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Joe Plenzler (https://joeplenzler.com) is a 20-year Marine Corps veteran, serving a significant portion in a public affairs role, working with notable Marine Corps generals such as Generals Mattis, Conway, Amos, and Dunford. Post-military he has worked with the U.S. Naval Institute, led communications for Wounded Warrior Project, and has founded Cassandra-Helenus Partners. Joe and I spend some time talking about a variety of topics, but spend a considerable amount of time discussing thoughtful communication, particularly in time of crisis. A very insightful discussion you’ll absolutely enjoy.
So I’m really excited to welcome Joe Plenzler to the show. And so I’m actually just going to read a very short snippet in a non-awkward way, Joe. Just a little snippet of his background. So Joe spent 20 years in our beloved United States Marine Corps before punching out. In the last few years of his time, he served the comrade Marine Corps through being a spokesman press secretary and staff group director, which is really cool. Not just for one coming up but for three, which is pretty, pretty terrific. And then ever since exiting the service, he’s done a variety of things in the private sector, whether it’s media relations for veterans, non-profits and other things related to that. But then more recently, as the founding partner of Cassandra-Helenus Partners, and it’s a leadership development, human communication firm. And so incredibly grateful for him to be here today. So, Joe, I just want to welcome you, man. Thank you so much for being here.
Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it being on the show.
Absolutely. So take us a little bit of a tour back on a younger version of Joe and what motivated you, what inspired you to join the United States military?
Yeah, it was kind of a counterintuitive decision for me. I had a lot of respect for the military growing up. I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts. And our troop leaders were mostly Vietnam enlisted veterans. And my mom’s brother flew for the Marine Corps and F-4s in Vietnam. And my dad’s brother, Paul, was enlisted in the Air Force working on B-52s out of Cam Ranh Bay. So I had some family connection to the military. But I was also pretty much in a punk rock when I was a kid and skateboarding and music and bands and stuff like that. And so it wasn’t at the forefront of my decision-making process and I think it came my senior year at Ohio State, a friend of mine had actually gone through the Marine Corps PLC program and had gotten commissioned as a second lieutenant.
And that’s really kind of planted the seed for me. I was at our graduation party and the gunnery sergeant who had put her through the program came up to me, and as any good Midwesterner, I had a big Dixie cup full of beer, our solo cup standing by the keg, and he came up and asked me if I wanted to join the Marine Corps Officer program and I literally spit my beer out across the lawn and said, “No. I’m moving out to Boulder, Colorado with my buddy Tiara over here and we’re going to go be rock climbing instructors.” Because we were also diehard members of the Ohio State University Mountaineering Club, which kind of sounds counterintuitive coming from the flatland but we did a lot of rock climbing in spring, summer, fall, and we’d got to the Rockies in the winter and climb some peaks.
Oh, that’s fun. So, all right. So take me through then how you went from spitting your beer out across someplace and actually joining.
Yeah. So Gunnery Sergeant Oliveria, he actually threw out the challenge, so he kind of sold and he’s like, “Hey, what do you like to do? What are you interested in?” And I’m like, man, after four years of architecture school, I don’t want to sit inside in front of a computer and figure out where all the rubber doorsteps go in somebody’s building for 20 years before they allow me to design my own building. I mean, our plan was literally to go out to Boulder, wait tables and just be rock climbing dirt bags, and Oliveria kind of threw out a challenge. He’s like, “Well, I think we got some of the stuff that might interest you. And if you think you’ve got what it takes, come see me,” and handed me his business card and stuffed it in my pocket and walked away.
And two weeks later, I was like, son of a gun, he started hooking me and I was knocking on the door and I was like, “Hey, I want to join up. I want to shoot all the weapons you have. I want to jump out of airplanes and scuba dive. So let’s do this thing.” And my perspective at the time was pretty immature. It was all about what kind of adventure type stuff could I get out of it for me. And about halfway through Officer Candidate School, I realized, it’s like, oh man, in less than a year, you’re gonna be in charge of 42 other human beings and that’s a big responsibility. So there was a pretty big maturation process that took place over that summer.
