What if you spent twenty years of your career in one field and had to start over from scratch? That is exactly what Nick Clemente is faced with after a distinguished military career that is ending soon. In this episode, we work with Nick on how to approach his second act and share our experiences transitioning from corporate to startups.
In this episode:
- Giving up your identity, or adding to it?
- The highest return, entry-level position
- The reality of building something new and humble pie
- Adapting your vocabulary to adjust to a new industry
- Don’t underestimate what your mind can accomplish when it is given back 40 hours per week
- You are in charge of your professional brand
- How to figure out what you do next
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
How To Create A New Professional Identity
We did an episode where we did some live coaching with a young man from Europe. In that episode, we mentioned that, “If you were interested in coming on our show and getting some coaching from two knuckleheads, we would be open to it.” Surprisingly, someone was following that episode. We have a great guest. Nick Clemente has had a distinguished career in the military for two decades. He joined the military after 9/11. He was inspired, went, and fought for our country. He has been in an executive capacity and has run tank platoons.
It’s a very exciting career but now he’s looking to transfer over to the private sector. It’s a nerve-wracking time for him. It’s one in which he’s asking questions about his identity changing, what his day-to-day will look like, and what he’s giving up. We have a far-ranging conversation about that transition, and things get different directions. This is a fascinating episode, one in which Frank and I had a blast doing. We hope you enjoy it the same. If you are out there, a new manager, and thinking about a career transition, send 1 of the 2 of us an email, and we will bring you on and do the same.
Ian, we have a special guest. I will leave the, “You are an SOB,” to someone else. Sir, would you like to say it?
Frank, thank you so much. Ian, you son of a bitch. I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me, gentlemen.
We have Nick Clemente here in this episode. We have a special guest. We don’t do this too often on the show largely because we are too lazy to go out and find people to interview. It seems like a hassle. Nick, we are making a special exception for you. Which episode did you read where you sent me the email and said you want to jump on?
It was the only other special guest you have had, which was a foreign gentleman. He was looking to break into sales. He was on the technical side. You said, “If any of our loyal readers who have given a five-star review.” There was a quid pro quo associated with being a guest to reach out.
Welcome to the private sector.
I said, “All right.” I shot in an email. I said, “You don’t even need to buzz out my face or change my name because my bosses know I’m leaving. We could get into it.”
Nick, start by telling everyone how you came into our world in the first place. How did you get to know about Frank or me, or both of us?
It’s an Army interaction and a podcast interaction, which is a good friend of mine, Dave Neal, who is a former Australian Army Officer. We served in Afghanistan together, and I will save the story for another time but a quick shout out to Dave because he saved my life in Afghanistan. I owe a heck of a lot to Dave. A couple of years later, we reconnected, and he introduced me to Ian and said, “There’s this fantastic dude who needs to talk to you as you near your transition,” as I told him, I was getting ready to retire from the Army.
I talked to Ian and got some fantastic advice. He mentioned, “I’ve got a show.” You guys have now been a part of my regular show rotation for the last months. It’s fantastic to be on. This is the start of something big. I’m waiting for Preet Bharara and the guys from Smartlist to call because I’m ready to be a professional guest after this.
You are doing a great job so far. That was a fantastic introduction. I’m very excited that David introduced me to you. For everyone, if you didn’t read, we did the Art of War episode with David and Jonathan, which are two great guys that left the military and started a leadership consultancy in Australia. I have known David for several years, ever since I left the corporate world. I’m glad that he put the two of us in here.
One of the highlights of doing a show with two Aussies that are fourteen hours ahead of you is they are making us drink beer at 6:00 in the morning. Ian and I ordered a drink and brawled until 6:00 AM. I had a protein shake and brawled.
I never did any session with David when we were not drinking. We were on different sides of the world. Nick, share with us how you’ve got into the Army, what you were doing before and what inspired you to get into the Army in the first place.
I was born, raised, and educated out in California. I wound up graduating college back in the late ’90s at Cal State Sacramento and was involved in the local political scene. I was running non-partisan local political campaigns. I bet my then-girlfriend, now wife was a political fundraiser, and we were off in the scene there in the State Capitol and joining things. We started getting a little burned out on the grind and realized that we needed to change. On a whim, we decided to leave Sacramento, politics, and California, spun the globe, and decided to move.The one thing that the military does well is development. They don't make you do anything until they taught you how to do it first. Click To Tweet
We wound up out in Charleston, South Carolina. We always wanted to go live in the South. We packed up our cars and moved across the country. There, I became a police officer. It’s something I have always been interested in. I took a leap and wound up going to the police academy and joining the Charleston PD. I did that for a couple of years as a patrolman. I loved it. It’s just problem-solving day in and day out. It was always different. There are tons of great stories, people, and lots of challenges. In the midst of that, 9/11 happened.
I remember I was on a call. It was an older lady, and she asked me. She’s like, “Are you worried about getting drafted?” It was the funniest thing because it did not even occur to me but I thought about it. I was a little bit older. I was 25 years old. I had a wife, a mortgage, and was a cop. I realized I wasn’t getting drafted, even if it came to that, which we didn’t think it would. It became clear that if I were going to get involved, I would have to volunteer. No one was going to ask. This was one of those things where you had to step forward. The country had given me a lot.
I had a lot of relevant skills based on my background, so I decided to enlist. I had a college degree at the time, so I enlisted for Officer Candidate School, which is not a guarantee but simply an opportunity to go to a number of different schools, get your ass handed to you, and see if you can get commissioned. After 9/11, I joined the Army, went through basic training, went through Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as an Armor Officer in early 2003.
