Our Guest This Episode: Steve Corcoran
When trouble hits, many managers cut and run. In this Velociteach podcast, our Manage This team delves into this leadership crisis. We interview Steve Corcoran who retired as Colonel, United States Marine Corps, after 28 years of service. Steve talks about the importance of building trust to address adversity. He explains how achieving intellectual and emotional courage develops better leaders.
Steve is now the Chief of Cyber Strategy for the Telos Corporation. He is on the board of directors for Warriors At Ease and mentors veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce. Applying his leadership acumen from the Marine Corps and National Outdoor Leadership School in a corporate environment, Steve describes leadership flaws he has observed and how managers can influence their organizations through desire, respect and appreciation. Hear practical advice from Steve on how to achieve high performance from your team by being that manager who gets the first call in times of crisis.
See transcript for table of contents.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Am I that type of individual that someone wants to call with bad news, the first person they’d want to call?” And if you look at your leader above you, if you don’t want to call that guy, that’s not a leader.”
“Trust comes when people realize there’s no other place I want to be, when things are going wrong, than with you.”
“If you go back to the courage piece, anybody who’s in the project management business who is probably successful is probably going, you know what, I don’t have all the answers here. But if I get 100% out of all you, I will get all the answers.”
|Table of Contents
1. Meet Stephen
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every two weeks we meet to discuss what matters to you in the field of project management. We talk with the movers and shakers, those who have been through the wringer, PMs just like you, about their successes and their failures, too.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the guys with a long string of successes behind them, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And Bill, we have somebody with us via Skype from Tampa, Florida, someone who has been a leader in just multiple capacities.
BILL YATES: Yes. Steve, we are so excited to have you as our guest. You’ve got experiences recently in the private sector. But for 28 years you served our country. We thank you for that, and I’ll let Nick describe more of that. But welcome to the show.
STEVE CORCORAN: Thank you.
NICK WALKER: Yeah, let’s meet Steve. Well, Steve Corcoran retired from the United States Marine Corps after 28 years of active service. In that time he was recognized for distinguished service in combat and peacetime. Steve is now the Chief of Cyber Strategy for the Telos Corporation, successfully taking his leadership knowledge from the Marine Corps, and also from the National Outdoor Leadership School, into a corporate environment. He mentors other veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce and sits on the Board of Directors for Warriors at Ease. Steve, thanks so much for joining us here on Manage This.
STEVE CORCORAN: Thank you for having me.
NICK WALKER: I am intrigued that you’ve made that transition from a career in the military to a career in the corporate world, and that you actually help others in that transition, as well. Was that an easy transition for you? Did it come naturally?
STEVE CORCORAN: Well, you know, I was very fortunate. You know, United States Marine Corps is what I considered a bubble of excellence. And when I made my transition, I left the United States Marine Corps, I just lifted up another bubble of excellence and walked into that, which was the Telos Corporation. And that for me was a very, very easy transition. And I didn’t realize that, you know, until quite a few years. I’ve been with them for six years. And they’re absolutely a phenomenal organization on many different levels. But the reason why I’m staying with them is because of the leadership that is there and the lessons that they’ve taught me. And what I’ve been able to do is take those lessons and impart them to veterans and to other individuals that are transitioning in.
BILL YATES: Let me ask a quick question. What does that company do? What do you do? What do you do, and what does the company do at Telos?
STEVE CORCORAN: Telos is a top 25 internationally ranked cybersecurity company, and we primarily work in cybersecurity, standard cybersecurity. We work in mobility and also identity management.
BILL YATES: Excellent. Steve, when we were talking before, one of the things that you said you realized after you had transitioned from a long military career was you realized, okay, wow. I benefited from years and years of leadership excellence. I had excellent leaders I worked with. I had excellent training. I had excellent preparation. And then when you moved into the private sector you were fortunate enough to find that again. And two of the key words that you’ve said that really stick to me is what made that clear to you was how the organization handled adversity and uncertainty. So tell us, in your transition, how did you come across adversity and uncertainty, and how did you see that play out at Telos?
