Join us this week as Marty Strong Discusses Winning on the Battlefield and in Business.
Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Marty Strong. Marty is a former Navy SEAL and businessman. Marty, welcome. Please tell us about yourself and what you do.
Marty Strong: Thanks for having me, Carl. As you said, I was a Navy SEAL. I joined the Navy when I was 17. I spent 10 years as an enlisted SEAL, then finished my undergraduate degree in business, went to Officer Candidate School, and finished my last 10 years as a SEAL officer.
I retired after 20 years and went into financial management investments with the United Bank of Switzerland for 7.5 years. Then I got into business—developing, building, scaling, and analyzing companies for people to buy. Today, I'm the CEO of several businesses and doing the same thing.
Carl Lewis: What made you lean toward the military when you were young? What drove you to be a Navy SEAL?
Marty Strong: The simplest answer is I wanted to get out of Nebraska, where I was born and raised. There wasn't much there except Cornhusker football. I was too small to become a football player, so some friends and I decided we would get out by joining the military. Our first choice was the Marine Corps, but I got spooked talking to the guys and joined the Navy instead.
My father was in the Navy for four years during the Korean War, and I was a big fan of war movies. I read everything I could about ancient warfare, battles, generals, etc. So, I'd always been interested in the military—but the #1 reason was to get out of Nebraska. And I've never been back.
Carl Lewis: Wow. Not even for a visit?
Marty Strong: No. I keep planning one. One of my best friends went back, and I think I’ve promised to visit 10 years in a row and then not executed.
Carl Lewis: It sounds like you were like me. I would have needed to eat a lot more corn to get on the Nebraska team too! I was an army brat, traveling the world with my dad during his military days, and I've known a lot of combat veterans. But I've never met one that went into business and finance. What led you to those interests?
Marty Strong: I wanted to be a lawyer. There aren’t many things you can do when you're a SEAL other than be in law enforcement when you get out. It's a natural segue. I had a graduate degree in business management, but I thought, “I’m not sure I want to get into business. I think I want to be a lawyer.”
I took the LSAT, got my package ready to send to different law schools, and was talked out of it by another SEAL who had retired and gone to work for an investment firm in Baltimore. It focused on IPOs and mostly overseas start-up companies in Brazil. The founder was a big fan of the SEALs. Coincidentally, I'd put his son through SEAL training when I was an instructor. He was hiring SEALs sight unseen—he’d figure out what to do with us when we got there.
That sounded better than three years of law school. I had several little kids, so I did it. I didn't plan to go into investments. I ended up there because it seemed like the path of least resistance, although that probably wasn't true. And that's how I ended up in the financial industry right when it was transitioning from retail-sales-features-benefits selling techniques. How many shares of stock and mutual fund shares could you sell people?
It was shifting into estate planning, long-range financial planning, holistic client health, and high-net-worth clients. Those are two totally different realms. One is like selling cars, one is like being a family advisor. That was a good segue, and I was better at it. I built my business through seminars because I had no problem talking in front of people.
I liked investing. I liked the idea of investing. I watched the markets. I had a small portfolio of my own. But mainly, I got into it by mistake, and once I was in there, I liked it.
Carl Lewis: You said the guy was hiring SEALs sight unseen, figuring out what to do with them when they got there. It's obvious that his desire to do that and your subsequent success proves your SEAL experience prepared you for this life. What transfers from SEAL life to business life?
Marty Strong: I didn't know how to sell anything to anybody, which was a significant requirement because you had to find your own clients. I didn't know anybody in Maryland, where I retired. I didn't know anybody with money. I found myself not yet in the fetal position—but close—thinking, "What the heck did I just do? I don't know how to sell."
I had an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in business, but nobody taught us how to sell. That was a challenge to my SEAL ethos of never give up. For obstacles, you blast through, climb over, or dig under them. You blow the whole thing up with some demolition. That's the SEAL mindset.
I thought, "How do I become somebody who knows how to sell?" I had little kids. I had bills. So, I contacted every salesperson I knew. I got the mechanics down, tried different methods/techniques, and discovered I was good at conceptual sales. The SEAL stuff I learned about mission planning and strategic thinking lent themselves to sitting down with somebody and figuring out their future, investments, investment goals, etc.