First off, thank you. That’s very cool. That’s a decision that takes a lot of guts, especially you’ve got a college degree. You are unique in that you’ve got a degree and still want to go over there. It’s cool. Both of us were inspired by that when we read your summary when you sent it over. You go through this process of applying. What’s your first action? Where did they send you?
The Army starts with a lot of schools. The one thing that the military does well is development. They don’t make you do anything until they taught you how to do it first. The first thing is basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and they teach you how to be a soldier. If you have seen Stripes, it’s like that, just less funny. John Larroquette wasn’t there, which is a real disappointment. There was nobody at the police academy who did funny voices, so that was a bummer as well. My whole life is these ridiculous ’80s comedies.
There are a lot of letdowns. It’s very disappointing. I keep putting myself into these things, and they turn out to not be nearly as funny as I anticipated. Down to Fort Benning, Georgia, if you have ever seen We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, where they’ve got the big towers. You have seen it in the movie. It’s right there, and that’s where they do the Officer Candidate School. For a good sixteen weeks, they treat you like crap and beat you up. They test you both physically and mentally and try to figure out if you are worthy of leadership. If you pass, then you are commissioned. You are a Second Lieutenant.
There’s a whole bunch of different branches in the military, everything from infantry, armor, aviation, logistics, finance, and human resources. There are all kinds of different stuff. I was lucky to be branched in Armor Officer, which means I’ve got to be combat arms but I didn’t have to walk and carry a heavy rucksack, which I had learned in my first year in the Army that was not so much fun. I didn’t want to sleep in a hole anymore, and I didn’t want to have to carry 5 pounds of crab. The beauty of the tank is it carries it for you, and you are rolling around with 70 tons of armor and a ridiculous amount of armaments.
The next thing from there was Fort Knox, Kentucky, which is at the time, was home of armor. They teach you how to be a tank commander and a tank platoon leader, which is you are in charge of 4 tanks and the 16 people that run them. To let you also know where I was in my life at that time, like any good soldier, I’ve got my wife pregnant. At my going away party, she got knocked up the night before I left for the military. My first call from basic training was, “I’m pregnant.” Now my wife was pregnant, and we were finally back together. We are at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
I’m learning how to be a tank officer and preparing to be a father. My son, Joey, was born while we were there. It was fantastic. I finished school and then off to Fort Riley, Kansas, where I became a Tank Platoon Leader for my first job. I was assigned 4 tanks with 15 guys. It’s OJT, On the Job Training. You are leading and learning. One of the interesting parts about the military is you are technically in charge but you don’t know that much. You are a real amateur and new to the game.
You’ve got to be in charge of folks who are a little more senior in terms of age, in a lot of ways but more senior in terms of their knowledge and experience. It’s an interesting balancing act that can be tough but it’s vitally important to your development. From there, the Iraq War was kicking off right at that point. Shortly thereafter, my unit was deployed to Iraq. I spent a year North of Baghdad in a place called Baqubah conducting security operations and working with the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army.
When you were there with the Iraqi Army, were you still in charge of a tank platoon?
I was. I stayed in charge of the tank platoon the entire time.
With the same sixteen guys?
For the most part. It was a cool thing. In those early days, they put a stop to the traditional inflow and outflow of personnel and leadership changes because the idea was, “We are going to war. We need continuity.” That makes a ton of sense. When the war lasts 15 to 20 years, you can’t do that but in those early years, the leadership locked it down. I stayed in that very cool leadership position with a great platoon of dudes. I stayed in it for almost three years, including the train up and the deployment itself. It was a fantastic group of guys. We’ve got to stay together.
If you could, indulge my curiosity on this. If you have 16 guys, do you have 1 mechanic or multiple mechanics? How important is someone who can fix these things out in the field because they’ve got to run? Do these new trucks don’t ever break down anymore?
They break constantly. Some of the tanks we were using were used in the initial Gulf War. Our equipment was pretty old. There are 4 personnels per tank and 4 tanks. That’s where we get to the sixteen. None of those sixteen is technically a mechanic, yet all of those sixteen have to be able to do the basic preventative maintenance and the quick fix. When the track falls off or breaks, you’ve got to be able to get in the mud and put the track back on without any assistance. You’ve got to be able to do basic maintenance.
As a part of a larger tank unit, you’ve got a whole maintenance platoon that will come to you. They’ve got all the equipment as well as their own big tank-like vehicle that has a crane on it that could lift your tank up. They can get underneath it and do things. The expectation is you keep it running as best you can.
When stuff gets wild and needs significant repair, you either drag it back to the rear where the mechanics can help, they will meet you halfway or come to you to help do maintenance. Maintenance is a huge aspect of being an armor guy. Unfortunately, they are not like new trucks running the day. They break pretty routinely.
Frankly, that is so much like a corporation where you’ve got teams out in the field, and you’ve got to be good at certain things. You’ve got to be able to do a little Jack of all trades and your teams. You have departments that help me but you never want to be too reliant on a department to help you. I would imagine that would be a big focus of yours as a leader of sixteen people that everyone was pretty good at the basic maintenance, so you didn’t have to wait for hours under fire while some department came to fix your tank.
To that point, there are certain things you can’t do because you’re not hauling around parts. There are certain things you can take care of on the fly, and there are other things you just can’t. You’ve got to go back to the rear because tanks are pretty significant pieces of equipment. The parts that they require are expensive and big. There’s not something you can log around. With this smaller stuff, sure.
I’m interested in this. You are a new leader or manager. You’ve got sixteen people that report to you. What are some mistakes you made? You are a young kid. You are managing people that are older and more experienced than you. You are only their manager because you’ve got a little more schooling from the Army but not from experience. What are some mistakes you made initially as a new manager?
