[Podcast] Overcoming Adversity to Create More Successful Teams – Lessons Learned from a Navy SEAL


Failure Will Happen

Duration 42:22


It’s inevitable that your team will fail but it’s how they overcome those failures to become a successful team that matters. Former Navy SEAL, Chris Gomez shares his lessons learned from SEAL team training on what it takes for a team to overcome adversity and how to learn from their failures to succeed.

To create your elite successful team you must:

  1. Create a debrief environment
  2. Identify actionable lessons learned
  3. Create a culture that isn’t afraid of failure
[Below is a transcript of the episode.]

Thor: In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk to Chris Gomez, United States Navy SEAL and Afterburner team member. We’re also gonna talk about how do you overcome adversity as a team? How do you fail forward? How do you teach your team that it’s okay to make mistakes, but you never make the same mistake twice and give them a way to iterate and improve? And then, how do you create the culture that supports all this? So it’s not you having to micromanage the team and lean in through processes but the culture that actually makes that happen on its own. Chris Gomez is gonna help share his story from a Navy SEAL perspective.

Thor: If you’ve listened to these in the past. You know that we always start off with a military story. And this week, we’re gonna talk about when I went to be a trainer in the pilot training pipeline. So when I graduated pilot training, I’m 22 years old and went through the process of learning to be a US Air Force pilot. I’m not a fighter pilot yet. I was a pilot and that’s an important distinction and we used to say, “It’s one thing to be able to ice skate well. It’s a totally different thing to be able to play hockey.” It’s one thing to be able to fly the airplane while a totally different thing to be able to fly it tactically at the same time. I’m a pilot. I was sent right back to that same program that I just graduated from as an instructor. I’m now instructing the 21-year-old, the 22-year-old students that are coming in and becoming the Air Force’s newest pilots. And one of the challenges that we had been presented with was determining out of a class full of 30 people, who were gonna be the three fighter pilots out of that group? Out of a class full of 30 people, who were the ones that were able to be a pilot, period? Who were the ones that were capable of making it through that program? We had a running joke in our squadron that maybe when they walked into the room, the best way to figure out who should be a fighter pilot was to punch them in the face and see who jumped up and fought you back. And of course, we’re talking in jest, but what we’re really getting to is who are the ones who are going to have the grit to overcome adversity. And today, we’re really excited to have Chris Gomez on the show because Chris is no stranger to adversity, but he’s also a great friend of mine. Chris and I met in the business school back at the University of Texas. Hook ’em horns. And Chris, welcome to the show today.

Gomez: Hey thanks a lot, Thor. I’m happy to be here. It was funny you were talking about [chuckle] how you go from being a great skater or an ice skater to a hockey player. And I thought you were gonna use the analogy that, how do you go from being a great skater to being a great figure skater like the majority of Air Force folks I know, so that’s great. Glad you went the hockey route.

Thor: So three minutes into it, and we had an Air Force joke. I think that’s a new record for our SEAL. He couldn’t contain himself. He couldn’t wait any longer until he got that one out there. Yeah, welcome to the show. [chuckle] You and I have been working together at Afterburner. We went to business school together and of course, I’ve heard your stories over and over and over again, ad nauseam. But they are really interesting and they are really exciting. And I thought they’d be a great way to segue how you brought team members together in arguably the most elite teams in the world. At least the most challenging ones to become a part of. When we go talk to NFL teams, the SEALs like to remind the NFL teams that we create fewer SEALs each year than we do NFL players, so it’s actually harder to become a SEAL from a probability percentage standpoint than it is to become an NFL player. But you were not only a SEAL. You also went on to become a trainer of SEALs and teaching that BUD/S course at the end. So you’ve seen adversity. You’ve had to see your way through adversity. And then you’ve put those obstacles in front of students and assessed how they got around them as well. Isn’t that right?

Navy SEAL Training

Gomez: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. It was very interesting because people often ask, “So how is it that you’ve made it through SEAL training?” And SEAL training is notoriously difficult. We like to pride ourselves in saying it’s one of the most difficult training environments in the world. And as a 19-year-old kid, I can think back to that time and I say, “You know what? I guess I was just too dumb to quit.” I was a bullheaded 19-year-old who happened to go through BUD/S at a time when it was the coldest November and the coldest December on record. So we had a very difficult hell week experience. And hell week is the culmination of your first phase in training essentially. And it was brutally tough and so we were able to adapt and react and to overcome those individual failures and the difficulties that we experienced throughout that training.

