Every month, we sit down with transformational HR leaders to discuss hot topics in rewards and recognition, employee engagement, HR, and leadership.
LET’S JUMP INTO THE INTERVIEW
You have a unique background, compared to many of the Human Resources and People people we talk with. Tell us about what has shaped you and your approach to the VC world.
I was born and raised in an Italian family in Chicago. I began playing classical violin very early on, competing with my older sister. I had heard my sister play songs for so long, even in the womb, that I believe I picked up the ability to play faster than she did because she was the one showing me how. My mother was a 40-year public school teacher, and my father was a 40-year union laborer, a pipefitter. I went to a small, private Catholic high school and then DePaul University.
I studied abroad as a civilian in a nontraditional way, where I went to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004-2005 and wrote a thesis during my time there. On that civilian deployment, I met a Navy SEAL that changed the course of my life. I came back, withdrew my OCS package and enlisted in the United States Navy with every intention of becoming a SEAL. I had grown up hearing stories of camaraderie and bootcamp, and I became the 16th man in my family at the time to join the United States military.
About two and a half years into my process of working towards becoming a SEAL I injured my spine. It took me 8 months of rehabilitation to get back on my feet, and when I transitioned out of the Navy, I realized that there was a significant need for a career transition institute for the top 1% of veterans in the world.
I began to bootstrap what is now the Honor Foundation. I started with my savings and interviewed over 215 Navy SEALs in 7 states over six months to understand their needs around transitioning out of the military. We sat together in kitchens, living rooms, and bars. I spoke to them, their spouses, and their children, and developed what I now consider a “gold standard of empathy”. (To me, values have to be verbs and they must be put into action all of the time. One of my own core values is to fiercely empathize, which I learned directly through these interviews… which more often than not, ended in deep connection and tears.)
As I learned about the SEALs’ needs, I became laser focused on this mission. 5 years later, I had raised tens of millions of dollars and opened up campuses across the country including the first virtual campus where operators could attend our 15-week program from anywhere in the world. We now have a staff nearing 20 and a wonderfully active and engaged Board of Directors.
This journey has led me to understand that “TLC” is the most important thing in any company. TLC means, in this case, “Teams, Leadership, and Culture”. Along with this central theme, there are 5 Forces that go along with TLC and make it possible…which I’ll dive into later today. But first, early in 2019, I transitioned to the Board of the Honor Foundation to create an endowment that would support the Foundation in perpetuity.
I then moved into creating a venture fund called Fathom VC. Fathom, like its name, is all about going deep. I went on a “listening tour”, interviewing 50 founders and 50 venture capitalists to ask deep questions. But the questions were not about startups or venture capital. Instead, I focused on the subconscious mind, to understand how these people became the people they are.
Again, just like with the Navy SEALs, my conversations with VCs ended in deep connection and tears. It was remarkable. I gathered the information I needed, and in February 2020 (exactly one year later) we closed approximately 10 million dollars in funding. Since then our fundraising has surged and we have done investments alongside the top VCs in the world.
No one had codified for founders “how to begin”. But sitting down to learn from 50 founders, the code began to reveal itself. To be fair, I had learned from FBI and CIA investigators the art of asking questions, meaning, how to start at the surface, go deep quickly, and get to the core. It’s a simple, yet subtle process: to find the bomb or the “X”, you have to ask questions that have nothing to do with the “X”. It’s counterintuitive, but it works.
When I connected with each founder, I would open with questions like: “Tell me who you think you are.” And then, “Tell me who they think you are.” It throws some people off at first, but it gets us talking about what really matters.
How has your experience and foundation inside and outside of the military influenced the types of cultures that you try to create now, even in the civilian sector?
The word “alignment” to me is the most important when we talk about culture. What I heard over and over again from the SEAL community, when you go out on a deployment or a patrol, your senses are heightened, your intuition is what you rely on to keep yourself alive. These former SEALs are highly sentient. So they know what kind of culture they want to be in, but they have to be dropped into it to be able to verbalize what they want or don’t want. So, I created an experience called a “Trek” where I took them to what I considered to be a “good” fit culture for the community, followed by a “horrible” fit culture (secretly, so they could see the stark difference).
Walking into a place, these SEALs learned how to quickly pinpoint all of the inputs that indicate a culture that is aligned vs. not aligned. That’s how we put these Treks, these experiences together, for our Fellows at the Honor Foundation. I learned what signals to pay attention to regarding starting up organizations and developed my own intuition, my own internal compass from the Special Operations community and the VCs in Silicon Valley to recognize whether the culture I was walking into was aligned or not aligned.
In times of conflict, the invisible culture becomes visible. What was submerged, the proverbial iceberg under the water, becomes completely obvious. All of a sudden, the t-shirts, the food, and the beer does not matter one bit anymore. What really matters in times of conflict are the invisible feelings that were at the ethos of the company. This goes back to the prescription of how I’ve broken down “5 Forces” every business has that build up to great “TLC”.
Culture is an end state that needs to be worked towards all the time, and there are five things that lead into great teams that sharpen leaders into building a great culture.
I interviewed 151 Fortune 500 executives to learn about their own cultures and leadership styles. And guess what? The values and mission presented at the top, by the top leaders, typically shifted by a mile when I dropped down just one layer under those executives to ask the next level of leadership. To the person sweeping the floors, the disconnect around the company’s values and mission widened to the size of a metaphorical Grand Canyon.