One of the mistakes I made originally was assuming that my subordinates knew more than they did. I remember one of the very first things we did was we went out to the National Training Center out in the desert of California. Imagine the world’s coolest and most expensive game of laser tag on tens of thousands of acres. One of the things they teach you in Officer School or one of the continuous refrain is, “Don’t worry about it too much. Your platoon sergeant will help you.” He’s your crusty old guy that’s got fifteen plus years of experience.
The idea is that the platoon sergeant will help you do that. We’ve got out to NTC and had to do defense. It’s a pretty deliberate defense. You had to dig in your positions and prepare for an enemy attack. I had never done one before, especially not at this scale. My assumption was, “My NCO is there. They’ve got this. I’m just going to make sure we stick with the plan but generally, I’m going to learn from them.” When we get out there and have a couple of hours before it gets dark, it turns out they had never done it either.
I had assumed a level of competence or experience from some of these guys that didn’t exist. I hadn’t checked and had not prepared myself to the level of technical expertise to be able to lead it confidently without their level of experience. Making some poor assumptions upfront and not doing as much of the homework than I needed to but relying on the, “Your NCO will square your way,” turned out to bite me in the butt.
We were scrambling pretty hard to prepare for that defense, and we’ve got our butts kicked pretty good. We learned a lot, and that’s the whole point. Do it in the desert, not doing it where it’s real. That’s a mistake that sticks out in my head. It was that realization that, “None of us knows how to do this. I should have prepared better and not have just assumed away a gap in my own knowledge.”
Is there an example of something you can talk to us a little bit about how you used that lesson or mistake and then didn’t repeat that mistake a second time?Wrong assumptions come from a lack of communication. Click To Tweet
It comes back to the redoubling of effort with my own professional development. It’s the idea that you can’t rely on anybody, and it’s a team effort. You are not going to be able to do everything yourself but to make sure that I had the fundamentals down the path. In the months and years to come, it was about studying the fundamentals and making sure that I had it down. That’s number one. Number two, and the bigger lesson for that extends for more people, was those assumptions came from a lack of communication.
Getting back there and making sure that I was communicating and setting expectations, both my own and that of my team and making sure that I was clear about what people knew, what people didn’t know, where their confidence lie to where mine was, and being much more open about the way that I communicated with folks from that point on. Also, being much more in terms of setting expectations and not making assumptions. It was critical going forward.
There were two things you mentioned, fundamentals and then either assumptions or communication. Let’s deal with the first one first. When you say fundamentals, did that boil down to you looking inwardly first?
When you say fundamentals, what were some of the fundamentals you worked on?
We’ve got what we call doctrine. A doctrine is an authoritative but not prescriptive way of describing how to do things tactically. It’s anything from an attack to a defense, even just how you conduct logistics operations. We have these manuals that lay it out. It’s not to say you have to do it by the manual every time because the environment is going to change and you are getting developed.
The notion is you should know your stuff, what’s right looks like, and have studied the playbook before you start throwing the playbook out or adjusting the play on the fly. When I say fundamentals. It was about studying and practicing that playbook so that I had it ingrained and that our people had it ingrained, and then we were good enough to adjust and make the changes.
I want to stay with Frank’s question. Preparation is incredibly important in business. It’s not the same just running out there with your eyes closed and firing away. Can you think of a mission you had where your preparation saved lives or made the mission go better because you put a little extra prep in and something that could have gone wrong, you had thought through the contingencies?
At the end of it, you are like, “That fundamental, I’m glad I learned that because that came through.”
There are a ton of missions where that comes into play. Off the top of my head, this is going to be decidedly unsexy but it comes back to fundamentals. In Afghanistan, we had a vehicle breakdown. One of the things that we did repeatedly was we constantly rehearsed. We are always rehearsing. We call them battle drills. These are things that you do instinctively. They are like plays if you think about sports. There are times when people roll their eyes like, “Sir, are we doing this again? We just did it yesterday. We did it the day before.”
I was pretty anal and disciplined about always doing our battle drills, rehearsing, and doing full up like, “We are going to go ahead and practice how to change a tire on this vehicle. We are going to go ahead and practice how to recover a vehicle rapidly under fire.” When I say recover a vehicle, meaning the two straps are already set up. They are zip-tied very loosely so that you can quickly break them away. The front vehicle just comes back. You break away the toast drafts, and you slap it in. Only one person has to expose himself to enemy fire, and then you are quickly on the move again.
One of the worst things you can do is sit on the X, as we call it. You don’t want to sit static where you can be easily targeted. You want to continue to move and be aggressive, even if it’s only a foot. Get off the X and continue to move. We would rehearse and practice. I remember distinctly a mission to Afghanistan, where we were in a pretty bad place. A vehicle broke down, and that recovery drill happened clockwork. It was beautiful to watch the guys do it. Only one person exposed themselves, and he did an undercover.
We quickly hooked up, and we were back on the move again. We are able to recover the vehicle without incident all the way back to the base. It was one of those ones where if you hadn’t practiced as often as we had, we wouldn’t have been able to do it so smoothly and quickly without incident. It was one of those ones where we all pat ourselves on the back like, “That’s the practice and all that stuff.” It was boring, hot, and onerous but it was worth it. Anyone who has been to Iraq and Afghanistan has similar stories, for sure.
One of my friends is a Marine. He went to the Naval Academy, graduated as an officer, and then reenlisted in the Marines as an officer. They call it in Marine parlance being squared away. Is that the same thing that you call in the Army?
That’s a big thing. That squared away means you did all your homework. You can do it with the personality but it gives you the preparation. I have another friend of mine who has a boat. He always talks about the preparation that goes into making sure everything on the boat is squared away before you get on that boat. He was 30 miles offshore, and his boat sunk but thank God, he had the backup vehicle ready. He watched his boat sink from a boat, not in a life jacket. He has been doing it for many years, always checking that boat. It’s a pain in the ass to watch him check that boat and wait because you want to get going, drink beer, and be moving but if you don’t do it one time, that’s how it happens.