I’m sure, I’m sure. And that particular element of the experience, I don’t think, is unique to you. I think there’s a ton of maturation that occurs with people especially like how you said it. It’s the realization that you are going to be responsible for so many other people other than yourself. And it’s a major, major wake up call, right? And it’s kind of shifting out of the college mentality and shifting into that Marine officer mentality. And so it’s neat to hear you articulate that because I don’t think that gets spoken about a whole lot in terms of how that transition mentally takes place.
I mean, I was guilty. I had the Marvel comics superhero book image of what the things was about.
And like so many things, you really can’t understand it until you walk around in it for a little bit and figure it out.
Yeah, no, that’s awesome. Well, take us on a quick tour of your career. I know there’s probably a lot more attention that gets paid to the final hours of your career. Just from a public spotlight standpoint. But take me through some of the other things, all the things that led up for that moment.
You know what, I jokingly refer to it as like the choose your own adventure of Marine Corps career. Because I started out in the infantry as an infantry officer at 29 Palms, and a second time, 7th Marines and really enjoyed the Marines. Being a platoon commander, it was like the best job in the world because you had all these young people around you who were motivated and challenged and funny and made tragically bad decisions when they’re out on weekend liberty and all the rest of it. But it was a good group of young Americans to lead and it was an honor to do it.
And once I became a company executive officer and was pulled out of the platoon, I went from the platoon to the weapons platoon to company XO. You don’t have that same connection with them. And then our battalion adjutant had left and they may be the battalion adj for our second deployment to Okinawa back then. And just to help lead that division because it really was kind of failing, and the funny thing was I realized like the further away you get from the platoon, the less fun it is. And I had an option to stay in the infantry, but I really didn’t like what I saw captains and majors and colonels doing in the infantry, right? Because I joined to do fun things and exciting things and be down there at the boots on the ground level with the Marines.
And so out of sheer recalcitrance, I pursued another career path, which almost, it was an anathema to people in the infantry. Like if you’re in the infantry, they kind of see themselves as the apex in the Marine Corps tribe, and to do anything other than that, it was almost blasphemy. But I always enjoyed writing and reading, and I felt in some sense, it’s like my brain was rotting a little bit once I got out of the platoon. And so an opportunity came on board for me to switch MOSs and do a secondary MOS in public affairs. And I just got married at the time and thought, well, it was a choice really between that and intelligence and the intel school was way longer than the public affairs school. So I decided to take that on and went to Fort Meade six weeks to undergo training to be a PAO. And it really made a big difference because when you do that, you’d come the little kid at the big kids’ table for Thanksgiving. I mean, you’re the junior member on a general staff. And that was pretty cool because I was able to influence things at a much higher level than I would if I was just lieutenant or captain in any battalion.
So that was pretty, pretty awesome. And I was able to link up with several really good inspirational commanders and hit some pretty kind of key events in recent history, especially in the post 9/11 days. Right after 9/11, we deployed to Kuwait to stand up a Consequence Management Joint Task Force, came back from that, got pulled into a 1st Marine Division for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So we got to plan and execute the largest media embed program in the history of the Marine Corps. 2005, went to Indonesia for the Boxing Day Tsunami humanitarian response efforts. So there were like a hundred thousand people killed in Indonesia alone when that big wave came ashore from the earthquake and tsunami.
And so that was a really cool experience and challenging, I mean, going from OIF and the invasion of Iraq, which is full-scale force on force, I think the closest thing that we’ll ever see to World War II in a long time as far as mechanized divisions and the assault against entrenched enemy forces, to a humanitarian relief mission where a hundred thousand people died. And everything from the shoreline to a kilometer inland was just washed away and all that was left with foundations and a big pile of debris where that wave stopped and receded back into the ocean. So to be part of that coalition effort of all these different countries coming together to rescue people and turn victims into patients and reunite people with their families was a profound and moving experience in ways I hadn’t expected.
And so went from that to the Recruit Depot, came back home to Southern California and my wife got selected for command of recruiting station. So I went to the West Coast Boot Camp and served in a training battalion for a year. And then it made me the director of the Drill Instructor academy over there, over at DI School.
And from there, went on to get a master’s degree through the Department of the Navy at San Diego State in mass comm and media studies.