STEVE CORCORAN: Yeah. You know, the interesting thing is, as leaders, especially in the United States Marine Corps and especially the organizations I’ve belonged to, you define yourself when things are not going well. You have to be able to prepare yourself and to prepare individuals for their worst day – emotionally, physically, in combat, the environment. I was very surprised to find inside the Telos Corporation that that same level of excellence applied when things weren’t going well because I don’t believe it’s the norm inside of corporate America right now.
And the reason why I came to that was about four years ago, during sequestration, things were tough in the business world. You know, for us, the government was shutting down. We were having a hard time with subcontractors. There were a lot of organizations that were going out of business. And it created a dynamic where a lot of people were in fear. They were in fear of losing their jobs. And when you’re in that situation in the military, in your toughest position, we call it “being on the X.” Okay, the “X” is geographic. It’s temporal. It is that place in the ground where you feel pinned down. You feel surrounded. And you have a lot of issues that you have to deal with at the same time.
ANDY CROWE: So that “X” is like an “X” on your back. Or you’ve been marked out, perhaps. You’ve got a target on you.
STEVE CORCORAN: It could be on the ground. It’s where I sit positionally. It could be me personally as a leader. It could be a host of different things. So what happened inside of the Telos Corporation was I thought that what I saw right there was an exact replica of what I would expect out of senior leadership inside the military. And they basically were able to look at the situation and understand that we were not going to get out of that situation by cutting. We were not going to get out of that situation by getting rid of people.
And the inspirational thing when I finally realized that I walked from one bubble of excellence was the day that things weren’t going well. And I walked into a meeting, and the CEO basically said: “Listen. Here’s where we are right now. Okay? It’s not the greatest position that we’re going to be in. We’re not going to be in here forever. But what’s not going to get us out of this situation is accountants. What’s going to get us out of the situation is everyone coming together on this team and being able to chart a course out of here and going to do that.” So, you know, if you look at the path of Telos, and I was just absolutely amazed at that point, we went from having a hard time to a year ago getting rated as that Top 25 International Cybersecurity Company.
NICK WALKER: Steve, you mentioned that that is kind of unusual for much of corporate America. Corporate America has a tendency to cut and run first, rather than later.
STEVE CORCORAN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And I realize the special situation that I’m in, you know, from the Marine Corps as well as moving into Telos. I am the exception, not the rule on that. But what it made me do is to think about the situation as I’m in my practice of transitioning veterans and thinking about this. And I’m looking at these two things. I’m looking at veterans, and I’m saying these are the guys that are absolutely the best individuals you want around when things are not going well. Why is it that they’re having a hard time transitioning in?
And it came down to this, which is the trust factor. Okay? What the CEO of Telos did was immediately – he didn’t establish trust. He always had trust. He was reinforcing trust. He was reinforcing those types of things. And quite frankly, what was happening was he was using the power of the individuals in the organization to get him out of that. And that is what a veteran craves. That is what a team member craves. That is what everyone wants to be part of is to be in a tough situation, come together as a team. But we have corporate entities that believe that their number one priority is to satisfy the shareholders, satisfy the board, and not take care – it’s an excuse to not take care of employees. I don’t think that’s correct. And that is one of the major points that I’m seeing when I’m dealing with veterans. And the message is this. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You know, that CEO, the CEO I have right now, he answers to the same people every other CEO answers to; okay? But he picked a different path. He picked people to get him out of that situation.
ANDY CROWE: You know, Steve, as you tell that, I’m reminded of a story. Steve Jobs, who started Apple, he was an unusual type of leader. And he certainly didn’t fall into the traditional sort of leadership matrix that we think about. But one of the things that emerged as his biographer was starting to write his biography toward the end of Steve Jobs’s life is he said there were plenty of employees at Apple that would take a bullet for him. Now, you think about that, and it’s no coincidence that Apple just reached a peak of being the first trillion dollar company in history, which is pretty…
BILL YATES: That’s amazing.
