“Experienced leaders are always looking for opportunity, while at the same time assessing risk.” — Thomas Dorame
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 Thomas Dorame.
Thomas is a West Point graduate with 30 years of active military service and experience managing diverse, multidiscipline organizations. He currently serves as the vice president for Washington operations for Space Foundation, a well-recognized leader across the global aerospace community.
Throughout his distinguished military career, Thomas commanded combat units at several levels and has multiple operational deployments, which include Operation Desert Storm (Kuwait: 1991), Operation Joint Endeavor (Bosnia: 1996), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq: 2003, 2008, 2010).
Thomas has a reputation as a leader and team-builder; he has a strong record of leading large organizations, as well as small teams of experts, through complex and critical situations. He is also a skilled strategist, with experience in strategy formulation and policy development. He has been instrumental at all levels in implementing change to improve processes, transform organizations, and implement innovative solutions.
Thomas has a combination of military and civilian education, complemented by both operational experience and working strategic issues in Washington, D.C. He has a Bachelor of Science in economics from West Point and a master’s degree in national security strategy from Georgetown University with studies at Oxford University. He also has a master’s degree in strategic studies from the United States Army War College.
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”?
I had a typical “suburban childhood.” I grew up in California in a very close and large extended family. Almost every weekend, we would have a gathering, from birthdays to weddings to large backyard barbeques. These events always led to lively discussions and some spirited games, which is probably one of the reasons I developed a strong competitive drive.
I played a variety of sports from a young age and began to crave competition of all sorts. Yet, as I reached adulthood, I was a magnet to team environments where there was a sense of camaraderie, where we depended on one another to accomplish something bigger than any one individual. Thriving in both competitive and collaborative settings led me to my first career in the military.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am responsible for Washington operations for Space Foundation, a 501(c)(3) global space advocate. My team and I work closely with the space community in Washington, D.C., which includes government, industry, academia, and the international space community. Our intent is to improve the understanding of issues related to space because space truly touches almost every aspect of our daily lives.
By making an funding in space capabilities, we can provide opportunities for all people — all demographics and all skill sets — and still benefit life on earth. This is truly a mission bigger than oneself and attainable, but to develop a global space economy, it will require a significant learning curve and widening the traditional aperture. That challenge and the possibility of accomplishing something quite transformative are why I took this job.
To give you an example of the scope of all that Space Foundation touches, you just need to look at my first few weeks on the job. As I was getting my feet wet and learning about all of the different facets of the organization, I had discussions with international space agencies about opening new spaceports in Europe; I participated in a roundtable discussion on the declining workforce, and I chaired a panel on the requirements for nuclear energy in space.
And my work has grown exponentially from there. I realized quickly that Space Foundation addresses important issues of workforce shortages and skill deficits that contribute to jeopardizing the future of space innovation. Yet, within those issues lies significant opportunities, like recently witnessing a young minority startup secure its first multi-million- dollar contracts in the commercial space sector or our first junior entrepreneurship participants tackle the challenges of exploring Mars and pitching their business ideas to a panel of Shark Tank-like judges.
I also saw very early in my tenure that the broader space community is built on passionate experts in very specific fields. There is a premium placed on precise technical information (some of it actually does involve rocket science). However, what is unique about the space economy is that there is endless opportunity for nearly every global citizen, from laborers and machinists to artists, project managers, data analysts, and more, to participate in creating the space innovation that contributes to the betterment of our planet and our humanity. This has elevated my personal mission to help all people — particularly those underserved — find their place in space.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I entered the military at a very young age; I was 17 when I started at the United States Military Academy. My first assignment was as a young second lieutenant to a cavalry unit, whose responsibility was to guard the East-West German border against a future Soviet army invasion. That first assignment shaped much of my love for the Army, its mission, and its soldiers.
In total, I spent 30 years proudly serving in the Army in various roles and had the privilege of commanding soldiers at almost every level. I have deployed numerous times to combat environments, from Desert Storm at the beginning of my career to operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina to intervene in the ethnic civil war to numerous deployments to Iraq after 9/11.
