Get mad, then get over it. My team will tell you that I’m passionate about getting it right … the first time. When we drop the ball, fail to deliver the level of support or result that we’ve promised our clients, I get mad. When bureaucracy gets in the way of delivering world-class advice or service, I get mad. There’s a joke on our team: if it’s not getting done, threaten to have me give them (whoever is not being responsive) a call on the phone. My passion usually helps clarify the urgency and importance of the matter… But ten minutes later, it’s over. We fix it, it gets done, or occasionally for some good reason it can’t. At the end of the day, we’ve given it our best shot, learned a lesson and level-set expectations. It’s not personal. So let’s go back to work — and enjoy each other’s humanity and competency.
Asa part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rod Von Lipsey. Rod is a Managing Director at UBS Financial Services, Inc, where he is the senior member of the Private Wealth Management practice in Washington, DC. At UBS he has held key leadership positions, most recently as the Midwest Complex Director for the firm’s Private Wealth Management business, headquartered in Chicago. IL. Prior to UBS, Rod was a Vice President at Goldman, Sachs & Co.
His career in finance began after serving 20 years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. A “Top Gun” grad, former Marine fighter pilot, and combat veteran, Rod also served, during his military career, as Director, National Security Council; Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow; White House Fellow and Special Assistant for Foreign and Security Policy to the Chief of Staff to the President; and Senior Aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rod holds numerous securities industry registrations and has served as trustee and advisor for several domestic and international not-for-profit organizations. In 2011, Rod was selected by the National Association of Board Certified Advisory Practices (NABCAP) as one of the Washington, DC region’s “Top Advisors” for excellence in serving the needs of the investing public. In that same year and subsequently he has been recognized by Barron’s as one of America’s Top 1000 Financial Advisors and ranked among the top 10 advisors in Washington, DC.
Rod and his wife Alexia reside in the Massachusetts Avenue Heights area of Washington, DC and are the proud parents of three boys, all of whom attend Washington International School (WIS).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Iwas born in Philadelphia, the son of a teacher and policeman from a humble, working-class family. I have one older brother, and we came of age during a very different time in America: one framed by the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and riots in 1967 and ’68; a time personified by hippies and Black Panthers. And finally, one fueled by sex, drugs and rock ´n’ roll.
In retrospect, I thrived during those times by having been instilled with a strong sense of personal integrity and a deep intellectual curiosity. I wasn’t part of any one particular group, was never the “in-crowd” kind of kid; you could even say that I was a bit of a loner. But I somehow established adjacencies to all of those other groups. I learned to become the “inside” outsider.
I’ve always been intense; as a kid I worked on appearing low-key in order to seem non-threatening, at times even invisible. At one point I remember feeling like I had to fight my way to school and then fight my way back home again. Some affluent suburban schoolkids didn’t particularly like the colored boy up from the city; some of the neighborhood kids didn’t like the “Oreo” who wore uniforms and took a city bus out to the suburbs to go to school with rich white boys. Kids can be cruel.
Now, I wasn’t big or mean enough to fight everybody; so this was either going to make me a resentful and bruised introvert or a cheery and resourceful extrovert. Fortunately I chose the latter. I learned to “code switch” on many levels; I found a few strong allies in each camp. I thrived; but in the long run, the strategy denied me a credible claim to any one specific experience or allegiance — something which many of my peers seem to value so deeply and haunts me even today. But it gave me an amazingly rich set of experiences and understanding of different people, cultures, values and belief systems, and one which I treasure and utilize to this day.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Some might imagine think that my day job as a financial advisor is filled with providing tips on which stocks to buy and which to sell, or maybe trading individual stocks and bonds for a client’s account. That’s actually the least valuable use of my time and experience.
Wealth is complicated, and in many ways, problematic: there is rarely too much of it, and it seems to never be in the right place at the right time. So I like to say that my team and I, “we do complicated” and we solve problems for our clients, people of substantial wealth.