Frank is asking you good questions but he’s asking you questions that a business owner would ask if you were interviewing for any position. One thing to think about as you explain that answer, your first answer was general. It was, “Make sure the fundamentals are there, prepare, and communicate.” I wouldn’t remember that if I were interviewing you.
I wouldn’t remember anything you said because it sounds like anyone could have said it. I remember the second one, “We drilled and drilled how to recover under fire. We were in a hairy situation in Afghanistan, and our tank was stagnant. We broke down, and only one person had to get out. Those drills kept us moving and kept us alive.”
I’m going to remember that story 100% because I felt like I was there when you told it. It’s something to think about for yourself. You are coming out into the civilian world. You are getting into the private sector. When you talk to a manager, executive or business owner, and they ask you a question in the interview, you have so many colorful, rich stories.
Try not to speak in platitudes. Try to speak in very specific situations where you were under distress and had to make a decision, lead a team, get people that were nervous or didn’t know what to do, and you had to convince them how to move forward. Speak in those terms. Have fifteen stories like that that you can crush that no matter what Frank asks you, you know you are going to use one of those fifteen stories, and it will make me think, “I want that guy making decisions in my company.”
Frank runs a sales team. It’s not as exciting as running a tank platoon under fire but I will tell you this. Frank reps with his salespeople. He puts them under duress. He makes them do practice runs of what a customer or prospect might say to them. He makes them overcome objections long before they get on the phone because when they do, Frank is not there looking over their shoulder to see how they do, he needs to know that they will respond with the right words. It’s the same in business. You prep and prep for what could happen situationally. Try to think of the things as, “I listened to that. That is transferable.” You want to be able to talk about that when you talk to a business owner, want to consult for them or work for them.
Putting my spin on it, I will do this. When you use the word platitude, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what Army parlance is. I don’t understand it. I don’t get it, neither do most of the people you are interviewing with. They are not going to get the technical but we all know the tank is. I don’t know if you use the initials or the letters, what that is.
What you want to do when you do interviewing is you want to put things in there that are big. If you put, “Volunteered after 9/11,” that’s going to be a story. If you sat in front of me after I read your resume, I’m asking you about that because that’s character. I thought about it. I didn’t do a damn thing, so I look up to people who did something like that.
What Ian is talking about with platitudes and such, and when I’m talking about with parlance, is giving lures that business owners in the private sector can catch on to. When I transitioned from construction to sales, I used to write down the Code of the Fireplace. The sales rep I worked with was like, “Nobody cares what the code is.” I was like, “Construction cares.” She goes, “Construction is buying this house. These people are.” We wrote fireplace, gas, and log. That was important. It was no longer the code.
You have to take some of these things that you think are mundane or are prescriptive, and you need to turn them into stories. My guess is you’ve got dozens of them that you can talk about and get people like us that don’t understand it and are a little bit in all of you excited. What you want to do in a resume and an interview is get people to root for you, like you, want you, like, “I can relate to this person.” The more you speak in generalities that morons like us can understand, the better suited you are going to be in that moment.
You have been just living in it. I will take the mortgage industry. The mortgage industry has more acronyms than anything in the world other than the Army. When you are talking to a person who just wants to get a mortgage and doesn’t live in it, they don’t know what FHA and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are. They don’t know what an LTV is versus DTI. There are so many acronyms. It’s insane but you can’t talk to people like that. It’s the same with you.
Be careful with even NCO. The average person talking to you who has been in the private sector for twenty years has no idea what that means. They don’t know what all the ranks are as a sergeant above or corporal. They don’t know, so dumb it down a little to, “I was leading a team of sixteen men. I was their manager.” Try to talk in terms of how a company is run because companies don’t have all these different levels, layers and titles. Those are things that you think about as you go through.Take those things that you think are mundane and turn them into stories. Click To Tweet
The other thing I will talk about at this moment is understanding what’s transferable. It’s very hard to say make it transferable when you have been in a different world. You have to think about who you are talking to and how you do it, figure out how people communicate in their cadences and those types of things, and relaying it. One of the questions that I would challenge you on is this. “Is that the road to go?”
The other road is this. This is what I had told you in the story when we were talking before you’ve got on. I used to sell houses in Fort Belvoir. Fort Belvoir in the Washington DC Metro market is about 30 minutes from Washington DC. It’s about seven minutes from a huge Army base. Almost everybody who worked at the Pentagon had some connection to Fort Belvoir. What I met was Nix, who are slightly older comparable in age. They had a military pension. It paid 50% to 60% of what their salary was because it’s the way the military works.
They don’t pay you a ton but when you get out, they treat you very well because of your service as they should. What a lot of people did was they pivoted. They would take this job where they worked for the government, and then they would work for the private sector. They go work for Northrop Grumman or one of these contractors. They would get paid four times the military paid them. They were making four times what they used to make, plus 50% of what they made. They were making four and a half times.
This is a question you need to ask yourself, “Do I have the skillset? Do I want to remain in and around here or do I want to morph into something else?” I’m not telling you which one to pick but it could be an easier path forward to not reinvent because that’s a pain in the ass, and use the things you take a little bit for granted that others put a huge premium on. That’s the beauty of the private sector.
Frank, that’s great advice. I’m very familiar with the Fort Belvoir area. We went to school there and lived in the DC area for a while. I can visualize exactly what you are talking about, and I’m going to be one of those people you are talking about here pretty soon. I’m blessed to have a little pension coming in about 50% of what I make now, which provides me a nice floor.