ANDY CROWE: Well, it is. It defies really understanding, you know, it’s so big at that point. But you think about that. So I guess it’s also interesting – it’s interesting to look at the way the team related to Jobs and the way that Jobs often related to the team; you know? But there was an immense amount of trust there.
BILL YATES: Steve, another point that you made which I think is so relevant to our project managers is the impression that was made on you as a seasoned, you know, 28-year professional already. And you were so impressed by how this organization handled adversity and how leadership worked through the situation, dealt with uncertainty. And I think for project managers the lesson there is so obvious. Who am I, as a leader, as a leader of a team? Are people relying on me? What do they think when the bad – when the bad days come, or the bad weeks or months, are they going to rely on me? Are they going to look to me to be a strong leader, a supportive leader? Or are they going to try to hide information from me? Or are they afraid of how I’m going to behave during the stressful time? So you’ve been in the fortunate position of seeing people lead through that well. It’s a good reminder to our PMs.
STEVE CORCORAN: You know, that’s a great point. And I’ll tie together the two points, the one from Andy and the one from yours. And the sense is that, if you have individuals below you that are saying things, “I would take a bullet for this guy,” he’s on the right track; okay? And what he has done is he has established that trust relationship. And what it goes to is that’s a point I have looked at in my past experiences and my current experiences. As I’m trying to look at these experiences, I’m trying to say, what are the common things in these high-performing organizations that are common; okay? What are the things that we can tease out and say that, out of these four organizations I’ve been part of, what is it that is absolutely common?
But then let’s bring it back down to something very, very practical which you brought up, Bill, which is absolutely essential, which is a leader is there to help you get out of a bad situation. That is their job really; okay? Anyone can be a fair weather leader. But if you look at yourself as an individual, as a peer working inside of a project management group, or if you have an organizational position, ask yourself this one question. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Am I that type of individual that someone wants to call with bad news, the first person they’d want to call?” And then if you look at your leader above you, if you don’t want to call that guy, that’s not a leader. I’m here to tell you right now that is not a leader. Because if you have to manage his ego, his emotions, and his counter-agenda, he’s not leading; okay? He’s out for himself, and you have to spend a lot of calories on that.
So when I’ve looked at my organization and the people I’ve worked for, the people I work with, I have to tell you that I am not going to stand an organization where, if I do something, I screw something up. First person I want to call right now is the guy I work directly for. That is my first instinct. It’s not like I worry about what he’s going to – he’s a leader. He is going to get on the phone, or we’re going to get in person, and we’re going to work through it. That’s his job. He understands it, and he knows it.
BILL YATES: That is so, so good. And Steve, as you were saying that, I could see the grin on Andy’s face. Have you always had leaders that were supportive like that in your past?
ANDY CROWE: No, but I was thinking about at Velociteach we have a saying that bad news doesn’t get better with age. And so we want to get bad news out quickly. And I’m sitting here as you’re talking about it, wondering how much people relish picking up the phone to call me and give me bad news.
BILL YATES: Right, right, yeah. That is good.
ANDY CROWE: That was the grin.
BILL YATES: Yeah, it’s a balance.
ANDY CROWE: So it’s always easy to throw somebody under the bus who doesn’t manage that well. And I certainly have had people in my life who haven’t managed it well. I don’t always manage it well; you know? And so it’s an interesting point, as he’s saying that, if you have to manage someone’s counter-agenda and their emotions and what else? Do you remember, Steve?
STEVE CORCORAN: Their ego.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, their ego. So, very interesting. Very good points.
BILL YATES: It is, yeah. I really feel like that’s a relevant mirror for a project manager. Look at that and assess yourself. Am I approachable? Am I open? Am I open to bad news? As open as I am to good news?
ANDY CROWE: But I’m telling you, project managers – and, you know, someday we just need to do a podcast on how to deliver bad news.