For example, we recently helped a family facing a partial sale of a private enterprise achieve their philanthropic intent as well as create additional post-tax wealth by structuring and executing a timely pre-transaction gift of closely held securities. Post-sale, we further helped the family structure efficient partnerships that will provide their grandchildren with an effective way to continue to co-invest alongside their parents and the founding grandparent. Complicated? You bet.
But charity, continuity and legacy — that was a great “trifecta” in my opinion! The family didn’t hire us based upon our record of buying or selling stocks. We did the complicated — and we solved some unique problems. And by saving or creating additional millions of dollars of current and future wealth, we earned the opportunity to advise the family on the investment of their wealth.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
For college, I had the honor of attending the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. I graduated in 1980 and took a commission in the US Marine Corps. I wanted to be an infantry officer, but the Corps had other plans for me; I went to Naval Flight School, earned my wings as a Naval Aviator, and spent a career as a Marine fighter pilot flying F-4 Phantoms and F/A-18 Hornets for most of the next 20 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I learned to have the courage to fail in the military. We all fail at some things; I’ve failed at a lot of things — mostly because I had the courage to try them in the first place.
Here’s an example. My squadron mates will tell you that I was never the best at dive-bombing accuracy. Once, as a young F-4 pilot I dropped a practice bomb so far off target at a range in Nevada that they scored it as a hit “in California”! But on the other side of that same coin …it was because I wasn’t afraid to try things out — wasn’t afraid to fail — that I had more than a few successes along the way. And because I took the time to reflect on, to understand and analyze the failures — I call it embracing failure when it occurs — these instances came fewer and farther between. So, even as a young pilot I was eventually sought after to help compete in and win bombing derby competitions. Later in combat missions during the first Gulf War, I won a Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a very successful and effective bombing mission into Iraq.
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.
Naval and Marine Corps’ history is filled with stories of valor and heroism. I am honored to have served with many heroes who saw combat in Vietnam through the Gulf War, and lost colleagues in places some Americans may have already forgotten: Beirut, Grenada, Mogadishu. But relative to the inordinate amount of warfare the current generation of American fighting men and women have experienced, I’ve had very little combat experience.
Although I’ve witnessed lots of heroism, it isn’t an attribute; it’s decisive action. It’s not a Hollywood-esque gesture of self-sacrifice. It’s purely a response to dire circumstances: a colleague-in-arms needs help and you’re in the place and time to give it. So you act; you respond with whatever means are available to you at that moment. The question, “Is it dangerous?” isn’t even a consideration.
We are trained to be dangerous, to run to the sound of the guns, not to turn away. And so acts of heroism happen when a soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman or Marine instinctively take action to aid colleagues-in-arms that are in peril. Read any one of the more than 3500 Medal of Honor award citations and you’ll find someone who became a hero because their reflex was to take action — and they did so decisively.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
I think that heroism often has more to do with the situation of the beneficiary of decisive action.
Before he became a policeman, my father was a rookie firefighter: I’ll never forget his story of being sucked into the basement of a burning warehouse, hanging onto a firehose for dear life, staying conscious by putting his face in the water stream while his buddies pulled him back out. Who’s the hero in that story? Is the firefighter who goes into a burning building to put out the fire a hero? No, that’s their job. But when they discover someone in grave danger and take decisive action to save a life — that’s heroism. Rushing into the World Trade Center tower inferno to save people is heroism. Dying because of it is tragedy. We sometimes mistake one for the other. It’s the action, not the price that defines heroism.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”?