Thor: I think everybody always gets attached to stories and they wanna hear the actual experiences. And so we’ve heard these before. Marcus Luttrell did a great job of writing about them in his book and a couple other SEALs have too, but you’ve talked about BUD/S, which to the listeners, they may or may not know, that’s the training that you go to to determine whether or not you will be a SEAL. It has a huge attrition rate. It’s extremely difficult, extremely challenging. Go into a little bit more detail. Bring us back there to that pier back in San Diego that you’re on in 20-degree weather.

Gomez: Yeah, yeah, I sure can. BUD/S for those who don’t know stands for Basic Underwater Demolition Seal training. And again, it’s a long process. People think about hell week, and that is the fifth week in training. And they think, “Oh, once you finish hell week, it’s all downhill.” And that certainly isn’t the case. Hell week, back in my day, was on the fifth week of training out of 26 weeks of training so that was just the period where we had the most attrition. When you think back, we started my BUD/S class, we all showed up to San Diego in Coronado, with 176 sailors that were ready to join this class. 176 guys in great physical shape, showed up with the intent or the intention of being a SEAL. 176 classed up, we went through what was called Indoctrination Phase, which is three weeks of nothing, it’s three weeks of a couple of tests to make sure you’re physically fit enough, a couple of medical checks. You learn how to operate the boats and how to maintain some of your gear, but then you class up. We call it the class update was day one, week one. We classed up 112 individuals, so we lost 64 guys along the way and was 64 people who were ready to go, that they showed up, maybe faced their reality of it, maybe there were some injuries along the way. But 64 guys washed out, we started out day one, week one with 112. We got to hell week again, which was five weeks later.

Thor: So they quit before it even started? They didn’t even…


Gomez: Yeah. That’s right.

Thor: They looked at the paperwork and said, “Ah… ” They had to do a lot to be selected to even have this opportunity right?

Gomez: I mean, you have to go through some packets, but yeah maybe the paper cuts were a little bit too rough for ’em, or something, I’m not sure. But again it could be..

Thor: The staples are pointy.

Gomez: Yeah, those staples are rough man, I’ll tell you what. I don’t know what it was that made them bail out early. Some injuries, probably about 5% or 10% of those individuals were due to injury, but a good majority couldn’t pass the the class up test, some others just quit because they saw how daunting it would be, when they look at the whole picture they saw how daunting it was to go through this six month pipeline and maybe that’s what made them bail out.

Thor: We saw the same thing though in pilot training, and you definitely did have to compete for that pilot training spot and when you’re at the Air Force Academy, like I was, people are really excited to get they flying slot, that opportunity to go to the training course and yet you’d still get there and, strangely enough, we had the same thing happen, not to that same percentage we only had about 5%. But even before we stepped foot in the airplane, before we ever got off the ground like 5% would quit. It was that fear of the unknown that they weren’t able to stand up too. And that’s just amazing that that slows people down. I would love to talk to some of those people now and just say, “Do you have regrets? What could possibly get you to that point when you have your shot and cause you to not even try and just turn around and walk away?”

Gomez: Yeah just not even attempt the first PT that we had. We classed up again, 112. Five weeks later we got to hell week with 65. So we lost 47 guys through five weeks of training. Which was a pretty considerable number. So through five weeks, we lost 47 more individuals. And then in the next three days, we went from 65 to 28. In three days we lost 37 guys who had made it through five-plus weeks of training and it was extremely difficult but in a very short time we lost 37 guys, and its largely at this point due to the cold, or due to the inability to kind of check out from the pain that you are undergoing and you are experiencing and kind of focus in on the prize, that long-term goal. They were looking at the very short term, the very tactical and didn’t take into account the big picture. This little bit of pain is going to subside and we’re gonna go on from there. But unfortunately, 37 other individuals didn’t make it.

Thor: So it brings back to that moment, so 37 people are ringing the bell,’ as you guys call it, ’cause you ring the bell and you get to go sit in the hot tub that the BUD/S instructors are so nice to provide, and doughnuts right? The instructors have, have doughnuts and a hot tub waiting?

