The rapidly growing industry of hypersonic propulsion requires both sage experience and youthful vigor. The team at Velontra Hypersonics has both. Host Fran Racioppi is joined in this episode by their President, retired Major General Craig Whelden, and their founder and CEO, Rob Keane.
General Whelden brings 40 years of leadership and experience in the defense industry. Rob brings engineering and innovation. Together they are propelling objects at five times the speed of sound and disrupting an industry that has long been dominated by major defense contractors. Pushing the sound barrier has not been done since the 1950’s. It was an area the United States once dominated, but today we are losing ground to China.
Rob shares the technology needed to move faster than we ever have, how he has implemented the FAST model to problem solving, and why bringing in Craig was so integral to compete. Craig provides his command philosophy, the importance of character in choosing your team, and his top leadership quirks that bring organizations, and people, all the wrong attention.
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A senior leader once told me that something comes from being on Earth longer. I have also been told that the most important resource an entrepreneur has is energy, not time. The rapidly growing industry of hypersonic propulsion requires both sage experience and youthful vigor. The team at Velontra Hypersonic has both. I’m joined in this episode by their President, retired Major General Craig Whelden and their Founder and CEO, Rob Keane.
General Whelden brings 40 years of leadership and experience in the defense industry. Rob brings engineering and innovation. Together, they are propelling objects at five times the speed of sound and disrupting an industry that has long been dominated by Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Pushing the sound barrier has not been done since the 1950s. It was an area the United States once dominated but now we are losing ground to China.
Rob shares with me the technology needed in the next war, how he’s implemented the fast model, the problem solving and why bring in Craig was so integral to competing. Craig provides his command philosophy, the importance of character in choosing your team, and his top leadership quirks that bring organizations and people all the wrong attention.
General Whelden, Rob, welcome to the show.
Thanks for inviting us.
I’m glad to be here. Appreciate it.
On this show, we talk a lot about effective intelligence. We define it as our ability to take our past experiences and apply those lessons learned to our current and future decision-making. In essence, it’s the concept that our past shapes our future perspective. That happens both good and bad. A former boss of mine, General Whelden, you might know him, Jim Linder, he used to tell me that something comes from being on Earth longer. I never knew what that meant until I started working for him. He saw problems differently than the rest of the staff did.
You have led organizations of every size in, part of the world and at-risk level. You have then gone on to share those lessons with those of us who can use those experiences to better ourselves through your book, which I read and thought was amazing. I have even shared it with a bunch of folks. You have done what you call pay it forward.
Rob, no organization has a greater need for effective intelligence than a startup. There’s no playbook, script, and how-to, when you look at the problem set, you want to tackle and say, “How am I going to do this?” Especially in an industry that you are in that requires constant innovation at a rapid pace because if you are not constantly thinking about the next thing and you can’t leverage experience, you are going to get bypassed and moved on.
You started a hypersonic propulsion company. I didn’t even know what hypersonic propulsion was until Craig and I spoke and I had to go look it up. There’s not a whole lot of people in this but it’s super technical, which means it’s not an easy challenge to go after but you had the vision and saw the path. I like this conversation. I’m excited to have you both here because we can look at entrepreneurs and leadership. We can look at building an organization from two different perspectives.
One from a senior experienced leader who has seen it all and done it all and then one from a young founder, who has a vision but has the wherewithal to realize very early on that, “I need this senior leader to come in here and help guide this organization.” The two perspectives are something that we can talk about. Rob, can you talk about, what is the company? What was your vision for it? What’s a hypersonic propulsion system?
Let’s lay a little groundwork for what hypersonic is. Most people are at least familiar with the idea of the speed of sound. We call the speed of sound Mach. Mach 1 means you are traveling at the speed of sound. If you go faster than Mach 1, you are traveling at a speed called supersonic. What’s cool about this is very clearly defined like, “We get it. You are faster than the speed of sound, you are supersonic.”
The first thing I will tell to all the people who don’t feel like they don’t understand what hypersonic is, don’t feel bad. Neither do the scientists. There’s not an incredibly clear definition for what hypersonic is. A rule of thumb we use is Mach 5 or 5 times faster than the speed of sound. Here’s a frame of reference. The speed of sound at sea level is about 742 miles per hour. Five times the speed of sound, 742 times 5, is around 3,500 miles per hour. That’s roughly what hypersonic means.
There’s some other fun physics people talk about when the atoms begin to disassociate with each other. Anyways, nerd stuff. Generically, that starts occurring somewhere around a little above Mach 5. That’s what hypersonic is. I will let Craig talk a little bit about why it matters. I will stick to this question a little bit on the technical. What are we doing in that space? If you want to go that fast, it takes a lot of force, thrust and so one is hypersonic propulsion.
We can dive into what we do. We are designing an engine, a propulsion system that uses air like a jet engine but can produce enough thrust to overcome the drag and get you to that speed. That’s the propulsion side. We also design the aircraft. There are some unique fun things about the aircraft, a term called vertically aligned. We design both the propulsion and the aircraft.
This is the same thing SpaceX does. They design the rocket and the rocket motor. If you look at a lot of the startups in the space, I don’t know how familiar you are with Venus, Hermeus. A lot of roofs in this space are moving towards a vertically aligned structure. At those kinds of speeds, you can’t just design an aircraft, and then go walk over to the Walmart engine shop and be like, “I will buy that one.” Bolt it on and it’s going to be alright. The two are so critically interfaced with each other. It’s critical from efficiency as well as raw tech standpoint to control them both.
We see as the applications.
The applications are going fast. A core application, one that let us early on was, we are flat out behind the Chinese and the Russians in the area of hypersonic weapons. What hypersonic allows you to do is go very quickly. To some extent, because you are going so fast, you tend to get a longer range. The two are tied. That speed, five times faster than the speed of sound, is 6 or 7 times faster than our cruise missiles.
That allows a Chinese and Russian adversary to launch a weapon system. By the time we detect the launch, identify what it is, where it’s going, and realize we need to do something about it, communicate it to say that the ship’s defensive structure, the ship’s individual defensive systems have to lock on and acquire. There has to be a handoff for that, then the actual individual responsive unit, that’s the defensive rocket, missile or gun, whatever has to, it’s too late. That thing has already punched through the carrier.
Our fleet defenses and overall US strategy are very carrier-centric. It’s fair to say that Craig understands this a little better and that’s the whole problem. They can take out our carriers and we can’t do anything without them. Therefore, we have to move our carriers further back, essentially and strategically. That’s one of the core applications, A) Giving us the same kind of threat. That’s classic deterrence. We have it. You have it. B) Defending against the threat. If you want to defend something very fast, you need something very fast. Also the ability to transport rapidly. There are some other fun applications on low Earth orbit. SpaceX has some good commercial stuff that we can provide more efficiently. We are pretty excited about that.
The core values of the company are innovative problem solving, mission accomplishment, transforming defensive freedom and total accountability. Why did you think, Rob, that it was important in this early phase of the company to bring someone like Craig in to begin to execute on those core values?
We try to have those matters. A lot of big-name companies and small-name companies have some random core values on the wall or even military groups. Some of them don’t necessarily embody them but we try to make them work. When we were discussing internally, bringing Craig on the team, we went through each of those core values and talked about, “How do we think Craig matches each one of them?”