I had the great honor to work for General Colin Powell while he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have deep admiration and appreciation for him — and wouldn’t try to replicate his brilliant “13 Rules”. But here are three that resonate with my experience, plus another two that I will add. Let’s start with the Generals:
– #1 Get mad, then get over it. My team will tell you that I’m passionate about getting it right … the first time. When we drop the ball, fail to deliver the level of support or result that we’ve promised our clients, I get mad. When bureaucracy gets in the way of delivering world-class advice or service, I get mad. There’s a joke on our team: if it’s not getting done, threaten to have me give them (whoever is not being responsive) a call on the phone. My passion usually helps clarify the urgency and importance of the matter… But ten minutes later, it’s over. We fix it, it gets done, or occasionally for some good reason it can’t. At the end of the day, we’ve given it our best shot, learned a lesson and level-set expectations. It’s not personal. So let’s go back to work — and enjoy each other’s humanity and competency.
– # 2 Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it. That’s a favorite of mine. In the military, almost everyone “fails” to get some next promotion at some point. And in business, someone is going to be smarter, faster to market, more successful, have better luck. So by definition, a position of leadership is impermanent. And the less you understand that the harder you’ll fall when the time comes. This is the Colin Powell rule that really reinforced for me the concept of having the courage to fail. We’re all going to, so check your ego at the door.
– # 3 Check small things. I think that I’ve been successful in two careers because I never lost sight of the small things. Often to the chagrin of a young Marine, I took time to understand the details. But in addition to checking — by having respect and diligence for the small things that they did to make sure that my aircraft was ready to fly, or a system was operable, or that a weapon would fuse — I probably achieved more aviation success than raw skill or talent could have produced. I fondly remember an Air Force Technical Sergeant on the Nellis AFB Visiting Aircraft Line looking on in amazement one frigid Sunday morning (eventually drawing a small crowd of USAF maintainers) as I — then a young Marine Corps pilot — hauled over a nitrogen cart, borrowed some tools, opened the equipment bays and serviced my aircraft nose gear strut and emergency brake systems to get my plane safe again to launch. Or the Navy Carrier Air Group squadron commanders listening skeptically (at first) to a young, brown Marine captain mission commander explain how his planned combination of frequency-skipping anti-radiation missiles and deployment of tactical air-launched decoys would deceive, deny and defeat the Iraqi air defense system during the first wave of Operation Desert Storm. Checking — and knowing — the small things kept me mission-effective and, I believe, contributed the most to my success as an aviator.
Now, here are two more of my own:
– Fail fast. I’ve already talked about having the courage to fail. But while you’re at it, don’t waste everyone’s time. When it’s not working, pull the plug. Several years ago I moved my whole family out of Washington, DC to take on a leadership role in the Midwest for my firm. We loved living in Chicago, had great neighbors, settled our kids into great schools; but I wasn’t the right guy for the role. Sure, there could have been things done better on all sides of the situation, but at the end of the day it wasn’t going to be work — so I pulled the plug. Was my ego bruised (see Colin Powell rule #3 above)? A bit. But in the end, it became another example of achieving greater success from embracing and learning from the key elements of the failure.
– Thank the troops. We sometimes take too much credit for our own successes. It’s a team effort. The “Top Gun” goes nowhere if the aircraft’s engines aren’t tuned to combust at the proper temperature, the fuel transfers asymmetrically from the internal or external tanks, the radar doesn’t transmit, the gun jams, the ejector racks fail, or any other one of myriad show-stoppers that could happen if any single maintenance tech fails to do his or her part of the mission prep. Gratitude goes a long way. We often mistakenly equate success with great leadership. But take a good look behind the so-called leaders — if the troops aren’t following them … look out!
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Yes and no. My values, discipline and mission focus has been invaluable in business. Former Goldman Sachs co-CEO John Thain once said that he could teach me about finance but that he couldn’t teach a young MBA about leadership. Many of my business successes were built upon the lessons learned from failures big and small — again, the courage to try and fail — and I likely weathered a few storms that would have easily deterred others from carrying on.
But the military didn’t fully prepare me to understand the commercial aspects of business: it’s not always loyalty — duty, honor, country, as my West Point friends would say — that carries the day. The winners and losers aren’t necessarily ideologically opposed; someone gets the contract and someone else doesn’t. Someone makes money; someone doesn’t. And leading, in the context of making more money has nothing to do with the type of leadership it takes to put yourself in harm’s way to save a colleague-in-arms, protect civilians, or win a war of fundamental beliefs about a way of life or system of government. It’s not the same ethos.