Gomez: That’s right… The instructors would be enticing you with hot coffee and doughnuts, saying, “Hey if you ever want to get off this pier… ” The evolution that you’re talking about is called Steel Pier, and Steel Pier is this horrendous evolution where you down to this pier that’s over the San Diego Bay, and it is a steel pier. We weren’t very creative with our naming of our evolution’s. So you get to the steel pier, and you have to strip down to your Tri-shorts, which are these, kind of these boxer brief type shorts and you have to go through this iteration of inflating your pants in the water and learning how to stay afloat with the gear that you have. But in between each one of those little cycles you’re laying on your back, on this pier, and you’re being hosed off, for four hours. And during this time it happened to be 38 degrees, with a wind chill of 20 and a lot of guys decided that, that was enough. They had, had it and were ringing out left and right.

Thor: Wow. So they get this far, and their freezing literally, describe what it’s like when it’s 20 degrees outside, and you’re inside the bay in San Diego, What happens to you physically at that point?

Gomez: Your body, at this point just locks up and you’re hoping that you’re still shivering because once you stop shivering your body core temperature has reached below 95 degrees typically, and your shivering shuts off. We had individuals in our class, that had their core temperature down into the upper 80’s. We had a couple individuals that had gotten pulled out because their core temperature was too low, they got re-warmed in the hot tub you spoke of, and as soon as their core temperature got back to a suitable level, they got thrown back into their class, and unfortunately for them, not one person that was ever re-warmed, ever stayed long enough to make it though Hell Week because they had that little taste of what warmth was, and they decided that the pain they were experiencing at that moment, wasn’t enough, or was too much to bear.

Thor: And they had a medical emergency too, I mean you’re kind of implying like they were weak and they got to taste the hot tub and then they just couldn’t forget about that, but also their core temperature went below 95 or 90 degrees, or whatever you guys have, going on out there. I mean, these are people who just said, “Okay I’m gonna chose life at this point.”

Thor: People haven’t seen you so they may not appreciate this, but we all know your secret it’s all the products that you have in your hair and the beard oil because that keeps you nice and warm, it’s like a duck basically, right?

Gomez: Yeah, trust me I wish I had this beard and this belly for that matter back when I was going through BUD/S it would have been much easier to make it through training then.

Thor: So you are in this program is down to 30 something people and you started with 174, and so now we’re towards the end. Tell me about finishing the program and what that’s like.

Gomez: So we finished hell week with 28 guys, and again this is after now we’ve completed our fifth week of training so we’re in week number six. 28 individuals are left we’re standing there, of that 28, 27 go on to graduate which is a pretty remarkable number considering we have another 21 weeks of training left, the issue was that we wanted to show, we wanted to put as many impediments in their way as possible to ensure that we were not only assessing but testing the right individuals that we made sure that we had the right people. And so we put these tests in front of them to see whether they could adapt to the failure that they were inevitably gonna face and go on and graduate.

Thor: You know that because you got the peek behind the curtain and we’ll talk about that in a minute how you’re an instructor and you saw the other side of it. But let’s finish this perspective because when you’re a student you don’t see any of that there’s no rhyme or reason to anything that’s happening, you don’t know how long you’re gonna be on the pier, you really know nothing. That’s the scary part is that it could be six hours in this 20-degree weather that’s why people quit ’cause if they had a finite time to it then it’d be easier.

Gomez: Yeah, there’s no clock sitting there on the side of the pier counting down the amount of minutes that you have to endure, you don’t know and part of that ambiguity part of that unknown is what is so daunting.

Thor: I think what’s most interesting in the conversation and what I always wanna know is what’s the commonality between the folks who make it through cause it’s not just the hair products and the beard oil as much as we’d like to say that’s what kept you warm. If you had to say what the common characteristics of the folks that make it through SEAL training cause it’s not the most exceptional athletes. They’re in great shape but everyone’s in great shape. What gets you through that experience?

Gomez: Well for me thinking back to it was I was so stubborn and I knew, I don’t know why I understood this but I knew that there was going to be failures, there was going to be things that I would not be as good at as some other individuals, and there was gonna be some things that other individuals wouldn’t do as well as I would. It was the ability to adapt to that environment, adapt to these failures, being able to push through and make it one evolution at a time, one iterative cycle at a time through each one of these evolutions knowing that hell week again starts on a Sunday evening, it lasts straight through until a Friday afternoon, and during this week you’re constantly wet, sandy, you’re miserable, you’re running everywhere and during that week you get a total of three and a half hours of sleep. And that’s not for each night, that’s three and a half hours for the entire week. So being able to understand that, being able to kind of check out a little bit push yourself and imagine that the person to my left and to my right are no better than me, they weren’t inherently better or as you said they weren’t a better athlete or they weren’t more suited for this type of work. So I knew there was something inside of ourselves that we had to be able to push through, we had to have that grit and that determination looking at that end goal that brass ring and understand that everything we were putting up with now was going to be worth it in the long run.

