Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas, Intel. Policy & Strategy Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and fellow combat veteran, startup enthusiast, and VP at State Street, Jason Cipriano share tips on managing stress (and more) in the VUCA era.
Highlights and tips listed further below are intentionally pithy and succinct.
A link to the recording of our entire webinar last night is available here.
Background on this post (and webinar last night):
“A lot of us want tips on managing (ourselves and others) better in stressful times. We assume combat veterans have learned how to work better under stress.”
That observation by Gustavo Trindade, Director of Babson’s Miami Hub, prompted us to invite Jason Cipriano, former navy officer. legal adviser, combat veteran, startup survivor, and VP at a Fortune 500 company (State Street), to speak in our summer webinar series.
A fan of aliteration, Jason proposed “Combat, COVID, Courts” as a catchy title capturing all the themes between which he could find parallels, offer tips, and add value.
Then George Floyd was killed, and suddenly, the long-festering, persistent background crisis of racial inequity took over as the top headline issue of the last several weeks.
As a Latinx executive accountable for supplier diversity and sustainability at a bank that touches $1 out of every $10 in global commerce, with a procurement budget of $3.5 billion, Jason fortunately had tips to share on issues of diversity and inclusion.
At the last minute, we learned that Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas, Intel. Policy & Strategy Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could join us. Also a combat veteran, Faye has been a corporate counsel, state and federal prosecutor, senior executive, and gained international attention for her work at the intersection of counter-terrorism, anti-poaching, and women’s entrepreneurship.
This post summarizes highlights of some of the wisdom shared by Faye and Jason last night, based on a combined total of over 40 years of service and entrepreneurial leadership experience around the world – often in the role of someone in an under-estimated and under-represented demographic group. Coincidentally and valuable in this context, Faye and Jason are each raising three biracial children, as we discovered in 90 minutes of “pre-gaming” their talking points and the persepectives they could bring to a conversation that risked covering sensitive-but-essential-and-timely topics.
Lessons from combat: tips on managing in times of stress
Faye and Jason elaborated on the following basic tips for managing under stress:
(1) Minimize the unscripted: proactively think ahead and ask what a mission entails.
(2) Break-down tasks into steps: specific policies and procedures reduce uncertainty.
(3) Practice, practice, practice: drill and master routines, often in adverse conditions.
(4) Focus on the task-at-hand: a million executed tasks will result in eventual victory.
(5) Expect the unexpected. Here’s the balancing act: despite drilling routines, don’t be shocked at change, and be ready to occasionally pivot, improvise, and act decisively despite uncertainty and incomplete information. Get used to it. Faye conveyed this powerfully: “When I was the last person a combat team would see before deploying, they’d ask me how sure I was that the enemy was really as we described (identities as a combatant vs. bystanders, numbers, postion, equipment). As a lawyer, I’d love 100% certainty. But the best teams in the special forces business would take potentially deadly risks based on a threshold of 70-75% certainty.” (paraphrased quote based on two conversations, approved by Faye Cuevas on June 25).
(6) Don’t skip the after-action, or “lessons learned” debrief. In other words, it is invaluable to discuss what went right or wrong, and why. More on this below.
COVID, Courts, Diversity: tips on legal risk + creating value
Both Faye and Jason have legal training and an entrepreneurial outlook, so it was natural to break-down both COVID-19 and the broad topic of diversity and inclusion into two areas: (1) minimizing risks, and (2) maximizing opportunities.
Disclaimer: this is not intended, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice.
Risk minimization tips are similar to the steps above (on minimizing stress), and are roughly the same in the contexts of workplace discrimination and health and safety:
To minimize risks (in contexts of COVID and diversity and inclusion):
(1) Set clear and specific policies and procedures: proactively plan for contingenices.
(2) Train: make sure everyone knows the rules.
(3) Reporting: whether it’s suspected discrimination or symptoms of illness, is there a communication channel for designated leaders to know when it happens?
(4) Documentation: keep proof of everything, including completion-of-training, reports of suspected incidents (or symptoms), and actions taken.
As a small startup, the law may not require you to take these steps, but, regardless, they can reduce risks, harms, and costs, related to both discrimination and health and safety.
(5) Find alliances and partners: as in all things, relationships make everything easier.