Overall, the Army was an incredible experience; it was tremendously rewarding to work every day with soldiers who sacrifice over and over again for a cause greater than themselves.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I’ve definitely had my share of interesting experiences, so there are quite a few stories. As a note, we always warn that most Army stories get “better” over time or after a few beers …
One story worth sharing was from early in my career, when I was a company level commander in charge of a unit with over 100 soldiers. I was just short of 30 years old, a fairly young officer in retrospect, with a young wife and a baby daughter. My unit was tasked as the lead combat unit that would deploy from central Europe into Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were to deploy by rail, putting all our combat equipment on a long train that would travel from Germany, through Austria, Hungary, into Croatia, and eventually crossing the Sava river into Bosnia-Herzegovina. My unit was given enough equipment and supplies to operate independently for about two weeks, and we were given a simple mission: Get to the town of Županja, Croatia; secure the rail location and the river crossing site; and prepare for follow-on forces.
We departed two weeks before Christmas in 1995, and the train travel was anything but quick based on the antiquated rail tracks within eastern Europe. After almost a week on a train, we eventually downloaded our vehicles just after crossing into Croatia because the bridges couldn’t take the weight of our tanks. We conducted a day-long road march to Županja, and to the surprise of the local city, my U.S. cavalry troop entered in full force and took over their train station, while sending part of my unit down to the bridge site … and there we waited. And waited. And waited.
After almost two weeks into this operation, I still had no real communications with my higher command, and as we drew closer to Christmas Day, I was beginning to run short on supplies. I was also running short on answers to my soldiers’ intuitive questions.
And then it hit me! What I realized on that cold morning as I was waiting for answers is the tremendous capability we had as a unit. I didn’t need more answers; I already had what I needed from my higher command. I had my mission, I had my unit, I just needed to solve the problems at hand. With renewed energy, I jumped into action immediately.
I dispatched my scout platoon to recon routes and buildings in the surrounding area to find a source for supplies, especially food and fuel for the unit (and even showers for the soldiers since no one had bathed in almost two weeks). For the next few days, we kept busy expanding our security, conducting additional reconnaissance of the local area, and replenishing critical supplies. A few days later, my higher command convoyed into town, after experiencing the same rail difficulty I had encountered, and was impressed with the level of work we had achieved over the past few days.
A few lessons that I took from this experience:
First, never expect things to go as planned — if you do, you’ve made your first mistake — because they won’t!
Second, since we know things won’t go as planned, you need to be able to adapt to the situation and use the resources and expertise around you to solve problems.
The third lesson is that you should trust in yourself, your unit and your soldiers. Together, as a team, you’ll find solutions to get through tough problems.
I also left that situation with a firm embrace of the principle of “Take Charge, Take Action,” calling words that I let guide me in unclear, uncertain, unpredictable situations. I still advocate and practice that philosophy today.
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.
Most in the Army that have deployed have encountered their fair share of bad situations, where we normally attribute heroic acts. But I want to note that it is not only in combat that you see acts of heroism.
With that, there is a story I will share that came out of one of my combat deployments to Iraq. During an operation, one of my soldiers became seriously wounded and needed an immediate air medevac. A few members of his squad attempted to treat him, when all of a sudden, a young medic rushed forward, pushing her way through the group of soldiers, all larger and more senior in rank. When she reached the front with minimal military courtesy, she said to us all, “Sir, please get out of my way and let me do my job.” We all stepped back as this young medic performed critical lifesaving measures, saving both life and limb of her fellow soldier, until the medevac helicopter arrived.
It was because of her efforts — her quick reaction, her expert training, her commitment to step forward and act — that the injured soldier made a full recovery. In that situation, that day, she was undoubtedly the hero. But it wasn’t just because of that day; she was a hero (as well as many others) because of what she did (and what she was prepared to do) every single day.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I would submit that almost all soldiers are heroes. Being a soldier is one of the noblest of all professions. American soldiers don’t serve for fame, or money, or reward. While each may join for a different reason (be it for love of country, love of fellow soldier or something else), in the end, they all step forward and take an oath to serve a cause that is far greater than themselves.