I’m trustworthy because I’m calm under fire. When the market jumps around or gets stuck, I call my clients and talk them off the ledge. The ‘never give up’ attitude underpins that. And there are other things I've used in leading businesses I can’t use in money management.
Basically, I’m leading the flock. At one point, I had 1,600 individual clients depending on me to watch over their nest eggs. If they were spooked or their circumstances changed, it was a little like therapy. “What's the plan, we have a plan, let's go over the plan. Now, we’ll change the plan, why, let's agree why. Here's the new plan, let's go.”
It’s all the leadership aspects of being a SEAL officer and leader.
Carl Lewis: Interesting. Why was that fellow so eager to hire SEALs? What did he see in you as a collective?
Marty Strong: Nowadays, I would call it personal and professional scalability. SEALs have the raw materials—they’re willing to learn, work long hours to become an apprentice, then a journeyman, then a master. To put in the time and sweat equity. To be humble enough to listen as part of that learning experience, then evolve and become a powerhouse. They're disciplined, psychologically resilient, and have natural leadership tendencies.
Even if they weren't leaders all the time, they know what leadership looks like. They had good and bad leaders. The raw material was clear to that person, and there are many CEOs and owners with that mindset.
People must be open and have some intellectual humility. “You were a fighter pilot, a superstar SEAL, a Green Beret, etc. Thank you for your service—but now you're starting from scratch.” What do you know about the GWAS 5,000? Can you take it apart and put it back together in 10 minutes? No. So let's learn about that because that's what this job requires.
You want to become an expert. I talked to transitioning veterans. I’ll do it again with some SEALs here with the SEAL Veterans Foundation. I have a tough love speech. I say, "How long did it take for you, from the day you joined the Navy, to consider yourself a SEAL operator and a professional others could count on?"
It's usually between two and a half and three years. Then I say, "How many people think it will take only four or five months to master everything in this new profession?” They get it. They forget they had that whole mentoring/coaching apprenticeship for years while they went from nothing to something, to much better, to master.
So, I remind them. That's probably the path for anybody who wants to hire veterans, law enforcement, or others with those core attributes. Anybody who’s used to sacrificing, focusing on the mission, and caring about something outside of their personal goals.
Carl Lewis: I meet with college juniors or seniors who want to come into my industry, and they ask, "How do I get your job?" And I say, "Put in about 15 years, and maybe you'll have an opportunity if you work hard." They're not always happy with that.
Marty Strong: Or maybe it'll take you seven years if you listen to me, because I took 15 years. And I learned from my mistakes. I have a lot of wisdom, and that's a big part of it too. You don't need a military person—you need someone willing to sit down, open their eyes and ears, shut their mouth, and absorb the lessons. Then practice, practice, practice, and don’t be concerned about failing while they practice. Eventually, they’ll get it, and they’ll cut that learning curve because others will want to show them how to do it so they can avoid the same pain.
But then you have obstinate people whose egos get in the way. Those people must feel the pain themselves and learn that way.
Carl Lewis: Everybody needs a little failure to prove they're doing something, but some people need a lot of failure to get the message.
Marty Strong: Yes.
Carl Lewis: Well, Marty, we're sitting on what appears to be the precipice of a potential recession. It’s the first one in my life that’s had a pandemic, supply chain, and political impact. As a CEO, how do you think other CEOs should plan for what could happen?
Marty Strong: It’s not necessarily unique, but it’s definitely odd. It happens historically. Not necessarily cyclically, though—it comes along with the cicadas or something. You can’t plan for it. But during World War II, the US government poured gazillions of dollars into the industrial infrastructure. We made hundreds of ships and thousands of planes a week. The money came from taxpayer dollars and lots of other things. Then the war was over.
We flushed 19 million people in uniform back into the economy, but there weren't 19 million jobs waiting for them. We stopped spending money on ships and planes. And the 1945-1953 economy went through the same weird thing where there was money everywhere, and everything got inflated and distorted. The nature of work got distorted.There weren't enough jobs.