Wow. Yeah. And I mean, it’s a remarkable journey you’re on. And I just think the timing of everything for you is just really, really, really unique. I mean, you’re there for Operation Iraqi Freedom, then you’re there for the humanitarian disaster stuff. And so it’s like one, kind of to your point earlier about just being a little kid at the big kids’ table, which I think that’s a great visual, but it gave you a lot of exposure too to some really phenomenal leaders, into a higher level of leadership in the Marine Corps that you would have otherwise not likely gained for several more years later in your career, right?
It’ll take me 15 or 20 years, right?
Yeah. So, I mean, you’re in the room with some really impactful decisions – what was that like getting to see some of these really consequential decisions to be made by the generals, colonels, these entire staffs?
Yeah, it was great. It was a good education, and because senior Marine Corps leaders are fairly trepidatious around the media and that was my line of work. It was cool because I really focused on the relationship with the commander I was serving at the time and building a high level of trust so that I can do my job. Because the military’s job is to protect secrets and conduct operations. And here I am saying, “No, you really need to talk to the press because we’re a public trust. We owe the American people and the taxpayers some answers for what we’re doing in the name of their defense.”
And it was interesting for me because I had one foot kind of in the media camp, in the civilian space, and one foot in the military camp, and bridging that divide between my organization and the public, both here in the United States and at deployed locations around the world. So it was cool because in order to be effective, you have to understand the mission, the commander’s intent, what this whole organization was intending to be doing at that time in place, but also the broader strategic constructs around that. Like, okay, so if something goes wrong here, how does that impact the treaty, our treaty ally that we’re working with? How does it impact our coalition? How does it impact diplomacy, right? Because in two or three of those missions I was working with, the embassy in Kuwait, the US Embassy in Jakarta, the US Embassy in Baghdad. And actually, not at the time, but later in Afghanistan, when I was there in 2013, working at the ISAF headquarters for the four-star commander, we did a lot with the embassy and their comms folks. So it really forced me to kind of pull up off of the tactical and understand things at an operational and also strategic level. So it’s good.
Yeah. And then add to that, getting some direct personal relationship with some people that are very highly revered and highly respected, which just within our community.
Yeah, it’s funny how you see certain leaders when they’re one stars and two stars, and then later, when they’re four-star generals and then later when one became Secretary of Defense and the other one was Chairman of Joint Chiefs. And there’s a myth that kind of gets created around people that I would caution folks against and I think the word act and rule applies when he said no man’s a hero to his valet, right? There’s the myth of who these folks are as leaders, but then there’s also the reality of who they are as human beings. And they’re just as flawed and occasionally uncertain as the rest of us. They have their doubts. How much they show that to others is another story. But I serve for three successive commandants in the Marine Corps and I can tell you at times they were really angstified by some of the decisions that they had to make and they were dealing with uncertainty and just not knowing what the downstream ramifications of their decisions ultimately would be, right? So they’re humans just like anyone else.
Yeah. And that’s a great point. I think this is a great way to transition into the post-military part of your career as well. What you just said, which is the angst surrounding a decision that you’re uncertain about, where that’s exactly going to lead. You may have an idea of some of the obvious second and third order effects of that decision, but there’s a lot of other things, too, that you may not be able to kind of get your head all the way around until things are in motion. So how do you find leaders can best mitigate that or best deal with that when it comes to making a consequential decision, but you’re not completely certain of what the outcome is going to look like?
Yeah. I think it’s the art of becoming comfortable in uncertainty, right? And understanding how our brains are wired to react to the things that are uncertain and how that triggers the amygdala and fires up all sorts of defensive, protective mechanisms within the human body is one way of doing that. I’m a big fan and my wife also, we’re lifelong students of neurology and neuropsychology and really understanding what makes brains tick. Because if you can understand that, you understand human motivations. And so I think a lot of it is training to that, but in order to be able to be comfortable dealing with risk, you have to have a high culture of trust, high trust culture. And so I think as psychological safety has kind of become to the forefront of the conversation in the business community. But I think it’s true. It’s focusing on being really clear about what your current state is, being very clear about what your future state is, coming up with a strategy on how to get from A to B and then translating all that stuff that’s up here in the six inches between your ears to other humans in your teams to turn these ideas into results, right? And that’s the real art of it.
