My journey to the SEAL Teams may not have been as conventional as some.
Some join the Navy immediately following high school or college and attempt to go through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S—the first six months of the training pipeline). Many before they are even old enough to buy a beer. For me, I had never given serious thought to joining the Navy until after college.
Until then, I had what you would call a “normal” life. I attended high school at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, followed by college at Southern Methodist University, where I studied finance and economics. During that time I also had the privilege of studying at Oxford University in England, which influenced me to become a writer. When I graduated in 1999, I had already accepted a job as a financial analyst with a global real estate investment company. I accepted the offer just before Christmas break during my senior year, so let’s just say my class attendance during that last semester was subpar.
One of my fraternity brothers who was a year behind me in school was determined to join the Navy and try out for the SEAL program after he graduated. And so during his senior year, I trained with him. I had played rugby for four years in college, so it was a great way to maintain my fitness and help a friend prepare for a rough journey.
As time went on, I became more and more fascinated with the culture and values of the Naval Special Warfare community. I was reading everything I could find, from the earliest history of the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) in World War II to operations in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. I was attracted to the idea of challenging myself to become a part of one of the most elite, highest-performance teams in the world.
My mindset was transforming.
I would sit at my desk on the forty-second floor of a high-rise office building in downtown Dallas, staring out the window, counting the minutes until I could leave and go train with my friend. It’s embarrassing to admit, but toward the end of the day I would walk quickly through the office with an empty manila folder, looking busy and focused—so I hopefully wouldn’t get tasked with a new project at 5:45 p.m. It rarely worked. I was the new guy.
Maybe not what an employer is looking for in a star player, but I was becoming fixated on something greater than myself. Each night, I would put on my running shoes, throw on a backpack containing swim fins and goggles and run four miles from my uptown apartment to the SMU pool. We would swim for an hour and do calisthenics such as push-ups, pull-ups, burpees and sit-ups. Then I would run four miles home. On the weekends, we had a strength training regimen followed by running ten to twenty miles around White Rock Lake. We ran marathons and earned our skydiving licenses. Each day our dedication to this singular mission increased.
Eventually, I decided to live a life without regret. I quit my job, and my friend and I spent several more months training in the mountains, in Colorado. There would be no hiking or horseback riding on this trip. My parents had a house in the Gold Link neighborhood in Crested Butte, Colorado, which became our training facility. We carved out a training ground in the woods behind the house and suspended thick climbing ropes thirty feet high in the tall cypress trees. We used a chain saw to
cut eight-foot logs from fallen trees and would run each day for miles through the mountain passes, carrying them on our shoulders. We’d swim in ice-covered lakes and spend hours a day training at 10,000 feet so we’d be ready.
In 2000, I enlisted in the Navy. Like many SEALs with college degrees, I chose to not attend OCS (Officer Candidacy School) because enlisting was a faster path to BUD/S. During basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois, you take the physical test to qualify for BUD/S. It involves a 500-meter swim, 1.5-mile timed run in boots, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. Candidates are not expected to simply meet the minimum standards—which most don’t—they are expected to blow them out of the water. I can’t remember how many guys tried out that day, but there were many. The swim test began like a flurry of salmon battling to make it upstream. Some couldn’t even complete the swim. Limp, exhausted bodies literally being pulled from the pool. It was astonishing. All I remember is that only three of us were sitting in the office that afternoon getting orders to BUD/S. Me, my friend from college and one other guy. The rest of boot camp flew by.
We had earned our ticket to the show.
After a month of “A” school (the school teaching you a trade in the Navy, because most won’t become SEALs) in San Diego, we were given a couple weeks of leave. I went back to Dallas to mentally prepare for the journey ahead.
Two weeks later, I distinctly remember the feeling of anticipation I had as my plane flew over the downtown skyline on its approach into San Diego International Airport. The sun was glistening off the bay and my mind was racing. I remember thinking what a beautiful place this was to endure such misery.
I checked in to a hotel on Harbor Drive just a few minutes from the airport that Thursday evening. That would prove to be a sleepless night. The next morning, my buddy and I hopped in a cab and headed to the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado to check in. Driving over
the Coronado Bridge felt like the point of no return. I had heard rumors that instructors would make you “hit the surf” and get wet, sandy, and miserable as soon as you arrived. So it seemed it would prove to be an interesting morning.
The journey had begun—or so we thought.
We walked into the lobby and approached the front desk. Behind it sat two clean-cut young gentlemen. Clearly, early-stage BUD/S students standing “watch” on the quarterdeck. Apparently, it was a holiday weekend, so they told us to come back on Tuesday! It was both a relief and a bit anticlimactic. We held up in a dingy but rather expensive motel down the street for the next few days—dreaming of the impending doom ahead.
So, as destiny dictated, a couple of fraternity brothers from SMU joined BUD/S class 235 in the fall of 2000. Of all the adventures and challenges I would end up experiencing as a SEAL, I remember those days at the beginning of BUD/S vividly.
I can still picture the other guys filtering in, and the experience of everybody sizing each other up. We all knew that only a small percentage of people would end up getting through. We were strangers, but at the end of it, a small group of us would be blood brothers, forever.
