Alden Mills on Unstoppable Teams: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Against all odds, leadership speaker Alden Mills conquered asthma in his youth, then persisted to accomplish extraordinary results: he became a nationally-ranked rower, a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander, CEO of one of the fastest growing companies in America, and author of Be Unstoppable and Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership, published by HarperBusiness (March 2019). In doing it all, Alden failed more times than he succeeded. He brings his remarkable lessons learned and true-life stories to audiences everywhere — to inspire and equip them to achieve more, much more than they ever thought possible. 

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Before discussing Unstoppable Teams, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My Mom (and Dad). She was there the day a pulmonary doctor told me that I was born with smaller than average sized lungs and that I have asthma. The doctor suggested I live a less active lifestyle and learn the game of chess. I was 12 years old. Mom (and Dad) kept reminding me my limits were up to me; it’s up to me to decide what I can or cannot do. Of course, I didn’t get the message immediately, but they were persistent and over time I tried a few different sports, all of which I failed miserably at.

However, one sport kept me thinking I could succeed at it: rowing. (Not only did I have small lungs but I also have big thighs – and those were helpful in the sport of crew.) I bring this transition up because it created a series of cascading events for me. The courage to try and succeed at rowing led me to the Naval Academy to SEAL Team to starting my first business and so on. I credit my Mom in particular because she was the one from the very beginning who eventually got me to shift my focus on what I wanted to do, not what others thought I couldn’t do.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

In 2006 I was broke. I had raised $1.5mm only to learn $1.475mm worth of ways not to launch my product called BODYREV. I had spent the last four years of my life toiling away with a small handful of committed teammates to bring to market what we believed was a revolutionary fitness product. Five of my 37 investors called for an evening meeting, more like a one-way conversation, telling me that my journey as a want-to-be entrepreneur was over. They pointed out that I didn’t have the money to repay my debts with my manufacturer, lawyer, and my accountant. To add insult to injury, they said I was beginning to embarrass myself. “Time to get a job Alden” was the recurring theme of the evening. Yet, I didn’t accept their fate. I had a new idea (which I presented at the meeting, but the investors wanted to part of it) and I was determined to see it through.

Three months later we launched Perfect Pushup which would dramatically change the course of our little company. Three years later we were named to the Inc. 500 as the fastest growing consumer products company in the country – #4 overall. I harbor no ill-will against those investors – like the pulmonary doctor years earlier, they were only trying to look out for me – to keep me “safe.” Yet staying “safe” would have killed my spirit.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

In 2000 I was miserable. I had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s MBA program and had started my very first civilian employment which was at a software startup company in Oakland California. I missed SEAL Team terribly; joined the SEAL reserves while I struggled to adjust to life as a civilian. A year later 9/11 occurred, and I was ready to leave my civilian life and rejoin my teammates overseas. Essentially, I was quitting. I had decided that being a civilian wasn’t for me. Yet my wife gently reminded me again and again that I had long dreamed of being an entrepreneur. She was supportive of whatever direction I chose, but her message was “you’ve always dreamt of starting your own business – what’s scaring you from not trying?” It was her influence and guidance that made the greatest impact on my professional development because without her I would have rejoined the military and presumably had a much different professional development story.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I would replace one word in this quotation: “ourselves” with “together.” Great leadership is about empowering others to do more than they originally thought possible. Great teams realize that doing the impossible requires every individual’s best efforts. The power of a team comes from the selfless contribution of everyone where all feel empowered and own the outcome. When selfless efforts are focused on a goal, there is nothing humankind cannot accomplish TOGETHER.

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Toffler’s quotation, for our ability to “innovate” our thought processes will be critical to embracing and harnessing the rapid innovation our generation(s) face. Innovation is just a longer word for change. The fact is change is constant and ever quickening, and our abilities to keep pace with this change will determine our abilities to succeed (along with our capability to persist!).

From Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

Mead and I are in such alignment that I wrote an entire book on the power of care! It’s called Unstoppable Teams, and it’s all about harnessing the power of care to connect, achieve, respect and empower people to more than they originally thought possible.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

No action = no results period. Just like Wayne Gretzky’s quotation of “I missed 100% of the shots I didn’t take”. You can have the greatest plan, vision, mission whatever in the world but until you starting taking action it’s nothing more than what Mr. Edison said – a hallucination.

An African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

I think I would put this quotation at the head of the list followed by Ms. Mead’s because teams certainly take you farther. The question is, how do you form a team to take you the distance you seek? This is where Ms. Mead’s statement comes in – through care.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend? Why?

Walt Disney because he’s a fabulous storyteller with a zest for trying the impossible. I relate with him on many levels from his playfulness to the joy he found in bringing joy to others. He also encountered some remarkably tough times such as when his employees striked. He suffered a nervous breakdown yet was able to rebound and, when he did, that let him create Disney Land. I would love to chat with him about the essence of great storytelling, the future of design, and how he wanted to incorporate it into everyday living.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Our ego/pride/insecurities are our willing resistance foot soldiers in the battle we wage within ourselves and each other when it comes to pushing our limits beyond the comfort zone of mediocrity. This is a daily battle for all of us, and no solution I have encountered in full proof for our brains are savvy and cunning co-conspirators in this war against accepting average as good enough.

The best I can offer is an Outcome Account which I discuss in detail in my book. The premise is using one of the unique traits we humans have: transcendence – our ability to envision the future. Every time I embark on a new goal – a goal that I’m not sure I can achieve – I envision what it will feel like should I accomplish it. I think about who it will impact and how it will them feel as well. Finally, I then envision what it will feel like not to achieve the goal.

By being aware of this struggle, I often bring it to light with those I’m working with because I know they are struggling with the same battle in their minds. The more candidly I discuss this struggle and get others involved in how to win it the more I find all of us compartmentalizing these “demons of doubt” and forging ahead to conquer our new objective.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Lack of leadership and an abundance of management. In other words, people are being led less and told what to do more.  Last I checked, people don’t want to be managed… inventory, time, energy, and other resources need managing… but people want to learn, want to be liked and lead, even loved. A fundamental shift is occurring in the industry thanks to the power of technology. People now have the capability to be their own boss a the click of a few apps. What will keep people from venturing off on their own? Team leadership will – a sense of belonging – a place of caring – a purpose-driven environment where people can come together to achieve something that makes a difference. For this to happen requires a reshaping of what it means to be a leader NOT a manager.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Connect them with the purpose of their organization. Let them see that their efforts make a difference. Create teams that connect employees not only with customers but also with the communities in which they work, and get mid-level and above leaders trained what it means to lead NOT manage.
What seem to be the general public’s most significant misconceptions about teams such as the U.S. Navy’s SEALs and the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS)? What in fact is true?

The misconception is we are all insensitive killers. When the movie Zero Dark Thirty premiered there was a scene involving a couple of Navy SEALs just after they had raided OBL’s home and a woman had been shot. An actor portraying a Navy SEAL is asked has anyone been shot and his response is “yes, a woman, she’s going to bleed out” as to imply we’re not doing anything to help her. That’s nonsense. We would do everything in our power to help that person live – we wouldn’t be cavalier about a person “bleeding out” (i.e. dying).

What’s true is our commitment to the team. We’d rather die than let down our teammates. Case in point, Petty Officer Michael Monsoor who jumped on a grenade to save his teammates. We respect the power of the team above all else and are highly committed to team development.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

The gig-economy will only pick up more steam as more and more folks will become disenfranchised to “work for the man” and attempt their own economic journeys as their own gig-economy bosses. The biggest challenge and opportunity for CEOs will be proving why people shouldn’t leave, why they should stay with their organization and make a bigger impact together versus individually. To convince them requires a fundamental shift in how they view their role and the organization’s role. The leader’s role shifts to how can I help my teammates achieve their goals both professionally and personally. The organization’s role needs to expand from “just” making money to making a difference. This requires a more thoughtful approach of creating ways to serve the communities, contributors, and customers of the organization.

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Alden cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

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