As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sergeant Major Keith L. Craig, an international best-selling author, who recently published “Serving To Lead.” Sergeant Major is also an Entertainment Executive that is currently working in Burbank, CA at Walt Disney Studios managing Central Division theatrical sales and distribution for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Prior to this, he served 32 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a Sergeant Major. His time in service took him around the world where he served in 6 combat campaigns, conducted humanitarian and natural disaster operations, played professional football and oversaw the creation of senior enlisted training programs. In addition to his primary duties at Disney, Craig is President of the company’s Diversity Resource Group SALUTE, charged with supporting military veterans employed by the studio, helping them integrate, strengthen and grow their careers and provide a sense of community within the organization.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My upbringing and life journey is one of fear and determination. After being homeless when I was young, I found a way to change my trajectory and I now live my life to avoid failure. I decided to join the U.S. Army at just 17 years old in hopes of providing a better life for me and my mother, praying the reward would be greater than the risk. Giving my life to be deployed directly into combat and serving was one of the biggest sacrifices but I knew it’s what had to be done. So rather than be resentful and dwell on where I was at in life, I decided from then on to start trying to live my best life. No one grows up expecting to see the things I’ve seen and even if you think you’re prepared, you’re not. When you lose your battle buddies and troops it changes your perspective on life’s priorities. So, for me, I knew once I started seeking a fulfilling life and pushing beyond my fears, I finally found happiness.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first endured basic, military training, they used to transport us in something called cattle trucks, placing me alongside multiple soldiers to get to the training location. I remember having to pack a bag, very fast, so while grabbing everything I put my washing powder at the top of my rucksack. When we got there, the drill sergeants end up shouting at us “Go, go, go, go, rank! Fall in!” We’d immediately drop our rucksacks and when mine hit the ground, a cloud of washing powder erupts in front of me and spills all over the concrete! As a 17-year-old boy in the military it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. To this day, I will remember that and I will remember never to rush to failure and always take the time to properly prepare.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, there was a gentleman I met early on in my military career when I was shipped to Camp Perry in Germany called Rogers. I was young at the time and he taught me a lot about discipline and the importance of being the right place at the right time, in the proper attire. He told me that if I did, I would become dependable. He assured me that by doing so, I would advance my career considerably. He also taught me about financial management, which meant a lot to me because the pay check was the main reason I joined the Army. I was PFC at the time, so he said to me “Private Craig, I want you to bring me $50 every payday” and so when payday came around, I bought him $50, and when I did that, he introduced me to a financial advisor, someone that helped me start investing the $50. He helped get me on the right path, which ultimately lead me to get promoted, which enabled me to save even more money. Additionally, the financial advisor taught me about dollar cost averaging and that in a mutual fund. He said, it doesn’t matter what the stock market is doing, if you’re consistent with your investments over time, you will do just as well as the people that jump around the stock market. This Sergeant was one of the first leaders in my life that taught me not only about discipline but financial discipline too.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I wrote my book “Serving to Lead” I wanted people to be able to relate to me. I wanted them to know that I was once just an average guy from a small town in Alabama. In the book I wanted to share an important lesson that I learnt a long time ago, and that was, if you’re going to spend eight hours (or more) a day, five days a week doing something, then you better enjoy doing it. It’s important to try to find something you want to do without being paid and although that might sound like an impossible task, but doing something purposeful will create a path for success. It will make you into a leader, someone that is able to make a difference, to not only their own life, but other people’s lives too. In my book, I explain the difference between leaders and managers. Specifically, a manager focuses on keeping a company on course, whereas a leader will strive to improve the company’s vision and mission.
I have spent my career thus far serving people, so it was important to me to share my experiences with the world and let people choose from my advice that would help them become a better leader. For me, the best kind of leadership comes from perfecting something and then teaching it to the next person that comes along. If you dedicate yourself to your people and your team you will eventually become successful.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In 2010, when the earthquake hit in Port au Prince, Haiti, my commander and I had to lead 3,000 troops to help restore the country. When we got there the whole area was in disarray/ People were hungry, displaced, with no houses, and it took me a while before I figured out what our role was. How could we help? Little did we know that as we were setting up our tents, they would start taking our bags and anything that would provide them with shelter or comfort. At first, we didn’t understand why they were stealing our stuff, but we soon noticed that the things they were stealing meant far more to them than it did us. To them, it was a sense of comfort, but it was making our troops mad. So, I quickly learnt that it was my role to instill calmness in my team, and remind them that the people were desperate and simply just trying to survive. It was an unusual situation; they didn’t look to us and think “they are going to help me.” They were focused on surviving and that meant taking our resources. It was my duty to teach my troops about empathy and enable them to see the situation from the survivor’s eyes.