Thor: I like the word grit and we’ve talked about that in the past on these shows and we talked to Matt Brady who is part of some of our nation’s most critical missions in the past 15 years as a helicopter pilot, and saw some horrible things transpire and lost many team members along the way but he’s got that element as well, that perseverance to get through it. And Angela Duckworth wrote about grit in her book and she used West Point cadets as the test subject for this common ingredient it wasn’t intelligence, it wasn’t athleticism, it wasn’t good looks, it wasn’t all those typical things that we associate with successful people. She found out that the common element that the most successful people had was this perseverance and this ability to withstand whether that’s freezing temperatures or just failing and iterating and getting better the ability to persevere through that.

Gomez: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think grit is… It’s certainly it’s very hard to measure, and that’s what so difficult about that is it’s very difficult to measure somebody’s grit and determination.

Thor: All right so let’s flip the script. So now you’re a graduate and you’ve got your trident, you’re a Navy SEAL and then after you do an operational tour you spend time out there as an operational SEAL across the globe in locations that you can’t talk about. Let’s go now to your next assignment which is where you’re asked to go back and be on the other side of the curtain for the SEAL training, the BUD/S training where you’re now an instructor for these same folks. And you were alluding to it already but tell me a little bit about what takes place now that you’re on that side?

Gomez: So being an instructor was certainly rewarding because you did, you get that peek behind the curtain to understand all the nonsense that we were put through as students was certainly valuable. And of course we learned that lesson as we were operational. I’d been colder as an operational SEAL than I ever was during hell week and during BUD/S. And it’s because we had to be able to test for that. Going through hell week where it was super cold was nothing like some of the down pilot exercises we had done in Alaska and where we were wet and we’re sitting in areas unknown that were freezing our tails off. And so understanding that perspective and then coming as an instructor and seeing through that lens now, the impediments we have to put into place and to be able to see the individuals that we thought could certainly make it through training it’s an interesting dichotomy. ‘Cause we couldn’t… When you look at 120 students that show up on day one, week one you would have a hard time discerning who was gonna be the guy that made it through, or who was gonna be the guy that was gonna ring out.

Thor: And if you just said, “Hey do a physical competition and see who wins.” That would not be an indicator, right? Go run a race and see who wins. Go lift weights.

Gomez: No, that’s right. It’s like your test of, “Go see if a pilot you punch him in the face and see if they get up to fight.” That’d be whether or not they’d be a good fighter pilot or not and that’s… BUD/S essentially is our punch in the face. Our punch in the face doesn’t last…

Thor: 10 week long…

Gomez: Yeah first phase is our kind of punch in the face and that just happens to be eight weeks of the first phase.

Thor: Wow. Okay, now you’re on the other side and now you get to watch the machine in action and you get to see hundreds of young men go through this scenario, many of which have… Are gifted with great genes and abilities and they all show up as athletes. But there’s only specific folks that make it through, lets kind of dig into that a bit and talk about. How do you find that group that you believe is gonna make it through the adversity and what does that assessment look like from the new side of this training?

Overcoming Failure

Gomez: It’s a great question because when we look at the people, again when we look at them day one, week one the first day they show up you’re looking at some of these individuals are big huge specimens. I remember one guy who happened to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated back in the late 90s. He was the number one recruit, he was number one college recruit, the number one quarterback in the nation. He was a guy that a lot of people that understood football knew and he went off to go play in the NFL for a brief period of time. And we see this guy show up and we all knew that he was coming and you see him and he’s this big 6’4″, burly, strapping guy and we thought, “Well that guy has a shot, he’s got a chance.” But he had a really hard time adjusting to failure. As the forthcoming couple of five or six weeks roll out we got to see this person for the individual that he was. He was not really a team player, he was not a contributor to the overall good. He was out for himself and which was a little bit surprising coming from such a team sport and I do remember this day where one of my other instructors, who happened to be a division one college football player.