The taxpayers will also help continue to pay for my health insurance, which is a huge benefit because health insurance is super expensive. At least that’s what I’m told because we are shielded from those things. Those two things together are very generous and helpful. I’m wrestling with the reinvention versus, “Do you continue to leverage your experience?”
I also have a security clearance, which is extraordinarily valuable in the private and public sectors, for that matter. There’s a question of, “Do you keep doing what you are doing and leverage it and your security clearance to keep working on the same problems? or it has been twenty years. I’m looking for something new. I’m looking for a different culture and problem set.” Now I’m leaning towards reinvention but your points are all super valid. There’s something I’m wrestling with.
There’s one of the things that Ian and I noted here, and I will cover two. The first one is your humility. It came through multiple times for the opportunity to be underpaid and shot at. You are very grateful for that opportunity. What you prepared for us to read was a massive takeaway of, “This is a humble, grateful person.” In whatever you do, if that shows through like it did to us, you are going to find yourself with a lot of great opportunities. The other thing we talked about, and this is on the side, is you are covered in health insurance. There’s this enormous myth that most people who are well paid and compensated look at health insurance and taxes. They are worried about those two things.
Ian and I can tell you funny stories about people who are decamillionaires worried about health insurance. They are going to immediately crater their entire financial situation because of health insurance. That’s not something you worry about but you worry about taxes. What I can tell you is taxes are a luxury, not too dissimilar from the things that are inside of how you talk to in a way. You will make a bunch of money. You are organized. You will figure out how to pay the taxes. That’s a good thing. It’s not something you should run from. It’s something you should run towards like having a big tax bill is okay. Ian, anything to add to that?
I wish for you that in 2023, you will pay more taxes than you have ever paid in your whole life. That’s what I wish for you. I hope that. I hope in 2024, you break that record. Taxes are awesome. Taxes mean you are killing it. You are making a lot of money, and you’ve got to pay money for it. You will find someone who’s good that can help you with it. I wouldn’t spend any time worrying about taxes. People that don’t pay taxes are the ones who are stressed because they suck that they would have to.
Once you start paying a ton of money in taxes, you call into me and say, “Can I get in one of these real estate deals that has some sweet appreciation?” We will help you.
Having been the recipient of people’s tax dollars for all these years as a public servant, I completely agree with you. It’s no surprise you pay for living in a civilized society and also completely agree that it’s a great problem to have because if you are paying a lot of taxes, you are making a lot of money and doing well. I appreciate your wish for me as also my wish for me. Thank you. I appreciate that.
It’s much more stressful to suck it than pay a lot of taxes. I don’t spend any time thinking about it.
The military will teach you how to run into bullets and things safely. I’m guessing the first thing they tell you when you run into the bullets is don’t really run into them but know how to embrace it. What we are hoping in this hour of conversation, as you understand the private sector, is it has its own bullet and things that people mostly try to avoid but are not too dissimilar from the military. If you navigate it right, it’s not as dangerous as it seems, and it could actually be an opportunity.
Nick, you’ve got twenty years with the Army. You are now trying to figure out what to do next. You have mentioned consulting and sales. How are you thinking about those two things?
I’m thinking about them because I have spent a lot of time trying to break down what’s important to me to their elemental levels to try to get a sense of what I care about. I like meeting people and making relationships. I like learning about people and their goals or what they are trying to accomplish. I like helping them get there. That’s what I enjoyed throughout my political, police, military, all those aspects, those core elements. When I’m doing those things, I have been most successful, happiest and I can find meaning and purpose in my day-to-day life. I can see some connections to be able to do that in a more consultative or B2B type sales role or in consulting itself.
I’ve got some friends that have gone into consulting and have been done from the military and been successful and enjoy it. Those are areas that at least at first blush seem to line up with my values and what I’m looking for. That’s why I mentioned those upfront. The other thing that I’m doing, and it was why you and I are initially connected, which is I’m doing informational interviews with people from all walks of life, is trying to get a sense of what regular people do on a day-to-day basis.
The other thing I’m struggling with is trying to visualize what that is because it’s something that might sound cool on paper but then when you really dig into it, you realize, “That’s not nearly as sexy as it sounded.” Trying to get some real ground truth about what people do day-to-day is also a big part of trying to figure out where I’m going.
You are coming from a very high degree of structure. When you think about consulting and sales, would you like to keep some structure? Do you want to work for a company and not have to worry about setting up all the structures? Do you have a wild entrepreneurial itch that you are wanting to scratch?
I wouldn’t call the entrepreneurial itch wild. The pendulum in my life has swung to the point where I have very little autonomy. There’s a ton of structure. I have very little ability to make decisions for myself or others for that matter, which is interesting because I had more autonomy and decision-making power when I was a more junior manager than I am now that I had been promoted based on my job.
That’s the same as business. When you are in the field, salespeople on the front line have more decision-making than some executives because they are close to the customer, and they are bringing in the bacon. That’s the same with you. You are out in the field, got four tanks, and you are cut off from command.
You’ve got to make decisions. You are making decisions all day. You feel like you are in control of your little world. We didn’t touch on this but Nixon is in strategic command now. He’s more like an executive in the organization than you were in your first ten years. It’s very different. Now you’ve got bureaucracy all around you.
I’m a very mid-level or almost low-level executive when you are in the hierarchy of these places. I have very little autonomy. My inclination is to get that pendulum swinging back the other way, get some of that autonomy for myself, and some decision-making authority. I don’t have a great business idea that I have had in a drawer for years and just chomping at. The idea of sales particularly attracted me because of what you have described, being out in the field, making those calls, and doing what you need to do.
That’s the most attractive. It’s the autonomy and the flexibility. I drive an hour, go to a windowless, very secure room with fluorescent lighting, and stay there for ten hours at a time, and then I drive home. It’s a very structured environment. Having some additional flexibility is also super attractive at this point. It’s a reaction to what I have been dealing with, quite honestly.