Business is commerce; commerce is about the exchange of value, and money is the common currency. It’s a system of sales … and there’s a lot that I wouldn’t do for money. The military is a fighting force; it’s about the exchange of lethality, and lives are the common currency. There’s not much that I wouldn’t do to save a Marine in combat.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your service was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life?
For a while, after the Gulf War, I wasn’t a great fan of fireworks. It wasn’t the noise — it’s just that surface-to-surface missiles, exploding surface to air missiles, and heavy anti-aircraft fire at night look a lot like a 4th of July celebration. I also don’t really “do” camping or cruises for vacation. I’ve smelled enough wet canvas, maritime fuel oil and steam power plants to last a lifetime!
Rarely do pilots really confront the vivid reality of killing and death; our scrapes and scars are not comparable to those of the infantry or special operations forces. That’s the burden so many of this latest generation of warfighters carry, and only recently have we made it OK to talk about and deal with it. But we ignore this to our own peril; two decades of regular and continuous exertion of violence, no matter how justified or honorable, indelibly scars our humanity.
Yet in some ways, I worry more about the civilians than the veterans. So easily we seem to be able to dress up in camo, go sport hunting with assault rifles, be captivated by warfare video games. But the military veteran was trained to employ lethal force when no other option exists to achieve the mission or protect lives. There are an ethos and context for the employment of force that can help structure the veteran’s transition to peacetime society. What’s the ethos and context for display and the employment of lethal force by a 15yr old playing a video game or a 22yr old riding around with an assault rifle in the trunk of his car? How do we transition these civilians playing at being in the military back into a peacetime society?
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, several. To start, my most exciting and important projects right now are 15, 9 and 9yrs old. Three boys; one in high school and twins in elementary school. I failed miserably my first go-around as a dad, so I’m determined to avoid making the same mistakes this time. Raising three confident, competent and compassionate souls able to meaningfully engage with the world in our shared future is a challenge and one that I treasure. We’ve done lots of damage to our ecosystem, managed to squander the “peace dividend” from the Cold War, and are currently unwinding many of the entangling structures that led to stability in the past century. So, what qualities will these boys need to face the challenges of our current global trajectory? They’ll need to be able to communicate, coordinate, cope and perhaps conquer. That’s a tall order.
Two other projects along those lines are about instilling values-based leadership. I’m honored to be a trustee of the Aspen Institute, which I believe to be the most dynamic organization providing thought on the relationship of values and leadership across the spectrum of global business, government, economics, science, and society. And finally, I established a small endowment that provides scholarship support for the child of public servants who wishes to attend high school at my Philadelphia alma mater but needs help to do so. La Salle College High School has two pillars on either side of its entry and exit that read, “Enter to Learn” and “Leave to Serve” … I wanted to honor the memory of Karl and Mary-Elizabeth von Lipsey — the Philly cop and teacher who sacrificed much to provide me an education — by passing the opportunity down to others.
And finally, I’ve been working with my current boss to deepen the influence, inclusion, and importance of women in the financial services industry. She gets it, gets me, and understands that this is an important part of my professional commitment to clients and the firm. I was honored a year ago to be invited to the European Development Days annual conference by the World Bank to speak on a panel about the importance of educating girls and empowering women in the global financial system. Why me? Because more men need to be a part of the conversation about the importance of empowering women.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be passionate about what you do, and strive to learn everything you can about what each of your people does on the team. There are no excuses; the “buck stops” at your desk — the team’s success or failure is on your leadership shoulders. So understand everyone’s contribution.