In my story of the young medic, she was a soldier who embraced her task, who committed herself to do her best to support the mission and her team every single day. And when faced with a difficult situation, she stepped forward to take charge and do what she knew was right, thus saving the life of a fellow soldier.
I believe that is the essence of a hero — in the face of adversity, stepping forward, taking on a potentially daunting task, and doing what you know to be right.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Without a doubt, my military experience was critical in developing my leadership abilities and preparing me to lead at very senior levels, both in the Army and in the business environment. In fact, the Army prides itself on developing leaders; internally, that is one of our core missions.
I have had experience leading small teams as well as coordinating across large multifunctional groups. Over my career, I have worked at the unit level in combat to very senior levels in the Pentagon, and now I am in the Washington, D.C., corporate world. Surprisingly, while the “uniform” may be different for each, the skills as a leader remain much the same.
Through the military experiences, you gain valuable lessons on leading in a variety of situations. You learn how to capitalize on the expertise within the group. You learn how to prioritize and manage resources. You learn how to effectively communicate in order to provide clear guidance and orders to focus an organization. These are a few examples; there are obviously more, and all of these skills are invaluable as a leader in any environment, especially in the business world.
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?
Throughout any successful career, there are undoubtedly numerous people who you owe thanks and gratitude toward, countless people who have either helped or provided mentoring along the way.
My story is about one of my best noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Although there were many great NCOs that I worked with, many worthy of mentioning, I want to highlight one specifically but as a tribute to all.
Command Sergeant Major Jon Hunt was the epitome of an NCO. He loved his job, he loved his soldiers more, and he was an expert at what he did. He had many years of experience that included multiple combat deployments. He is exactly what you would have expected of the senior enlisted soldier of an organization — tough, demanding, smart, and with a keen instinct that comes from years of practical experience. Needless to say, he was a damn good NCO!
As my senior NCO, my right-hand, we had a very special relationship. Officially, he was my senior enlisted advisor, to provide advice and guidance on anything that affected the soldiers. In reality, he was much more than that. Although he was my subordinate, he was my advisor, my confidant, he was my go-to expert, he was my friend. He kept me grounded, he kept me focused — and he told me nothing but the truth.
I share all this because many believe to achieve success, they need to look only to those above them to find guidance and direction. What I learned is that you can probably learn more about your job and your organization (and even yourself) from your peers and subordinates than from your superiors. While the latter will certainly tell you what they think you should know, often your subordinates, if you are willing to listen, will give the unvarnished truth — they will tell you unequivocally what you need to know.
Whoever that person is in your unit or your organization — there is always someone — find them, trust them, and listen to their advice.
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?
I believe a crisis is an unexpected situation that has potentially devastating consequences, for which you may or may not be prepared. It can be small and easily manageable, or it can be something substantial, requiring multiple teams and collaboration to mitigate it.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
An important thing to remember about a crisis is that you can’t precisely predict what it will be or when it will occur, but you can establish measures to help mitigate and rapidly respond.
First, think through alternatives. In the Army, we developed contingency plans and ran drills for potential “crisis” scenarios. (This comes from one of my earlier lessons: Never expect things to go as planned.) In business, you need to do the same. When planning for a key event, or even just in day-to-day operations, your leadership team should think through potential contingencies — always have a “Plan B” for when things don’t go as you expect.
Second, be flexible. You always want to build flexibility into your plan — and into your organizations. The more adamant you are about doing something so specific or only in one determined way, the less ability you will have (and the less willing you will be) to pivot when the time comes.
Third, keep a watchful eye. Often there are indicators that precede the crisis, small windows of opportunities to prepare (or possibly avoid). When you get too focused on your original plan, on what is going right, these indicators are often ignored. Some leaders get a sense when things aren’t right; they get that gut instinct and are able to see things that others can’t. Part of this is based on experiences, the other part is intuition.
