The four lessons I learned working for a military communications company

When I grew up, my family befriended another family in our neighborhood, as we had some things in common: both wives liked to play mah jongg and the husbands were both political conservatives. While I was much older, they had two boys who were close to my younger brother’s age.

The husband of the other family was the owner of a communications and power supply company that provided equipment to the US military. When he found out I was in ROTC in college, he asked if I wanted to work briefly for his company and help him out at a trade show at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Any interaction with active duty military was exciting to me, so I jumped at the opportunity. During my college years, I ended up attending two trade shows with the company owner and worked for him for a few weeks in his warehouse. Here are the lessons I learned and the interesting stories along the way.

It’s really important to learn who the decision makers are.

Just because someone is high-ranking doesn’t mean they make the decisions. They might sign off on a decision, but only because there’s a regulation that requires it. I learned from working trade shows that the decision makers in these army units were enlisted non-commissioned officers, generally at the staff sergeant and sergeant first class ranks. Anyone below those ranks didn’t have the authority and any officers placed the trust in their enlisted for what they needed in the field. And this lesson goes for the business and non-profit world, too. Spend some time learning who really makes the decisions and you might find that you can accomplish your goals faster and more easily.

You never know whom you’ll meet. The connections they provide could be incredible.

The first year I was working at the trade show, I met an air force senior NCO who was from the air base that was adjacent to the army base. Based on the badges on his uniform, I could quickly tell that he was a part of Air Force Special Operations Command. When I was explaining about the company’s products, he asked me about my background, and I had explained that I was in Air Force ROTC at Ohio State and had just completed freefall training at the Air Force Academy. He gave me his card and told me to contact him so he could introduce me to officers in his unit if I was interested in joining as a career. Air Force special operations is a very small group and I felt grateful for being invited in, although I decided to pursue pilot training instead.

It really is all about the mission.

At one of the trade shows, I struck up a conversation with someone tending the booth next to us. He was a retired US Army Ranger and had completed several hundred freefall jumps of his own. As I was telling him about my training, he said, “In combat missions, what they taught you doesn’t apply.” I pressed him to explain more.

He said, “Listen, in the military, you have one job. Accomplish your mission. If you need to do something that is dangerous but you wouldn’t be able to get the mission done without it, you do it. It’s all about the mission.”

That type of laser focus really got me wondering about business, non-profits, and government agencies. How much of what they do really is all about the mission? If it’s not, how can they get back to it?

“Don’t work so hard, we all get paid the same.”

The summer that I worked in the company’s warehouse was…eyeopening.

It was a relatively small facility that had about 10 employees working on various pieces of equipment. And from what I remember, they all had something in common: they were all Russian immigrants who had grown up in the Soviet Union.

One day, as I was working on installing some metal racks into some Pelican waterproof cases, one of them looked at me and said:

“Don’t work so hard, we all get paid the same.”

What I was doing wasn’t that hard and it seemed like I could do it quickly, so I asked: “What do you mean?”

“You’re going to make us look bad. Remember that you don’t get paid more for finishing more projects.”

In that moment, it hit me. These guys had emigrated from the Soviet Union. Communism was beaten into them as well as the idea of conformity. And even worse, they were engineers with bachelor of science degrees from good universities in Russia. And now they were working in this warehouse, simply doing what they could to support their families and pay for their children’s college expenses.

Working with them made me realize that it is really important to consider the nuances of people’s backgrounds when working with them.

It seems like the Fort Bragg conference still goes on today, under the name TechNet Fort Bragg.

If you’re interested in more lessons I’ve learned, check out my book:

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