Former NAVY SEAL platoon commander and current entrepreneur Alden Mills walks through his CARE framework for teambuilding.
- Four key steps to leading with CARE instead of fear
- The distinction between caring and comforting
- The high stakes associated with caring
Alden Mills is a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander and was the CEO of Perfect Fitness. He is also a longtime entrepreneur, with over 40 patents and over 25 years of experience working on high-performance leadership, sales, and team-building.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored Message: Learn faster with Skillshare
- Alden’s book: Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership
- Book: The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live by Shelley E Taylor
- Tool: Peloton
- Book: Nonverbal Communication by Albert Mehrabian
- Book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey
- Research: Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta-analysis
- Book: Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson
- Book: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- Book: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Alden, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you, Pete.
It’s awesome to have you. I’m so excited to dig into the goods. Maybe why don’t we start with some action to hook this conversation into some entry. Could you open us up by sharing a daring story from your days in the Navy SEALS?
Well, when I think about daring stories, I have to tell you, probably the single most daring story I had was actually when I first started SEAL training to begin with because I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through that. I remember this man coming up to us who had his left butt cheek blown off by a rocket propelled grenade in Vietnam.
He walked with this limp. He had this deep Southern accent. We had about 122 candidates. I was as nervous as I had ever been because here I am; I’m about to start training, but he’s going to make us do this physical test. The same physical test we had done multiple times.
He gathers us up and he speaks to us and he says, “Class 181, gather around here. I want to let you in on a little secret.” We’re all like, “Oh, secret. We like secrets.” “Y’all interested to know how to make it through Navy SEAL training?” We were like kids to a campfire. We were all bobbing our heads up and down.
He goes, “It ain’t complicated. You just have to decide how much you’re willing to pay. You see, I know for a fact 80% of you aren’t going to be willing to pay the price. You know why? Because you all want to be SEALs on sunny days.” He goes on for a while, but what he’s really talking about was talking about creating this conversation in our head, in our heart.
I remember all of us standing around and it was kind of the first time that somebody had really talked to us about saying, “Hey, are you willing to die for your country. Are you really going to do this or are you just going to be that SEAL on a sunny day?” Within six weeks, we went from 122 down to 18. That was the beginning of a transformation of a whole series of evolutions of SEAL training.
I thought when you just asked me that I’d start with that. There are mission that I’ve been on that are still classified that I won’t talk about, but some of the things that were most exciting to me were those personal challenges like that day when he started bringing us all around together and telling about this conversation he was going to create between our head and our heart and how we had to learn to deal with what it was we were willing to sacrifice to make it through.
Well, thank you. Yeah, that’s a powerful perspective that can apply to many circumstances. You’ve put together in your book, Unstoppable Teams , a number of pieces that sort of speak to some parallels between how Navy SEAL teams can really have some real similarities to high-performing civilian teams.
Could you draw that parallel for us or build that bridge, lots of metaphors here, if folks are saying, “You know what? What I do is nothing like what a Navy SEAL team does,” can you set us straight, Alden?
You know how many times I’ve heard that. People will say, “There’s nothing similar between you and me. You’re a Navy SEAL. You’re a freak of nature.” Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of a freak that you want to go through that kind of training, but the same things that they do for us in SEAL team, they’re just more condensed, are exactly the same rules that apply as a civilian, which, by the way, I’ve had much harder times leading civilians then I’ve ever had leading SEALS.
Oh intriguing. Could you say more about that, please?
I can. In part because in SEAL team they have this place called X Division. X Division is a place where they remove the negative attitudes, the quitters. They don’t let any of that get involved with the people that are in the arena.
As a civilian, after I left SEAL team, you’re surrounded by people who are in X Division. You have to make your own X Division. You have to decide who you want to listen to and what voice you want to focus on. You can’t just willy-nilly go out there and fire anybody you want. It takes a long time to remove somebody off of a team. Most of us, we inherit people when we go from one team to the next.
Sometimes the X Divisions that you have to create, both, by the way, I call them – there’s two kinds of teams. There’s the internal ones, inside of you and the external ones, all the different relationships you build. Sometimes those people are close to you that you have to put in your own personal X division, like family or friends who are telling you, “Oh, how do you know you can do that? You can’t do that.”