And I think if part of it honestly comes to humility and curiosity. And I think understanding that we think we’re in control of a lot of things in our life, but most of that’s an illusion and we’re really not in control of that much. We can control what we do. We can influence what’s within arm’s reach around us, but so much of our existence is on a trajectory and we can either choose to admit that or not. But I think the more we realize how little control we do have, I think that’s one way, at least personally, I get more comfortable with the thought of that, but also thinking about change and uncertainty, not necessarily in the lens of threat and risk, but in terms of opportunity and prospect, right?
Because Secretary Panetta when I was in the Pentagon had a famous saying, he said, “Never lose the opportunity in a crisis to correct bad behavior.” And with that, I mean, what he was saying was like, okay, things might have just gotten turned on their head and it might be going sideways, but in every period of crisis, there’s an opportunity to change things for the better and look for those, right? And so I don’t know. Those are just a couple of things that come to mind. Hopefully, that answered your question.
No, that’s brilliant. No, this is perfect. This is perfect, Joe. I appreciate that. Because there’s so much, right? And I think you’re very uniquely positioned in that midway through or whenever that transfer happened for you. And then you’re getting exposed to everything. So to your earlier point about you kind of had one foot in terms of the private sector in terms of media, but then you’re also representing the US military on a lot of different matters. And so you constantly, for a portion of your career, you were having to kind of think in both perspectives, right? And so that, I think, provides you a really unique perspective when it comes to translating military jargon and speak into things that the rest of the world can actually understand, but then kind of translating some of those things in a business as well.
And so, I mean, you hit it on the head when it comes to leadership and creating a culture of trust and all these other things that get talked about. I think studying psychology and neuroscience, I think, is another thing that I’ve noticed a lot. This is just my opinion of it. Just like a lot of high performers, a lot of really thoughtful leaders take time to study that stuff. And it’s not time wasted. There’s a lot of great insights that you’re gleaning from that.
Yeah. One of the takeaways I had from my early military training was, I can’t remember who said, it was one of the senior enlisted guys who said, “Hey, the art of leadership is getting your Marines or your teams to do the things that you need and want them to do and making them think it’s their idea of the whole way through.” And he’s just like, don’t get caught up in the ego of it’s your idea, and you have ownership of it, and you want to see your idea go forward and be successful. It’s like, you know, if you pitched out there in a way where your Marines think it’s their idea from the start, give them the credit for it, right? What they said was as a leader, your job is to praise when things go well in public and reprimand in private when they don’t, but also, when things go well, the accolades are yours to pass onto your team. And when they go poorly, they’re yours to absorb alone.
And so that’s something I really try to internalize. And that’s what really started me thinking about like the common denominator in everything that we’ve done for 250,000 years as a species and for the 6,000 years we’ve had civilization, the common denominator is our underlying humanity. And despite all our advances in technology and the rate of information that we’re exposed to every day, the human brain is still very much like it was 5,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago. So I think that’s why it’s important to read and read about history and how people encounter challenges in the past because the folks who were figuring things out in Sumeria and Ancient Greece and the Chinese ancient dynasties, they’re all dealing with the same motivations and hubris and ego and drives and goals and values that we deal with today just in different contexts, I think. So, yeah. I hope I’m not simplifying that too much, and I’m sure there’s an apologist that would disagree.
No, no, no, it’s all good. Because, I mean, again, there’s another thing that you said there, which is dealing with the ego of leadership. And then to your point about passing on those praises to your team and absorbing a lot of the negative from that. And I think it sounds so easy to do. And we’ve had that drilled into our heads from such an early time, especially as Marine officers. And I think that for some reason, and this is gonna sounds so bad, but there’s so much of what I think happens inside of the military, and I can only speak obviously as a former active duty US Marine, but I’m sure some of this relates to other branches, but there’s so much about what we did in service that just seems like obvious. And then when you get out on the outside, you realize that so much of that actually isn’t obvious or as commonly practiced as you would expect it to.