Gomez: We were doing this evolution called life-saving and so this… We had to go swim out, save an instructor, and you went through five iterations each one getting progressively harder and more difficult and I remember this other instructor came over and was like,”I want him.” And he pointed at this one guy and by the time this evolution was over that former NFL athlete was crying on the side of the pool balled up in the fetal position, because he didn’t have what it took. He didn’t understand that failure was inevitable, that it’s going to happen, and it’s about being able to react and kind of humble yourself and iterate on those failures and learn from those mistakes, he never learned from his mistakes. Shortly there after he had rung out and it was done as a SEAL.

Thor: You’ve told me these stories before and it’s just amazing to me ’cause you’ve said we had Division-I athletes from every sport you can imagine, we had even professional athletes, that have walked away from that career and said, “I wanna become a Navy SEAL.” in this course and they thought it was gonna be a cake walk, everything up until this point in their lives had been. They’d excelled in the NFL combine, yet here they are crying on the side of the pool. Because they’ve failed for the first time and they can’t get around it.

Gomez: Yeah, it’s just a really interesting thing, and here I am, I hadn’t gone to college at this point and here’s this guy who is this phenomenal athlete, a lot of other classmates…

Thor: Very accomplished.

Gomez: Yeah very accomplished, a lot of these other classmates looked up to this guy. But when you kind of peeled through that veneer and you saw the person was out for himself and was unable to adjust to the inevitable failure it really became crystal clear this guy was not cut out for our program.

Thor: Yeah, that’s an interesting point that you bring up, you’ve told me in the past that when you’d see these folks come in and you’d resist the temptation to pick who was going to succeed and make do the program. You told me that there’s one specific time when you were really assessing them and you wouldn’t really pay attention to those elite athletes because of course, they could run fast, of course, they could hold something up in the air longer, they had better endurance. Tell me when you were paying attention to them?

Gomez: So I was always looking out for these individuals like you said the cream rises to the top. We know that they’re going to exceed they’re gonna do very well and the chaff kind of fall along the wayside they fall off to the bottom and you don’t even pay much attention to them because you know they are eventually gonna quit. But what you’re looking for in the top tier students, is your looking for them to experience their first failure. And how they react to the inevitable failure was what was so interesting to us and whenever they were… They kind of grit their teeth and moved on and were able to adapt. You knew that those individuals were gonna do well. And it was those people that kind of balled up or kind of shirked that failure or took it a little bit more personal that you knew were gonna have challenges going forward especially when it comes to the ultimate first phase crucible which was hell week.

Thor: I had the exact same experience in the cockpit. There were plenty of pilots that I flew with that had exceptional hands, they were very gifted with their hand-eye coordination, they worked really hard in the program. Yet I wasn’t paying attention to them until they made their first mistake. When they’re flying with me and all of the sudden they miss that radio call and I’m gonna watch them now to see if they’re able to recover and it was really interesting. You get to see the difference in character, you get to see whether they fall into one or two categories. Are you a growth mentality, somebody who believes that they can get past their errors that they can iterate, they can improve or are you a fixed state mentality. Or you believe I’m smart as I’m ever gonna be, I’m athletic based on my genes. All I have is what I got going on right now. And you really would see down to the core of that person, what they believe in in that moment. The people who are fixed state mentality, they realize, “Ooh my gosh, I Am not capable of completing this successfully.” And it just snowballs and error after error starts taking place and they just never recover. People with that growth mentality they may not be able even as capable of pilots as the ones with the fixed state mentality but they are able to get past those errors and therefore able to be successful in the whole scenario.

Gomez: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point, there are certain people. Every hell week as an instructor and I put on 20 hell weeks. So after about four or five hell weeks, I understood what it took to make a good Seal and after each one of these hell weeks right before each one of these hell weeks would kick off I would select five guys I knew were gonna make it and five guys I knew were going to quit.

Thor: Yeah.

Gomez: And it was very interesting to see those individuals because I was wrong two times, out of all those individuals I was wrong twice because of what you just said. I was able to observe their failures and how they would react to them and based on their reaction to failure I was gonna determine whether they would be successful or not.

Thor: That’s a really important thing first to anchor on right there that you found as a big predictor of success. It wasn’t the athleticism, it wasn’t what they brought to the table walking in the door. It was the ability to overcome failure and once you’ve accessed that capability in a student you are able to call. Now let’s see if I get the math right. You said five students per class, 20 classes so are we at a 100 or is this the winning five and the loosing five? That you picked.

Gomez: Right. Essentially we were at 200 individuals.

Thor: Okay.

Gomez: I started about 15 classes in. I’m sorry five classes, so it was about 150 individuals.

