care.

Unfortunately, the firm ultimately put someone on our account that was extremely incompetent, bordering on grossly negligent. That person made major mistakes that cost our business a lot of money, nearly putting us out of business.

And while I delegated the authority, I had failed in my management and oversight, and was responsible for hiring the firm. So when it came time to discuss the situation with investors and mentors, I had to take full responsibility — which meant not only solving the immediate problem but putting in corrective steps to avoid the same problem in the future.

On the flipside, the owner of the firm took an opposite approach. While she fired the incompetent employee (who apparently was doing the same things on other client’s books) she didn’t feel as though the issue was her responsibility to solve. Her only solution was to throw her employee under the bus, and request that we pay her to solve the problem.

Our company sees resolutions differently, and my military background influenced our company’s approach. Had it been our company, and we did something that impacted one of our clients, you better believe that we would not have eaten or slept until we solved the problem and had taken full responsibility and steps to ensure that we rebuilt the trust of the client.

We have a new accounting firm — coincidentally owned by a Marine veteran. But as great as she is, we put new steps in place to make sure that both she and we are protected. And it’s the same thing with managing a team member. It doesn’t mean you have to micro-manage or do their job for them… but it means having processes in place that protect the team member, the leader and the company.

2. The battlefield isn’t a place; it’s a mindset.

As someone who served on both sides of the Cold War timeline, one of the fundamental values is the importance of understanding that details matter. Every detail, every time. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the front lines, or processing paperwork at a desk, as we were trained and I still believe, the “war” is won by attention to detail. The ability to maintain that focus on the details comes from serving a purpose that’s greater than the individual or the individual task.

It’s hard to nail down a single story or example, because it’s much more of a philosophy that shapes almost everything we do.

It shapes the attention to detail that we put into every client production. As a brand development and marketing company, the technical and creative aspects of what we produce are certainly important. But equally important is every client experience at every touch point. We make sure that our invoicing and payment processing are incredibly clear, simple and most importantly accurate. We demonstrate our attention to detail in every little thing that we do for the client. Because when they understand that they can trust us with all the little things, it makes it easier for them to trust us with the big things.

3. Leadership is about leading, not rank.

When you have rank over junior personnel it’s easy to give orders. But it’s another thing to lead people by proving yourself worthy to lead. Working hard, having the technical knowledge, and integrity that’s unquestionable are some of the most important ways to demonstrate leadership by example.

I think as a small business owner it’s a lot easier for me to stay close to the ground with my team. I am not into micro-managing, and I like to give my employees and contractors a lot of leeway to apply their own technical and creative skills to a problem. The goal of course is to always hire someone that’s better than you in their skill areas.

But at the same time, I don’t stick my head in the sand… well, except maybe that one time with the accounting (and it won’t happen again)! So, I stay on top of my coding skills, creative design skills, copy writing, analytics, and all the aspects of the services we provide to our clients. My job is to look at the bigger picture of not only our client’s experience, but our client’s clients. There are times when I need to redirect how something is being done, and I think it’s important that the team respects my skills and understanding, and that I’m able to communicate clearly what’s needed and why.

Besides the team interaction, I think it’s also important that employees see how you interact with clients. Creating the right brand culture is critical. If you cut corners with customers, or aren’t working hard, then your employees are probably doing the same thing. Conversely, if you’re always going above-and-beyond, and taking care of doing the right thing for the sake of it being the right thing — then your employees are more likely to do the same.

4. “One ‘Aww-s***’ wipes out a thousand ‘atta boys’”

In other words, you might do a thousand things right. But screw up just once, and all the good things you did previously are worth nothing. That’s why it is so important to pay attention to the details. And of course, if something does go wrong, the next action needs to be the right thing… and most often, that means taking full responsibility for the situation and immediately correcting the problem.

