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Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “My biggest takeaway was to never shy away from personal responsibility.” with Eric Kirkhofer and Marco Dehry

There are innumerable ways that my military background helped me prepare for business. My biggest takeaway was to never shy away from personal responsibility. Own your actions and don’t blame others. We were a team on a ship and we relied on every person to pull their weight and do their job to the utmost […]


There are innumerable ways that my military background helped me prepare for business. My biggest takeaway was to never shy away from personal responsibility. Own your actions and don’t blame others. We were a team on a ship and we relied on every person to pull their weight and do their job to the utmost of their abilities. We provided training and encouragement, but when the time came to execute, we needed it done right.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Kirkhofer, chief financial officer at Bader Rutter. He is a former lieutenant of the U.S. Navy, serving from 1990 to 1997. His career includes working for companies such as Volvo Cars, General Electric and Kohl’s. Eric’s current role as chief financial officer at Bader Rutter involves being active in the day-to-day operations of a full-service advertising agency and working closely with the recruiting team to attract talent.


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

I grew up in the mountains of California in a small town called Lake Arrowhead. My parents both worked for the local county government and I have one younger brother. When I was in high school, I applied for and was accepted by the U.S. Navy for a Naval ROTC full-ride scholarship. This marked the beginning of my military career, fueling my passion for the military and military history.

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

I am currently the chief financial officer for Bader Rutter, an independent marketing agency that drives advertising campaigns and marketing for a wide range of clients. Even though we’re the largest independent agency in the state of Wisconsin, it hasn’t quelled our appetite for growth. We are also undergoing a reorganization of how we approach our clients and how we organize our client teams; our goal is to be more focused and responsive to each client’s unique needs in a rapidly changing market. We are more focused on technology and digital media. We’re also investing in our people by training more employees than ever in our company history. In my role, I have oversight for not just finance, but information technology, human resources and facilities.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was commissioned an ensign in the US Navy in May 1990. I was assigned to the USS WADSWORTH (FFG-9), an Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigate stationed in Southern California, just a couple hours from where I grew up. On board the WADSWORTH, I held a number of jobs, including electronics officer, main propulsion assistant and navigator. I studied political science at the University of California, Berkeley, before commissioning. My numerous jobs and studies taught me that training and discipline allow you to explore different paths. People who can absorb learning in multiple fields, whether through study or practice, are intellectual athletes and I strive to hire those types of learners. Following my tour on the WADSWORTH, I was assigned as an associate professor of naval science at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I taught navigation and advised NROTC midshipmen until I was honorably discharged in March 1997.

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

When I was stationed on the ship and we were heading to Hawaii, we got caught in the tail end of a hurricane. The waves were mammoth, crashing over the bridge at times (the bridge was 40 feet above the waterline of the ship, so these were big waves). These conditions continued for 2–3 days. Even with the rough conditions, the crew found ways to get by, stand their watches and maintain a positive attitude. We, as leaders, encouraged them to take an unplanned holiday since normal duties were impossible during the hurricane. They came up with all kinds of things to stay occupied and keep their minds off the storm. The takeaway is that even in the toughest times, take time to have fun and take things seriously, but not to the detriment of the team dynamic.

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.

I served with a Vietnam vet who earned the Navy Cross, the second-highest award behind the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his actions in Vietnam. We served on bridge watch crews together, often on our drug interdiction deployment. When I left the ship, he flew an American flag over the ship for a day and stenciled my name on it and presented it to me. I still have it today because it was so meaningful to me to receive such a gift from this war hero.

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

A hero is anyone who puts himself/herself at risk in the service of others, not for the reward of a heroic act. Often, being heroic is simply the result of being at a certain place at a certain time and being able to act in others’ interests.

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 think a person needs to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic. Heroism is about the willingness to go above and beyond even at risk to yourself.

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.)

1. No matter what, keep charging ahead — There are plenty of times when you can let little problems bog you down, but remember to keep your eye on the prize. In a big fleet inspection, we found a small fuel leak in one of the main fuel pumps, normally an instant fail. Before the inspectors got there, my team resolved the issue. Quick thinking and focusing on the end game allowed us to tackle the problem at hand.

2. You cannot change the past, only impact the future — During my first watch as officer of the deck (the watch officer in charge of the ship), we nearly ran over a small fleet of Japanese fishing boats at dawn in the fog and had to do some crazy maneuvers to avoid running one over. Thank goodness the captain happened to come up, gave me a few quick pointers and we were OK. When I went to apologize later, he said “It happens, what did you learn for next time?”