There were two primary reasons for which we were very interested in having Craig be a permanent member of the team. They are in this order. Number one, the simple largest reason that we were interested in Craig was his raw leadership experience, his ability to mentor and help grow a team. We are a young team. We call ourselves middle-aged or young but we don’t have that raw experience.
After working with Craig for a short time, I quickly realized there was a reason he was a General grade officer at a Senior Executive Service. If you read his book, he gets leadership. That was something I thought we could use with the team. We had a good team but felt a little bit raw over here. We needed somebody who could bring that in. That was the number one reason we were interested.When discussing an issue or problem, don't beat around the bush, get to the bottom of it quickly. Click To Tweet
The second reason was transforming defensive freedom. When I answered your question, I went straight there as a core starting point for us defending America against adversary nations in this technology area. His understanding specifically, he will talk about some of his experience in the Pacific with a threat and at the strategic level. That’s the experience I don’t have. I was a Staff Sergeant. The experience was a little different. That was another key thing. His understanding of that threat, his experience with that threat, his connections, and his understanding of how the military works and how to work in that ecosystem.
Craig, why jump in?
Let me tell you how I’ve got introduced to Velontra. I met Rob in 2021 but my journey to Velontra started in 2000 when I was the Chief of Staff of US Army Pacific out in Hawaii. As a collateral duty, I was also the Deputy Commander of US Army Pacific. As a collateral duty, I was also the Chief of Staff of the Joint Task Force that was hyper-focused on China.
For three years I focused on China in that capacity and I understood the challenges that we had in confronting that. This is from 2000 to 2003. I then retired in 2003 and went into the private sector for about seven years, came back into the Federal government, and this time working for the Marine Corps as a Senior Executive Service member back in Hawaii. My charge then was to move 9,000 Marines and their family members from Okinawa to Guam, build a base in Guam, put about $1 billion with the training ranges on a little island called Tinian in the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, just North of Guam.
I did that for nine years before I went into the third chapter of my life. During those nine years, I watched China grow exponentially. Not just in their capabilities but their technology and the quantity of weaponry that they were able to put forward. I spent 8 of 9 years doing environmental studies for a base in Guam and those nine years, they built a dozen or so islands in the middle of the South China Sea and militarize them.
They are far ahead of us in some areas, both quantitatively and qualitatively, particularly in hypersonics, where we have no advantage whatsoever. As Rob said, if you can’t react fast enough because of the speed of an inbound missile, then you are probably going to get hit. When I met Rob and the Velontra team, that’s the first thing that struck me. These guys are working on a gap that exists not just with China but also with Russia, that we the United States, are going to have to close. That’s the first thing that impressed me.
The second thing that impressed me was the approach that they were taking. Their approach was like Skunk Works’ 60 years ago, Lockheed Martin when they built the SR-71. In record time, the fastest airplane on the planet. They empowered their engineers, gave them the resources they need and they said, “We need you to put together the fastest airplane in the world,” and they did that.
This company, Velontra is taking a very similar approach. Both Rob and the Chief Technical Officer, Joel, have extensive experience in Corporate America in the defense industry and have watched the slow bureaucratic wheels turn. In the twelve years that I spent in the Pacific, I understand that that just moves too slow, that we are not ever going to catch up unless we take a different approach.
First, technologically they were going after closing a gap that we clearly have that everybody recognizes. Secondly, their approach was, do it faster, cheaper and better than the competition. Even though it’s a startup, I was very impressed with the approach. I said, “Let me see if I can help you open some doors in the Department of Defense.” I started knocking on those doors and after about three weeks of that, that’s when Rob and the team did an assessment of me and they said, “We would like you to be a more permanent member of the team.” That’s when I came on full-time.
You talk about rocks in your backpack, it’s a big part of the book, and that throughout your life you pick up these rocks and you put them in your backpack. You use the good ones, you discard the bad ones but from all of them, you learn. What were the rocks of knowledge that you initially thought you could bring to the organization?
For your readers, let me tell a quick story. Your profession is a journey and your life is a journey. I have a chapter in my book about mentorship and one of the areas that I talked about was the most valuable form of mentorship, for me, is what I call virtual mentorship. That means that as you go on your journey through life, it’s like walking down a path.
As you are walking down the path and there are rocks along the path, each of those rocks represents an experience that you have or an observation that you make. As you see those experiences, have those experiences or see those observations, pick those up, put them in your rucksack and carry them with you. Both the good and the bad, so those years from now, you can reflect on what you experienced that was very good or what you experienced that was very bad.
I’ve got lots of rocks in my rucksack that I picked up over many decades. That’s the story, you use the experiences of your life to shape what you might do in the future. Let me give you a simple example. In my military career, I was a tanker, a cavalry guy. That’s all I did for many years. I was a Commander or an Operations Officer. Most of my time was grown up during the Cold War and so I spent about ten years in Europe because that’s where half the armor force was fighting the Soviet Union. That’s what we were preparing to do.
When I became a full Colonel and I came out on the command list, the Army told me I was going to command a base. I said, “A base? Are you kidding me? I don’t know anything about running a base and quite frankly, I don’t care to learn.” I’m a tanker, I’m a cavalry. It sounded terrible at the time, it truly did. There was a one-star general in the division at the time named, Eric Shinseki, who ended up being the Chief of Staff of the Army a few years later but General Shinseki agreed and said, “I’m going to try to get you to a tactical unit.”
He tried, through the chain of command, to get my slating as they call it, to command a base changed and he failed because the four-star general in charge of Europe said, “Whelden is in Würzburg, Germany. That’s where he currently is and he has been slated to command the base in Würzburg, Germany. He’s a square peg in a square hole. He has been a customer for eighteen months. It makes no sense to move him. By the way, he has credibility with the largest customer there, the 3rd Infantry Division, because he just spent the last eighteen months as the Operations Officer for the 3rd Infantry Division. We also need pretty good guys running bases.”
The four-star general in charge of Europe did not approve of changing the slate or even taking it back because that would have required the Chief of Staff of the Army’s approval to change it and I became a Base Commander. I learned in about three months, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned more about people and leadership than I ever would have had stayed in that traditional stovepipe, combat arms lane that I had been in for many years.
I switched over from 100% military, 100% male, to 95% civilians, 50% female, and half of them were German. I was doing everything from running childcare centers to paying the electrical bill, to building new buildings, to doing town halls and to doing labor-union negotiations. Things I had never done in my life and I knew very little about. In the two-week course, they sent me to, to learn how to do that wasn’t enough.
Is there actually a school to learn how to run a base?
There is and it lasts for about two weeks and all of a sudden, you are an expert. I went in and I told the Chain of Command, “I’m a pretty good judge of character, I believe. That has served me well over the last twenty years. I know when people are telling me the truth and people are not telling the truth and BS-ing me and so forth. I trust you until you demonstrate you are not worthy of that trust.” That puts a healthy pressure on people like, “We don’t want to violate his trust.” “I’m here to help you in ways that you otherwise can’t get progress on with your problem. You need to help me understand where your greatest challenges are so I can apply the resources at my level to help fix your problem, which happens to be my problem, which is the community’s problem.”
I did that for almost two years as a Commander there and it worked very well. I became the first former Base Commander to get promoted to Brigadier General. That’s not because I was a brilliant Base Commander, because even coming out of that experience, didn’t know a whole lot about running a base. What I did know something about was being a good judge of character.