Eventually we became more like ambassadors of the USA, because we began help them to get back on their feet — by finding them work. If they needed translators, we found them. If they needed food, we found, cooks. Soon, everyone realized what their purpose for being there was.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was never an option. I strongly believe there are three types of people in the world: winners, losers and those who haven’t figured out how to win yet. Anyone can win, as long as you believe in yourself and find your calling. By feeling confident in what you’re doing, day in and day out, that was enough for me. It is and always will be mind over matter and conviction equates to manifestation.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be confident and self-assured. Specifically, in the military or as a first responder, when people are fearful, as a leader it is your role to walk into the fire. It is your responsibility to lead others into the fight believing they will succeed.
People are divided into two groups — you have leaders and you have followers. Many are followers but few are leaders. You are only a true leader when you have an uncanny ability to thrive in the face of fear.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to boost morale amongst your team is to communicate. Talk to them even more than you would during difficult times. Convey positivity.
For example, when I was promoted to the highest rank, top 1% in the military, I knew that it was my duty to share my knowledge and groom those below me. The only way to do that is to teach my team everything I know and help meet their aspirations.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be gentle and speak with sympathy. For men, it’s difficult to act this way. It’s important when delivering difficult news to be clear, concise and compassionate. When you are a true leader, you understand that it’s okay to be a man and be empathetic. It allows you to show your team you’re human.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
There’s no perfect plan. No single plan is universal. You have to have short-term and long-term goals. But be realistic with them. It’s okay to dream big and tell yourself where you want to be in 10 years… If you’re truthful to yourself, you can meet your goals.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
First and foremost, be efficient. Focus on your purpose. Trust the people around you and let them help guide you.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Not knowing your purpose — Losing track of your “why” can be detrimental. Not only to your business’ success but to your own happiness too.
Not communicating — Communication is everything. If you need help, ask for it. Don’t let your pride stand in the way. I’m sure a lot of people have avoided difficult conversations through all of this, and it can be damaging to your reputation if you’re not upfront and honest with people.
Not being prepared — Make plans to avoid having to make rushed decisions, whether that be financial plans or plans to change your business model to fit the current climate.
Setting your expectations too high — Right now your business might not be what it used to be. Set realistic expectations and it will ensure you are able to survive, and later thrive.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
People and business don’t like change. But if you aren’t adapting, you aren’t evolving. Especially large corporations, where they are used to people being in an office every day, they suddenly had to figure out how to manage people doing their job from home. However, it is changes like this that has allowed corporate America to cut down on commercial real estate and realize they are getting the same work done, without the expense of an office. If this pandemic has done anything for businesses it has encouraged people to have trust in one another and rely on one another to maximize growth. Investing in your team and software that enables them to do their job without an office space will be the best cut back you could make. Look through your company’s expenses and see where you can make changes and save money, do more with less. And once again, be realistic with where you are and where you want to be with the current climate in mind. Find new ways to target your audience because you’ll often find the more affordable options are the most organic. Redistributing your time, effort and money towards a loyal audience will enable you to stay on track during a difficult economy.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be prepared — Create a clear and concise plan for others to follow and get yourself as organized so you are able to put the time into keeping your business afloat. Being prepared prevents you from having to react hysterically and allows you to respond accordingly.
Lead efficiently and effectively — Put steps in place to operationalize and execute the plan effectively. Lead by example and rehearse what you are putting in place.
Empower and develop — Ensure you are taking the time to teach your team and encourage them to be the best they can be. This will ensure that every team member is individually and equally trained for the job at hand.
Be honest — With yourself and others. Things get tough, so make sure your team knows you are looking out for them. By being upfront and honest with your team about a situation will showcase your transparency.
Communicate — Knowing how to communicate in a variety of situations is the key to being a successful leader. Whether it’s bad news you have to deliver, assign a task, provide comfort to a friend (or a stranger) — communication will enable you to lead effectively and have a positive influence on others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You will never be a good leader unless you have learned from others. On those initial journeys, when you are asked to follow while another leads, learn what it takes to be a team player. Learn how to get along with others. Learn the true definition of loyalty and honesty. Every great leader has had to have been a follower at some point in their life.” — Dr. Robert Ballard.
This has always stuck with me but played a huge role when I became a Sergeant Major for the United States Army after serving 30 years. I was one of the highest ranked non-commissioned officers. I had a driver, a cook, and a security team. However, I then transitioned into a new career path in the entertainment industry and suddenly you are the new guy again. No one cares who you are or who you used to be. It’s a humbling, but something you have to be able adapt to. Being open to learning from someone else no matter who you are or what level you are at is the key to becoming the best leader you can be.
How can our readers further follow your work?