How to Build and Lead a Strong Team by John Choate
John Choate is the Managing Director of SA-720TM Strategies, a consulting firm providing seminars on cross-functional teamwork and strategic planning based on principles derived from the U.S. Special Operations community and successfully employed in the corporate world.
He began his professional career as a naval officer in the SEAL teams. Following completion of training as the officer-in-charge of SEAL training class 218, he spent the next 12 years in both active and reserve billets deploying overseas in support of national security objectives.
In addition to receiving various personal awards for classified special operations, more significantly his operational teams have received numerous distinguished awards. These include three Navy Unit Commendation medals, two Meritorious Unit Commendation medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation personally awarded to his SEAL platoon by the President of the United States.
After leaving active duty, Choate founded the Procinctu Group, a global risk management firm providing specialized security services and training to U.S. and foreign government entities, multinational corporations, and select individuals. He currently serves as chairman of the board.
He was later recruited to serve as the CEO of Defense Venture Group (DVG), the parent company of one turnaround and two startup subsidiaries part of the $1.2 billion portfolio of J.F. Lehman & Company private equity firm. DVG was exited under his leadership in 2014.
Following the tragic shooting event in 2015 in San Bernardino, CA, Choate was subsequently recruited to serve as the Executive Director of Security in Las Vegas for the fifth largest hotel in the world and one of a select few resorts with Forbes 5 Stars in all three categories: hotel, restaurant, and spa.
He was responsible for the new design, implementation, and management of a state-of-the-art security system comprised of over 400 personnel and numerous technologies for the safety of 9,000 employees and 25,000 visitors every day.
Education and Personal Life
His professional experience is backed with a B.S. in History from the United States Naval Academy, as well as an M.A. (with distinction) in National Security Studies from California State University, a program sponsored by the Director of National Intelligence and designated the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Center of Academic Excellence.
Choate also holds an MBA from Columbia University (finance), an MBA from the London Business School (strategy), as well as a Certificate in Hotel Revenue Management from Cornell University.
He is a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a board member of Pike Electric, a founder and former director of the non-profit Phoenix Patriot Foundation, and a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSPTM). An avid waterman, marginal piano player, and a truly horrific golfer, he spends most of his free time with his wife, Tammy, and two young children, Sofie and Tristan.
The Pyramid of Teamwork
Navy SEALs are trained to sneak into extremely dangerous situations, and they often have to do so in teams with limited visibility and other dampened senses. But they find creative ways to work in unison, even in the most difficult circumstances. They’re not superhuman. They just train hard and use exceptional teamwork to achieve amazing results.
We use teamwork in every aspect of our lives, from national identity to family life. The pyramid of teamwork is:
- Dynamic communications
- Mission planning
- Mission practice
Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) is incredibly rigorous training Navy SEALs have to go through. Only 17.2 percent of people who start on this training make it to the end. It’s broken into three phases:
- Phase 1 lasts eight weeks, and it’s focused on physical conditioning. Week 5 is known as Hell Week because you don’t sleep for five days.
- Phase 2 lasts seven weeks, and it’s all about becoming certified in underwater activities.
- Phase 3 lasts 10 weeks, and it is concerned with land war and demolitions.
After BUD/S graduation, you then have six months of SEAL Qualification Training (SQT). This teaches you all manner of combat tactics. When you complete SQT, you finally get to join a team. SEALs never refer to each other or themselves as SEALs. They talk about what team they’re in. SEAL is an acronym for their three areas of operations: Sea, Air, and Land.
Commonalities Among SEALs
They haven’t changed their standards of admittance since the organization’s founding in 1962. At the start of the War on Terror in the early 2000s, the government wanted to get more SEALs without lowering their standards. So they commissioned an in-depth study of graduates to find what characteristics they share in common.
After five years studying 12,000 BUD/S graduates, what was their conclusion? Inconclusive. There’s basically nothing to connect them all. The best they could come up with is that you have a slightly better than average likelihood of surviving BUD/S if you wrestled, played lacrosse, or played water polo.
Obvious BUD/S Prerequisites
It takes physical strength and mental tenacity to become a SEAL, but so does just about every other job. The same is true of basically all of the characteristics on this list:
- Physical ability
- Quick learner
- Thick skin
The Importance of Boot Camp
Marine Corp Boot Camp produces the finest infantry the world has ever seen. An army study compared modern Marine Corp elements to ancient and modern armies, including other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. And the Marine Corp always came out on top. It’s not always easy to sustain that elite level of greatness, but engagement is through the roof.
Here’s a comparison of the different boot camp lengths:
- Army Boot Camp: nine weeks
- Navy Boot Camp: seven weeks
- Air Force Boot Camp: 8.5 weeks
- Marine Corp Boot Camp: 13 weeks
To be a BUD/S instructor, you need to be a SEAL, have completed at least two overseas deployments, apply and get approved by a board, and get trained for 56 aggregated weeks on how to be an instructor.
Why is it so difficult to become a BUD/S instructor? Because they are screening for merger of consciousness or group flow, which is the most difficult and critical part of group dynamics.
Basically, the goal of this process is to find your vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and then attack them relentlessly. Most people quit under such extreme pressure day after day. But some persevere and demonstrate an ability to face their worst fears.
Types of Weaknesses
BUD/S instructor training helps people figure out their weaknesses. There are four types of weaknesses:
- Public: Known to self and others
- Blind spots: Known to others, but not to self
- Hidden: Known to self, but not to others
- Unconscious: Unknown to self and others
The Fundamental Requirement
To be successful in BUD/S, you need to be:
- Courageous, not comfortable
- Authentic, not fake
When asked what their biggest weakness is in a job interview, most people lie or try to emphasize their strengths. That’s part of why most résumés are worthless. Choate decided to get prospective hires to admit weaknesses by first putting his greatest weaknesses on his résumé and then getting every other executive at his company to do the same.
Whenever an interviewee comes into the office, they have to do the same thing to their résumé. Less than half of them will do it. Most leave. But the 48.2 percent who have done it and then joined the team have been extraordinarily loyal to the company.
- Members of an effective team have complementary skill sets and know how to leverage their strengths and augment their weaknesses.
- Teammates must be willing to be vulnerable to each other in order to have trust.
- Teammates must individually be willing to acknowledge weaknesses, admit mistakes, and express their opinions.
The root cause of every problem in the world is bad communication. It holds true from world politics to interpersonal relationships.
The first two months of SEALs’ 18-month combat training is all about communication. That’s because if they don’t get that right, nothing else will work. There’s no way to be effective unless you can communicate with others flawlessly. As the speaker, you need to be:
The recipient needs to be silent and listen actively.
Incorrect assumptions lie at the root of every failure. The way SEALs succeed in a mission is by spending:
- Twenty-five percent of their time planning a mission
- Seventy-five percent of their time planning what to do if various things go wrong
The adversary isn’t just your enemy. It’s anything outside your direct control, including weather, terrain, and time delays. Life and business are chess, not checkers. If, then what? If you do better than the adversary, you’ll win every time.
It’s impossible to completely eliminate the potential of failure, but you can reduce it by practicing and training. For most organizations, training is typically one of the following:
- A necessary evil endured by new hires
- A perk reserved for executives or high potentials
- An item of compliance that no one listens to or derives any real knowledge from
- Come crunch time, an expense that is cut out
Under pressure, people don’t rise to the occasion. They compress to the level of their training.
Three Additional Characteristics to Succeed as a Team
- Have a sense of humor
- Stay physically fit
- Be flexible