3. Make your days off count — At sea, we worked six days a week and only had Sundays off. Nice weather meant we had a “steel beach” picnic, where we set up a grill on the flight deck, ate hamburgers and hot dogs and drank soda (The Navy has a zero tolerance for beer on the ship). We also played volleyball with a ball tied to the net and taped up with duct tape. Best Sundays ever.

4. Don’t act like you’re saving lives when you’re not — Too many people in business overreact to little things. Keep your calm and press on. When we were in Pearl Harbor, a destroyer lost its steering pulling into the pier and almost collided with us. While this experience was a life or death situation, formatting errors on a PowerPoint is not. Always try to apply the appropriate level of heat to a situation.

5. React to reality, not to what you thought was going to happen — Business is a complex environment and we cannot predict all the factors that impact a situation. Too often people become too plan-centric and don’t realize the plan is no longer even an option. When we were pulling into Pearl Harbor one time, we missed a turn and were heading straight for Ford Island. I was on the radar watch and was calling out that we missed the turn. The bridge crew seemed to be focused on getting a fix versus just looking out the window, which would have clearly demonstrated that we were heading into trouble. We had to go full astern and almost ran aground.

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

There are innumerable ways that my military background helped me prepare for business. My biggest takeaway was to never shy away from personal responsibility. Own your actions and don’t blame others. We were a team on a ship and we relied on every person to pull their weight and do their job to the utmost of their abilities. We provided training and encouragement, but when the time came to execute, we needed it done right.

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?

While I was fortunate enough to not have any issues from my time in the Navy, I will share one struggle I had with adjusting to the post-military business world. In the military, young people are given amazing amounts of responsibility. Our captain was only 38 years old and we jokingly thought he was ancient. When you get in the business world, most companies are uncomfortable giving large amounts of authority and responsibility to young people. As an example, I had a team of 20-plus sailors I managed on the ship. Up until I was a C-level executive, the largest team I ever managed was about 15. Command and control are actually much heavier in corporate America than it is in the military

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

We are reorganizing our business to have focused client teams to better align our efforts with our customers’ needs. We hope this will lead to more satisfied clients and employees. The best thing is we are adopting an Agile work approach at the same time. This is huge for us as we are realizing the best way to approach work is to break projects into smaller increments with continuous feedback. If something is wrong, talk about it, pivot our efforts and continue forward. It really makes me think about that looking out the window and reacting to reality rule from above.

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

Hire smart, intellectual athletes, give them training and support, and then let them do their jobs. Resist the urge to fix problems and encourage problem-solving. Athletes will own the solution and the result will likely be better than you could have come up with on your own. The employees are on the battle lines, understanding the problems at a deeper level. I call this creating a vacuum between you and your direct reports. Resist the urge to fill that vacuum, instead wait for them to rise up to fill it. It is hard because things may take longer to solve, but the long-term results will be worth it.

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

Break the larger team into groups of smaller teams. Do not try to lead by command and control. Create the right environment, make sure the teams understand the larger objectives, establish communication practices and then let them go on their way. It’s called “Eyes on, hands off.” As a leader, be ready to pitch in if a team needs help, but help them solve things, don’t solve it for them.

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?

I am extremely grateful for Captain Charles Scott Johnson from the USS WADSWORTH, the man from my earlier story about the Japanese fishing fleet. He had seen so much and trusted us each to do our jobs and do them well. During our big fleet inspection for our engineering plant, he let us do what we needed to and keep him up to speed. We passed the inspection in the fastest time in our squadron. We achieved it because he set up a successful environment, versus having us follow strict orders and micromanage us.

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

I have been a leader in Boy Scouts of America and other youth organizations. I have always tried to remember the idea that you need to fail a little to learn. When kids are younger, the failures are small and less impactful in the grand scheme of life, but as they get older, the failures become broader, but the takeaways do too.

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

“The first casualty of any battle is the plan.” Overplanning can kill creativity and doom a project to death before it starts. Jump in there and start doing, plan a little and then react to reality. People like doing, not planning. Good today is better than perfect tomorrow.

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 love to have breakfast with former Army General Stanley McChrystal. I think he had some of the best leadership skills I have seen. His ability to create and foster an environment where his teams were able to have access to all information and act and manage independently, while still understanding how their actions fit into the grander strategy, was key to turning around the war in Iraq. He was comfortable leading from the front, but chose not to, instead pushing decisions and authority down in the organization so that those closest to the situation could act quickly and decisively and know the chain of command would support them. He also stuck to a vision, but not a plan. He reacted to the events in front of him to keep the ultimate goal in sight, not the steps in the plan. He modified the counter-insurgency task force he led from a hierarchical top-down organization to a team of teams. Innovation and independent thinking won the day, lessons that can be applied to every leader in a modern, complex world.

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

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