BILL YATES: True.
ANDY CROWE: Because it’s epidemic that PMs do not like to give bad news. They like to wait until it’s all better. They like to wait until it’s passed. They want it to get out some other way. And I deeply appreciate it when somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, take a seat, got something tough to hear, but let’s get it out there,” and just do it. And then, you know, we can at least understand.
NICK WALKER: Steve, there’s probably some people listening here who are saying, okay, I’d like to be that kind of manager. Just give me some steps. Give me some things I can do. Let me do A, B, C, and D; and I can become that kind of manager. Is there an answer to that? Or is it more of just realigning your mind? Is it just really looking at a totally different paradigm?
STEVE CORCORAN: Well, you know, there’s an old saying: “Change happens instantaneously; transition takes a long time.” Okay? But if you decide to change, and if I look at all the exceptional leaders that I’ve been fortunate to serve under, including the current ones right now, the number one thing I would point to is that, from the top leaders inside of the Marine Corps, inside of the Telos Corporation, National Outdoor Leadership School, I would say that the number one thing is they had courage. And that courage wasn’t necessary physical courage. In my former community, physical courage was needed. I’d have to tell you. The tough one is two other elements of courage, which is emotional courage and intellectual courage.
Okay. Think about a CEO. Things are not going well, and he’s got all of that agency issues going on. He’s got a board. He’s got shareholders. He’s got a bunch of people squawking, a bunch of different things going on. If you don’t think that he has to execute some serious intellectual and emotional courage, and also at the same time keep that trust relationship going, I have to tell you that the number one characteristic, I could look at my CEO right now. This guy is just chockful of intellectual and emotional courage; okay? He had the courage to realize that, okay, if this team is going to get out of there, and fight for that team, okay, which is the entirety of the organization, had the courage to think about things a different way.
And honestly, that courage positioned the organization to go from, okay, things are not great right here to, guess what, we’re top 25; okay? That is the essence of what the courage comes down to in the business sector on that. So when you start focusing on that, and you start realizing that, hey, every single leader has limitations, I am limited by my education and my experiences, and that’s the first part of emotional and intellectual courage is realizing that; okay?
It’s walking into a situation and realizing – and that’s one of the things I loved about the Marine Corps, and it’s one of the things I loved about working with Special Operations. There’s no room for ego, there’s no room for counter-agendas, and there’s no room for negative emotions. We just have to get down to business. There’s too much going on. And it’s okay to realize that you are not the expert at everything; that you are not there to have your ego served. You’re not there to have your counter-agenda served. And that is a key component right there.
So individuals can change right now; okay? They can make that decision today to say, listen, I am going to be that individual. Start with I want to be the person that everyone calls when things go wrong; okay? I want to be that calm in a storm. I want to be the leader that shines the light and provides the path out; okay? It’s not a free check, trust me. I served in the Marine Corps. You know, I had inspirational leaders. We get out, but then also you’re going to be standing in front of somebody talking through, okay, this is what went wrong, and you’re going to do some professional development and things like that; okay? This isn’t blank checks, and this isn’t – we’re not running for mayor here. We’re talking about high performance, getting people to be the most effective and efficient that they possibly can be. And that journey is going to get messy; okay? People are going to make mistakes. It’s not a zero-defects environment. So the number one thing, courage, is focused on that.
BILL YATES: Steve, one of the points that you made related to that courage is you’ve got to have the courage to be able to, as you say, admit to your team, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers,” and then invite them into that decision making and creating solutions. So how do you encourage young leaders to be better at listening? Is there body language? Are there questions they should learn how to ask? How do we become better at eliciting the expertise from those whom we are leading?
STEVE CORCORAN: Yeah, I think it comes down to two components. Whatever leader you are, whether in the self mode, whether in peer mode, or in the organizational mode, the best leaders at any level create desire, number one. Desire for – I have to, as a leader, I have to desire to be there with you. And we go back to adversity and uncertainty. Trust comes when people realize there’s no other place I want to be, when things are going wrong, than with you. And in fact the great leaders are – they are in emotional distress if they cannot be with the individuals that they are charged with leading if they are not there with them; okay?