When you tell this story, I think about the phrase that we use, hire for character, train for skill. It’s one of the core tenets here on the show. You don’t have a lot of experience in this role. Look at Velontra, you are not an engineer but Rob’s an engineer. Certainly, by the description of what the company does, it’s extremely technical and takes that level of technical expertise to be able to execute this every single day. Plus, he worked at GE Aviation and FBAE. You come in and have to apply a similar mindset to when you were at the base. Rob, I have a question on this about why go with Craig over an Air Force pilot, who probably had his head stuck in the backend of an airplane for the last 30 or 40 years?
I’m going to go back to the force recon background. There are a couple of key things. One of the first things that we learn is it takes heart. I’m sure he had some of the same experiences in the SF community. The heart is what I’m looking for. Not actually have big muscles, not the fastest guy. I recall, me in my early training days, the super high attrition rates and people quitting, failing or not making it. There were a lot of people faster than me, stronger than me, and bigger than me but what it came down to was the heart because they will get you in shape.
I fast forward a little bit, I was on the instructor’s side. Staff and CO, getting people ready to go to the recon school, ready to go to the combat and dive school, etc. That was something I also quickly learned. When you have a new group of people you are working with, don’t judge them by looking at that guy who’s all ripped and looks like he’s a Greek God and assumes he’s going to be the best. Quite often, he wasn’t because he had done quite well based on his raw strength but when it came down to having that grit and that cut, it wasn’t always that. That’s a full mix as you know. Some guys were huge and amazing, and there are guys who are not.
I learned I didn’t care how strong someone was because I could make them strong. A painful process but I can make them strong, as long as they had the heart, the no-quit and the will to learn. As long as they had that drive and that energy that they were there to learn, we will get you there. It’s not the raw strength. In fact, it doesn’t even take that long if you think about it. Three months in one of the prep courses, whether it’s the Green Berets is one, ours is the SEALs, whatever. Three months of that, anybody is going to be in pretty solid shape but will you last three months and work through it?
What Craig brings is a couple of direct skillsets. I would like to point that out, too. The issue we are trying to solve is a strategic issue ultimately and I don’t understand strategy. He is directly bringing that to the table, for sure, and then his understanding of how to interface with the military at a high level. That is another thing that he is bringing.
Something else that Craig has demonstrated that I have been very impressed with is one, he’s humble. In fact, he’s coming to working with us on this thing and he’s a General. He’s got 30 years. He has been at more high-level things than I have ever been in my life and yet, he’s willing to work with us and willing to learn. He will ask questions and has progressed. He can tell you a lot about hypersonics and our system. He could talk to you about why a ram is different from a rocket.
Early in 2021, if you asked Craig, “What’s the difference between a ramjet and a rocket?” I would bet he could not tell you that. I’m guessing here but I have a suspicion there’s something he’s learned and that’s something that I have been very impressed with immediately. What he talked about all the rocks, those experiences, and those things, what Craig has not lost is his desire to keep picking up new rocks and learning new things. That’s an incredible person to be a leader in your team.
Not only does he bring in all those things that I talked about but he’s willing to keep learning and apply them to a new field. Take all of those skills, people skills, personal skills, all his direct knowledge of the military and all this other stuff. How does this apply to running a small business? That’s a new one for both Craig and me. We are both learning that one. Also, the specific technical as an engineering startup field. It has been awesome.
I will work with a high-conviction person a million times. Also, in our hiring strategy, I am more interested in that smart engineer who I know is going to work and learn stuff. I can deal with that so much more. I’m considered low-experienced in the engineering field, even at GE. I show up at GE at 30. There are a lot of people who are my colleagues who have been there for 8 or 10 years. If I could not be too arrogant, my performance absolutely master exceeded, how? It’s because I brought that same mentality of, “If I’m going to learn, I’m going to work my ass off and I’m going to get here.”
I was going to ask Craig, what he has been learning because you both talked about learning. We have to ask him the question of, what is the difference between a ramjet and a jet engine?Use the experiences of your life to shape what you might do in the future. Click To Tweet
The better question is, what’s the difference between a rocket and the fuel injection system that we are doing? What sets us apart from everybody else? All of your readers may have seen or are probably aware that SpaceX launched a rocket with four civilians into space and it’s going higher than the two previous ones.
They paid a lot of money for that.
It cost an awful lot of money to put that rocket up into the air. When a rocket leaves the ground, it has zero stability because it starts from a standing start so it needs a tremendous, unbelievable amount of thrust to get it off the ground, ultimately, to a speed it needs to go. It takes a while to do that. That’s the reason you see it unstable at the very beginning. At Cape Canaveral, if the wind is blowing more than 7 or 8 miles per hour, they may cancel it because they don’t want that instability to occur when the rocket is 3 feet off the ground.
What’s the difference between what we do and what they do? We are an airplane, we are a drone, unmanned airplane, essentially, that takes off like an airplane that gathers speed on a runway and gets going, and then climbs on its own. It’s much more than a rocket and less expensive. Those two absolutely gigantic parts that they have on either side, which they had to discard, those parts were to get it off the ground high enough so it can get the momentum it needs to get into space.
Our approach is much more efficient than that. There are an awful lot of companies that are in the rocket business, there are not a whole lot of companies that are in the approach that we are taking. That’s a differentiator for us. To illustrate that point, a rocket is like a dragster if you want to use a metaphor and our system is more like a Ferrari. If you want something that goes very fast, quickly, in a straight line, go for a rocket. If you want something that can maneuver, change speeds, has flexibility and capabilities that rockets don’t have, then you go with us.
No drags are making that hairpin turn one on the Le Mans, and then reaccelerating up. That’s the thing that you get. A Ferrari can take a little bit longer to get to 200 miles an hour than a dragster but a dragster can’t slam on the brakes on that first hairpin turn, do a turn, and then reaccelerate. A lot of what we are offering, Craig mentioned stability, flexibility and Mission Control.
Whereas a rocket is, if you need a rocket, you need a rocket but if you want efficiency, you are going to have to do something else. That’s another thing, dragsters are highly fueled inefficient. It burns all its fuel in a few seconds. Whereas Ferrari could have 24-hours in Le Mans kind of thing. The concepts are very similar. It’s a great analogy, Craig.
One of the value propositions that you have put forth from the company is this FAST problem-solving approach, Fast, Attributable, Scalable, Tangible, is an acronym in there. Can you talk about that concept and how you have applied it in the company? We have spoken a lot about speed so it’s very fitting but how have you applied that concept into the culture of the organization?
Supercritical is fast approach speed and I’m sure if you are familiar with the Special Operator days, speed and violence of action are tending to be key. Any decision is better than no decision. A lot of that is embodied in the company. We are behind the Chinese and the Russians, and over the last 20, 30 years, this has been shifting.
As an example, the F-22, a state-of-the-art airplane. It’s amazing. Development began in the ‘80s. If you take from when they first drew the first lines on a napkin to when the last one rolled off the line, you are looking at a 30-year cycle, which is definitely a few designs began in the ‘80s and the last ones didn’t roll off until the 2000s, 2010 or something. Thirty-year cycle, is the F-22 Amazing? Yes. Is this technology state-of-the-art? Yes.
The US is capable of developing state-of-the-art technology that would surpass the Chinese and the Russians, so why are they surpassing us? It’s not because we are not smart enough. It’s because we take too long and it costs too much. With the F-22 and the F-35 program, both the Obama and Trump administrations respectively had to cut those respective programs. In my unasked-for opinion, they were both right to do so. They cost so much. We have a total of about 170 F-22s.
