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Steve Adolt: “Listening and hearing your experts”

Plan — once you have a common understanding of the problem, what are the steps that need to be taken, processes that need to be in place, and items that need to be on hand to respond appropriately to the crisis. i.e. get personnel to safety while identifying exactly where the fire is occurring. Can we put […]

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Plan — once you have a common understanding of the problem, what are the steps that need to be taken, processes that need to be in place, and items that need to be on hand to respond appropriately to the crisis. i.e. get personnel to safety while identifying exactly where the fire is occurring. Can we put it out with the fire extinguishers we have or do we need the fire department?


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Adolt.

Steve is a decorated Desert Storm, US Army veteran, who was awarded the coveted Bronze Star for “100% Mission Success with no loss of life”.

Today, Steve proactively shares what he learned in the Army and over the last 30 years in business as a trusted, leading authority for getting any job done, regardless of the circumstances, in the area of supply chain business process improvements.

Steve applies his unique approach of “Get in. Get Done. Get out.” This relentless approach to success, coupled with his expertise in Supply Chain Operations, is now sought after to bring continuous improvement to companies seeking to increase their profitability despite global weather, pandemics, or politics.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Sure. My younger brother and I were born and raised in Allentown, PA by my father, an electrical engineer, and my mother, a teacher. They taught us how to work hard and challenge ourselves. I was pretty much a straight-A student up through high school. My activities included competitive swimming, playing trumpet in concert and marching bands, being president of my high school chess club, reading comic books and science fiction, and listening to blues/jazz music.

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

Today I work as a Supply Chain Process Improvement consultant helping companies plan for the next crisis. I walk them through a process that helps them plan, prepare, and protect their supply chains by creating their own playbook to proactively address anticipated supply chain disruptions.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

My military background began back in college as a recipient of a full Army ROTC scholarship to pay my way. As a cadet, I ranked 1st at the end of each year and earned the Battalion Commander billet in my senior year.

I then accepted a Regular Army commission in the Quartermaster Corps, which I thought was unusual as I was an engineer. Come to find out that they were looking to put hard science majors in CSS roles because they wanted good problem solvers. I spent four years active duty assigned to the 47th Forward Support Battalion in support of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the largest armored Brigade in the world, at that time, stationed in Erlangen, Germany.

In December 1990, our division was deployed to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Desert Shield / Storm, where I earned a Bronze Star for 100% mission success rate with no loss of life. The fact that I didn’t lose any soldiers was significant to me because my platoon’s mission during the war itself was to deliver fuel to the front lines so the tanks could continue to move forward.

For the 96 hours of the war, my driver and I took empty fuel HEMMTs through enemy lines to the rear and brought full fuel HEMMTs back up through enemy lines to the front with no MP or air support while coming under fire by both tanks and small arms.

During those four years, not only did I hold all of the standard company positions (platoon leader, executive officer, NBC officer, Payroll officer, Supply officer, Motor officer, Food Service officer, acting commander, (now) JPED officer and Tax officer) but also held Battalion positions of Graves Registration officer, S2, Assistant S3, and S1.

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

My XO and I were talking about taking leave.

I told her I couldn’t take leave (vacation) because we had too much stuff going on.

Our 1st Sergeant was walking by at the time, a rather imposing man at 6’3” and 280 lbs (his nickname was “The Bear”).

We heard him stop in the hallway, turn around, and come into our office.

“What did you just say, sir?” he asked me.

“About what, First Sergeant?”

“About taking leave, sir.”

“Oh, I was just telling LT Dean that I couldn’t take leave because we had too much stuff going on.”

First Sergeant came over to my desk, put his palms down on it, and got in very close.

Very quietly, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Sir, when you get to the point where you think you don’t need to take leave, you need to take leave. You’re not that f**king important.”, and left.

I ended up taking leave for ten days and when I got back… nothing had changed. Everything was still working, and everyone was doing what they needed to, all without my being there.

What I learned that day was that everyone was expendable IF the SYSTEMS in place were designed and implemented properly! The machine, whether military or corporate, will continue to run with or without you; your job is supposed to be expandable! So do your best to make it better when you’re there to make it better for your brother or sister behind you.