So the organization has to see desire, that you want to be there. Because what you’re trying to do is create their desire. All right? Because when I look at it this way, desire is this: when you know that I want to be there, and I make it clear that I want you there; okay? And why do I want you there? Because I need your education and experiences. I hired you because I want your education and experiences. I want every single brain cell. I want every single muscle cell. Because I want 100 percent out of you every single day.
And when we talk about desire, the litmus test for desire, the acid test for desire is what time do you wake up and go to work? Do you check in at 9:00 o’clock? Because I have to tell you, the organizations I’ve been part of, and one of the things I ask myself all the time is, hey, they get me at 6:00 o’clock in the morning when I wake up. Or 5:30. I start thinking about it. That’s – they have created desire in me. I want to get with my team. I want to get with my boss.
BILL YATES: Yeah. Steve, you and I were talking earlier. You shared a story with me that I think really captured that. And it was inspiring to me. You talked about a leader, it was a general in the military, who was under an intensely pressure-filled situation. And it was the middle of the night, if I remember right. And that general took the time to talk to someone who was holding a mop. Tell us about that.
STEVE CORCORAN: Yeah. You know, when I looked at that story – and it took me quite a few years to unravel that one and realize what transpired. But I use that all the time when I talk to organizations is that in 2006 I was part of an organization that was responsible for the entirety of the military operations in the Middle East and Central Asian states, and also Horn of Africa at the time. And at that time, 2006, things were not going well in Iraq. Things were just holding in Afghanistan.
And the four-star general charged with the responsibility for this area of operations was an extremely busy and I would say probably the most important man in America at that point in time. There were grave decisions he had to make. This is a man who’s talking to the President every other day. This is a man who was talking to the Secretary of Defense twice a day. And he had to go to a meeting very, very early in the morning to talk to the Secretary of Defense. And it was about 2:00 o’clock in the morning at our headquarters in the Middle East. The four-star general had just gotten off a brutal trip; and, you know, he had been going between different capitals, going through Europe, Washington. He was coming in the building, and you could see on his face, this man was exhausted; okay? He had to get on that line and talk to the Secretary of Defense.
And off to the corner is a young private, probably the most junior man in the United States military and the junior man inside of that organization. Here is the most senior man. This general stops, walks over, starts talking to this individual. At first he was a little scared. He’s like, why is this four-star general in front of me? I’m just here mopping the floors; okay?
But as I watched this conversation go on, I watched the body language on both individuals. Both were soldiers. And I watched the young soldier get relaxed, and I saw a smile coming on his face. Then I saw the general start smiling; okay? And then they probably talked for about 45 seconds. I saw the general’s shoulders drop down. He relaxed. And now, whatever, he shook the kid’s hand, went off and did his thing; okay?
For many years I thought he did that for him. No. No, he didn’t do that for him. He was doing that for himself. He was regrounding himself after dealing with all these high-level issues. And what he needed at that point in time was basically to connect with the reason why he was there. His desire to be there was not because he was a four-star general. His desire to be there was for that kid. And he just wanted to make that connection before he got on and started dealing with the major issues of the things that he was dealing with.
That impression has been on my mind, you know, for many, many years. And when CEOs talk to me, and they say, “Hey, I’m busy, I’ve got a lot of different things going on” and stuff like that, I tell them that story. What did he show to the organization? What did he show to that kid? He showed desire. I need you here. I want you here. You’re important; okay? So we as individuals can do that every single day. Even if we don’t have responsibility for anybody, the people we work with, we can connect with them at a very human level and say, “Hey, I desire to be here. I desire for you to be.” That starts to build the trust right there.
