Alden Mills on Unstoppable Teams: Part 2 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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Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing Unstoppable Teams? Please explain.

I always knew that my next book would be about teams. I had ended my first book – Be Unstoppable – with a chapter on team building, but what had me stumped was how to capture the magic that makes a team different than a group of individuals. I literally pondered this for two years. It may seem like a simple concept but the head-snapping revelation is what we humans are all genetically wired to do: reciprocate care. When someone holds the door for you, you will instinctively turn around and do the same for the next person. Though I knew this to be true, it turns out there is now scientific proof of our hard-wired reciprocity for care. (One side note – psychopaths don’t have that ability because their amygdala isn’t working; therefore they don’t understand care.)

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

My first book, Be Unstoppable, is written in parable format with non-fiction stories at the end of each chapter. It’s essentially one long parable about a young sea captain learning to navigate his boat — and failing to do so. He meets a “master and commander” who teaches him the “code” and sets him on a new course. The book ends with our young sea captain leaving the safety of the harbor for distant lands (goals). My intention was to continue the parable. Be Unstoppable is all about learning to lead yourself while Unstoppable Teams is about how to apply the lessons of leading yourself to lead others. People often commented that the parable was very enjoyable – I even have most of it written, but when Harper Collins picked up my book they felt it would be more powerful to use all real stories versus one fictitious one and a few anecdotes. I am very happy with the end result!

Of all that you learned during your SEAL training prior to graduation, what has since proven to be most valuable to your career in the business world? Please explain.

NEGU: Never Ever Give Up. Every success I’ve enjoyed has sprouted from the soil of failure. I’m not kidding. I’ve failed almost every time before I’ve found success. Of course, I don’t look at it as a failure. I look at those moments as learning experiences with a response something like “great, I just figured out another way that doesn’t work, the next attempt will be better.” SEAL training is all about persistence, which is why my first book is focused on that because I believe that being persistent is the foundation for success. Just because you’ve built a team doesn’t mean you won’t fail, you will and how you handle those failures will directly impact how your team handles them.

In SEAL Team, one of the single most important elements of a mission occurs at the end when we debrief it. We don’t just debrief it only with those on the mission; we debrief it with all other available teammates. We want everyone to understand what worked and what didn’t so the other platoons can “stand on our shoulders” and go further faster. Doing this requires a mindset of NEGU.

To what extent has your active duty with the SEALs guided and informed your thoughts about effective leadership in the business world? Please explain.

There isn’t a day — perhaps even an hour — that I’m not thinking or comparing a SEAL moment to the current moment I’m facing. Many times those reflections are reminders to me of how fortunate we are (Americans) to live in this great country with our great freedoms. Other times, those reflections are based on how to handle a situation. As I have matured as a leader, I have found that my SEAL experiences represent one corner of my leadership triangle – the other corners being my entrepreneurship experiences and my personal experiences and beliefs. These three sources are what I consider my leadership triangulation and represent how I approach leading. That said, my SEAL experiences are the most formidable ones. The laser focus on the objective, the NEGU. attitude and the relentless commitment to the team are the most memorable takeaways from SEAL Team.

In Chapters 3-6, You focus on four essential actions of high-performance leadership. What is the single greatest barrier to completing each? First, Connect

A person’s willingness to be candid – to be authentic. The moment someone receives a promotion, there is almost an automatic thought of “okay now I have to be different.” On the contrary, you have to be more “you” with an understanding that your position of authority will only last as long as your willing to understand that your actions speak louder than your words. Your job as a leader is to prove to people that you care not just about the objective but also about them. To lead is to serve and to serve is to care. Teddy Roosevelt said is best: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” The single biggest barrier is showing how much you care.

Next, Achieve

The hardest barrier to overcome for most leaders in this phase is to let go – to “assume” your people know what they are doing and give them the space to do it.  I’m not suggesting “checking-out,” on the contrary, you should check in regularly but there’s a fine line between checking-in and micro-managing. The goal is to give your teammates the freedom to attack a task in their own way while ensuring they hit the necessary timelines. Micro-managing or assuming they don’t know how to do their jobs is the quickest way to kill team dynamics.