As Craig was talking about, quantity becomes a quality in and of itself. The real problem, although it’s a technical problem behind him you’ve got to dive more into it. Why? It’s because we are taking too long and expensive. Let’s fast forward to the SR-71, the first time a ramjet has operationally done something like that. From 1957, that’s when it was funded by the CIA. A prototype was done in three years. Literally, ten times faster.
Back then they did it in three years and we have slowed the innovation process.
There you go. Let’s talk about that fast process and this is something where my CTO who is a little bit more technical, our partner, comes in. How come with modern manufacturing techniques like 3D printing and modern computing techniques, we are slower? We should be faster. These guys were using slide rules and hand calculations and built the fastest plane ever. It still holds speed records to this day. For some certain flight routes, the SR-71 still holds speed records.
How come many years later, it’s going to take us decades and trillions of dollars. That’s why I said, “No, we can do this fast.” Obviously, we are going fast and there’s some shameless marketing in that little acronym but what do I mean by that FAST process? One, design quickly. I have seen Corporate America will spend two years to get that 99.99% computer simulation. They will appear to re-simulate and re-simulate. What we do is we spend two days to get the 80% solution, and then let’s get it on the test. Let’s build something. Let’s get something physical. That’s the T, the Tangible in that FAST acronym. That’s what we mean by tangible. We are going to get something quickly. The other thing is we talk about the attributable. That’s an Air Force word they made up.
There are a lot of made-up Air Force words.
My dad was in the Air Force for twenty years. Flew a C-47 in China and India in World War II and supported Chennault’s Flying Tiger. I have a special place for that in my heart.
I was in the Army Air Corps, too. In fact, my mom has a propeller from those days. Attributable, that’s the affordable mass. That’s the costing. I started and get far behind it. I said, “We are too slow and too expensive.” In that FAST acronym, the first thing is Fast and I told you how we are designing fast. The second is, we are too expensive and that’s the attributable.
We’ve got to design lower cost and we do that by not trying to get the 99.999%. Just get the 80%. Use the existing stuff. Go off the shelf when you can and target those lower-cost options where we can get the affordable mass because I don’t care how good the F-22 is. I don’t care if it defeats the first ten enemy fighters like, “10 to 1, it will beat them all. 20 to 1, it will beat them all.” It’s okay, the Chinese will throw up 100, literally, and then it’s not going to matter.
Even if you still don’t shoot the F-22 down, if it’s out of missiles, it’s over. You can sit there and not be shut down and watch as the other 80 come in. That’s the attributable thing. Scalable, this helps within itself with the attributable. We usually start small intentionally because everything about it is cheaper. “It literally uses less material. It needs less fuel. I need to ram less air in. I need to heat up less stuff. All the expense, the test stands it’s sitting on can be smaller, that’s cheaper and easier for them to meat.”
That’s scalable because then I can learn the fundamental physics and hardcore tech stuff. Most of it, I can learn at a smaller scale and learn a lot, rapidly prototype, an advance that technical readiness level, and then that also applies to a lot of applications we can go. We can scale this down to a very small type of application or a larger one. Finally, Tangible, we are hardware-centric. We started with very brilliant people working with slide rules who did amazing things with essentially zero computer power, even going to the moon. Your cell phone has probably double or ten times the computing power the Apollo rocket had. Keep that in mind.
We have forgotten what you can do without computers. I’m not an anti-computer. I’m a tech guy and a nerd. I’ve got a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering. I’m all about power but we have relied too much on it. We should shift the other way to a better balance. Back to a little bit more hardware focus. You have seen some companies, let’s say become this very successful employee approach. With brilliant people with all the computing power in the world, it still fails. Something still happens because it’s not all predictable. A model is still only a model.
This is an engineering thing. We say this, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.” There are life applications there too, so keep that in mind. What we want to do is, “I understand your model is wrong. Get the use you can out of it but then let’s learn something. Let’s see what actually happens. Get some real data back that lets us understand what’s really going on. We can plug that in those models and get a lot better.” That’s our FAST process.
I like this process because you can apply it to any organization. It doesn’t matter to the industry if you quantify your problem set in this manner. Character is a critical part of the development of a team because it doesn’t matter how many ideas you have and how great they are if you don’t have the right people. If you don’t have good people who abide by a certain set of character traits to execute on that vision, you will never get there. You can have all the money in the world, it doesn’t matter.
Craig, in the book you talk about a couple of different character traits. You said that “A critical and foundational element of the very best leaders is a character with qualities like ambition, perseverance, self-awareness, empathy, humility, integrity, and always taking seriously the responsibility of being a leader, often while sacrificing their own personal welfare or gain.”
On the show, we talk about the nine characteristics of SOF as it relates to assessment, selection, and recruitment of SOF personnel, and then tying them into the corporate world being drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, effective intelligence, team ability, curiosity and emotional strength. A lot of parallels to what you have laid out in your theory.
This industry, your competition Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, these are the big players that have been around in those 30-year development cycles but not only for one airplane but for multiple airplanes over a tremendous amount of time. Can you talk more, Craig, about these characteristics as you build this team, as you look at the talent that’s required to move forward and scale this thing? What are you looking for and what’s the evaluation process that you are putting in place to make sure you are bringing in the right level of talent?
I would go back to our discussion about values. When I came on board, the values for this company had already been established early on. It’s one of the first things they did when they sat down as a team, “What’s the objective? What’s the vision? What are the values of this company?” That became the base plate.
When I wrote my book, I had never written a book before, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I thought I was a pretty decent writer but it was pretty intimidating to write a book when somebody said you should write a book. When I’ve got done with the manuscript, I hired an editor, a guy that I met in California and I sent it to him. He said, “Tell me what you think the most important aspect of leadership is.” I said, “Without question, it’s the strength of character.” He said, “That should be Chapter 1 in your book.”
As you look at my book, you will see that Chapter 1 is Character: The Foundation of All Great Leaders, there is a quotation I have in there that was one of my personal heroes, John Wooden. He was a famous basketball coach. Won more NCAA championships than anybody on the planet. He taught his players more than just basketball skills. He taught them how to work as a team, he also taught them an awful lot about character. One of the quotes that I love from him is, “Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be grateful. Conceit is self-given, be careful.” Listen to the words, they are powerful.
Character is a foundation that without which, just about everything else fails and you see the strength of a person’s character when they are under pressure. You either see it hold or you see it fall apart. That has been my experience of over 40 plus years associated with the military. I’m a pretty good judge of character and that’s the skillset that I took going into Base Command when I took command of a base in the early ‘90s. I don’t know much about running the base and quite frankly, I don’t know much about hypersonics but I do understand something about people and I’m a pretty good judge of character.Leadership is knowing that you can't do everything. You have to trust your team. Click To Tweet
It’s not complete but it’s almost intuitive. You can either judge that or you can’t judge it. I have been more right than I have been wrong. When I met this team, Rob, Joel, and Mark, I said to myself, “These guys have the strength of character that I’m looking for and I feel pretty good.” We have worked together, we have jelled, and we have gotten to know each other better. When we start bringing other people into the team, we are all measuring them by that same metric, starting with character. If they don’t have character, it almost doesn’t matter what technical skills they bring to the table.