Thor: Okay. 150 individuals, you’re wrong twice so at Vegas would say that you are a savant and you are doing fantastic but you are obviously tapping into and reinforcing what folks like Duckworth have said grit and perseverance and the ability to iterate is so critical for individuals. Let’s translate that then to teams ’cause a lot of the folks that listen to us wanna know, “How do I really build that team that’s going to overcome adversity?” How do you assess that? How do you recruit for that? What is it that you were looking for when you were putting them through the training programme? First of all, how did you get them through this ridiculously rigorous training program?

Gomez: Yeah, I love when you phrase it that way cause you say, “How do I get them through?” Because I didn’t. I didn’t care whether these individuals made it through or not. That’s certainly a differentiator between your training and ours. In that first phase was that punch in the face as we kind of alluded to earlier. I wasn’t there to help accompany them through training, this had to be something they had inherent within themselves. And it was up to the second phase and third phase instructors that taught Diving and land Warfare and Demolitions that helped kind of get them along the way but for us in first phase our job was to put as many impediments in front of them as possible to ensure that they were able to react and adapt appropriately to each of those failures that were gonna come down the pipe.

Building an Elite Team

Thor: Fascinating. And so here we are trying to build elite teams and when you are recruiting for that elite team in the SEAL world that meant that you are really the gatekeeper for the SEALs. You’re really stopping everyone that you can from making it past you. And you didn’t see yourself as helping them you saw yourself as guarding the brand that the SEALs represented. I was a little different. We were there to be coaches when we were flying and get as many people though as possible without spoon-feeding them the information and still being able to play the critical evaluator role and say when they weren’t capable of flying. But it goes to show you that there is not a perfect recruiting system, not a standard one for every type of group. It comes down to the culture that you wanna create. And every culture is gonna be a little bit different.

Thor: Investment Banking is a lot like the culture that you find in the SEAL. Navy Seal culture and the Fighter Pilot culture is similar, not just a generic pilot but the Fighter Pilot culture is very similar. We’re very much the guardians of that brand, just like Investment Bankers wanna make sure that if you are gonna rise up in that group that you are willing to go through all the pain and all the things that you need to do to earn your right of passage and show and prove that you are willing to have the perseverance to make it to the top.

Gomez: Yeah. I think it’s a great point, I certainly would agree. I’ve met and worked with many Fighter Pilots in the past and there is a very similar likelihood that we’re both looking out for that brand. Ensuring that we have the right people, the right folks chosen because ultimately it’s those individuals that are gonna be fighting alongside of some of my best friends and just like you, they’re gonna be flying alongside some of your best friends so you wanna ensure that those people are the absolute right people. And that you didn’t let a couple of people slip through because you chose not to do your job that day.

Thor: Yeah and its so critical when we talk about this with companies all the time and they say, “How do you create the elite team?” And I’ll say, “Where is HR? What are you doing for recruiting? What are you doing for making sure that you’re getting the right roster of people that should even consider working for you? Are you creating a self-weeding garden by having a culture that is exclusive?” Which is important by the way, that’s not an arrogant statement to say that you have an exclusive culture. You should want your culture to be clearly defined and be something that both attracts and repels different types of groups. And that very much was the case with being a fighter pilot or a Navy SEAL. We had a very specific individual with a very specific level of dedication that we’re looking for to compete and be a part of that team.

Thor: Let’s segue then into my other favorite story that you tell. You told us about the experience of watching these students. First of all, swimming this when you were a student and you had to go 50 meters underwater. This is one of the more challenging things that you guys had to do, and then as an instructor, you had a specific way of knowing when someone was going to fail. And you would even know sometimes when they first started to swim that they were going to fail, and you called this 100% every time. Tell us that story and what you would look for.

Gomez: Yes. This exercise was called the 50-meter underwater swim, and it’s a relatively benign evolution. It’s essentially testing the individual’s will to put up with a little bit of pain to endure a 50-meter swim. So you’re standing on one side of the pool, you’re staring out across a 25-meter pool. The objective is to jump into that water, once your feet hit the water and you submerge, you do a front word somersault and then you start swimming. And so you’re swimming that 25 meters across the pool from essentially a dead stop. You get to that wall on the other side, turnaround, push off the wall and back the other 25 meters all on one breath hold. Again, it was super challenging just to hear it as a student, but whenever I did it in reality, all it came down to was not quitting and not looking for the easy way out.

