Sunday, March 4, 2012

Academy Business Leaders

A great friend of mine has started a website called AcademyBusinessLeaders.org. He describes the site as,"an online database of business leaders who graduated from The U.S. Air Force Academy, The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, The U.S. Military Academy, and The U.S. Naval Academy."

The venture is rather new but he has started by featuring service academy business leaders in summary posts or more intimate interview style posts. I think it is a cool concept that could prove very valuable to the service academy graduate network assuming it continues to grow.

I feel lucky to have been featured this month in an interview style post that is focused on my non profit leadership work and my transition from active duty into the corporate world. I have included the post below but do yourself a favor and check out AcademyBusinessLeaders.org.

1. Describe the non-profit you started and how it impacts the community. 

I started a non-profit called Checking For Charity while I was serving in the Air Force in New Jersey. Checking For Charity is a non-profit that is dedicated to changing the world through competitive hockey events. A little ambitious? Yes. But we believe that change in this world starts by creating a small movement of passionate people with a common goal. Our Goal is to Assist! Our unique hockey centric approach is designed to raise as much money and awareness as possible for charity while putting on the most professional and competitive hockey tournaments. 

Each team that enters a Checking For Charity tournament picks a charity that is near and dear to their heart. All the proceeds from the tournament entry fees, corporate sponsorships, personal donations, merchandise, raffles, etc are put into the greater Checking For Charity pot. Each team/charity that is represented is guaranteed a percentage of that pot just for participating in the tournament. Each team/charity has the opportunity to increase their percentage depending on where they place within tournament play. Our unique format incentivizes everyone involved to raise as much money as possible as well as putting in the most competitive team possible. Our non-profit impacts the community in a few different ways. First and foremost, it empowers hockey participants to contribute to worthy causes through the game they love. Players can contribute to something larger than themselves through a fun and positive outlet. Secondly, we help the community by serving as a catalyst and a multiplier. We allow individuals, teams, volunteers, and corporate sponsors to have a much greater positive impact on the causes they value than they would individually or by donating to an individual cause. We also allow the participants to choose the causes they wish to support. Often time’s people are naturally funneled into donating time and money into the same few well established and recognizable charities. Nothing against well established and recognizable charities, as they undoubtedly serve great causes, but our charity allows the participants to contribute to local and/or more specialized causes. There are many people out there who are looking for the kind of vehicle that provides real choice and control while capitalizing on the multiplier effect the tournaments provides. Lastly, our charity impacts the community by promoting culture change amongst our citizens. Our charity proves that you do not have to be an extremist to be a positive contributor to this world. You do not have to dedicate your life to a certain cause to make a difference. We show through our model that you can be a model citizen while playing hockey, drinking beers, and barbecuing with your friends. You can be a contributor through the power of choice, the choice to participate in a movement like the Checking For Charity movement. For more information please visitwww.checkingforcharity.com. 

2. How have your experiences in the Air Force helped you succeed in the business world?

I recently wrote a blog post about this very question (http://badskiblog.blogspot.com/). Although it was more targeted towards my current position than succeeding in the business world in general the same themes hold true here.

Systemic Challenges: One thing that I learned in the military is how to operate in challenging and ambiguous environments. Throughout my career and most notably while serving in Iraq, I encountered challenges that did not have a textbook answer. There was not a clear cut best solution...or a solution at all for that matter. There were too many unknowns, too many interests, too many interconnected subsets, and too little time to easily solve problems. In the military you are forced to confront challenges that are spread and interwoven throughout a complex system. I see the same type of systemic challenges represented in the business world. Military veterans should not discount the soft skills they have developed that help them navigate and overcome these types of challenges. 

Execution: I am, admittedly, probably more of an idea guy by nature than a down and dirty details engineer type. I am energized by strategic thinking and collaborative brainstorming. However, I crafted my ability to get things done in the military and that is something I will always be grateful for. Now I am in essence getting paid for my ability to get things done as well as my ability to help other people get things done as a consultant in the business world. It is a challenge and I am constantly learning but it is exciting and fulfilling as well. A military force that can rapidly work its way through the planning/decision cycle to execute will have a competitive advantage over its enemies over time. My sense is that companies benefit from a similar (albeit less combative) approach in the business world. Going from idea to execution faster than your competitors is a critical competitive advantage over time. I feel that my military career helped me to realize the importance of executing over all else and that mindset alone is a differentiator amongst many corporate peers. Think Patton – “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Leading Change: As an officer in the Air Force I have sat through a few leadership presentations in my day. In fact, my undergrad experience at the Air Force Academy was almost entirely centered on character based leadership training. In hindsight, a great number of those sessions drifted into discussions about leading change. The military isn't all about following orders as many like to think. And although as whole the military machine may be categorized as a bludgeoning bureaucracy of sorts, in smaller pockets the most successful units/organizations are all about leading and implementing change. The business world is no different. It is the organization or individual that can consistently lead change that will consistently win. My military experience helped me, in theory and practice, to lead teams through change initiatives.

3. Do you have mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as a leader?

I have had relatively few “formal” mentors in my AF career and my post AF career. I have found that the formal mentors probably served the least value towards developing me as a leader. I think the best lesson I have learned with regard to mentorship is that you can learn from everyone and if you approach even the most challenging personal and professional relationships with that frame of mind you will always be developing as a leader.

Additionally, I have learned the value in seeking out mentors before you “need” them as a mentor. Relationships are always a two way street and mentorship is no exception. Focus on creating a valuable relationship and interesting exchange with someone versus seeking out someone for the specified value you can extract from them to benefit your current needs. Ironically, this can feel a bit uncomfortable at times because you are taking action without a focused end state in mind. But the end state should really just be consistent learning and growth.