As a rookie squadron pilot, I was assigned to the maintenance department and tasked to lead the aircraft division. What did I know about hydraulics, metal bending, parachute rigging or corrosion control? Yet, I was responsible for these “shops” and for their performance. The first thing I did was to spend a lot of time with the senior non-commissioned officers –the “gunny” and the “top” — asking them what they expected of me! Meanwhile, I subscribed to all of the Marine Corps Institute correspondence courses that my men and women were supposed to take to hone their sub-specialty job skills. Was this to learn how to do their job? Nope. But to understand on a more substantive level their roles, responsibilities, and challenges, and to have a realistic sense of expectations and possibilities. I did that in every division and department I led as a young officer; it made me a more compassionate, proficient and respected leader.
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?
Once, a newly-assigned squadron Commanding Officer decided to sideline me. I was sent away as support staff for a two-month high-level tactics course for the most senior pilots in order to “prepare” me to do rudimentary (and mindless) scheduling tasks in the squadron operations department upon my return. I was crestfallen. But what I did during those two months was get my assigned scheduling tasks done early; sit in on every one of the classes with the (much more) senior aviators going through the course; go and fly in any open seat in any aircraft or helicopter available; volunteer to fly maintenance check flights, and eventually took and aced the final academic exam along with the senior pilots attending the course. Back at the squadron — unbeknownst to me, the senior non-commissioned officer, or “Master Gunny” told the new Commanding Officer that he’d take me over any other junior officer in the unit and it would be a mistake to pull me from “his” maintenance department. I came home with an unprecedented tactical certificate (that I wasn’t intended to receive) and was happily reassigned to the most important division in maintenance as the Quality Assurance Officer. I was never a part of that particular Commanding Officer’s “in crowd” but in the end, he rated me his number one junior officer and had a profound impact on my professional trajectory.
I think that the story provides a few clues — my success in uniform was uniquely built upon the shoulders of enlisted Marines and non-commissioned officers at every turn: the professional middle-management of an all-volunteer force is the indispensable treasure of our armed forces. So many Marines like Sergeant Major Gary Kramber, Master Gunnery Sergeant Gary Roney, and Master Sergeant Ron Harvin invested in and shaped me as a young officer. Later when I had the honor to work for General Powell, it was his driver, Gunnery Sergeant Otis Pearson, who taught me how to be a successful aide-de-camp. I miss the structure of career middle-management professionals in my current industry. It’s expensive, but on a team or in an industry where failure is not an option, middle management competence and continuity is essential. My gratitude to the Non-Commissioned Officers with whom I served is profound.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I struggle with this a bit. Success brings consequences, intended and unintended, along the way. Have any of mine brought goodness to the world? That seems a bit presumptuous …
But I have served on the boards of over a dozen non-profits, given more to charity than I ever took home during an entire career in the military, and work every day to invest for clients who use a good portion of their wealth to support a wide range of philanthropic endeavors locally and around the world. I face the world each day with a smile and a positive attitude.
I connect people with others to achieve synergy in their endeavors. And I approach everyone I encounter with a sense of humility and kindness. If that’s bringing goodness, others will have to judge.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If I had one favorite quote, it would be the bumper sticker: “Mean People Suck!”
Look, I’m not exactly the easiest person to work with — demanding, precise, unrelenting, etc. But never mean. No one is undeserving of dignity and kindness.
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.
During my military career, I served twice out of uniform in non-political appointee roles at the White House. I’ve met or served four Presidents; numerous Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury; the Pope and the Dalai Lama; Kings and Queens; dozens of foreign dignitaries; scores of Senators and Members of Commerce; countless Admirals, Generals, billionaires, and captains of industry. The lifelong inside outsider; I’ve never been one of those — or been a member of any of those “clubs,” so to speak.
So, for a private breakfast or lunch? I’m not interested in being a “climber”; I’m all about being a “lifter” … so I’m happy to have a real conversation with anyone who has a vision and the means to invest in our shared future as American citizens in today’s global construct. I want to spend my next twenty years helping lift our sights, our discourse, and our humanity by investing in the people and resources who will make a difference during the challenging times ahead.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.