That removal of fear about permanence in any role has served me well.

We are 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.

There are many stories and examples of heroism in both the military and civilian worlds. We can all come up with multiple instances.

I believe some of the most heroic stories came from the 9/11 attack. From the way people acted to ensure others got to safety as the Twin Towers were collapsing to the passengers that stood together on United Flight 93, to the first responders — all of those people were heroes that day. Their goal was to get people to safety with the full knowledge that they might not make it to safety themselves.

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

To me, a hero is somebody who selflessly commits an act or acts in the face of great adversity or danger in the service of a person or group of people.

A bad example is the NFL wide receiver catching the last best effort Hail Mary pass in the end zone to win the Superbowl.

Athletic? Unquestionably.

Great effort? Undoubtedly.

Heroic? Not at all. That’s what he gets paid to do. It’s his job to make those kinds of plays happen. It’s what people pay to see.

But noble or courageous? Not at all.

A good example is our first responders.

They put themselves in harm’s way daily to make sure people are safe.

Some might say that’s why they get paid for, of course.

And I will tell you that I don’t know a cop or firefighter or EMT that does it for money or glory.

They do it because it’s WHO they ARE. And that is the epitome of noble values and great courage.

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

Absolutely.

The best example I have:

I was seven months into being a 2nd Lieutenant. All my metrics were in the toilet: mission performance, personnel readiness (training, weapon qualification, PT, etc.), vehicle readiness, you name it.

So one Friday, I gathered all my NCOs in the motor pool for what I thought would be their “come to Jesus” meeting.

I laid out all the details of what was wrong and then asked them what was going on.

Over 200 collective years of experience stood there silently.

Then I told them that either they tell me what the problem was or we were going to have some very long nights and weekends until we got back on track.

There was another long silence until one of my staff sergeants said the words, “You, sir. You’re the problem.”

What?

And that’s when MY “come to Jesus” meeting started.

This young lieutenant, full of himself, was micromanaging (and poorly micromanaging at that) his … MY soldiers. And they were letting me fail because they didn’t respect me because I didn’t respect them, their skills, their knowledge or their experience.

And every single NCO felt that way.

After taking that in for a few moments, I said, “Ok. Well, apparently I have a lot to think about over the weekend. So, let’s meet in my office for 30 minutes immediately after formation on Monday. Everyone comes with three things that I’ve f**ked up while I’ve been here and what I need to do to do them right. You have all just become my new Platoon Sergeant. See you Monday. Dismissed.”

I learned more the next week than I had in the past seven months. And continued learning.

There was nothing I wouldn’t do for my soldiers, and, as a result, there was nothing my soldiers wouldn’t do, including correct me and help me, for me. We were a team, and I was the lead facilitator. I was also the lead heat shield for my soldiers, taking responsibility for everything that happened or failed to happen in my platoon, yet always giving credit to my soldiers. Because, at the end of the day, they were the ones taking the actions to make missions succeed.

My lessons learned from that experience have been applied almost every day since. Leadership is about:

1. Listening and hearing your experts

2. Asking clarifying questions

3. Facilitating their path around or through roadblocks

4. Ensuring they have what they need when they need it

5. Backing their play when it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s unpopular

6. Helping them redirect when their path needs redirecting

7. Making the necessary decisions when needed (because most decisions can, and should, be made by the experts).

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?

Absolutely! My mentor, Don Jean. He really helped me move into supply chain and strategic sourcing innovation by giving me opportunities to think way outside the box to create innovative ways in which we could add value to our internal customers and external suppliers.

The best example of this is a “tiered supplier cost reduction exercise” we did for a critical equipment manufacturer of ours, something that had never been done before in either company.

By jointly engaging this manufacturer’s supply base, we were able to reduce the manufacturer’s overall costs by 20%, which decreased our equipment costs by 20% and, by adjoining the suppliers with both companies, we increased the supplier’s sales.

The end result was increased profitability across the board.

Without Don’s commitment to, encouragement of, and belief in my ideas, this would have never happened.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis is a point in time where an event has occurred or is occurring that requires decisions to be made quickly and decisively. Immediate actions are taken with a great sense of urgency to mitigate the effects that the event is having on yourself, your family, your organization, and, in many cases, other people.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about, and how should they plan?