Gomez: And so as an instructor, when I was doing that evolution for the students, I remember swimming over the top ’cause we have a one to one ratio of instructor to student and you can watch as the individual jumps in, and the minute they start looking for a way out, they could be swimming down at 15-feet of water and the minute they peer up and look, it’s really subtle. They kinda look out of the corner of their eye to see how deep they are in the water where that surface is, you knew immediately that that individual wasn’t gonna make it. They were going to find that easy way out. They were gonna bolt and their day would be over.

Corporate Adversity

Thor: Alright. Let’s apply this to the corporate world. And you and I have spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. I haven’t really known you running around in PT gear and as a Navy SEAL. I know you more having a glass of red wine in Silicon Valley with me, but we’ve gotten to see some of this play out in corporate teams as well. The example that you and I talk about the most is we’re at this tech company that is taking on a pretty daunting task. It’s really important for a big transition that they’re making. They’re looking to go from selling, making transactional sales to going to transformational sales, making the typical transition that all tech companies talk about today which is to move from products to services. It was just a very major cultural shift that needs to take place in the organization. It’s an entire business operation reboot, and so set that stage, once you talk about what we encountered as we supported this mission for this leader.

Gomez: I remember this guy. He was big and to all the different processes. And so we sat with him and we said, “Let’s plan this out.” He’s like, “Yeah, I got it. I got it. I got it.” And when it came time and I’m gonna maybe ruin the ending here, but when it came time to debrief, the mission whether it was successful or not and they had just happened to have missed their final goal. But again, they made great strides, the team had done a great job to this point. However, because they didn’t hit that final number, that final goal that they set for themselves rather than say, “All right, awesome. We got 85% of the way there.” They said, “Oh, you know what? Let’s move the goal posts in. Let’s make it instead of making 100-yard touchdown ’cause those things are tough. Let’s make this touchdown an 85-yard touchdown and we’ll call it good.”

Thor: Yeah.

Gomez: I remember we looked each other like, “What in the world are they doing?” They were so caught up with being seen as perhaps a failure that they were willing to change the game and reshuffle the deck before they were done.

Thor: It’s literally the equivalent that Sports Illustrated athletes on the side of the pool crying because here you have somebody who’d gone to Stanford Business School and just a brilliant individual leading some incredible things and the hotbed for technology and innovation in the world. We’re watching him and what might be one of his first failures ever take place and much like you had to watch some of these athletes fail for the first time. This is the critical moment of assessment and what do we watch to take place? He can’t accept that failure. He’s exposed. He’s not a growth mindset type of person. He doesn’t want to lead a growth mindset type team. He’s fixed state and he believes from this point forward, “If I fail, that will define me. From this point, it’s not just a moment in time that will be what I am.” What did we see take place for that team over time?

Gomez: Yeah. It was something that just like we said, when you know you can figure out which five guys are gonna make it through hell week, which five guys are not, you saw the team just say, “All right, this doesn’t matter anymore. This isn’t an important. If we’re just gonna keep changing the goal post just to say we were successful artificially, what’s the point of going through this whole drill in the first place and you start to see a lack of interest people stop showing up to meetings. People stopped really caring about what they were supposed to be doing on their day in day out basis.

Thor: Yeah, and I think the most interesting thing for me that I saw was that they learned that it was not okay for them to fail either. And so, very clearly the leader had said that, “There’s no such thing as failure. We’re gonna have a pizza party. You all won, high five.” And then the rest of the team realized that “We can never make mistakes.” If we do make mistakes, by the way, mistakes are inevitable. We’re gonna sweep those under the rug. We’re gonna make it look like a success and that’s just the type of team we’re gonna be. He defined that team forever more and I’ve watched them struggle.

Create a Debrief Environment

Thor: Let’s close out with the big takeaways. How do you create these elite teams. This has been a great conversation about the adversity that we experience in a very specific environment but let’s now give the three big takeaways that we advocate that you do for your teams, so that you can create that group that fails forward and iterates and improves and encourages that culture as well. So number one, create a debrief environment. Why don’t you talk a little bit about what it takes to create a debrief environment?

Gomez: So, the most important thing that we ever had in the teams as it related to a debrief was to ensure that you were getting the truthful, honest feedback. We have a saying even in Afterburner, that we prefer respectful truth over artificial harmony. And so, in order to get that respectful truth, you as a leader had to stand up and admit your mistakes. You had to humble yourself before the team because it wasn’t about who’s right, it’s about what’s right. And in order to do that you needed to create a very nameless and rankless environment. And I think it’s interesting how the fighter pilots went through that. We had a very open mindset in the SEAL teams when it came to sharing feedback because we expected to get that from one another. But the fighter pilots, you guys took it in a whole other way.