In the military, mistakes get people killed. In our business, thankfully, there are very few real life-and-death decisions. But that doesn’t mean we get to think about it that way. Clients are the life of the company, and we can make a thousand clients happy, but one unhappy client can kill a business. Especially in today’s amplified social-media driven world.

From a leadership perspective, that’s the mentality that I try not only to instill in the team but demonstrate when interacting with clients. I will say that it’s definitely one area that I try to work on with both our clients and the team.

As a problem solver, it can be too easy to focus on pointing out the things that need fixing, and not enough time giving the accolades and praise for the things that are going right. Something I never really thought of until now, is that for leaders it may be important to view that as ratio — be sure that you’re giving out thousands of “atta way!-s” because people are human… and you want to make sure there’s something to offset those mistakes.

5. Toughness and endurance are more mental than physical.

One of the training commands in which I was stationed also supported a school for explosive ordinance and demolition. Navy Seals also attended this school and stayed in the same barracks. A couple of team members stayed in my same room, and it was the first time I had met anyone from the Navy Seals. I was really struck by how relatively small these two guys were, and they were encouraging me to try out for the Seals. One of the things they explained was how becoming a Seal was far more mental than physical. They said that the guys who depended on raw physical strength were often the first guys to drop out.

A few months later I was in Naval Aircrew training, and one of the tasks we had to complete was a jump off a high platform in full flight suit and gear into a pool, then swim a pretty good length under water to simulate having to swim under burning fuel. For some reason, I was having difficulty getting far enough under water. The instructor asked me what I was afraid of — and I thought “drowning” was a pretty good answer. But he explained to me that my body’s first reaction wouldn’t be to swallow water. He explained that if I continued to hold my breath, the worst thing that would happen is I would pass out, and they’d pull me from the water. It might seem odd, but it really helped. I trusted the instructor. If the worst thing that would happen is that I pass out, all I had to do was keep going until I passed out or made it to the finish line.

Taking these two lessons together, I’ve often approached difficult situations and challenges with that same mentality. I just need to keep going. I first try to understand what it is that I’m afraid of. Then having identified the fear, I can ask, “What’s the worst that can happen? And, can I live with that?”

There are times when the goal is so important that it makes sense to just keep going until we either “pass out” or “make it.” Our small business has faced, and survived many challenges, but we have survived because we just simply refused to give up and keep going.

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

Without a doubt, my military experience has prepared me for business. The discipline, mental toughness, leadership skills, self-confidence, and the willingness to not only go through difficult challenges, but learning how to lead others through tough challenges are all things I’ve learned from the military.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. 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 think after the first enlistment, when I found myself suddenly on the outside looking in, it was very tough for me. I had such a tight bond with my flight crew and loved flying so much that it was kind of crushing and surreal. One day I’m in and taking advantage of all the base and military privileges, and the next day I’m completely on the outside looking in.

After going back in 12 years later, I ended up being once again honorably discharged for the “needs of the Navy” during the Navy’s second-ever draw-down. But this time I was more than ready, and I was able to keep things in proper perspective.

I’m not sure that I did anything specific to adjust to civilian life, but I do know that it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity and military benefit possible. I used the GI Bill to pay for college and used VA benefits in the purchase of my home, and more. When you serve in the military — regardless of where or how you served — you sacrifice years of your life. I believe you should use the benefits to your fullest advantage.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Over the years we’ve developed a solid framework and set of tools for helping clients differentiate and grow their brands. We have done some training with clients to give them an understanding of our approach, but now we want to turn our framework into workshops and an online course that makes the information accessible to small business owners and startups.

It’s something I never thought I would do. In fact, in large part I didn’t want to do something like this because, frankly, there are a lot of people out there pitching their “magic solution” and I didn’t want our course to be lumped in with some of the offerings out there. This is much more about my passion for small businesses and finding that I really love teaching people about the things I’ve learned.

My hope is that we can find a way to go beyond just providing the information and training, but get small businesses and startups plugged in to other small agencies that follow the same principles and philosophies that we teach. Our vision therefore includes teaching other small agencies that can eventually help other small businesses.

