Project RELO: Reflecting on the Veteran Experience

Nov 10, 2017   |   Adam J. Hecktman

Last year, I took part in a program that was, and this is not lightly said, life-changing.  The program is Project RELO, and I wrote about it at the time here. As you will see later, I am not the only participant who felt that way. It was life-changing in the way that it made me look at our veterans as one of our most valued resources. It was life-changing in the way that it made me look at myself. And it was life-changing in terms of the friends that I will now have for the rest of my life. I thought this day was a good day to re-visit this project by having a conversation with Christian Anschuetz.

Christian is a leader in every sense of the word. Christian is the Chief Digital Officer of UL. He was a leader during his time serving his country in the Marines. And he is a leader (and founder) of Project RELO, where corporate folks, like myself, build relationships and learn the potential of veterans on the home turf of active U.S. Army bases. I am proud that he is my friend and wanted, on this day, for you to learn more about how he views our veterans.

Adam: Christian, you work for a 120-year-old global company. And as Chief Digital Officer (CDO), you are often looking at the leading edge of technology. What is that like and how does that dynamic affect you?

Christian: Ray Kurzweil once wrote that every decade the rate of technological progress would double. He explained, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” This very clear and simple message conveys what we all intuitively know – that the rate of change is, in fact, increasing every single year.

Regardless of whether you are a 120-year-old firm or a startup, we all work in very dynamic and increasingly technologically advanced environments. As a Chief Digital Officer, however, the challenge is usually less about technology, and more about people; for despite the rapid pace of innovation, people do their best to maintain the status quo, especially in the workplace.  It’s call psychological inertia, though I refer to it as ‘fixedness’.

As the CDO for UL my job is identifying, prioritizing and embedding technology innovation and digital trends into the vision, strategy, and the operating models required to support growth. Or, put in more human and relatable words, I am responsible for helping to create a compelling vision that inspires our colleagues to move UL towards an even more impactful, powerful outcome; one that they can all contribute to and lead.

As a company whose mission it is to make safer and more sustainable working and living environments, the outcomes we pursue are good and pure; we exist to benefit humanity. As the CDO of the company, I can assure you that our future is one that turns our business into the indisputable platform on all things pertaining to safety and performance, and that will be enabled by dedicated, determined, and passionate people.

Adam: What do you look for when you are hiring talent?

Christian: First and foremost, I hire for character. Talent, in my opinion, is systemically overrated. Technical skills, industry knowledge and process mastery can all be learned, and very often, developed quickly.

You can develop talent but you can’t, for example, teach work ethic. Evaluating a person’s drive, discipline, dedication and passion speaks volumes more about a candidate’s potential than their resume. Plus, it is seldom a person’s talent that gets a firm in trouble. Rather, most employment issues are related to character.

Let me attempt to prove this point by asking two simple questions:

  • First, what percent of a typical firm’s candidates are hired for their technical prowess, experience, or industry knowledge? Answer – ~95%.
  • What percentage of involuntary terminations are due character flaws, such as inadequate initiative, an integrity issue, poor work ethic, et al? Answer – ~95%.

Clearly, hiring for skills and competencies is only partly the answer. The main focus need be on whether the person fits the ethos of the organization and team. As a result, I believe that HR policies and procedures need to shift from matching key words between candidates’ resumes and job descriptions towards a more humanistic approach to determining the character and unique qualities each person can bring to the workforce.

Adam: Now, before we pivot to Project RELO, tell me about your own military experience?  What skills did you bring from that experience into the enterprise?

Christian: After graduating from the University of Michigan in ’90 I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Immediately after getting pinned with my gold Lieutenant bars, I spent another year learning about what it means to be a Marine officer, and how do to it well. The training was lengthy, immersive, and unsurprisingly, intense.

After graduating from the Marine Corps Basic School and the subsequent specialty course I went directly into the Fleet Marine Force – meaning, the fully immersed, deployed and active duty Marine Corps. My first assignment was as a platoon commander, and at the young age of 23, I was in charge of 45 Marines in what some might call “adverse conditions”. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement. In some ways, I feel I learned everything I ever knew with that one assignment.

Being a platoon commander was just the beginning, for through my two active duty tours I held several jobs; from being a company executive officer, to an assignment as an assistant operations officer. I eventually changed my area of specialization to communications and became the officer in charge of the Marine Corps’ largest simulation center in Quantico, Virginia.

While I gained many skills during my time in the Corps, an important understanding I brought forward with me into the corporate world is an appreciation for unifying people around purpose, and enabling them with intent. Purpose is typically the biproduct of a compelling vision and a well-known and understood mission. They are both critical, yet few firms clearly crystalize a compelling vision that serves to motivate and inspire its workforce.