Rob, Seth Goldman, the Chairman of Beyond Meat said, “An entrepreneur or founder cannot delegate anything at the beginning.” Craig said in his book, “If you believe everything depends on you to ensure that it’s done properly, then you are in for a rough road ahead. It can be hard to relinquish control but leaders need to delegate, and to do that, you need to trust those below you and the people below them, and the folks below them.” Craig has talked about trust and that being a central element to building these organizations.
Where are you in the lifecycle of the business? As you sit here as the Founder, you look around, it’s starting to gain traction, you are starting to talk to the right people. Things are taking off. What’s that pressure like on you? Is it still very centric? Are you able to start to delegate? How has Craig been instrumental in getting you to understand that you can relinquish some of that? We then can go to Craig and ask him if you are actually doing that.
You’ve got to do a lot of the work. You don’t have people and you don’t have the money to pay people. Certainly, we are still in that. We have grown the team a little bit. We’ve got some more advisors. Some total on the company between direct employees, advisors, we are at 10 or 11. That vicinity is roughly where we are at. That does allow for some expansion of delegation.
The other thing I found to be critical in an early startup and it leans well to the Special Operations community is a little bit of a Jack of all trades. You’ve got to wear a lot of hats. You are going to have to do a lot. When Craig came on the team, the very first direct feedback to the team he gave us was, “Rob is doing something.” You hit the nail on the head. It was a problem.
I did have the first feedback. I wouldn’t say I have learned it yet. I would say I’m trying. Craig also is not just, “Here’s your problem,” then walk away. He helped and offered solutions by helping bring on someone who’s working with us, Tom, who you are familiar with. He’s working with us and he’s helped with some of the capacities and doing some things with us.
Also, Craig himself will pitch in on things that aren’t necessarily his expertise or what you could call his job title or his responsibilities. It’s not interfacing with the military customer. That’s not Craig’s job. Craig will review the technical submissions that we are doing. Maybe he can’t change the Physics Laws but he can make statements more clear and he’s willing to do it. It’s really amazing. I do a PowerPoint and there’s a typo. It happens a lot. Let’s be real and Craig helps us with our attention to detail. Another focus. Craig won’t just be like, “There’s a typo on slide seven.” He will be like, “There’s a typo on slide seven and I fixed it.” That has been some of the help.
On the concept of delegation, I certainly understand it. It’s a little tough on the small team. It helps and I have alluded to it. I learned that when I worked for a good boss. We all have had good bosses and bad bosses. I had a guy who was the Operations Chief Gunnery Sergeant Rivera. I was the Dive Chief. Gunnery Rivera told me and he was trying to provide the same mentorship, “You can’t do everything. You have to trust your guys. You have to.” I can’t do it all and so he would trust me. As long as that dive locker is running, he said, “Keane, as long as I’m always able to dive anytime I want, the equipment has to be up. It has to be ready to call over inspection. You do whatever you want but make sure that is always the case.”
He was very hands-off. He let me do my job. If I ever needed support, I’ve got it but he trusted me. It made my life amazing. It made me happy. I was like, “I can’t.” Craig alluded to something similar. Guess what it made me feel like? A guy down, because he is trusting me. I start to feel a certain obligation to hold that trust and all of a sudden, I’ve got motivated to do more than I normally would have. That’s leadership.
Is he right? Is that what he’s doing?
That’s exactly what happened. The first thing I said to them was, “Rob is too busy. There are only 24 hours in the day and he’s trying to put 36 hours of work into 24 hours, he needs help.” That’s when I reached out to Tom Hall, who you know from your Army experience, Ranger Battalion. I knew he was a great guy. I have known him through a LinkedIn connection and we’ve got a little bit of mentorship relationship going. I said, “Tom, how would you like to be part of a new adventure? It doesn’t pay anything right but it’s something you would enjoy.”
The most fun ones don’t.
That’s how Tom Hall came onto the thing. I also said to the group, “You have three members of the board of advisors, they are all technical people. You don’t have anybody in the military on your board of advisors. I’m bringing some of that senior-level experience from the military into the team but we could use more.” We recruited and got a retired three-star general from the Marine Corps on our board of advisors. We have a retired one-star pilot. Whelden’s not a pilot.
You mentioned, “Why don’t you have a General on the team who spent a lot of time looking at the tailpipe?” Great point.
It’s something Craig realized and he brought it on the team.
I don’t have that skillset so I found somebody did. Jonathan George is a great guy who flew the U-2 spy plane, the B-1 bomber, the B-2 bomber, he was on President Obama’s National Security Council and he’s a member of our board of advisors. He’s brought a perspective, particularly with the Air Force that none of the rest of us had. As we started knocking on those doors, both those guys add credibility to our initial storyline that we give to potential customers.
I would argue though, Craig, you do have experience with the Army’s jet engine, which is the tank engine but I know that you primarily use that as a grill out in the field. Nice steaks out there.
Let me tell a quick story about tankers. You always carry a 1-gallon bucket on a tank and the purpose of the 1-gallon bucket is to stick it underneath the engine compartment so that if you have an oil leak you are not contaminating the ground. That 1-gallon bucket also can hold water. You take water, carry two 5-gallon cans of water, fill up the 1-gallon can with water, put it on the end of your gun tube, swing your gun tube around to the back, turn your tank on, heat the thing you dropped your MREs into that hot water and it heats your meal. You can shave because you’ve got hot water. Even though I went to graduate Ranger School in 1973, there’s a reason I was a tanker and not an infantry guy. By the way, the smoke grenades on either side of an M1 tank are perfect for holding six-packs of drinks. You can work those in there, too.
I was a mechanized infantry platoon leader in 4th ID. We were halfway in between but we would watch this type of fieldcraft antics out in the field and it was hilarious watching this. They had the best ideas, and then we would always look at each other and go, “Why didn’t we think about that?”
Let me tell you a quick story about inspired leadership. I once worked for a three-star general who was a consummate gentleman. He never raised his voice in anger. He never got upset. He was an ISTJ, that’s a Myers-Briggs characterization of personality. Very organized, sharpened his pencils every day, made a list of the things he’s going to do the next day. I was his deputy and a Colonel, who was his operations officer came up to me one day and he said, “General so and so is the toughest guy I have ever worked for.” I thought at the time, “Why is that?” “It’s because General so and so is a perfect gentleman. I never wanted to disappoint him. I would have been crushed if I would ever disappoint him.”
That’s an indicator of inspired leadership. That Colonel, like myself and so many others in that organization, every day that we’ve got up, we wanted to do the best we possibly could for the organization because the last thing we wanted to do was disappoint the boss. That’s how I feel about Velontra. I don’t want to disappoint Rob. I don’t have to do this, I’ve got a couple of pensions. I’m doing fine but this is an adventure that helps get me up every day, Velontra. Watching these young guys work the way they work to achieve their vision and their dream, it’s exciting for me.
We had a conversation about that in another previous episode with Andy Towers, he’s the Head Coach of the Premier Lacrosse League team the Chaos. He told a story about these two types of leadership. I had a high school football coach who would beat you. He would grab you by the face mask, spit in your face, kick you when you were in your stance and you played for this guy because it was sheer fear. I had a lacrosse coach in the spring season who was an older guy. He never got upset but when you did something wrong, he was disappointed and he showed you that. It was more emotional to play for him in the spring and be wrong than it was in the fall and get beaten, year in and year out.