Experienced leaders are always looking for opportunity, while at the same time assessing risk.
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?
Stay calm. Keeping a level head and being able to work through things clearly and carefully will save you from making mistakes that could make things worse. I tell my daughters this whenever they call me in a panic. Slow down, think it through, and then act.
There’s a book titled “Blink” that actually dives into this idea that your brain makes decisions in split seconds. Being able to hone into those few seconds will enable you to make more rational decisions instead of acting on impulse.
A good leader makes carefully calculated decisions in rapid time, not rash decisions — especially during a crisis.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
The most important characteristics needed to survive are being grounded, rational and deliberate. If during a crisis I have the choice to follow a leader who is a clear communicator, has a clear plan, and is staying calm or a leader who is frazzled, not sure what he is doing, and can’t give directives — well I know who I am following.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
While I have had the privilege of working for some incredible people, one immediately comes to mind, and that is my former boss and mentor, General Bob Cone. He had this tremendous ability to calm everyone; quickly grasp the facets of a problem; and issue very clear, succinct guidance that focused the organization.
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?
One example I like to share when mentoring young professionals comes from my transition out of the military and the initial struggle launching a civilian career. This is something many people contend with. It’s also highly applicable in today’s economic environment as millions of folks are forced to seek new jobs in the wake of COVID-19 — people who may not be able to return to their previous field.
In the military, I had demonstrated skills and excelled at the highest levels within the military, but now, I was looking for a position in which my talents would be recognized in the corporate world. Much to my dismay however, it turned out the private sector had its own code. I remember there was a specific job I was interested in, and I was told I was the top candidate, “exactly what they were looking for.” But a job offer never came; instead, I got the call informing me that the company’s leadership team reevaluated and decided to go with someone with more “business experience.” What a punch to the gut! I had led teams in some of the most hostile environments in the world, working through complex problems, and making life and death decisions, but my leadership experience was deemed inadequate.
My story is not at all uncommon for military personnel by the way. It’s a huge challenge as former servicemen and women attempt to transition to civilian life. Many companies do not view their skills as transferrable. The same holds for other marginalized groups as well and results in a big loss for those companies.
But it never dawned on me, a persistent overachiever, that I wouldn’t be able to automatically fall into the perfect position, that organizations wouldn’t jump to hire someone with my skill set as soon as I left the military. To overcome this setback, I reached out to a network of peers and mentors who helped me match my skills to the “professional experience” that was in high demand; they helped me reframe and remarket myself in a way that translated in a new domain, and the rest is history — it all worked out for the absolute best.
From this setback, however, I took away two clear lessons: First, don’t let negative emotions lead to rash decisions if you are displeased at work. Instead, allow it to motivate you in determining the next step. Recognize the significant accomplishments you’ve achieved on your path, and take stock of the skills you’ve acquired and experience you’ve developed.
Second, figure out a way to demonstrate your worth in new terms. This is especially important when embarking on a new career. I would encourage anyone to tap into available networks of resources, personal and formal, to help them adapt their talents and navigate the process. Focus on core skills — the things that hide beneath a job title or description — to understand how to unlock new opportunities.
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.
The steps that are imperative during a period of crisis, such as COVID-19, are the same steps that make a leader of an organization effective before the crisis; you just lean on them more during these crisis periods.
Have a Vision
It all starts here.
Vision provides your guiding direction as a leader, whether it is to help your team or organization move forward in unison to accomplish difficult tasks and manage unprecedented circumstances. Uniting around the same sense of purpose ties everyone together for a common good and allows progress while minimizing as much despair as possible.
Your vision must be clear, however. Everyone needs to know the goal and buy in. They have to be able to visualize the larger picture that gets them through the crisis — whether pivoting the company to virtual programming that sustains business or closing a deal that changes the trajectory of your company. People need to be able to tangibly connect their tasks to the greater purpose. They will follow leaders that can articulate a clear vision.
Everyone needs to understand their priorities.