A lot of people who tell you you can’t do something, it’s because they haven’t done it themselves. It scares them. They don’t want you to go out there and be different. Misery loves company. That became probably my biggest challenge when I transitioned out of SEAL team into being a civilian and leading civilians.
I’ve led civilians in all different capacities, from community organizations to charities to … startups. I think that’s a really important element to share with people is to understand that it’s up to you to decide what are the things you want to focus on from the people that are telling you what you can and can’t do because at the end of the day, it’s up to you to set those limits and that focus.
Yeah. That’s good. The X Division is sort of like x out of considerations, like we’re just not going to let that into the thinking or consideration at all.
That is correct.
Done. Cool. Well, tell us then. You’ve got a lot of good stuff in your book, Unstoppable Teams . Could you share what would you say is sort of the key thesis or big idea or main message here?
The biggest thesis out of all of this is using the most fundamental human emotion to connect, inspire and empower people to do something that moves them from a point of natural selfishness to selflessness . That human emotion is care. It’s not fear. You don’t want to lead by fear. What you want to lead by is with care, what I call care-based leading .
Okay. You say care is the emotion, so we’re going to unpack that into you’ve got a bit of a framework here. But let’s talk a little bit about the emotion itself and how that does lead folks out of selfishness to selflessness.
Take a look at some of the most recent research that’s come out. There’s a wonderful piece of research that’s come out through psychologists down in UCLA who I quoted her in my book. What she’s talking about and discovered is all humans have a natural capacity for care reciprocity. Unless you’re a psychopath, okay, the amygdala isn’t firing and we just don’t accept any emotion there. But for the 99.9% of us out there, we respond to care.
In its most basic form, I hold the door for you, you turn around and you turn around and you hold the
door for somebody else. That’s usually pretty instinctually a reciprocal event. The same type of reciprocity occurs as you go further and deeper into caring for somebody. “Hey, how are you doing today, Pete? What happened last night? I heard about your mom. Is she okay?” Going and taking a step and initiating care.
All of the sudden, Pete feels like, “Wow, somebody did something kind of selfless. They weren’t worried about themselves. They were worried about me and my mom. They showed an element of curiosity and care about me,” that may have nothing to do with work, but it does have to do with the whole picture of who Pete is.
You go even further from that and say now I’m a first line, second line leader, manager, whatever you are in your organization and you’re saying, “Hey, I know what you are today, but I also know that you want to be here in a year. I’m going to help you get there.” Again, it’s not directly related to trying to help you get a better return on investment. It’s trying to help somebody go to another level.
When that starts to happen, people will start to say, “Hey, wait a second. These people are actually more interested in me and I’m going to reciprocate by doing even better work. That’s at the highest level what I’m talking about.
Okay, yeah. That’s great. Then you sort of go into some depth there when it comes to caring – it’s a bit of an acronym – to connect, achieve, respect and empower. Can you give us a little bit of a detailed taste for what you mean by each of these four verbs?
Again, so when we talk about these highest levels of how do you get people to reciprocate with care, and, by the way, care is also a function of oxytocin. There’s a blocker to oxytocin called cortisol. These have all been scientifically measured. The first thing that’s got to happen is to create a level of trust, which is what I call connect.
Being a military guy, I’ve created a simple acronym of these flywheel or loop, what I call the care loop of connect, achieve, respect, empower. When it comes to connect, how you connect and what’s the point of connecting. The point of connecting is creating and building trust with somebody. How do you do that? Well, you do that one, through communication.
Communication actually is involved with mental, physical and emotional communication. 55% of communication is broken down into your body language, 38% is through tone, 7% is through the actual words. The next piece of that is your credibility. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? How accountable are you? What level of proficiency do you have at something?
The third part of connect is committing, making that commitment. Are you all in? Are you all in for just some people or are you all in for everybody? When you start doing that on a consistent basis, you start building up a level of trust that then sets in motion the next step because if you’re on any kind of a team, teams are designed to accomplish something. You move to achieve.
When it comes to achieving, the whole point of why you build a team in the first place is to go achieve
something. Achieving really is setting direction for that team. What’s the purpose, where are we going and how are we going to get there?
I break achieving down into a series of what I call the five A’s of achieve. The first one is starting with aspire. Aspiring means when you’re going after something – when I’m talking about teams – and, Pete, a lot of people get teams and groups – they use teams so often that they mistake most things for groups because teams are a much rarer form of what a group is.