Thor: Yeah, it was definitely the most important thing that we did, and we just knew. Every time we made a mistake… I was literally talking to a fighter pilot this weekend, flies F-15s and he told me about a bad flight that he recently had and he said, “As I’m taxiing in with my aircraft,” he said, “I’m preparing what I’m gonna say to the entire squadron not to talk about how it’s not my fault and give excuses.” But he did what everyone of us had to do after we make a mistake, and first of all, own it and then talk about how the team should do something differently to avoid repeating that mistake in the future. Because we know that flying is hard and that we’re going to make mistakes. And we actually allow our team members to make mistakes, which is a really important difference from what we saw on that Silicon Valley Team. We allow our team members to make mistakes, but we don’t allow them to repeat the mistakes.

Thor: The only way you can stop those out is if you have a culture that looks backward and identifies what the debrief points are, what the things are that we gonna improve on? So number two, create actionable lessons learned. And when you create those actionable lessons learned that are specific, they are gonna change their behavior, you put them into your next plan. Why don’t you talk a little bit about how we incorporate lessons learned into our next plan?

Lessons Learned: Iterate and Improve

Gomez: Yeah, it’s great. So we have that debrief, out from that debrief comes all these great lessons learned. These things, again like you said, very actionable steps that we can roll right into the next plan, right into the next day’s event or the next month’s plan or whatever it is, we can certainly learn from those individual lessons of the past. And then when you create these actionable lessons learned, it’s almost taking… It’s a step in the very next plan. It’s another course of action that you can immediately start iterating on.

Thor: We’ve got the debrief conductor, we have an environment where we look backward, we figure out what worked, what didn’t, and then we turned that into an actionable lesson learned so we can change behavior in the future. And we don’t just give that lip service, we actually put that into a specific plan that we’re gonna execute down the road. Talk to me about how we indoctrinate this into our culture now. How do we have this as a leader-led mentality where failure is not fatal, and that failure is okay as long as it doesn’t make its way to the customer, or jeopardize mission success, and how do we create that environment where people believe that it’s okay to fail?

A Culture That Is Not Afraid of Failure

Gomez: Yeah, so that’s great. So the way that we incorporate that action is that it has to be a very leader-led process. Meaning, the leader must demonstrate how they’re going to iterate and how they’re going to get better. The leader has to stand up in front of the group and admit what they messed up. And it’s exactly counter to what we learned in Silicon Valley by that one individual when he stood up, he basically said, “Hey listen, it’s not okay to fail. I’m gonna change the goal posts in order to say that we succeeded.” And when you demonstrate that type of culture, that type of environment, you’re inevitably telling your team you cannot fail, you cannot make a mistake, which is extremely counter to what we learned in our environment, in that the leaders admit their mistakes, admit what they failed on and they’re able to ask their the teammates then, “Hey, what did you see that I messed up on?” They’re humble enough to admit those mistakes because that’s where the learning takes place.

Thor: Yeah, and that’s exactly what we saw the most effective leaders do. It’s the ability to talk about what mistakes were made by the leader in the previous iteration. By the way, you’re not apologizing and you’re not asking for forgiveness, it’s not emotional. You’re just saying, “Hey, there’s no such thing as a perfect mission. Let’s get that out in the open right now, and I’m not immune to that either. As a leader, here’s what I would do differently if I had this opportunity again.” Even on a successful mission, there’s always something we can talk about, and then open it out to the crowd and get their feedback, so that the team members that are listening see that, “Hey, it’s okay to actually have this conversation. If the leader’s able to get that feedback, surely I am as well. So that when I get to talk to that team member later and tell that team member what he or she is doing wrong, they’re not getting defensive and they’re not wondering if their job’s on the line, their taking notes, because they wanna improve and they know that’s the culture we’ve established.”

Thor: Well, Chris Gomez, thank you very much for this session. It was fantastic getting to talk to you about your Navy SEAL experience both as a student and as an instructor about creating elite teams that are able to overcome adversity by creating a debrief environment, identifying actionable lessons learned to put into tomorrow’s plan, and then creating that culture starting with the leaders, starting at the top that shows the rest of the team that failure is not fatal, it’s actually inevitable but you’re never allowed to fail the same way twice.