It is very easy to get distracted during a crisis like COVID-19, especially with the amount of information (and disinformation) that begins to block the normal processes. You do not want to lose productivity or momentum because team members are wasting time.
You need to establish priorities and provide your team with enough guidance so they understand their next critical task — in support of the rest of the team and the larger mission. This could be anything from who leads group communications to designating uninterrupted time for individuals to get their work done. Focus yields stability, which is vital when the world outside is in chaos.
Under stressful conditions, some will have a hard time making a decision or completing simple tasks, others will race ahead without all the information. Leaders need to keep both groups focused so they move in a productive direction. This could be to maintain a product release schedule, or it could be something more fundamental such as checking in with each team member on how they are maintaining a work/life balance so that they do not exit this period less physically and mentally healthy than when the pandemic started.
Nobody gets there alone, even in times like these that feel particularly isolating.
At the beginning of a crisis, it is difficult to know what specific skills you might need, but nobody should be left on the sidelines. Everybody has something to offer to promote the greater good, even if it is to provide much needed comic relief or lend a sympathetic ear, which can be enormously helpful to the group’s mental health.
Each individual needs to understand that they are a valued member of a team and the greater organizational community — and that their contributions matter.
Information flow is critical.
It is imperative to establish effective communication to clearly and concisely understand, visualize and direct action at every level.
During a crisis, it can become difficult to focus on what is important, relevant and current. Sometimes, there is as much information as there is disinformation, all creating excess noise and confusion. Streamline communications and filter out useless information. You need to bring clarity and precision to what is happening and what you want done.
It’s also essential to ensure that you are listening — an often-overlooked element of leadership. Make sure everyone knows they can communicate with you as well as the best way to do so.
Additionally, new information can sometimes be difficult to digest, particularly disruptive news. While you should be direct and forthright in communications, recognize that everyone reacts differently. It is as important to display empathy as it is strength and control.
If it is not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem.
As a leader, it’s your job to remove barriers that can prevent those around you from functioning effectively. Sometimes, it is an internal barrier, such as your organizational policy, sometimes it is something external or potentially a lack of resources.
During a crisis, it is critical to remove as many distractors and obstacles as possible to allow the people in your organization to effectively do their jobs — or deal with the factors that are wasting time and energy. It’s vital that your team has the resources and information they need and are unhindered by unnecessary requirements and bureaucracy.
Whatever the source of the obstacle (a person, a barrier, internal or external) find it and eliminate it.
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 am a strong believer in mentoring and supporting others — giving back for the greater good.
I am currently rolling out an initiative with my company, which I think has the capacity to do a tremendous amount of good for vast numbers of people in all walks of life.
I am the program manager for a nationwide initiative, called the Space Commerce Entrepreneurship Program, to promote the opportunities available in space-based technology markets. The initial program was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) focused on minority business enterprises, and we expanded the program to include all business/entrepreneur sectors, including both women-owned and veteran-owned businesses — which is particularly important to me on a personal level.
The program is run through the Space Foundation’s recently introduced Center for Innovation and Education, which enables and expands access and opportunity for everyone in today’s space community. Through a comprehensive approach and partnership strategy, Space Foundation creates and delivers inclusive, innovative and sustainable workforce development and economic opportunity programs. You can find more information on this specific program at www.spacefoundation.org/cie/.
On a larger scale, I believe we have a duty to provide an environment where we all have a fair chance to succeed. That is why I am very proud to work for a global non-profit that shares this vision and is developing multiple programs to drive workforce development and economic opportunity for all.
And while the economic opportunity is a huge part of why I am drawn to Space Foundation, the bold innovation happening in the space industry cannot be ignored. It impacts everyone. Huge advances are being made that make life better for all of us — space is something truly bigger than ourselves. Because of this, I strongly encourage people everywhere to embrace the space movement.
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 🙂
Colin Powell. He is a true soldier, scholar and statesman. From a distance, I have always respected him and the tremendous work he has done for our nation, in and out of uniform.
How can our readers follow you online?
I try to keep in touch through my professional network on LinkedIn.