In front of the Infantry Hall at Fort Benning, there’s a statue of a leader and the inscription at the front says, “Follow me.” He’s waving his arm forward like the troops are behind him. He’s leading by example. He’s out front. He’s not behind the troops pointing them with a bayonet. This is a metaphor that the right way to lead is to demonstrate to your subordinates that you are part of them. You are part of the team. That you are contributing and leading through example. These are all basic principles of leadership but they are so important because of the psychological impact you have on the people that you lead.
You lead from the front, always.
It’s hard to measure but it’s there.
A follow-me jump is the most fun type of jump that you get to do. I’m thinking of following me and I know it’s a little weird. That’s the precise thing he’s doing. “Follow me,” then you go. That’s the best way to being the Jumpmaster, is to be the last man and be first.
Risk is a big component of building and leading any organization. As leaders, we have to quantify and understand risk. Craig says in his book that, “Life experience helps shape your definition of risk.” I’m wondering, as you build this business and you look at it from these two different perspectives, what are the biggest risks to the business and the challenges that you come out every day and face?
We all have a lot to learn. I haven’t started a business before. This is one that I’m learning. If you google, “Why do startups fail?” You look at venture capital forums, they don’t even have advice, what they look for, what’s the biggest concern. The number one reason startups fail is not that the business idea is crap, some startups fail due to that, it’s not that they don’t get customers, they don’t get revenue or they can’t execute but it’s the team why startups fail. It’s the most common reason.
That is the number one risk and you already pointed out how you solve that risk, you do all the things you talked about, you focus on character, ethos, you are making sure somebody can work with a team and there’s a right guide for the team. That’s why we have been talking for some amount of time on this show on that. It’s critical. The team, those early hires, the early leadership team members, the Craig’s, they are so critical. It’s the team.
There’s a risk to the business and a technical risk. That’s the most difficult technical problem. The SR-71 flies using an afterburner up to about Mach 2.25. At that point, it begins to transition from a traditional turbojet with an afterburner to what’s called a ramjet but it didn’t quite finish the transition. It gets up to about Mach 3.2 and that’s why it was limited. It cut off the turbojet.
The jet engine was still doing a little bit. The ramjet was doing most of it but the jet engine was still doing some. It didn’t complete that transition. That will be the most technically difficult problem. Completing that transition is what will enable us to get to Mach 5, Mach 5.5. Business standpoint and team, that’s the number one business risk, in my opinion. The number one technical risk is completing the transition. That’s the problem that hasn’t quite been solved before. That has not been done.
How many people are working on this problem set, not necessarily in your team but from a competitive edge?The right way to lead is to demonstrate that you're part of the same team. Click To Tweet
It’s hard to say. You are asking me a tough question. In our specific air-breathing technology, not a lot. There are a couple of other companies working on this. There are a lot of people working on rockets. If you wanted to hire a rocket guy, you could probably hire 10 rocket guys for every 1 person who has afterburner or ram burner experience. There’s a reason for that. Just so you know, the same physical hardware becomes a ram burner. It’s the same technical stuff there.
Where do you see afterburners? Military fighter planes. We build a new military fighter plane, how often? We talked about this. It’s once every 20, 30 years. Since the 1950s, in theory, we are developing the sixth-generation fighter. In 70 to 80 years, we have done six generations worth of fighters. You are looking at 15 to 20 years after the afterburner is built. That’s a few total people.
There are a bajillion rockets and rocket companies. There are fewer who work this specific approach to hypersonics. It’s small. As far as others, one other person, one other entity doing it. Even in the big corporate world, a lot of them are doing rocket-based approaches. There are probably 1 or 2 large primes that are doing something like what we are doing, Rolls-Royce is.
Craig speaks about the light at the end of the tunnel and the critical role that leaders play when it comes to guiding others through the dark tunnels of life. Have you experienced any dark tunnels yet?
I was not the Chief Executive Officer. Somebody else was the Chief Executive Officer. This guy is a guy who has been successful and done a lot of amazing things. Ultimately, one of the things that had to happen is we fell into a purely technical role. There is a certain amount and you need to speak to the tech. When people talk to a startup, we talk to venture capital, even military people. There is going to be a point where they want to talk to the CEO. That is how it goes.
I wasn’t originally big on titles. I didn’t think it mattered but I have learned it does. The gentleman who was helping us was not a technical guy. That’s no fault of his. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t value-added and great for the team. Craig is not an engineer and he’s great for the team. We realized we needed to have somebody who understood the raw engineering and could answer those specific engineering and tech questions. That is a difficult conversation to have, to tell somebody very early and helped you start your business, “You can’t be the CEO anymore. I’m sorry, it’s not working out. By the way, I have to be.”
That is hard to approach from both telling somebody, “You can’t be the CEO,” and telling them, “By the way, I’m going to be the CEO.” That was a tough thing to deal with. I’m glad we did. It has helped the overall team dynamic and we are in a better place due to it. That was a dark place. That was very tough. I don’t know how many hours I talked to Craig, “How do we approach this? How do we deal with it? How does this happen?” It’s tough to deal with. You don’t want a person to feel like they are not valued that they don’t need to be on the team. You have to change seats. Sometimes you have to change roles and responsibilities every time.
Those are the tough conversations that you have to have as a leader. You can’t shy away from those. In a startup, we have talked a bit about what I call the founder’s dilemma, the point at which the founder wakes up and says, “I may have been the person who got us here but I may not be the person who gets us there.” Having the humility to say, “I’ve got to step away. Somebody else has to take this.” That’s tough on both sides of that equation. Craig, Rob said that you mentored him through it. What did you see? How do you coach someone through that?
We all recognized the problem and the challenge early on. The rest of us, not this one individual, had some conversations together. It ended up being like a family intervention that you might do with somebody. It’s not that there’s a parallel to somebody who’s on drugs or anything. In a family intervention, you bring the entire team together and you sit down. When you talk to somebody about change and you know that will be difficult for that person, you have to think through, “How is this going to be received by the other party? How does this hammer going to fall the most gentle way?”
I do a presentation on effective communications where I tell people, “You have to put yourself in the shoes of the other person before you open your mouth.” How is your message going to be perceived? If you are talking to a 6-year-old or a 60-year-old, you are talking to a Liberal or Conservative, you are talking to a male or female, you are talking to an American or a foreigner, it doesn’t matter who you are talking to. If you have a message to give, you need to understand how is that message going to be received. It’s not so much what you say that matters. It’s what the other person hears.
Over many years, I have learned when I communicate to either groups or to individuals to put myself in the shoes of that person, how is this message I’m about to give going to be received by the other party in the best way? Communicate it in that way. We talked about this intervention where we all sat down together to talk about this issue. We framed it out ahead of time.
One of the things you do when you’ve got bad news is, you seed that bad news with some good news, “Let me tell you all the wonderful things and the great achievements that we have had to date. However, there’s a need for change for these reasons and that’s why we are doing this.” It’s not a reflection on the skillsets of an individual, it’s a business decision.
You’ve got to approach with truth, honesty, objectivity and transparency. Craig, you have talked about life as a journey, not necessarily a destination. As you go on this fast ride to build this company, are you taking the time to appreciate it?
I try to. That’s a good point. You’ve got to enjoy the ride. I love it. It fits well. I’m not trying to come across as arrogant but you want to feel like, what does your life built? I’m working on something I’m passionate about. We are largely defense and military-focused. That’s a portion of my life. I feel like those skillsets come in. I have always enjoyed leading. The best job in the Marine Corps is as a Force Recon Team Leader. There’s nothing like it.