There are two camps of people. There are the people who, every time they are in a project, do something, and anything good happens to their business or organization, it’s to them. There are the other people who, whenever anything good happens, it wasn’t that big of a deal. You fall into the latter category with your humility and training.
What I would tell you is the sales jobs that you are going to attract with, “I sat at a cute, windowless desk for ten hours and got my car and drove home.” That’s not the vocabulary, and that’s not the viewpoint that’s going to give you the opportunities that are going to serve you the best. There is stuff you are doing that you would have to make communicable to us through a way that you don’t get away with any of the topics.Just like in the military, the private sector has its own bullets that people try to avoid. If you can navigate it, they're not as dangerous as it seems. Click To Tweet
I interviewed somebody who worked for a big company. He’s like, “I can’t tell you the product. You can figure it out.” He told me exciting things about things that we are all triaged. He never told me. I’m pretty sure it was an eCigarette. I know he worked on another thing that was nicotine gum. He didn’t tell me any of these things but I inferred. When he got me excited, I was like, “Those are big businesses.”
He started telling me things about the big businesses and how we looked at Salesforce, which is a software I use, and how he loaded the funnel. What he did is he took something that I don’t get and understand, and I’m legally not allowed to. He made it exciting and enticing enough for me. I was like that time that you were sitting at that windowless desk, what it gives you is a quarterback in the 1960s and a quarterback in 2020 do different things. Back in the 1960s, they kicked field goals and punted.
Sometimes they played nose tackle. Nowadays, they just play quarterback. They’ve got pretty damn good lives for doing one good thing but they are good at it. My guess is the breadth of experiences and the things that you have to give you more opportunity than your humility lets you or the military allow you to think about. Having those types of stories that get someone like Ian or me excited and spending time with folks across this show will help you with that. There’s a lot of autonomy in a small box if you are controlling the small box.
Nick, when you think about a sales job like sales and consulting, consulting could be lucrative if you can leverage your experience similar to some of the jobs Frank was talking about and your connections within the government to work for some consulting firm. You could also, from a sales perspective, say sales are always the highest upside entry-level position.
It’s a position where companies will take much more risk if you’ve got certain personality traits because it’s a position that requires skill but you can pick the skills up fast. It’s more about tenacity and how willing you are to accept defeat, be tough, and be resilient. I have hired experienced salespeople for many years as long as they had the right stuff when I met with them.
It’s nice to have someone with experience but it can be trained. In the corporate sector, it’s the highest upside closest to entrepreneurial position you can find in a company where you are making some decisions. You are hustling. The harder you work, the more you get paid. The pay is very variable based on performance. It’s very autocratic. You know you can go out and make some decisions and do some things yourself. You get what you put into it if you are with the right company.
I want to add something to that. Why do companies take flyers on salespeople, Nick?
The upside can be so high, and then it’s worth taking a risk if the person with the right values and innate abilities is able to generate a lot in the business.
It could be. There’s no risk. Most companies put people with very little experience on a comp plan that is through, “You’ve got to eat what you kill.” It’s commission-based, so it’s very low risk. Thinking that through with someone who talked in here a little bit about the money aspect, you are fine but if that’s a stressor, that’s the reason that opportunities come about with people with very little experience because there’s very little risk if it doesn’t work for a company.
That’s the upside for me. As a military retiree, I do have a base. There’s a little bit of a backstop. My wife and I were very frugal. We have managed our money to the point where we are in a very good position. Now we’ve got one kid, and he’s off at college on my 9/11 GI Bill. Thanks again to the taxpayer. The college fund was taken care of. If I offer a low downside to a company for them to give me an opportunity, it’s fantastic because financially, I’m in a place where I can afford to take that risk and let them learn and build it.
In terms of upside, on how do I get to a position of equity, and how big could this be, you mentioned in the notes you sent us over how military compensation’s extremely predictable. You’ve gotten used to that but that’s also extremely boring. What you will find as variable pay is exciting as hell. It’s a motivator. There’s nothing Dilbert about a sales job. It is you show up and hustle every single week. I’m living it now. I’m in a startup, so everything I’m doing is geared towards trying to get the next sale. For me, that variability is very enticing and exciting. I get a lot of meaning from that.
When you say, “How will I find meaning in my next job?” It would be incredibly hard for you to find meaning like you had been doing some of the things you did, especially in the first half of your career. You went and fought for our country after 9/11. I can tell you surely that Frank and I, in our combined years, have done nothing with that kind of meaning, not even remotely close to that. We find a lot of meaning in our work because we work with great teams and great people. We have had a big impact on some people’s careers. We have had a big impact on our families by doing some of the things that are very exciting to see something you start with grow into something much bigger.
There are a lot of ways to make an impact without having the mission of the company. Frank renovates houses, and I’m selling car alarms. The mission of our company isn’t close to what you did in the military but we are very proud of the impact we have had on people’s lives. It might not just be the product that you are offering. It might be the companies you built, the people you are involved in, and the returns you have given investors to make their lives better. There are a lot of ways you can find meaning in business that are going to be completely different than what you found in the military.
That’s something I have been keeping in mind. My identity and the meaning that I have found from my work, whether you are a cop or the military. These are all the very things that you take over a big part of who you are and where you derive your meaning. Recognizing the fact that part of that flexibility that I was talking about too is the idea that, “I might have been able to spend my time a little bit differently. We don’t have to move every 2 to 3 years.”
