Monday, March 13, 2006

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part IV: “Perseverance” by Chris Squier

Chapter Four of Kelly Perdew’s book, “Take Command,” is entitled “Perseverance: It’s Not The Size of the Dog in the Fight; It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog.” Perdew calls this attribute the one quality that any entrepreneur must have in order to succeed. He quotes liberally on perseverance from the likes of Napoleon, Samuel Johnson, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Edison and Ross Perot.

Last week’s installment on “Passion” was written by my friend, Scott St. Germain. As I was getting to know Scott during his graduate student days at Harvard Business School, Scott said to me one day: “There is someone I want you to meet. Chris Squier and I were together at West Point, and we are here at HBS together.” Thanks to Scott’s kind introduction, I have come to know and respect Chris Squier as a man of intelligence, integrity, passion, humor – and yes – perseverance! Those of you who have been around West Point in the past 10-15 years may be aware of the tradition of the “Corn Chowder shout” that occasionally echoes through the Mess Hall and reverberates down the line of sally ports and out onto The Plain. It can now be revealed that Chris Squier was the original “Corn Chowder Man”! (The story will be given reverent treatment in my upcoming novel – but that is a story for another time!)

When I asked Chris Squier if he would be willing to participate in this project on transition from the military to the business world, he wisely chose to offer his views on Perseverance. I am pleased to share them with you today.

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Chris Squier

If you’re looking for inspiration, read no further. This installment is all about perseverance. Making it through. Keeping on. Sucking it up. Sucking it down.

Some of this lack-of-inspiration will come from the fact that given the honorable, esteemed experiences of so many of you actual war veterans, my military stories from a safe, five-year stint between middle-east conflicts would be pretty dull. Rotations to the National Training Center and hours spent in the motor pool don’t inspire much, so you won’t hear about those here.

But, what I am a veteran of is the transition out of the military. I left Army Intelligence in October 2000 with “expertise” in map reading and Russian army tactics, at least that’s how the civilian marketplace viewed it, and headed to Atlanta to be “master of my own destiny.” I resolved to pursue my dream of--get this--building a modern city from the ground up. By November, I was in a new town with a mortgage, a family to feed, and no job to enable making December’s house payment. Mr. Master-of-my-own-destiny became Mr. Doesn’t-have-a-pot-to-piss-in. I remember it was my birthday, and my broke butt was raking leaves in my new (possibly soon to be the bank’s) little yard and thinking, “
God, what have I done!?” and “how can I let down my family like this?” My wife and son were depending on me; I had to find a way to make it through.

So, I figured my best option in terms of jobs was to fall back, temporarily, on my civil engineering degree and build my resume. I found an interesting but unfulfilling and low-paying job with a defense contractor, and during that time I checked my options. I set my sights on a city planning degree at a graduate school in Atlanta. I got the “ex-military have no real-life skills” treatment from the faculty, and discovered that being a planner on a city staff wasn’t actually going to allow me to “build cities” after all. So I changed direction once again (with the advice of some friends) and went to business school to be a real estate developer.

Another move. No pay. Another baby. Two years of class all day, study all night where my wife basically became a single parent (wives of military guys have to persevere too!). I spent every 3-day weekend flying from Boston back to Atlanta looking for a job, and every week-long break driving the 18 ½ hours to save a few bucks on plane fare. While my fellow students were landing real internships at real companies, I was so determined to do real estate development that I did my own job search with no help from campus recruiting since real estate in the Southeast US wasn’t popular at the time. As a result, all I could scrape together was an internship with the federal government building courthouses where I mostly was paid through a grant from my school. We moved for the summer to a dump of an apartment complex and lived underneath a temporary living quarters for illegal immigrants.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but basically, I refused to let go of my desire to build cities, even when the job market, the resources available to me, and just plain common sense said I should move on to something else. Eventually, the whims of job searchers had changed to where everyone wanted to get into real estate development. At my age level, there weren’t too many folks, myself included, who had much real estate experience. But, unlike most of my competitors, I at least suffered through a summer internship actually doing development, and because I’d done probably over 30 interviews, I’d learned quite a bit along the way from developers across the Southeast, or at least a little bit more than my competition. So, I got my foot in the door at Trammell Crow in Charlotte, but in a general management position. Still, I kept up on the real estate market, and continued to send emails to my “network” of past interviewers just to let them know where I’d landed. After a year, I received a totally unexpected job offer from a developer in Charlotte I’d spoken to years before. And now, I’m working for that development company, building mixed-use Town Centers; in other words, building cities! I made it, and I couldn’t be happier now that I’m here.