But because we left the war as the number one economic power in the world, we manufactured and sold to everybody else. That created a big explosion from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s. So, these monumental shifts happen occasionally. But the lesson learned, if you look at different economic times, is from medieval Europe in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. There's opportunity everywhere when these moments happen.
Warren Buffett's mentor, Benjamin Graham, wrote a book after the 1929 crash. He said, "The best time to invest in the market is when there's blood in the street." Meaning that's when everything's cheap and you’ll make money no matter what you do. Just buy up everything.
It's kind of this way, too, when things are as frantic, chaotic, crazy, and unknowable as they have been for the last 30 months. If everything's broken, anything goes. You can take advantage of any opportunity. You can reinvent your company. You can reimagine yourself as an individual. We’ve seen that especially in the workplace. People are reinventing how they work. The side gig is becoming one of three side gigs, and they don't need a W-2 paycheck anymore.
That's what you have to do. If you're running a company, you must get everybody in a room with the whiteboard and say, "This is what we've been doing. Why isn’t it going to work anymore?" Once you've done that realistically—not in a denial state—you say, "What would we have to look like right now to take advantage of this situation?"
And you basically redesign the company. You redesign product services, go out to different markets. That's a way to get through this. It's not huddling down, shrinking, cutting costs, and then curling up into a ball, hoping it all goes back to the way it was. It's not going back to the way it was. And that's exciting!
Carl Lewis: That's good advice. If you go into your hidey-hole, it’ll still be here when you come out. You’ll have to deal with it later instead of now.
Marty Strong: It’s human nature. There's a little heroic requirement to it, but you do it anyway because the other option doesn't change anything. You either quit and walk away, or you realize that while you were waiting for the world to return to “normal,” you missed opportunities and the window that others are jumping through to reinvent how they do business. Eventually, everybody gets forced into the new game plan.
Carl Lewis: You mentioned a couple of books. Tell us about them.
Marty Strong: I have nine novels. There’s a series that follows a Navy SEAL and a science fiction series about time travel. It's about people trained in the future going back as warriors to experience combat in ancient times when there weren't bullets, and you had to fight side by side, eyeball to eyeball.
All the proceeds go to the SEAL Veterans Foundation, specifically a program that deals with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. The program helps SEALs get their disability reviewed and addressed appropriately.
I also have two business books. Be Nimble: How the Creative Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business focuses on helping business leaders or aspiring business leaders with crises related to scaling, black swan events, and other stuff we talked about.
How do you cope, how do you deal with it, how do you reorganize? How do you attract talent, how do you gauge it? How do you mentor/coach/train talent? There’s leader wellness in there too, which is important if you’re in a high-stress environment.
The second book comes out on January 1, 2023. It’s called Be Visionary: Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization. It’s a primer to show people how to stop focusing on KPIs and short-range to-do lists as a strategy. When you do, you're always looking at the tips of your toes. Get your eyes up to the horizon instead. Look out. Become aspirational. Create a future vision. See the threats out there, but also the opportunities. Prepare for what you want to be and look like later.
Carl Lewis: Interesting. Where are all the books available?
Marty Strong: They're all on Amazon. The easiest way to get to them is to go to my author's website, which is martystrongbenimble.com. At the bottom of the homepage are links to the books.
Carl Lewis: Very good. So, what's next for Marty Strong?
Marty Strong: In my perfect world, it’s getting paid to speak about the things I’m passionate about, helping people fix their issues, assisting them with strategic planning or leadership issues, and continuing to write. I've spent the last two years slowly developing that platform with paid speeches, consulting, and the two business books. Hopefully, I'll be doing it in a year.
Carl Lewis: I had that season in my life, but I've transitioned into a little easier-going style than I used to have. I understand the energy it requires. Well, Marty, it's been great. Thank you for joining me, thank you for your service to our country, and thank you for everything you're doing for Navy SEALs and others trying to make their way in this world.
Marty Strong: Thanks for having me, Carl.
Carl Lewis: And to everyone else out there, until we meet again, stay connected.