When I think about companies today that exemplify total alignment, SpaceX is the first one that comes to mind. The first of the 5 Forces every business needs is “Vision”, and the gold standard I have connected with Vision is Elon Musk. He will be known as the greatest entrepreneur of our generation. He understands that he is not normal in the way that he can see things that have not arrived yet. What he has learned is that he has to create that vision for people who can’t quite see it yet.
He has done this with SpaceX: you walk into the headquarters and the first thing you see is Mars, completely populated with a city, people driving around in Teslas, and people walking in tunnels that have been bored underground.
For instance, we took our SEALs on a “trek” to SpaceX to give them a visceral sense of a culture that exhibits a gold standard of vision alignment. While we were in the building, I pulled an engineer aside — a guy who looked busy, but not too high-level, just running to a meeting — and said, “I’m Joe, I’m here showing this group of Navy SEALs around, and I just have a question. What are you guys doing here?”
This engineer looked up at me, annoyed as ever, pulled on his t-shirt, and said, “We’re going to Mars, man.” It was perfect alignment, a crystal clear vision, which everyone knows about.
You’ve mentioned Vision, one of the 5 Forces. What are the other four, and how do they connect to creating great cultures?
The 5 Forces are: Vision, Mission, Core Values, Guiding Principles, and Ethos. If you envision an iceberg, Vision is the only force among the five that lives above water. Mission, Core Values, Guiding Principles, and Ethos all live under the surface.
I want to invest in founders that are crystal clear on these 5 Forces. When I think of Vision, the gold standard is Elon Musk. What is the world we envision and hope to achieve — together? How do you articulate this to stakeholders around you?
When I think of Mission, I ask, why do you get out of bed every morning to work toward this Vision? The mission is why we get out of bed in the morning. It’s our purpose, worthy cause, or belief. It must inspire; it’s how we attract, forge, and build strong Teams, Leadership, and Cultures. A mission’s sole purpose is to attract the right people into your organization to support the vision architecture.
Core Values are our internal compass. Core Values guide how we think, act, feel, and communicate into our day-to-day. They are distinct and set us apart from everyone else. They act as the internal compass, our core’s compass, and define how we lead our people, families, and day to day lives. Leaders must design a moral filter for their organization, one that guides decisions, behaviors, every day toward the mission, forcing the vision architecture into reality.
Guiding Principles are the underlying truths behind every immediate, tactical action that everyone at every level of the organization operates within. These principles are an actionable, moral framework that must be articulated and written down, as they translate into the day-to-day. The founder can lean on these principles to begin to scale what they would do, when they would do it, how they would do it, and why they did it that way. These Guiding Principles inform people of how to act in alignment with the company.
Ethos is the unspoken spirit of an organization, manifested. This is probably the most important element when thinking about the cultural iceberg. It is created over time. You can’t define an ethos until you have a history, scar tissue. The reason to define your ethos is twofold, to attract the people you want and repel the people you don’t want. The unspoken moral nature, or the characteristic spirit of a culture can only manifest through careful examination of beliefs and aspirations of the true believers inside the company, up and down the chain.
When I do this work with founders of aligning the 5 Forces in that order, I am helping them do the critical, surgical work that every organization must undertake in order to succeed as a business long-term.
If the 5 Forces are aligned, you will begin to attract great TLC: Teams, Leadership, and Culture. As you attract great teams, great leaders will surface, and the culture will begin to form in an intentionally guided, aligned way.
Finally, you have to be able to sustain TLC + the 5 Forces. And just notice: we haven’t even begun to talk about “business”! We focus first on subconscious values, behaviors, and behind the scenes interpersonal qualities that influence how cultures perform.
My goal at Fathom VC is to be the firm that creates great leaders. We all know how important great leaders are and how important it is to be intentional with vision and how you communicate the vision.
So what happens next? When you’ve gone through this surgical process of alignment?
Well, this all sounds beautiful and polished, but what will happen when you get aligned is that you will lose people. You will lose people almost immediately. But the Founder and CEO must keep faith in this process, because at this point you are losing people who just are not a fit.
It is a tough part, because sometimes these people might be lost from the C-Suite or from leadership positions. Even the Founder or CEO might start to question whether this surgical process was the right move. But like all things that are in alignment, it is worth it in the end.
When you begin to shed the fat and keep the muscle, the company becomes so strong. When you do, you will be looking around the room at a group of true believers. This is not “group think”, however. Opposite personalities should still absolutely be in the room. But what is aligned is the shared vision, mission, core values, guiding principles, and our ethos.
When I sit with founders and talk about their biggest pain points, usually they stem from decisions that were made out of alignment with their 5 Forces. Whether it’s a bad investor, or bad terms, or something else, at some point they said yes to an offer that compromised on their 5 Forces.
Finally, this is not just a company framework. It’s a personal framework. Companies have values on walls, but individuals must have their own vision and values articulated for themselves. My vision is for everyone to feel psychologically safe doing work they know and love! My mission is to light fires so that others may see. I would challenge anyone reading this to take 5 minutes right now, and write down the first thoughts that come to mind for this question: “What is my personal vision?” And take it from there.
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