Hollywood generally portrays SEALS in one way—big, ripped guys who look like they just walked off the football field or climbed out of an Olympic swimming pool. But the reality is that nobody looking at a BUD/S class on the first day can really tell who will still be standing at the end. Some of the biggest and fittest guys—ones who looked like they came off a recruiting poster—were the ones who placed their green helmets on the ground and rang the bell to give up on the first day—the formal and humbling ceremony for those that quit. Recruits who were unbelievable swimmers and runners quit the first week, or the first day of Hell Week—the relentless torture chamber that organically separates the candidates who can push through physical and psychological pain from those who can’t.
Everything about SEAL training is designed to test your mental and physical fortitude, and see how you can adapt to constantly changing conditions. Each class is divided into “boat crews” consisting of six enlisted students and one officer. As candidates would quit, boat crews would get rearranged. You were constantly building and rebuilding your team and adapting to new teammates—and they to you.
The culture taught us that change was a given, and that the strongest embraced change and used it to their advantage.
I made it through BUD/S without incident or any severe injuries and was preparing to begin SQT (SEAL Qualification Training—the advanced portion of the training pipeline). The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, occurred just days before we checked in to SQT. In the space of a few hours, we went from being a peacetime force to an organization constantly preparing for and executing missions all over the world. To being in a constant state of change.
I’ve seen and done things I will never forget, though my contribution pales in comparison to so many. When I finished my time as a SEAL, I decided I wanted to merge my special operations experience with “real world” education to start the next phase of my life—as an entrepreneur. While attending graduate school at the University of San Diego, I launched my first company.
As I was building that business, I read every book and watched every presentation I could find on leadership, organizational development, culture and business transformation—all tools I knew I would need. And I dove deep into the literature and reports produced by the top consulting firms that companies hire to help them solve their complicated strategic problems. There was clearly no shortage of awareness and willingness on the part of organizational leaders, and there were plenty of resources. But clearly, navigating growth and change wasn’t easy.
So why do so many organizations fall significantly short of realizing their potential?
The numbers are grim.
Research shows that more than two-thirds of all significant organizational transformation efforts fail or fall short of meeting the intended objectives. Companies try every day to fix cultural problems, change their target markets, revise their product mixes, adapt to new competitive challenges, and undertake dozens of other transformative steps. You’ve heard about the success stories, like Apple and Amazon. But the failures outnumber them exponentially.
I built my own organizations on the premise that change was a natural part of the business cycle—and that hiring, training, communicating, engaging, measuring, and rewarding in a way that reinforced that principle was the best way to produce the desired culture and results. The success of that approach is reflected by the results—building some of the fastest-growing companies in the country. But it hasn’t been easy or void of major challenges.
One of the first valuable principles you learn after joining a SEAL Team is how the team learns from its successes and failures. After every mission, the team conducts an AAR (after-action review)—a post mortem debrief where we analyze performance and results. Lessons learned are applied to the operating strategy. When the data supports the potential need for a shift in tactics, that information is disseminated quickly across the organization.
Between my time in the Teams, in academia, and in the business world, I’ve spent almost twenty years figuring out what works and what doesn’t—and how transformations can succeed and last. And why they fail.
The result is a ten-principle model, TakingPoint, that is the only guide of its kind. It is a step-by-step playbook for surviving and thriving in the uncertain business landscape of the twenty-first century. The strategies we’re going to talk about are the same ones I share with my consulting clients like PayPal, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Boeing, Nestlé, Care Fusion, The North Face, and Raytheon. They’re the principles that have transformed the special operations community in this post-9/11
reality. And they have helped Fortune 500 companies overcome what seem to be almost insurmountable challenges.
When a SEAL platoon is on a mission, the man in front is the point man—he’s “taking point”—leading the team into what are almost always volatile, complex, and unpredictable situations. My goal with this book is to give anybody the tools to take point in their own organization and the ability to vigorously lead change, not just manage it.
This matters wherever you fall on your org chart.
In large part, most organizational change efforts fail because they happen in overmanaged, under-led command-and-control environments. The existing structures and culture impede forward progress. In overmanaged companies, when leadership sees a crisis looming, knee-jerk reactions can often become the norm—making uninformed decisions and giving different orders to different groups of people. And while many might be under the misconception that all military units operate in command-and-control environments, that’s not the case. In special operations, we have made a diligent effort to decentralize controls and decision-making mechanisms. Varying leadership responsibilities are disseminated down the chain of command.
Lasting and productive change is certainly led from the top, but it works because the entire ecosystem is operating with the appropriate and aligned mindset. All hands are on the rope pulling in the same direction. It is a collective process that takes buy-in, engagement and contribution from everybody. You have to learn to master your role—whether you’re the Team’s commanding officer, platoon leader, or the frontline soldier.
We will build that mindset together. It will take discipline and accountability, and some parts of the process will cause discomfort. As we say in the SEAL Teams, we will all have to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” I know this from my own career as a leader of organizations that had the inevitable growing pains that all companies experience. It isn’t as easy as flipping a few pages and giving yourself a pep talk.
But at the end of this journey, your business “kit bag” will have the tools and weapons you will need to step confidently onto the business battlefield of change. You’ll be more ready for the job we’re all going to have for better or worse in the modern economy.