A group is really a combination of people coming together that maybe connected or directed to do something, but teams, they move at a higher level and are much more focused on doing something greater than themselves. Usually, the teams are coming together to do something that no single individual could do.
When it comes to inspiring, you need to have a level of trust already built for them to say, “Are you kidding me? How are we going to get to the moon in less than a decade?” Some of these great challenges. Then once you start the aspiring, this is a natural tendency for people. I call it the second A, which is assume. You have to let people go and experience and try and take their own path to getting something done.
A lot of leaders will make the mistake that, “Okay, I’ve inspired them. Now I need to tell them exactly what to do.” What happens there? You just take away the fire in their belly of saying, “Hm, how can I figure out the best way to do this my way.” You remove that creativity from them and you micromanage them.
That can kill the team dynamic early on. Then from when you get to assuming, you can relax a bit because don’t worry I’m not telling you assume they’re going to get it done and see them in two months. You create assessments. You create assessments for the team. We always had assessments at SEAL team, checking in on how we were doing for the next – how was our progress as a team.
It wasn’t so much – excuse me – it wasn’t so …. the weakest link, as it was how is the team doing together, how are we processing.
Once you pass through assess, the next piece is like, “Oh my gosh, there are times when we’re not progressing.” A leader has to step into assure, to assure them that, “Listen, we’re going to take a couple of steps back before we go forward. Just look at the core ways we’ve learned not to do something.”
Then the final one is having an appreciation, having an appreciation for the whole person, not just for the eight hours or the ten hours in which you see that person . Have you spent the time to appreciate what struggles they have outside of work, things that you may or may not be aware of or things that you can help them with?
But when you start adding those pieces to the puzzle of building out a team, that’s where care starts to
build on the flywheel that takes you to the third component, which is building out an environment of respect. A lot of people today are like, “Well, we’ve got to have respect because it’s just the right thing to do.”
But what’s the real reason to create mutual respect? The real reason is to get people to willingly contribute. That’s what you want respect for, respect for different cultures, respect for diversity of thought. That’s what it’s about is getting these different points of view to give you different ways in which you can slay the obstacle and grab the opportunity.
All right. I like that.
Respect is what I call – go ahead.
The respect is not just like “You should respect,” be like well, no, it fundamentally is what leads to folks willingly contributing and if you don’t then they won’t and you need it and you’re missing out.
Yeah, you’re going to be suboptimal. Some of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had in companies is when we brought together what – some people may say, “People around this table look like the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . Oh, they all look totally different.” I’m like, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want,” because I know that I stand a better chance at getting all kinds of diverse opinions.
What you’re really after is diversity of thought, not diversity of heart. I want everybody’s heart in alignment, but I definitely want to create that diversity of thought. The only way that’s going to occur is on that third piece of the flywheel of the CARE loop with respect and what I call realize, recognize, and require. Realize and respect can come from two places: authority or your actions.
If people think that “Well, just because I’m the senior person here, I get more respect,” that is a very short-minded approach because it’s not going to last very long. Authority and respect in a SEAL team would last for about ten seconds. Maybe in the civilian world it might last for a couple of paychecks, but over time what wins the day are your actions.
That brings you to recognize how do you recognize the actions of others. Do you take the extra time to figure out, “Hey, Sally over here is a math genius. She’s phenomenal at pivot tables.” You may have said, “What’s pivot tables got to do with launching the perfect pushup?”
Well, it solved all of the big issues that were actually our biggest Achilles heel, which had to deal with supply chain management and shipping millions of units. If it weren’t for Sally and her pivot table super powers, we’d be in the hurt locker.
When you can start to recognize how a super power of each individual comes together to build up the team, then you’re starting to create an unstoppable team, where everybody starts realizing “Hey, this
person is really caring about me and what I can bring to the table, therefore, I’m going to start reciprocating and do the same.”
That final R, by the way, is you have to require it. If you find time and time again that somebody is just totally disrespectful and they’re not into it and your efforts have not been sustainable to help them switch, then it’s time for that person to move on because that will just kill the environment for contribution.
That brings you to the final piece of the care loop and it closes it, called empower. Empowering is about building owners. I talk about doing that through educate, enable and engage. By educating people, you’re helping them be better, not just for their job at hand, but also helping them grow in the direction that they are seeking to do for the long term.