There are a several things really driving the project ideas. First, I’ve discovered how much I really enjoy teaching. And because small businesses represent the largest number of jobs in the country, I believe that helping small businesses is one of the best ways to not only help individuals, but al the broader community.

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

One thing that I’ve learned over time is that leading, like many other worthwhile endeavors in life, is really about a lifelong journey, not a destination. It’s important to continue to learn and develop leadership skills. Even “natural” leaders can grow by learning.

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

When I was a regional IT manager for a national insurance company and started working with a larger team, a lesson I read in a book really stuck with me.

The gist was that the notion of treating every direct report equally may not actually be the best course of action, sort of in the sense of “loving all your kids equally.” We certainly treat everyone with respect and should treat them fairly.

But as leaders, when people start demanding your time, you must become more judicious in where you invest your time. Some investments provide a better return of investment, and we should spend our time where it will produce the best return. To be clear, that doesn’t just mean spending time only where it produces the most for the company — but where there is the most positive, holistic result.

For example, I tend to manage from a mentoring frame of reference. I am willing to pour myself into someone to try and help them grow personally and professionally however I can. But if I spend lots of time with someone who isn’t interested in making their own investment of time to learn, or more importantly apply what they learn, then it’s okay to dial back or even eliminate the time spent with that person. By eliminating that wasted time you have more time to invest in someone who is producing results, again, whether that growth is personally or professional.

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 about that?

There are so many people that have helped me along the way, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. As mentioned, I owe a lot of my success to teachers and mentors who had confidence in me and helped me develop confidence in myself.

This happened again when I first started working in the corporate world. A guy named Mike provided a lot of insight and taught me quite a bit about working in the corporate world.

Mike taught me the value of hiring people smarter than myself. He helped guide me with practical and tactical lessons for dealing with politics, difficult employees, difficult bosses, and more. Ironically, as influential as he was in helping me be successful in the large corporate environment, he equally helped me see that being entrepreneurial in a small business was more suited to me. So, in a lot of ways, I owe him as much for my success and confidence to leave the environment and pursue my own dreams.

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

The whole world? No. But I certainly try to bring goodness and success to the people that I meet within that world. I believe that everyone is created for a purpose, and that a big part of that purpose is to improve the lives of those we meet. For me personally, I have found that when my purpose, profession, and passion are all in alignment, that is when I feel the most fulfilled. So that philosophy is something that I’ve tried to bring to everyone I serve, whether that’s employees, clients, partners, or even just people that I meet.

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 love to find a way to create a movement of civility that could end the divisiveness that is so pervasive now. I feel like we’re losing the emotional understanding of why free speech, even hateful speech is so important to the freedom of our country, and freedom as individuals. Shutting down debate and dialogue simply because someone has a belief or opinion, we find offensive is scary and a big threat to our individual and national freedom.

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

“An opportunity is only an opportunity if you’re in a position to take advantage of it.” — Dick Davis.

I have sometimes struggled with what has felt like lost or missed opportunities. There have been personal and professional pursuits where I was stressed because I felt if I couldn’t move quickly enough, I was losing out on an opportunity. But many of the things I thought were opportunities really weren’t because I wasn’t in position to take advantage of it. So, it was never really an opportunity in the first place. That advice has made it a lot easier to let go of several decisions without regret because the opportunity wasn’t ours to begin with.

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 want to meet with Marcus Lemonis. I didn’t know who he was until I saw him speak at a Global Leadership Summit. Hearing him speak about his difficult childhood and how that has shaped who he is today really resonated with me, and lead me to watch his show, The Profit, where he helps small business owners try to turn around their business. At least from what is presented on the show, I really feel like we would connect since we share a lot of the same philosophies and approach to business and people. He’s the type of person that I’d shadow and work with for free if given the opportunity.

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

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