We do six-man teams but you can be the only six people in some African nation somewhere. You are the senior guy. That level of autonomy, that awesome responsibility is exciting. It applies very well. Here you are with a small startup and a member of the leadership team, not quite the same dictatorial way that is the military structure but still having a lot of drive to control the system. You work at large Corporate America and you quickly realize nobody gives a crap who you are and what you do.
Albert Einstein could work at one of the big huge corporate companies for 30 years and in the end, he would get a cute little certificate. That’s how it would be on the small businessman. You get to impact it. On the other side, I’m a nerd. My dad flew the F-4 Phantom and the FA team. My brother is an Apache pilot. My uncle is an aerospace engineer on faculty. I took a class from him. That was cool. I love aerospace engineering. I love science. I love space, I always have. I’m going to put that in. I love it. It is fun. It’s a little stressful trying to get this thing off the ground but I love it.
I put together a little section here called Craig’s Leadership Quirks. They come from him. What I thought I would do here is throw him out. Craig, you give us the top line two-sentences definition of what it means. The first one is timeliness is an indicator of discipline and organization.
First, let me tell a story. I worked for a different three-star general than the one I told about. He came into the organization. The first week, he had a staff meeting. He came into the room. He sat at the end of the table and there was a clock on the wall opposite of him. He was there about five minutes early. He looked at the clock.
The meeting was supposed to start at 9:00. When the second hand hit the 9:00, he turned to his side and said, “Close the door and lock it.” The aide closed the door and locked it. Two people were missing, two Colonels that were on the staff that was not in the room because they were late. They came to the door about a minute or two later and they found it locked. They knocked on the door to come in and the General turn to his side and said, “Don’t open the door.”
This guy had a thing about timeliness. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is something to be said about timeliness. Come into a meeting and if you are going to start at 9:00, start at 9:00. All of us have who served and many of your readers perhaps who have served in the military know that when you get in line at departure time, you cross the line at departure on time. You don’t cross late. You’ve got to cross the line of departure when you are supposed to. Many other pieces of the puzzle are dependent on you crossing the line of departure on time.
What’s the point of telling that story? There are a couple of things. One is timeliness is important. The other important thing is this three-star general had not communicated yet to his staff any of the personal quirks that he had. If I were doing that, if I could rewind the clock and I were in his shoes, what I would have done is allowed the people to come into the room late. In my first presentation to the staff, I talk about what’s important to me. If timeliness is one of those things, which I have a thing about, I mention that timeliness is important. If we have a meeting that starts at 9:00, I expect you to go.
Weeks after that, perhaps months, those two Colonels who were late for that meeting carried that burden that in their first engagement with this three-star general, they were humiliated. They felt horrible. Was that healthy for the organization? Is that the best way to teach somebody about how important you view timeliness? I’m not sure it was the best approach. Timeliness is an indicator of discipline.
The second one, attention to detail.
Crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s is important. Let me use another story to illustrate that, particularly when your emotions are higher than they probably should be. Somebody sends you an email. You get it. It makes you mad, upset and angry. You walk away, come back, cooled down a little bit and say to yourself, “I wonder if I should have been less hasty.” What I tell people is, “Take a breath, do a draft, walk away, come back when things are not quite as emotionally high as they are, and see if you want to push send. Once it’s out, it’s too late to get back in.”
I did that before we started this show. I’ve got one I didn’t like. I started typing it and then I said, “I’m going to wait until the end of this. I’m going to circle back on this thing. If I send this, it might not be the message I want.”
It looks completely different the second time you look at it because your mental state is different. You approach it differently.
Three, persistence and initiative.
That’s what I love about Rob and Velontra. These guys are persistent. They are dedicated to getting into the objective. They were raised that way. Rob is a Force Recon guy. I spent 40 years in the military. I grew up in an Air Force family, even longer than the military. Mission-focused, take the hill, take the objective, not at all cost but certainly do everything you possibly can to get to the other side. Persistence is important.
Get to the bottom line quickly.
Nothing is more frustrating than having somebody come and tell you, in an exciting way, “We’ve got a real problem.” They then start to spend the next ten minutes describing how they’ve got to the problem before they even tell you what the problem is. I tell people upfront, “Tell me the bottom line up front.” There has been a horrible accident on a tank range and we’ve got two people seriously injured that’s being medivac to the hospital. Don’t start with how it got to that point and twenty minutes later, get to the punch line. Tell me the punch line upfront, and then you can back up and tell me the story about how it got there. The bottom line upfront is important.
Understand that you have different kinds of people on your team who bring their communication styles to the table. You don’t want everybody to be like you. Diversity is good. You want people to have different views. When I talk about this in my leadership presentations, I use Myers-Briggs as an example, which is a personality test. I tell people, “There are sixteen different profiles in Myers-Briggs. I happen to be an ISTJ.”
I stand for an introvert. Rob happens to be an E, an extrovert. That’s a great pairing to have an introvert and an extrovert on the same team because each of them brings different strengths. I recognize the weaknesses and strengths that he has and he recognizes the weakness. We can make up for it with each other. One of the things I always did when I want to do an organization was, oftentimes, we would all take the Myers-Briggs test. We then could understand what personalities are on the team, where we can tap into the strengths of certain types of people and minimize the weaknesses of those same people.
Number five, give detailed guidance when required.
My wife tells me that sometimes I tell people how to build a watch. My response to that is, “If I’m getting the vibe from this person I’m talking to that, they don’t get it, I’m going to keep drilling down until I do get the vibe that they do get it.” I tell people upfront, “I will tell you how to build a watch if you allow me but if you indicate to me early on you’ve got it, then I will back off.”The number one reason startups fail is not because of a bad business idea. It's because of the team. Click To Tweet
As Rob said, he’s got this BS detector. There’s a certain sense that you have that people are resonating with what you say to them or they are not. It’s like volume control. You can either turn it up or turn it down based on how well you think your message is being received. You can also read the body language and see how it is being not just received but perceived because the body language tells us a lot.
If somebody is sitting there and you can tell they are not listening to you because they are on the edge of their seat waiting for you to take a breath so they can interrupt you, you think, “This guy is not even listening to me.” Being a good listener is a skillset. That is very important as well to demonstrate to the person who’s talking to you that you genuinely care about what they are saying and that you are going to allow them to get it out.
Fran, I would ask your readers to reflect a moment. Have they ever worked for somebody who, 2 or 3 months after they came into the organization, are still trying to figure them out? “What does this guy or this gal think is important? I don’t know because they have never told us that.” That’s why Whelden on Whelden, which is a briefing I used to give when I was in the military, is appendix B in my book. It’s a briefing that I used to give new organizations.
I say, “Let me tell you a little bit about me. Let me tell you about my personal quirks and what is important.” If timeliness is important, I will tell you that. I’m also going to tell you a little bit about my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m an introvert. Sometimes it gives the appearance that I don’t care as much. That’s not true. I care a lot. I’m an introvert so I don’t show it as much. I have to push myself to demonstrate that warmth and a caring component of a personality because introverts aren’t very good at doing that and I recognize that.