Opportunities and tips in advancing diversity and inclusion:
(1) Performance: research confirms that diverse teams make better decisions.
(2) Cohesion: as argued by the military in legal cases on affirmative action policies, units function better if everyone sees their own kind represented in leadership ranks.
(3) Marketplace: as argued by big businesses in the same landmark legal cases, many regions of the USA are “majority minority” (and a majority if the world is neither white, nor male), a contributing factor to most elites being fundamentally out-of-touch with daily realities of the very people businesses rely upon as employees and customers.
(4) Expectations: employees, customers, and investors increasingly expect some overt and visible commitment to diversity and inclusion (and sustainability, de-carbonization, and envirnomental stewardship, they both hastened to add).
(5) Competition: if nothing else, pointing out comparisons and that “the competition could make us look bad” helps to motivate senior leadership.
Further tips shared and reiterated by Faye and Jason:
(1) Admit we can do better. Then ask for help.
(2) Use data. Both internally and externally, measuring and reporting on all aspects of organizational performance – including in the arenas of workplace health and safety (COVID), diversity and inclusion, and environmental impact – can help drive better decisions. We manage what we measure.
(3) Shake your stakeholders. There is an increasingly visible trend of business executives shaking stakeholders out of complacency, and aligning their organizations with external networks of partners to better advance causes. This is increasingly seen as normal, accepted, and consistent with their roles as captains of industry, rather than somehow in conflict with their jobs.
Finally, tips on managing in VUCA times
VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) is an acronym over 30 years old, but increasingly fashionable to use in describing our present era. At the same time, some of the “surprise shocks” of recent years have actually been very foreseeable (and not just in retrospect). For example, I remember reading (in 1990) that demographic patterns would probably lead to some kind of civil unrest of the variety, scope, and severity of what eventually became known as the Arab Spring (Faye concurred my memory of this is likely not inaccurate). Bill Gates’ 2015 TED talk on lack of preparedness for a foreseeable pandemic is now famous (and more irrefutably on target). Finally, commentary on police brutality, racial inequity, and other forms of societal injustice and profound inequalities have been a consistent backbeat in the news for decades for anyone listening for it. So, in the opinion of Faye and Jason, what are the next slow-moving and foreseeable “suckerpunches” that will somehow surprise us? We used the following slide as a springboard for discussing this question.
Our guests agreed that various environmental problems will lead to disruptions. Both pointed to the Quadrennial Defense Reviews that have documented these threats. Faye adds that it is no secret that the current Pentagon leadership is looking at global power competition and use of outer space as slowly evolving arenas that we may wake up and realize have fundamentally altered our daily realities.
We also discussed tips on how to juggle multiple priorities and tasks (not to mention parental obligations) at once (we used the analogy of having multiple grease fires in several frying pans, with no backburner on which to place them).
“Triage” was the key word that Faye offered. Both confirmed that setting priorities and accepting little losses and compromises on non-essential agenda items is essential. Jason also cited to the research of Phil Kim (one of our Babson colleagues present in the webinar), on how critical supportive relationships and social networks can be.
These topics of conversation (first in our “pre-game” chat and then in our recorded webinar) led us to two major generalizable “wrap-up” lessons related to all our themes.
(1) The arc of history (to paraphrase a famous paraphrasing of a sermon) is a zigzag. Progress is non-linear. In combat, business, social justice movements, advances in technology, science, and human health, and life: we plan, we act, but history teaches that we have to be ready for setbacks, pivots, sidesteps, and leaps forward. Some surprises will be negative, and some will be positive.
(2) We’ll never have perfect certainty of the future, complete information, nor avoid mistakes — but in any arena, our successes and failures are wasted if they’re not mined for lessons learned. We often avoid painful “after action reviews” of what worked, what did not, and why we failed and how to avoid the same mistake again. All the more so when uncomfortable emotions or truths are at stake. Yet I remember, in prepping students for tests, having to urge that it’s critical to review both the patterns that lead to success and patterns that result in errors (even when there are far fewer intense emotions involved and less dire consequences at stake). As with mastering any skill, reviewing-and-reflecting on how to improve necessitates discipline to relentlessly repeat a pattern that may not always be easy or joyful, but will eventually be rewarding.