It’s finding meaning by serving my community. It might be that, “I’m volunteering over here while I’m also working, whether it’s renovating houses, selling car alarms or whatever else.” I understand exactly what you are saying and recognize that the full tenor of everything I’m looking for might not just be in the job but might be in a larger pantheon of different things that I’m trying to do. It’s the community, family, the teams you build, charities you work with, etc. I appreciate that.
When Ian and I were talking, you guys talked about the two sentences I highlighted. After two decades in a very large organization with a defined culture and a sense of mission and purpose, it is daunting to leave that behind along with the parts of yourself you have attached to it over the years. You went to the sentence of own identity but I was drawn to that sentence for this reason.
The thing about it is both of us were C-Suite guys, and we talked about this. Maybe Ian’s humility has allowed him to forget this. I haven’t. You go from being pretty important to unimportant. There are the going away parties, emails, and a couple of phone calls, and then there’s this enormous gap. It’s like, “What the hell did I do?”
I remember that point of, “Why did I do this for a while.” I’m fourteen years into this thing. It probably followed me around for 5, if not 7. It’s real. You are leaving something behind. They give you a statistic. I have never been divorced but I had a girlfriend for almost a decade. There was something they tell you about divorce, where it takes you half as long as the relationship to be done without that relationship.
If you are in a marriage for 5 or 10 years, 5 years later, you are free of it in a way that you can move on substantively. What I learn in reading that to you is there are some things there that you will have to leave behind. There will be this period where, for lack of a better term, you’ve got to eat shit. Ian and I both have done it in multiple ways to get what we want but that’s okay. When people would make fun of me for leaving a big job, where I am now is well beyond where I would have been, had I stayed but there’s a period where you must step back. It comes down to prudence.
You are prudent. You have a backstop, salary, savings, and things set up. You have been planning for this moment. Now you get to choose. You have a chance to shine and use the things that you have learned and to grow. There will be things where others will look at you with a cross-eye and not understand it. That’s the beauty of where you are at. They don’t have to understand it. It’s your mission, vision, and how you want to go to it.
Frankie’s got 50 employees that work for him. He’s got tens of millions of dollars of real estate under asset. I can remember late-night conversations with him years after he left NVR, where he’s asking me, “Should I just go put a fucking suit on in an interview?” I would say, “No, you are not doing that. You are close. You are going to breakthrough.”
That was not three months after he left. That was years after he left, starting it while he was out there grinding house by house, slowly, trying to get people to give him money. He’s got hard money lenders and lots of debt. It’s a long process. It’s easy to look at Frank’s success now and say, “That’s fun.” The first five years were not fun. There were times when he rubbed it in on me that he was in Colorado for a month.
There were some moments when he was in Colorado screwing around where he was like, “What am I doing? I’m not earning money. I’m out here frigging skiing. What am I going to do when I get back?” You have to think through when you want to know about the day-to-day, and Frank talks about eating shit. Not so long ago, I spent twenty hours responding to commenters on TikTok about our car alarm one by one with my thumbs. Frank talks about how you lose identity, when I was at NVR, I wouldn’t have been doing any of that shit.
There was no way I was working on a weekend and responding to someone commenting about a mortgage. On that level, I’m in the middle of the muck because we ran a big ad campaign. If I’m not doing it and no one is doing it and I want to grow this company but you are eating shit. There are moments when my eyes are blurry. I’m like, “What am I doing? Why am I in this stupid app responding and giving people the link? We are selling car alarms.” It’s working, growing, and getting bigger but there’s a lot of shit to eat when you start something.You really have to eat some humble pie to ultimately get what you want. Click To Tweet
There’s a statement that I love, “If you are willing to do what others won’t for ten years, you can live the rest of your life the way others can’t.” What I would tell you is you have two decades of eating the shit. You volunteer for people who shoot at you and saved a bunch of money. You were prudent, which is not easy to do.
Now you get to either re-engage that chapter in springboard again. You are in a great spot because you have already done it once. You might be able to do it a second time, look back in a decade, and you say, “I would never have thought I could get here.” What’s incredible about it is the human spirit overestimates greatly what they can do in one year but greatly undervalues what you can do in ten. If you are looking at the long game, what is the long game? The cool thing is you get to pick. Nobody is telling, “You get to pick,” which is exciting.
Nick, you mentioned that you were a little worried about twenty years in the military and getting an identity. Expand on that a little bit.
I want to say thank you for both you and Frank, dropping some real truth and wisdom there. That was helpful because all I’m hearing from Frank is he’s flying private and coming back from Christmas. The context of those first five years wasn’t flying private. It was, eat shit.
Do you know what Frank was getting around years after leaving NVR? Do you know what his vehicle was? Tell him, Frank. What was your vehicle?
You’ve got the story slightly wrong. I drove a ten-year-old 4Runner right when I quit NVR, and then I drove an 8-year-old Chevy Tahoe for those first 8 years in business. Ian would tell me, “Would you please put your phone on you? You are giving me a headache with the fucking sound of that engine while you are driving.”
Frank was not flossing. He sold a big ass house after NVR and lived in one of his rentals in Charlottesville. It was not a big house. It was nice but it was not what you would think. He was not what he was accustomed to from NVR. Frank was not flying private. That was one little story we told but he worked his way up to that.
I appreciate it, and I know your readers will, too. Sometimes you lose track of how you’ve got there or that you took a step back. I appreciate your candor in sharing that because it’s vital. Frank, when you were talking about it, the word that comes to my mind is there’s a grieving process, whether you are getting divorced, leaving a C-Suite position, retired from the military or whatever, you’ve got to go through those stages of grief. There’s a loss.
It’s working through those stages and being cognizant of where I’m at now and try not to feel silly about it but recognizing that, “This is natural.” When I say losing my identity, it’s just I haven’t had to think about what to wear for twenty years. I get up every day and dress like a bush. It’s easy. I’ve got rank on my chest that requires a certain amount of respect. I could be a knucklehead but people have to call me sir if they are lower ranking than me and vice versa. There is a hierarchy.