Telling people upfront who you are, how you operate, what you think is important, where your ethical boundaries are. Don’t cross that because that will be it. That’s important. We have all done that. Those of us that are on the core team of Velontra all understand what our strengths and our weaknesses are. 1) We have been working together for a while. 2) Early on, we had some sessions where we laid those out. We all took the Myers-Briggs test and we then analyze the different personalities that we have.
Number six, talk to the person who has the action.
This becomes problematic. The more senior you become, the action officer for a particular action probably knows the most about it, you may have, as a senior leader, multiple layers between you and them. I used to tell my immediate staff, “I like to talk to action officers. Having been an action officer, they probably have the most knowledge or the most current knowledge about this particular issue.”
Don’t get insulted if I walk by your office and your subordinate’s office next leader and go directly to the action officer to find something. That is not because I don’t trust you. That is because I know that action officer probably has the most current, the most complete information on the action. Another thing I used to tell people upfront from the beginning is don’t get upset if they see me. Your action officer should come back and back brief you, “General Whelden came down and asked about Project X and I gave him a briefing. This is what I told him.” You should say, “Okay, fine.”
The last one, don’t hide the bad news.
Bad news doesn’t get better with time. A metaphor I often used to tell people is it’s like a tree that’s bending in the wind. There’s a hurricane coming and the young sapling is bending in the wind. Don’t wait until the sapling breaks before telling me that the tree fell over. If you need help in holding the tree up to prop it up, to keep it alive, tell me when I still have enough time to help you fix it.
Oftentimes, people will say, “I’ve got to fix this. I can’t let the senior leadership learn about this, know about this. Maybe I can fix it.” It then breaks. We have all had those experiences on both ends. You say to yourself as a Senior Leader, “If I would have known about this a little bit earlier, I probably could have helped you prevent X from happening but you didn’t tell me.” If you’ve got bad news, bring it to me right away. If I’m constantly getting bad news late, then I start wondering, “What are they hiding from me?” Trust me enough to know that I’m here to help you fix that problem and not to chew you out for it.
As we close out, the Jedburghs needed to do three things every day during their time in World War II to be successful. They had to shoot, move and communicate. Three foundational core tasks. If they were effective and proficient in these core tasks, whatever challenges came their way, their focus could be diverted to those new challenges. I ask everybody and I will ask both of you, what are the three things that you each do every day to be successful? Rob, we will start with you.
I will give you the three and I will give you a line or two on them. Do something, have fun and never quit. That’s right in the core heart. That’s how I became a Force Recon Marine more than anything else. It was not strength, intelligence, fitness or any of that. It was not quitting. Eventually, I’ve got strong enough. It’s the same way in a business. It’s the same way in life. Don’t quit on life. I would also say that to all of our veterans. Veteran suicide is a real issue. Don’t quit. You would be stunned at what can be accomplished if you don’t quit.
A lot of times, in the middle of recon school, training or even in the operation, it’s extremely tough and you don’t know that you could do it. You go from whatever. When you get to the point, “It’s okay if I’m not going to graduate. I’m not going to be the fastest.” Don’t quit. Put the left foot in front of the right foot and a lot can happen in life.
1) Don’t quit. Whatever is going on, however tough it is, don’t quit. 2) Do something. Almost always, so much, they go ahead and worry about it. Any decision is better than no decision. To me, that is often the big trait, the thing. Make a decision and do something. Every day, do something. Sometimes we are tired and depressed. These things happen. That’s real life. Get something done. “Fine, it’s not going to be super productive. I’m motivated.” You are in that dark tunnel. It’s hard to drive yourself. Pick a definitive task and finish that one. It tends to make you feel good, “I could do one more task.” The next thing you know, you are getting stuff done.
It’s similar. Put the left foot in front of the right foot. Instead of being like, “I’m never going to make it.” Let’s not worry about the 15-mile run. Can we get the left foot in front of the right foot one more time? Let’s do that. If we did that, let’s talk about the right foot in front of the left foot. Never quit and do something. You already alluded to this, Fran, have fun. You’ve got to enjoy it. Things are going to be grindy and hard. You are going to be sitting there grinding out Excel or calculations. Us engineers don’t enjoy doing Math. Nobody likes Math. Who likes Math? That’s hard. It’s not fun. It’s grindy.
Sometimes, you’ve got to have fun. How do you do it? I remember in recon school, it used to be off of Virginia Beach, off a little creek. We would use the SEAL pool up there. We would do it there. It was 2:30 AM and it’s March. It’s freezing cold out there. I’m in the surf. I’m raw. I’m sore. I’m doing fin number 2 or 3 for the day. I’ve got beat to death on the Zodiac for an hour doing an OTH. I’m finning into Virginia Beach doing an amphib where they are going to make me sugar cookie roll around in the sand to get cape and raw.
I remember thinking, “This is hard. I’m miserable.” I was in a spiraling pit of my own misery. I said, “It is 2:37 AM. I am in full gear. I am swimming to my 2 miles into the shore in the middle of the night.” I can see the lights of Virginia Beach and all these little kids out there partying. I was like, “In the world, on the planet, how many other humans are doing what I’m doing? Quite possibly none. I’m probably the only human on the planet at this millisecond swimming.” I was like, “As much as it sucks, that’s badass. That is fun. I’m the only human doing something like that.” Have fun.
Own it and get after it.
Mine is the same church but a different view perhaps. They are not too dissimilar from what you heard. I’m an ISTJ, we are organized. I make a list every day of what I’m going to do the next day, next week, next month because that guides my path on where I’m going to go. The second thing is I work on that list. I work my way down that list every day to make sure that I have done those things that I said and that keeps me on task.
The third thing is I’m thankful for what I have. I reflect on that every day. I’m thankful for my family, my wife, my health, my faith, my relationship with Rob, and the rest of the Velontra team. I know that many people in the world are troubled, challenged and having such a difficult time. Whenever I get down, I’m thankful that I have what I have. I’m fortunate and I’m lucky. I remind myself that on a daily basis.
Thank you, Rob. Never quit, do something and have fun. Sir, make a list of tasks worth the list and be thankful for what we have. I appreciate you both sharing that. We spoke about the nine characteristics of elite performance. We talked about them here on the show. In every episode, we quantify it in effect that to be an elite performer, you have to have all nine. You never demonstrate all nine at the same time because the situation depends on which ratio or which ones you use.
At the end of each of these episodes, I apply one to my guess that quantifies you when I think about it. For this episode, this conversation and for each of you, I think about effective intelligence, especially for you, sir Rob, the drive comes to my mind for you and this incredible energy. Your energy is contagious and it’s inspirational. It makes you want to go do something. There’s so much fire and drive behind it. It’s admirable.
Sir, your guidance, your perspective, it’s motivating and aspirational. As young leaders who have served alongside you, under you, around you, to see the perspective that you bring to a problem and the way that you handle it, makes all of us envious. I only hope that one day when we are faced with the challenges that you have, we can find the same resolution and provide our perspective down to young leaders.
As you are doing each and every morning when you wake up, you are both competing in a difficult and hyper-competitive space. Innovation has to happen every day. You will not get there without drive, without effective intelligence. I’m honored to have sat here with you and learn from both of you. I’m excited for the future of Velontra. I can’t wait to see where it goes. I look forward to doing this conversation again in time on the back of a tremendous amount of success. Thank you for joining me on this.
Thank you, Fran. I appreciate it very much.
Thank you very much. We are honored to be here. I appreciate your time spent with us.