ANDY CROWE: You know what, Steve, you can tell a lot by how somebody relates to maybe the socially least significant people around them, too, whether they’re dismissive and arrogant, whether they take time. The thing that strikes me about that story, I got a chance to speak to a group of Marines years ago in Quantico. And during that process, before I spoke, a brigadier general spoke. And the brigadier general walked into the room, and I cannot tell you the effect it had on the room when he walked in. The whole aspect, everything changed in that moment, as long as he was there. And it was intimidating. So the idea of a four-star turning around and stopping, you know, I’m sure the poor guy with the mop thought…
BILL YATES: He was shaking. What have I done wrong? Right. That’s powerful.
NICK WALKER: You mentioned the word “desire,” Steve. And two other words come to mind when I hear that story, and that is respect, mutual respect for one another; appreciation of one another, as well.
STEVE CORCORAN: Yeah. You know, once you get desire right, and when you’re talking about going back to the junior leaders, you’re talking your young project managers, you’re talking – you know, what I love about talking to you guys about is project management is taking together a lot of skill sets. It’s taking together a lot of different people with different domain knowledge. And you have to really synchronize that. You have to really build these ad hoc teams. And quite frankly, if you go back to the courage piece, anybody who’s in the project management business who is probably successful is probably going, you know what, I don’t have all the answers here. But if I get 100 percent out of all you, I will get all the answers.
BILL YATES: Right.
STEVE CORCORAN: So on the respect piece, if you develop something in the way that you’re dealing with people, and you’re letting them know, first, I desired for you to be here; but when you put an institutional emphasis on, hey, I need your assessments, I need your opinion, I need all of these different things, I require your – I require you to come to the table, I need you here 100 percent each time, people start to feel respected; okay? But you have to institutionalize that. You have to be able to make sure that you roll that in there; okay? Because as soon as you let people know they’re wanted, and you respect them, they’re not going to go anywhere else. That’s where Jobs is hitting it out of the park. That’s where he did it. And the sense is that they felt that they were wanted, and they were needed, and they were part of the organization.
You could do that immediately. Change this immediately. I can have that effect on how I communicate with people, how I task people, how I work with people. I can make them feel like they are the most important person, and that they are definitely required. And one of the things that your young project managers can do, okay, is this: If you want respect, you have to give respect; okay? And when you give that respect, it’s very simple. You create a dynamic where everyone gets their say. Not necessarily their way. They get their say; okay? Because no one takes a rental car to get washed; okay? And as soon as people start having buy-in…
ANDY CROWE: That’s true.
STEVE CORCORAN: Okay? As soon as people – and I’m not talking buy-in in a sense. If you build your system where you require people to come to the table, that leader who realizes that on his best day I only have 50 percent, okay, that’s all you people are going to help me learn. I’m in learning mode here. You are going to be part of that process; okay? And as soon as you start developing that dynamic, you’re off to the races.
NICK WALKER: Steve, thanks so much for your time with us today. We have a gift for you. It’s a Manage This coffee mug that we’re going to send you. But before you go we want to let people know how they can get in touch with you. Is there an easy way to get in touch with you or follow you?
STEVE CORCORAN: Okay. Best way of getting hold of me is Stephen Corcoran on LinkedIn. My number one community that I answer first is the veterans’ community. Number two is individuals that are trying to help veterans. Those, in that order. And then, number three, any organization that wants to hear more about this, I’ll be more than happy to do that. But my heart lies with the veterans and helping them go through it. I also enjoy talking to organizations that want to do better in hiring veterans, and they want to employ veterans better, and how to get that. So hit me up on LinkedIn.
NICK WALKER: All right. We appreciate so much you taking the time to talk with us today. Thanks so much for your experience and for sharing your insight today.
STEVE CORCORAN: Thank you for having me.
NICK WALKER: We want to remind our listeners that we want you to be on the receiving end, not of just the great insight our guests provide, but also the benefit you get from listening to this podcast in the form of PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications. You earn them just for listening to Manage This. To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.
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