Business owners and leaders should take stock of lessons learned from their last crises or those of others, specifically:

  1. What went well so that they can repeat those activities
  2. What didn’t go well so that they can mitigate those activities
  3. What opportunities were missed, why, and how they can capitalize on those opportunities the next time

Then they should apply these answers to what they believe the subsequent crises will be because there will always be a next time.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation, and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

The first thing they should do, assuming no lives are in imminent peril, is to stop what they’re doing, take a deep breath, then think and assess the situation rationally.

Next, they should act on their current emergency plans.

If they don’t have any to follow, then they should select a team to address the crisis, select a point person to lead the team, assign roles and responsibilities to the rest of the team, and then begin to take immediate and decisive action.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Intense, calm, decisive focus.

Well questioned, but not overly questioned, plans of action.

Implementation with a sense of urgency

Trust in leadership

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

My Mom. The more intense or emergent the situation, the calmer she was. It was almost like flipping a switch. There was a clear path of action. She knew what it was, and she acted on it, deftly delegating to other people a sense of urgency for necessary activities.

She was and is the calm in the storm.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I got laid off from my job just before Christmas after almost 15 years with the company.

I was definitely in shock. And even though I got a good severance package, I had a wife and 3 kids under the age of 13 who had never gone through this as well. There was a lot of fear that I wouldn’t be able to go back to work or be able to find another job.

I took December off to spend more time with my family and to spend time with myself, digesting, thinking and planning what to do next. Then I remembered that everyone was expendable and I shared that with my family, explaining to them that they should never fear being let go because there would always be another way to make money.

With my refreshed attitude, I started looking or new jobs that January.

I ended up landing one that started the first of March and from that point forward, I’ve never worried about losing a job. It just meant that it was time for me to move on.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

I believe there are four steps needed to survive and thrive in a crisis, and they are steps you need to take proactively when you’re not in a crisis so that when a crisis occurs, you’re ready to react to it appropriately:

  1. Define — define what the crisis is. Very similar to a problem statement. i.e. a fire alarm sounds — there must be a fire.
  2. Plan — once you have a common understanding of the problem, what are the steps that need to be taken, processes that need to be in place, and items that need to be on hand to respond appropriately to the crisis. i.e. get personnel to safety while identifying exactly where the fire is occurring. Can we put it out with the fire extinguishers we have or do we need the fire department?
  3. Prepare — write down plans and ensure everyone knows what they are. Gather the necessary materials and put them someplace where everyone knows where they are. 
    i.e. the Fire Plan boxes inside the doors of hotels, major buildings
  4. Practice — make sure your plan will work. And when you find weaknesses, make them better. When you find something won’t work, change it. When you find you need something else, get it. Without practicing, nobody will know what to do, where to go, or what they need when the crisis occurs. i.e. fire drills at school or at work

And of the four steps, Practice is the one thing we take for granted in our personal lives and corporate America.

In the Army, we did nothing but define, plan, prepare, and practice almost every single day. Because if my team failed on their mission in wartime, soldiers would die. It was that simple, and that was our “why” every single day we trained.

We can expect that if there is a house fire and the family doesn’t know where to go, or what to do, or what to grab, there will be chaos, and somebody could die.

Corporations don’t believe that their supply chains will fail because they never have.

Defining, planning, preparing, and practicing are the keys to successful execution in times of crisis. Because your people will NOT panic, they’ll just do what they’ve practiced.

Ok. We are nearly done. 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 create a self-funded foundation of leaders and thinkers whose sole purpose would be to find a social problem, define it very well, solve it and then implement the solutions in such a way that the problem is eradicated. We would start by addressing issues like hunger, homelessness, etc. and go from there.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them 🙂

Dr. Neal deGrasse Tyson because he is an excellent communicator, brilliant thinker, and a very nice guy, And the first question I’d like to discuss with him would be, “How could we use physics to stop world hunger?”

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find me professionally on LinkedIn, where I discuss and consult on Supply Chain issues and solution implementations, and personally on Facebook, where I lead a men’s group discussing issues and problems of the day and helping them to reconnect with themselves, their family and their friends physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

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

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