How being a Navy SEAL helped me navigate today’s workforce
The workforce is changing quickly. Today’s employees need to upskill and adapt to an ever-changing environment in order to stay ahead of the curve.
As technology changes and evolves, organisations, leaders and employees alike need to become more agile, faster decision-makers.
While many have to learn traits such as agility and quick thinking, certain careers naturally bring those traits out in people, making them the most prepared for the uncertain future.
Chuck McGraw is the chief operating officer at global advisory firm TLDR Capital. He previously worked at security and systems management company Tanium, but it was his 20-year career as a Navy SEAL before these roles that really stood to him.
McGraw joined the Navy when he was 17 and was the youngest member of his class when he started with approximately 100 trainees. He completed 11 combat deployments during his 20 years as a SEAL before retiring in 2016.
“For my entire career, I was surrounded by the most elite, high-performing operators and leaders in the world. I was fortunate enough to have them as teammates, mentors, leaders and friends,” he said.
McGraw spoke about one of the most important elements of the workforce that is starting to change: a centralised workforce versus a decentralised one. Centralisation refers to the hierarchical level within a company that has authority to make decisions. In a centralised organisation, decision-making is kept to the top level. When decision-making is delegated to lower levels, it’s decentralised.
“The special operations community has learned the importance and application of centralised planning and decentralised execution. We have mastered this on a scale and speed I have yet to see in the civilian sector,” said McGraw.
He said in the past, they used conventional multi-day planning cycles that were often covered in red tape. Once they learned that their enemies followed no such rules and were highly agile, it was time to cut the red tape.
“We had to run missions around the world, 24/7, without delays and where failure was not an option. When you spend 20 years in that type of work environment, operational excellence becomes second nature. Or at the least, it is the goal of how you execute.”
He said this kind of agility is exactly what works so well in a business setting and in TLDR Capital. “We all understand what our firm’s mission is and we trust each other to make the right decisions without having to always ask for permission,” he said.
McGraw said that working as a Navy SEAL taught him how to assess a situation, analyse his options, assess the risk to determine contingencies and then to act. “This is often done in high-stress environments with adverse conditions where time is of the essence.”
While the agility and quick thinking have been essential skills that McGraw can apply to his current career, he notes that making the wrong decision now may just delay a project or cost an opportunity. In the SEALs, it can be the difference between life and death.
“I have been on operations where there is complete chaos; not from internal chaos, but from the environment we were working in. Small teams split between multiple targets in close proximity, explosions going off all around you, non-stop chatter from your radio in both ears coming from aeroplanes giving you updates,” he said. “Each team leader must have the delegated authority to make calls based on what is going on in their micro-environment.”
With the speed that things change in business, McGraw said it’s still paramount to remain level-headed and make decisions quickly. “You may not have the perfect solution, but it is better to grab the riggers’ tape and glue, and execute on your vision than to sit around a whiteboard for days on end to get things ‘just perfect’,” he said.
Career advice from a former Navy SEAL
McGraw said that aside from his ability to adapt, analyse quickly and make decisions fast, he’s learned a number of other lessons from his Navy SEAL days.
“Every one of my successes was possible because of the team that was around me. Surround yourself with the right team if you want to be successful,” he said.
“Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Learn sooner than later that it is not about you, it’s about the mission. The ability to provide the best service or product to your client should be at the centre of your decision-making process.”
While a lot of quick decision-making can sound like completely abandoning processes and doing everything on the fly, McGraw also wanted to add that procedures do not stifle ingenuity or slow down the team. “It is the lack of discipline to follow them that makes a team fail.”
For those starting out on their career ladder, no matter what age they are or what industry they might be in, McGraw’s main piece of advice is to show up early, prepared and ready to perform. “One of my pet peeves is when someone shows up late or unprepared. It is disrespectful to the team and all those that count on you. No excuses!”
He also said it’s important to put your team first. “We had a saying in the SEALs: ‘Team gear, my gear and then me.’ If you were that guy that decided to shower and dry off while the rest of the team was wet and sandy cleaning all the team gear, it was an indicator of what your real priorities were.”
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