Intent is similarly powerful, yet even more often ignored. Intent is simply a description and definition of what success looks like. It avoids giving a prescriptive direction on ‘how’ to achieve a goal, and therefore unlocks the imagination and ingenuity of those determined to make it happen. After all, people are instructed on what to achieve, yet possess the all-important discretion on how to make it happen. Such discretion is critical in dynamic and chaotic environments such as, for example, a battlefield. It is just as critical, however, in the ever-changing and chaotic world in which our businesses and technologies co-exist.

Adam: Where did the idea for Project RELO come from?  Give us the genesis story.

Christian: One day while at an executive-level event, I looked about and wondered “how many of these C-level executives have served in the Armed Forces?”. While I am unsure what triggered the thought, I do recall that I immediately went to talking to the various leaders in the room with the intent of determining whether any of them were veterans. Unsurprisingly, out of the 20+ executives I talked to, none had served in our military.

After my informal investigation, I decided to do a deliberate study to determine the percentage of the representation of veterans on Chicago’s management teams and boards. Sadly, our research turned revealed that only 3 out of 73 of Chicago’s largest firms had any veterans in the senior-most positions. With the average management team consisting of around 10 people, and boards of at least that size, the percentage of veterans in these executive ranks is well below 1%. Candidly, I remain shocked that the figure is so low. After all, how is it that those that have received the most intense, formal and extensive training on the topic of leadership not be more present in the most senior leadership roles of our companies?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is simple. It all comes down to that one powerful word – bias. Now, before we recoil from the word bias, let’s understand that everyone possesses bias, and a lot of it. Bias, it turns out, is a short cut of a sort, that has been engineered into how humans think. A simple example is that I have a bias against touching hot stoves. When it comes to people, however, bias can be dangerous; especially if one doesn’t realize it is present.

While I could write a paper on bias and its influence on the workforce, let me relate a story.

One warm afternoon the Executive Director from Project RELO and I sat in a beautiful board room overlooking Chicago’s skyline. Around the table was the CEO of the firm we were visiting and his entire management team. At one point while discussing the merits of hiring veterans into his company the CEO interrupted, proclaiming that his large company was onboard; they would begin a program to bring more veterans into their workforce. After that statement, I was utterly crushed when he looked at us square in the eyes and said: “just help us find veterans that don’t have PTSD.”

While there are many biases at play in the world, we formed Project RELO to combat the notion that veterans are somehow broken, that we are all “command and control,” or that our skills are mostly irrelevant to the workplace. Our organization counters those beliefs, not by argument, but rather through demonstration. Project RELO does this by creating environments where executives and veterans work together to solve and overcome significant obstacles and challenges.

And in winning as a unified, cohesive team we begin to alter the perspective of our executive participants; from appreciating our vets’ service to understanding how the extensive training, superlative leadership qualities and the selfless character our veterans possess can help all of our firms perform better.

Adam: I was fortunate to have participated in Project RELO with you. I find it very, very difficult to explain the experience without launching into what seems like hyperbole. But it truly is hyperbole-worthy! It transforms a person in so many ways. How do you explain it to those who have not participated, and may not have had service experience?

Christian: After two years of good work I still find it difficult to describe the effect that Project RELO has on people. Not just because our approach is so unique, but because of the dramatic affect it has on those that join us. You are far from alone in your estimation of the impact of Project RELO; nearly half of our participants describe RELO as “life-changing”.

That said, I will stick to tried-and-true language to describe Project RELO:

Project RELO is a nonprofit, 501c3 organization dedicated to transforming America’s perspective on the value and character of our veterans through intense and immersive business leadership training exercises. We do this by pairing small teams of executives with transitioning vets in a challenging, indoor and outdoor leadership curriculum. Run like a military operation, participants bond over both scripted and unscripted adversity, forging deep and meaningful relationships as they are forced to rely upon one another to navigate through prepared objectives.  

The veterans, domain experts in these environments, capably demonstrate their knowledge, selflessness, mission orientation and ethic. It is here the character and competence of veterans is experienced first-hand. It is also here Project RELO begins to change the mindset on the true quality of our veterans.

Ultimately, Project RELO changes business leaders’ perspective on veterans at a primal, emotional level. It then provides a clear path to this newfound talent, effectively serving American business and vets simultaneously.

To learn more about Project RELO, please consider watching one of the following two films, or connecting with us on Facebook or online at www.projectrelo.org:

Adam: Today is Veterans Day. I feel like this day means different things to different people and is a very personal day. What would you like to ask the rest of us to think about on this day where we honor the US veterans of all wars?

Christian: Veterans Day is a day of honor, respect, and the remembrance of the price we pay to keep our country free. And for those of us that have lost family and friends to war, it is also a day of mourning.

A solemn day. An important day. A day to salute and thank all those that serve, or have served, this great nation we call America.

Learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to veterans at Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA).

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.