Vet to CEO – My Journey of Self-Discovery

Vet to CEO, Neal Conlon, journey, marketing, sales, sales influencer

It’s July 3rd and as a veteran, most of the federal holidays resonate with us intimately. I started to research the topic of military veterans who have become CEO’s, It turns out that that most veterans who become CEOs were officers during their service. Which from my perspective, the officer ranks of the military are groomed to be executive leaders. Not the guys in the trenches.

After serving two tours in the Marine Corps and visiting over 27 countries in the process, my immediate thought process was that I had an amazing set of skills that could easily be transitioned into the civilian workplace.

It turns out, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Fast forward to twelve years later. I have continued to iterate and I am hyper-focused on evolving to be the best version of myself, and the type of culture I want to build as a leader of a company. It’s not easy. Growth in all stages is uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be. Although there have been several phases of reinvention that led to what I have become today, as a leader, as a mentor, and, an influencer, I have realized I am essentially still guided by my core affinity to the proven military strategy; and how they are becoming increasingly important to the success of our company each day.

Shoot|Move|Communicate|

As a startup, we, at ACME Growth, relentlessly work towards striking a balance between

  1. Shooting – identifying tactical areas that when we fire campaigns they will produce ROI, quicker, better, faster, and more of it.
  2. Moving – identifying when a process is not working and being able to shift to a new process OR several new processes OR flipping to a new technology
  3. Communicate – Ensure that everyone in the team understands the data and the takeaways and the learnings are not lost.

We are constantly in and out of the trenches trying to improve the effectiveness of our shot. While the military does not use the vernacular, they actually train from a very Agile perspective and we strongly believe that you must keep pressing forward. In today’s digital world I strongly believe that one must be proactive in iteration or become irrelevant standing still. You need to keep trying new things to achieve your goals, or someone who does things better will come along and wipe you out.

If you’ve ever worked with a team or led one, you’d know how difficult it is keep everyone on the same page without effective communications. You may have a team of superheroes. They are agile and they work exceptionally well in their areas of expertise. They probably still won’t be able to optimize the results without tactically positioning themselves within the various phases of a project. In an environment where change is encouraged, it becomes doubly important to communicate, listen and sync.

Rule of Three’s

The Marines do everything in Three’s and it’s worked well since 1775. From an organization structure there are three groups, which have three divisions, which have three battalions, which have three companies, which have three platoons, which have three squads, which have three squad leaders…which…I think you get it…This creates a perfect accordion that can scale and retract as needed.

At ACME, ⅓ of us were getting out there meeting clients, getting business, and do what ACME Growth generally does best, one third of the team was at the backstage supporting us. The remaining third of the team, and this is where we did things a little differently, is actually not people at all. It’s our martech stack which helps us automate and accelerate a large chunk of administrative yet essential tasks of sales & marketing. thereby freeing up the rest of the team to work towards the next best thing that we can offer which is R&D of new products and services.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness “is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed.”

In the military, you are always training to be aware of your surroundings and that nothing may be what it seems. As a leader, you are always forced to take decisions. Decisions which more often than not have a ripple effect into how things pan out for your company in the future. This makes it important to understand where you stand (context), what is impacting you right now (circumstance) and what may happen if you move (consequence) in a certain direction.

Understanding the nuances of these three C’s that generally converge when we talk of situational awareness, gives you a tactical advantage over competitors who are too busy producing flawless products without taking the time to prepare for the future.

  • Context: Whether in my time as a marine, as a parent, or as the CEO of my company, I like to know what I am up against. In my opinion, consciously trying to understand what forces are shaping my actions and decisions, made me (if I may say so myself) an efficient soldier, a competent father and a leader who is open to trying anything to get the best for the company and my team.

  • Circumstance: At ACME Growth, my decisions are always backed by research and understanding of why we need them in the first place: is it an operational need? Is this how we stay ahead? Is it something we should have done already? Is there a more creative way to resolve the issue at hand? How is this going to impact our now and tomorrow?

  • Consequence: It is easy to get flustered when you really think about how every decision you make as a senior leader, no matter how small or big will have a bearing on the business, some good, some not so much, and some maybe even irreversibly. Which is why a significant number of leaders don’t want to take a deep dive into the possible consequences of their decisions. In my experience, one must. Not only does it help me plan better for the consequent phases of our journey, it also allows for business continuity plans or as I like to call them ‘Plan Beat the Bomb’ in case things don’t turn out as expected.

Band of Brothers

One thing that you learn quickly when you are in the military is to put your soldiers before you, these soldiers become more than just team members, more than just friends. You become a band of brothers. The lessons of compassion, selflessness and teamwork I learnt from my band of brothers during my service, will stay with me for life.

Who knew back then that years later these are the characteristics that would make help me better myself as a leader. Some of the lessons I picked up from my brothers which I incorporate every day into how I work at ACME Growth are:

  • Striving to be a leader of thought, integrity and competency.
  • Leading by example.
  • Working on my fitness. Optimal physical health leads to heightened mental capabilities.
  • Getting to know my people, setting challenging yet realistic goals and expectations, and helping them find a purpose in the company’s goals.
  • Delegating thoughtfully and trusting my team to get the job done.
  • Taking the time to self-reflection each day and asking myself if I did my best today.
  • Focusing on getting the job done, and not worrying about who gets the credit.
  • #Hustle and never, give up, ever!

Be Agile

To a civilian, the first thing that probably comes to mind when they think of the military is the strict disciplinarians and rigid plans. The truth is the military has been using agile frameworks before it was cool. Whether you are a senior officer or an enlisted soldier, the military teaches you to be flexible, to promptly analyze the ever-changing circumstances, adapt, and overcome.

My years in the military has instilled in me an affinity for agile practices, and at ACME Growth, we use it every day to our advantage.

  • Sprints: One of the main pain-points that most people face while going agile is to figure out when to stop planning and start executing. In my experience, I’ve found that if there is enough information to work on your first sprint, it is a good time to start. The best plans may not work out exactly as you expected them to be. So, although planning is a necessary phase, you must learn to sprint your way to success.

Sprints allow you to get take a hyper-focused approach to getting started while working on quality and improvements on the way. Yes, when you work fast, you may fail fast, but you also fix fast because you identify issues early on.

  • Retrospectives: One thing that we do every day, without fail, at ACME Growth, is iterate. What retrospectives are to Scrum, After-Action Reports (AAR) are to the Military. The formats may vary but the idea remains the same. Like an AAR is generated post each field exercise, we retrospect after each project, or at the end of each day. You’ll be surprised how valuable the results have been to our success.

When I was a Marine I felt I had purpose and when I returned back to NYC it took me several years to realign myself and find my new and improved purpose. Which is:

To provide context and build passion to push through obstacles to create mutually beneficial relationships that fuel growth.

 

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Neal Conlon

Neal Conlon

Neal Conlon is a former Marine and has been in the sales and marketing industry for more than 12 years. An experienced PMP, and sales and marketing technology practitioner, Neal adds the most value to conversations around growth, sales engineering, sales enablement, and adoption and acquisition of customers. An avid blogger and keen observer of new trends, everything Neal does is an experiment in engagement. His favorite state of being - #letshustle
Neal Conlon

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