Enabling is helping them to succeed. And engaging is the active process of testing their education, challenging them, improving them, and helping the entire team grow.
When that all happens, the loop closes and people go, “Hey, I’m going to share this care loop with the next team that I …,” because teams all disband, people move on. That’s the great thing about if you approach things with a care-based philosophy, I guarantee you, it will come back in spades in the positive realm for you.
Well, yeah. That’s handy. Your articulation of it in terms of care as a macro acronym and then all the C’s, and A’s, and R’s, and E’s underneath, so it’s easier to remember there. I suppose that makes good sense to me.
Now could you tell me in what ways do you get resistance from this because I’m hearing this as like, “Yeah, that would make sense. We should do all those things. I am right with you, Alden.” Where do you find people say, “Alden, you’re off base. I disagree here,” sort of where is there some contention?
Well, let’s see. What’s the first big disagreement I’d get? “Wait, you’re a Navy SEAL talking about caring. Are you kidding me? Navy SEALS only care about killing, right? How can you go around talking about caring?”
Well, I was going to ask, I wouldn’t put it that far, but if you look at the footage of-
But that’s how some people would approach it.
The training. Yeah. The training doesn’t look like it’s caring with all the screaming and the discomfort. But what’s your take on that?
Well, so the first thing is when people hear care, they hear oh, soft and cuddly. No, that’s not the care I’m talking about. I am talking about the care to be the best version of yourself, the care of you being able to go beyond what you originally thought possible. I’m not talking about caring and keeping you in the comfort zone. I actually want you out of the comfort zone .
The people that are the instructors at SEAL team, they are only there for a short period of time. They’re going to go back to a platoon. I could very well – and it happened to me. Some of those instructors became the people that I ended up leading. They give an unbelievable amount of care to ensuring that there’s a certain quality of individual that they’re looking to work with because their lives could very well rest in the hands of that person that they’re training.
The care that I refer to is the more you care, the more those people will dare. Ironically, to do that, it’s going to require you to dare first. Leaders are going to have to take that first step. How leaders deal with that first step is a critical first path.
I brought up cortisol and oxytocin earlier. Some people will say, “No, no, leadership is just like the movie Patton . You’ve got to get out in front and bark orders at them and do those kind of things.” Maybe there’s some organization that needs that, but I’ve never found that to be the most powerful.
There are times where you have to get up and give somebody an inspiring speech or assure them that we’re on the right path, but the large majority of the time, the work’s happening one-on-one or one in a small group and you’re getting people to stay focused on the objective at hand. The most important way to first do that, why people will even listen to you is because they know that you care about them.
A lot of people will make the mistake of going out and barking an order, saying, “God, you sucked at that. Why did you fail so badly?” The moment that happens, and this has been proven, cortisol gets fired off. Cortisol is a hormone for fight or flight or what I would call freeze, reaction. You are not in a creative space once cortisol is fired off. Cortisol is three times more powerful than oxytocin.
Oxytocin, you can argue, is the care hormone. When that gets fired off, it’s the ability to allow you to be more creative. If someone were to come to you and say, “Gee, we just failed.” “Oh great. How did we fail? Do we know what it was? And can we figure out a better way to do it?” versus “You did what? You failed.” Those two different approaches will send people down completely different paths.
That’s one of the first conversations I’ll get into with people about, “Oh, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to set this tough standard.” The tough standard is the goal that you’re going after, but you only ever have to be as tough as a situation dictates .
That’s good. Thank you. I’m curious, with all of these verbs here, I’d love to get your take on which of them do you think has the biggest impact in terms of, “You know, Pete, this only takes a minute or two to do and yet it has such a lasting impact on folks really stepping up and growing.” What would you say is the key thing or two or three things that have an outsized impact?
One of the first ones that I do anytime I get into a team is a I try and get one-on-ones with all my direct
reports for sure, but even the people that aren’t my direct reports and understanding, “Hey, what’s your goal? Why are you here? What’s important to you?” If I have more time, like I was on SEAL team, I’d ask people to give me one-, three- and five-year goals.
They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what they are?” I’m like, “Okay, well, give me a personal and professional and physical one or give me a financial one. Tell me what’s motivating you. Why are you getting up in the morning? Why are you coming here?” It totally disarms them because they think I’m going to be talking about “Gee, tell me about our ROI for this quarter. How come you’re not hitting your numbers?” I will take a roundabout approach to doing that.