Then, Respect

The goal of respect isn’t just some touchy-feely HR initiative. Rather, it’s about creating an environment of contribution. A place where everyone feels comfortable (and safe) to suggest different points of view. The barrier here is ego and insecurity for it takes a security leader to listen objectively. That is, as Covey suggests, to listen to understand NOT listen to answer. Encourage different points of view on how to get something done. It’s especially difficult for a leader to do this when throughout their careers they’ve been told they have the best ideas. Respect – really mutual respect – is about putting your self-interests aside to listen and learn from others. Great ideas come from diverse thinking. I’ve often said, “I want diversity of thought NOT diversity of heart.”

Finally, Empower

The greatest barrier to empowerment is giving your power to others. It can sound counter-intuitive to work your whole career to attain a position of power only to give that power back to the very people you work with. The point of empowering others is to develop owners. You want your teammates to own their decisions, the direction of the team and most importantly the outcome of the team’s efforts. To do this requires empowering them to make decisions, to lead not just themselves but those on the team. Empowering is using your position of power to help others succeed.  Many leaders talk about empowering others but still require all decisions to run through them – that’s not empowerment. The goal is giving teammates responsibility WITH authority. That’s hard to do because it requires a deep trust of their teammates since if they fail – you – the leader will be responsible. Yet if they succeed, you will do your very best to let everyone know that it was them NOT you that help the team succeed. What do you get in return? The ultimate empowerment: gratitude.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when someone is assembling a team, especially if it is for the first time?

Greatest “do” – get to know your people and be consistent– the whole person, not just the person who shows up for work. Understand what’s keeping them up at night – what pressures/struggles they have to contend with when they leave work; learn why they want to be at this job. Go deep with them and be willing to share your background as well.

Biggest “don’t” – erratic both emotionally and mentally. People want to trust you, but you’ll make it very difficult for them if you are erratic with how you respond to different situations. Remain calm before you respond NO matter what happens. Let them know that no matter how difficult the situation is you’ll be calm and seek to understand before responding. Also, if your behavior is erratic in regards to not always doing what you say you will do those actions will make it very difficult for you to build trust with your teammates. No trust No Team.

In Chapter 7, you discuss the “10X Advantage.” What is it and how best to activate it?

The 10x advantage is about extending the boundaries of your team to include your customers, contributors, and the community within which you support/work. When these external teammates feel a part of your team they will not let you fail. Activating this takes an all-hands-on-deck approach by first making everyone aware that the success of the team hinges on others who support it. Then it takes consistent and intentional outreach to connect, achieve, respect and empower them just like you have done with your own teammates.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Unstoppable Teams will be most valuable to almost anyone, whatever their current career situation may be?

The scorecard in business is dollars made or lost. Profits and losses power the financial markets. However, if your focus is only on the P&L statements generated and not on those who helped you generate it your success will be short-lived for those people will leave. They will leave because they don’t FEEL valued – because they are people too and people have emotions, they crave connection, and yes they crave care. If you expand and shift your focus to helping those who you need to “win” in business, I promise you, you will enjoy a long and meaningful career in business. You will discover that business is a more powerful vehicle for making a change (especially positive ones!) than what governments can do. Keep your focus first on helping others win and they will help your business win….and you!

This answer doesn’t vary for first-timers or long timers. Success in any business, in any career,  depends on this: help others succeed, and they will help you succeed. Many times C-level folks forget this simple rule and begin to believe what’s been written about them or perhaps they think they are the only reason their business has succeeded. They need this reminder as much — if not even more — than first time supervisors or those just starting out. Business is about building relationships with your colleagues, customers, and communities. Disregard or de-value these relationships and you ensure the consequences that come with sub-par performance.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“What’s the point of building a team and what’s the greatest obstacle to building it?”

Answer: A teams does things that one individual cannot. We are imperfect. No one person can do it all. We are meant to work together – we NEED to work together — to solve the great challenges of the human race. Our very existence including our happiness depends on it.

Yet our imperfections – ego, pride, and insecurities – are the biggest challenges we face. How we address and overcome these internal obstacles directly correlates with how we build bonds with others to tackle challenges. Teams are meant to solve things – things that no one person can solve. Yet before a team can advance, it must first move from individual selfishness to collective selflessness… and the only way for this shift to occur is through using the most powerful human emotion we have: love… to find love you must first be willing to care for to lead is to serve and to serve is to care.

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

Please click here to check out Part 1 of this interview.


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