In retrospect, I learned a few things about myself. First among those is that perseverance is not an end, it is the means. Whether on the battlefield or in the job market, I’m sure all of you have had to ask these questions: What is the ‘harder right’ instead of the ‘easier wrong’ I should be doing right now? Should I soldier on in one direction or should I have the guts to change course? Both are hard, but which one ultimately gets me to where I should be? No one, of course, knows the answer; we can only operate on the best information we have at the time. I can tell you, though, that uninformed, head-down, plodding forward is not the answer. Remember land navigation? Pick a point on the next hilltop, and then trudge through the briars and swamps as you cut a path to your point. But when you get there, check your compass and your map to set yourself in the right direction toward your final destination. Check, move forward. Check, move sideways or backwards to get back on course. Check, move forward again. Again and again and again. That’s perseverance. Charging forward mindlessly is called being stubborn, or lost, or both. Generals Pickett and Custer saw perseverance as an end; Sherman and MacArthur saw perseverance as the means to an end.

Perseverance also exists in relation to some of the other leadership values written about in this series. If you truly have passion for something, you’ll persevere towards that goal. And when passion fades, those with a strong sense of duty persevere still. True perseverance, true survival and sticking it out to the end, also requires an incredible amount of flexibility, which, as I alluded to earlier, is where perseverance is most understood. The modern military understands this, at least in theory, by emphasizing the Mission. It’s up to the individual leader to accomplish the Mission in the best manner, not necessarily the fastest or most direct. When you’re under fire, accomplishing the Mission, and surviving, is often best done through the most indirect route.

Another interesting thing is that perseverance encourages planning. Despite what greeting cards and motivational posters might say, once you’ve persevered down a few bad roads you realize that it’s not always all about the “journey”; sometimes it really is about the destination. Trust me, taking four years to transition out of the military into a new career is not about the journey. Driving 18 ½ hours from Boston to Atlanta with two screaming kids and a smelly dog is not about the journey! After a few bad experiences, you start to figure out that better planning and preparedness beats toughing it out any day. Experienced military guys have figured out that bringing your rain gear, an MRE and an extra pair of socks sure beats persevering through the night while you’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry. In the civilian work force, the same principal applies. Instead of deciding to lazily sleep in and wing it at a presentation to a client, only to persevere through showing up late and embarrassingly answering
“I’ll get back to you on that” to every question, those who’ve persevered once or twice figure out it’s much easier to get up early, rehearse, and confidently execute.

As you read through these ramblings, many of you are probably thinking,
“yeah, that sucks, but I’ve had to persevere through worse.” And you know what, you’re right! Another interesting characteristic that service people have is the ability to recognize that everything is relative: I’m cold right now, but I’ve been colder; I’ve eaten a scrambled-egg MRE three times this week, but I remember the time I didn’t eat for three days, and when my grandfather was in WWII he sometimes didn’t eat for a week, so this ain’t so bad. I sometimes “persevere” through late nights at the office knowing my kids will be in bed when I get home, but unlike when I was in the Army and unlike those currently serving overseas, at least I’ll see my kids this day/month/year. Persevere through this (fill in the blank) situation? I’ve dealt with worse, and my brothers still serving are persevering through more than I can imagine, so this is nothing.

The last thing about perseverance I’ve learned is that it’s a whole lot easier if someone does it with you. For most folks, the role of a confidant and trusted advisor goes to the only one in their lives they can trust, and that’s a spouse. But as military guys and gals know, making tough career decisions that might impact your family in the short term in order to improve their lives for the long run is tough business, it’s even tougher for your spouse if halfway through the journey you “whip out the map” to check your course, worse yet abandon your destination. In my case, I’ve always had the opportunity to call one of my Army buddies just to help me play out scenarios, double-check my intuition, or simply be there to help carry the load, literally sometimes given all the moves I’ve had to ask for help on. Yes, perseverance is relative, and we learn from it how to be flexible and focus on the prize, and we’re better prepared for it as time goes on, and the military helped me with all this. But more than teaching me how to persevere, how to bear the load, the military introduced me to a circle of friends who make the load a lot more bearable.

Soldier on.

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Thank you, Chris.

(This series will continue next week with . . . .

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part V: “Planning” by Chris Crane)

I encourage you to share this series with others you feel would benefit from the insights of these leaders.


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