But if you find and you stay curious about the whole person and not just what their performance is at this moment, it instinctively gives you some other things that you can always come back and connect to that person.
When I interview somebody, as an example, the first thing that I’ll have them do is say, “Hey, tell me your story.” “Mr. Mills, what do you mean by that?” “Give me your story. Where did you come from? What do you like? What did you study in school? What’s your favorite book? What’s your favorite movie? Tell me some things about yourself.” Trying to get multi-dimensional on the person instead of just, “Oh, what’s their output today?” Taking that interest in everybody.
Business would be really easy, Pete, if we didn’t have humans. Team leading and team output and being a leader is being a relationship builder. The better you can become at building relationships with multiple different types of people, the more you will be able to succeed because you will get more differences of opinion and different points of view that can give you different ways to solve problems and make great things happen.
I dig it. I really liked how you shared some particular verbiage that you use in terms of key specific questions that you were asking folks and things that you’re saying. Are there any other favorite phrases that you find really come in handy and you use often as you’re doing this caring stuff?
Well, the first thing and one of my all-time favorite quotations that I use all the time is from good old Teddy Roosevelt. I think it applies as much today as it did back in whenever he said it. I think it was 1912 or so. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Sometimes it can be really hard to flip the switch from caring about what you need to caring about what’s going on with them. The more you can remember that if you lead with care, they will dare.
Okay. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear some of your favorite things?
Some of my personal favorite things?
Right. Is there anything else you want to say before we shift gears to the fast favorite’s portion?
I just really want to impress upon people that this care is not to be taken lightly.
This isn’t just, “Okay, I’m only going to care about the people directly in me.” It becomes a mindset of how you handle relationships across the board. As that happens, you’ll find a force multiplying effect that will go into action because everybody else wants to help you succeed because you’re trying to help them succeed.
I dig that. Well, now, you mentioned a favorite quote, could you now share a favorite study, piece of research or experiment you found compelling?
Well, I’m a huge believer in physical fitness, as you might surmise. There is a book out there called Spark . Spark has to do with essentially the link to physical activity and mental performance. I often find that a lot of people who have a bad attitude, have poor performance, they’re all things within their control. Usually, and this is what I started my first company on, it was the attitude of take control of your body, take control of your life.
Large majority of the time, as an example, depression can be solved – 80% of common depression can be solved with 30 minutes of consistent high aerobic activity.
There are so many different things that are within our control that we seem to forget and we allow outside influences – say, “Oh, it’s the environment,” “Oh, my life is miserable,” but they don’t realize that the few things that they can control of how they think, how they feel and how they act can totally change their direction in life and change the people that are with them.
That’s good. All right, I’ve got that book. I also ask about a favorite book. Would that be it or is there another key one you’d recommend?
I’ve got lots of favorite books. Let’s see, besides Spark , which I ended up going back to all the time, I like Endure . I like Culture Code . I like Boys in the Boat . I’m a former rower. I real also enjoy a great story. By the way, I use story a lot to connect with people. People will find story very powerful as a way to connect, so I love reading about biographies. I’m reading about Leonardo da Vinci right now.
Cool. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
I would give my favorite tool, you’re going to laugh about this, as I love my Peloton.
I use a Peloton to – I follow a couple of different trainers and I so enjoy getting on that for a 30-minute of just flushing my brain and allowing myself to just focus inwardly before going outwardly.
Do you have any other favorite habits?
I do a mindful walk. I like watching the sunrise. I like going out with no particular agenda, but a 30-minute walk in the morning. Sometimes I refer to it as a prayer walk, but it’s an act of meditation for about 30 minutes.
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they quote it back to you?
Yes. Their limits are up to them.
Alden, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
They can come to my website, link in with me. My website’s called Alden-Mills.com.
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Don’t ever stop dreaming. Don’t ever settle for average. Keep pushing yourself out of the comfort zone. It’s so easy for us to stay in the comfort zone, especially as we get older. Stay away from those that want you to enjoy the misery that they’re enjoying and keep dreaming.
Awesome. Well, Alden, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your companies and your writing and the book, Unstoppable Teams . Yeah, keep up the great work.
Thank you very much for the time, Pete. I hope this helps.