A lot of people associate mentorship with one person being senior or providing more value to the relationship than the other. Those mentors are valuable but do not discount the value peer mentors can provide. As a whole I would say that I have learned more from professional peers, teammates, friends, and family than senior professional mentors. Hopefully a few of those peers have learned from me as well.

4. What advice would you give other service academy graduates looking to transition to the private sector?

Strategically: Know yourself. Learn what you want out of your life. Not from a career perspective or a personal perspective but from a holistic perspective of the way you want your life to play out. The days of work life balance are gone. The name of the game is work life integration and happiness is the ultimate goal. Make every decision from separation to new career selection with your life goals in mind and continue to learn and grow as you pursue those life goals. Most importantly, never look back and enjoy it.

Tactically: Learn the value of networking and how to effectively network. This ties in directly with our discussion of mentors. The private sector is comprised of companies, companies are comprised of people, people interact by establishing relationships. Relationships were the only thing that worked for me in my transition. I focused on creating and building relationships and that eventually landed me in a career path that was a great fit for me. As service academy graduates, we are a bit spoiled in the sense that you essentially know everyone at your institution. If you don’t know them personally you know someone who does. Transitioning to the corporate world you should be attempting to create that reality for yourself again. You need to create a network where even if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does. If you are not utilizing LinkedIn as a tool to facilitate this kind of network building you are behind the curve. 

5. What is one of the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome while transitioning from Active Duty to the business world?

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, I would have to say that one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was other people’s ignorance and stereotypes. I moved back to Portland, Oregon which is not an area with a large military contingent. There were a lot of misperceptions about what a military guy had to offer. But that is the nature of the world I guess. We all have our preconceived notions and biases based on our experiences so when it comes to transitioning it is best to recognize that you will encounter the same things from other people. What makes that obstacle even more challenging is the humble nature of veterans. We come from a world where you don’t talk about yourself, and when you do it is uncomfortable. When you are trying to convince someone, who most likely has strong judgments on what you are all about, that you can add value to their organization it does not pay to be humble and uncomfortable when talking about yourself. Learning that lesson was a long and hard journey for me. What really helped was focusing on establishing relationships where I could speak with candor. When you focus on building relationships versus honing your ability to sell yourself the stereotypes are broken down naturally over time. That person then becomes your bridge to an opportunity, to another relationship, or they become a full blown advocate for what you are all about. Worst case scenario you have established a new positive relationship. You really can’t lose.

6. What piece of advice would you give to a young person thinking about starting their own non-profit?

I would give three pieces of advice for someone thinking about starting their own non-profit. Firstly, I would say that non-profit is not a dirty word. I never thought I would start a non-profit but my life journey led me to a place where I almost fell into creating my own non-profit. Non-profits have their own unique challenges and nuances but as a whole to be successful you must approach starting a non-profit as you would approach any other business endeavor. Don’t run away from the opportunity just because there aren’t opportunities for monetary spoils!

Which leads to my next piece of advice; your reward is knowledge. The reason I decided to start my own non-profit was to gather real world business leadership experience while I was still in the military. I had to navigate the challenging startup process and mobilize a motivated team to bring our concept to fruition. The rest of the world may not see the non monetary value that you will undoubtedly receive but who cares. If you are truly striving towards achieving your life goals then personal development is an enabler that must serve as a foundation for your efforts. My experience in less than four years of non-profit leadership will undoubtedly pay dividends for the rest of my life, not mention the fact it is extremely gratifying and fun.

Lastly, I would say that you cannot be your 501c3. Rhyming aside, I think a lot of people feel that they need to be consumed by a higher calling to get involved in a non-profit. They almost feel like if they aren’t dedicating a massive amount of time and effort to the cause they are faking it or something. I think nothing could be further from the truth. I was Active Duty when I started my charity and I work full time as a management consultant now. I don’t have the bandwidth to dedicate countless hours to my non-profit and still maintain an enjoyable family life. There is nothing wrong with that! I went into my non-profit journey with systems creation in mind. I wanted to create a system that was great, not an organization that “pumped my own tires” or showcased how great I (thought I) was to the world. I created a system that would raise money for charity with minimal effort. If we signed up four hockey teams to play in a tournament without any bells or whistles we would raise money. I then set to getting great people involved to take that system from one that makes money with minimal effort to a system that is something special. Our last tournament had 25 teams in 3 divisions, a beef and beer event hosted by hall of fame NHL’ers, a puck shoot to give away a car, and many other exciting features. All those extra features were more money and awareness for charity, a better tournament experience for participants, and they were all powered by great people and a calculated business system. If your non-profit is centered around you then you are in it for the wrong reasons and you won’t last. You will burn out! Create a system and mobilize a highly motivated and character group of people around the vision and you will be amazed where the endeavor takes you. 

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contributing to academybusinessleaders.org. It is a cool concept and I hope it blossoms into a central hub for likeminded service academy business leaders. Please feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn atwww.linkedin.com/in/mattbader27.

About Checking For Charity President Matt Bader


Matt is a 2006 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy where he majored in Business Management and was a four year letter winner and two year captain on the men's Div I ice hockey team. Matt served as a contracting officer in the United States Air Force with stints in New Jersey, Boston, and Iraq before separating as a Captain in September, 2011. Matt currently resides in Portland, OR and works as a management consultant for the Gunter Group. He currently works at Nike World Headquarters as a project manager in the Sustainable Business and Innovation division on a project that is seeking to revolutionize the Nike manufacturing base and the quality of life for it's contract labor force. Matt still actively serves as the President of the nonprofit he founded called Checking For Charity. He is focused on building the success the organization has achieved on the east coast while expanding operations to the west coast in 2012.

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