It’s almost by age and in high school. You come in as a cohort and move up together. You start off as freshmen, and now you are all seniors. The idea of working for someone who’s 29 when you are 50 is almost unheard of in my experience but I recognize in the civilian world, that’s perfectly normal. Somebody can come in who’s young, has great experience, and credentials. It’s getting into recognizing that I’ve got to take off the uniform, lose the rank, and lose the hierarchical orientation. On the one hand, it’s super exciting, and I’m pumped for it. On the other hand, it has been a cocoon. There has been a degree of safety there, and I recognize that it’s going to be a little difficult.
It’s a good example of the high school example. You are a freshman. Everyone shits on you. You get your books knocked on your hand when you walk down the hall, and then you are a senior. Now you are the one that can knock books out of hands. You are the king. You then go to college and start all over again. No one cares that you were a good high school baseball player. No one cares that you had good grades in high school and had a good-looking girlfriend. You are in college. It’s what you are going through. It’s a clear one. I would ask you to think about it a little differently.
There’s a grieving process. Frank and I went through it to an extent but you are not losing an identity. I would look at it as an opportunity to gain a whole new one, gain something new, change your life, and make it more exciting. I have shared this before in different episodes. Frank gave me the best advice of anyone before I quit. He said, “You are going to be surprised how much your mind can do when it’s given 60 hours back a week.” That’s what I was working at NVR. All I did was think about selling houses, financing them, and growing my team. It was great advice. It was right.
If you had asked me on my first day after NVR, “What are you going to do?” I would have no idea about all this stuff that I do on a day-to-day basis. I knew I was going to buy one real estate property. That’s all I knew. That’s all I could tell Frank. That’s all I have thought of so far. That’s as far as I’ve got. You have to be open to a new identity, saying yes, and trying new things. I cannot stress enough that you have to be open to getting humbled. I talk about, “I write for Forbes.” I was writing on Quora, answering kids’ questions.
I had a lot of money, and I was on some stupid social media site answering question after question until I grew a presence to where I could convince Forbes. Forbes wasn’t hiring me because I was a good manager. They hired me because I could draw a crowd. My writing was resonating with people. I was writing shit and getting seven views. No one was looking at it. I was trying to start a blog.
That shit was embarrassing but it led to a lot of good things with 5on4 Group and getting some other leadership things that I have done. I can’t stress it enough. You are going to be humbled. Be open to it, and be open to learning because, in five years, you could have a different identity than Nick the military veteran.
I’m going to close with this. How you are approaching your search is next with one of the questions we asked you. One of the things that I took away from that is you are someone who’s always an ever-present and constant learner. Don’t lose that. The other thing that is interesting is you mentioned struggles in the community.
One of the other things I told Ian when he was quitting was, “You think you know who your community is now, and you think you know who the people are. In your real core group, you do but you will build your own audience.” Don’t forget the fact that if you are going through this because you left the military, so are others and the people who are struggling. There’s a community there. I don’t know what will become of where you decide to go.
I have a friend who’s a dentist. He hates being a dentist. The thing he liked more than being a dentist was flipping houses. He sold his dental practice. He flipped the house while he was in dental school with his dad. The dental practice showed up back in his lap at a fraction of the price he sold it, so he bought in again. He built it into an incredible business, sold it, and turned it into a full-time investor. What he did was he became a full-time investor who teaches other dentists how to leave the chair. That’s what he does. He makes multiple million dollars a year, influencing and affecting people in the community that he knows well.
He found his voice. He found his skillset. He found out how to talk to that group of people who had that incredible voice and knew the same language and nomenclature. They had the same acronyms. I don’t know where this goes. That’s a story I wanted to leave you with because he’s somebody who found something he hated and something loved and married the two things together, and it turned into something incredibly lucrative. It’s called Freedom Founders. He had no idea when he started it and what it was going to become.
Thank you both. I appreciate it. This has been a great time. It has been fantastic to get on the other side of the show instead of reading you. To be able to interact with you has been valuable. Thank you both for your time.
This is a side gig for Frank and I, which is clear on the quality of our episodes. One day when we are big enough to be Joe Rogan and do four-hour episodes, I want to bring you back because we had to rush through it a little bit and use your notes a lot to explain some of it to get it all in an hour. You have been an awesome guest. You inspire both of us. You have a lot to be proud of for what you have done in your meaningful career.
You have done a lot more meaningful things than Frank, and I have ever done. The next years are going to be better. You are more experienced. You have learned a lot. You have led people. You have worked within. You know what you are capable of. You know who you are. You are going to have much better years, I promise you that, than your first few years, you aren’t going to feel that way for a while, and that’s okay.
What I will say to you in close is this. After this conversation, I feel comfortable. Nick, you son of a bitch.
That’s a big compliment, Nick.
Thanks, Frank. I love it.
Keep us posted. Good luck. Stay in touch with us, too.
Keep up the good content. Thanks so much.
- Nick Clemente – LinkedIn
- Art of War – Previous Episode
- Northrop Grumman
- 5on4 Group
- Freedom Founders
About Nick Clemente
United States Army Officer (Strategist) with 20+ years of professional experience producing strategies and plans to guide, inform, and inspire large organizations. Highly successful at leading diverse, cross-functional teams to frame complex problems and produce deliverables to inform senior executive decisions.
Skilled at all facets of organizational management including operations, marketing, logistics, compliance, and human resources. Consistently demonstrates exceptional oral and written communication skills to influence and inform leaders at every organizational level. Open-minded and empathetic leader, who excels at bringing people of all cultures and backgrounds together to add value and solve problems.