I remember when Simon Sinek’s book about Leaders Eat Last, and I was cracking up. That’s like telling me that two plus two equals four. This revolutionary idea that’s been drilled into our heads. Same thing with praising in public and reprimanding and private. There’s a lot of these concepts that get lost. And I don’t understand why there’s such a big divide – and not military versus civilian in terms of work culture but it’s interesting how so many things that we learn are so obvious to us, but then you get out and you realize that they’re not as obvious.
Yeah. A lot of it has to do with culturalization, right? We take people from all over the country and different beliefs and geographies and demographics and shove them together. And over 13 weeks, teach them what it means to be Marine, right? And come together and work as a team and put the team before self in its ideal state. And I think those are noble aspirations. And I think even whether you’re officer enlisted, it’s like you immediately have leadership opportunities that you wouldn’t have if you got your bachelor’s degree or your master’s degree in business and ended up going out in the workforce. At the entry level, you’re already leading people, right?
That’s true. That’s true.
Four enlisted Marines around in a fire team, someone’s in charge and someone’s accountable and gonna take the heat when things go wrong. So I don’t think in my dad’s entire professional career, he ever had 42 people working for him day one on the job at 2-7. Here I am just trying to figure that out. And in this really bizarre thing where everyone in the platoon had more time in the organization than I did, right? Right. Platoon sergeant had been, staff sergeant with what 13, 14 years by that point and here I am in charge of him, which, to me, was really, really a weird phenomenon. Something I was never comfortable with. Like this officer enlisted divide is really almost like the last vestige of the Victorian class system in the modern world.
And I never understood it, but I think you find like there’s a couple of different kinds of officers. There’s one to kind of let that go to their head and got caught up in ego and being in charge or being the center of attention. And there’s other ones who, you know, and this doesn’t apply to officers, but just leaders at every level who were kind of like, “No, I’m here to serve. I’m here to serve you and help you.” And even if that means motivating you to leave the Marine Corps, because you have a lot of potential and you really should go to college and do more than what you’re doing right now. I mean, it’s just like putting really the needs of the individual Marine above the needs of the institution at times to help them go where they need to go in their own lives, right? Because military services isn’t the end of be all of human existence. It’s like one phase of life.
Right. That’s good. And I’ve seen that with some really exceptional leaders. I feel like that’s one of the stark differences between – again, these are all Aaron’s musings. But I’ve seen the really exceptional leaders are the ones that are taking a sincere – keyword being sincere – vested interest in somebody else’s development, whether it’s personal or professional. And it doesn’t have to be in that organization. It could be going and pursuing a job at another corporation, for example, or going and doing something else. And there’s just something about that, like to your point, about just being selfless and serving others. I think that’s so, so critical.
And so I like to kind of pivot this now. You exited service after a 20-year career. And so take me through what a little bit of that journey was like for you in terms of your first one or two stops post-military and what did you feel like the integration was for you? Because I suspect it was probably a little bit different than a lot of folks because you’d already kind of had a lot of exposure to the outside world.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, at that point, I’d been working for five years with the Pentagon Press Corps and various think tanks around town, just winding up gigs from my boss to go speak at and help prepare him for congressional hearings with the Office of Legislative Affairs folks and just the entire media and think tank and just the public profile strategy for the commandant. And at a certain point, you get burned out. I mean, those front office jobs are usually a year, people going to be the commandant’s aide and then they leave or the military secretary up in the front office, the colonel, who’s in charge of there. And for Mattis, I guess, they kept on putting me, renewing my time up there. Because they’re like, “Hey, you’re going to be here for General Conway in his last six months, but there’s no guarantees when the new commandant comes in and Amos kept me for four years and then Dunford kept me on until I retired. But those are burnt out jobs in the Pentagon and I didn’t realize how tired I was until I left.
And so I walked the plank and I went on terminal leave in March of 2015 and just took max terminal leave. And it was awesome. It was like for two and a half months to live the life of the independently wealthy and just did whatever I wanted while the paycheck was still coming in. And then ended up taking a job in membership and marketing over at the Naval Institute for Admiral Pete Daly, who was really good to me. I jokingly refer to that as like the Halfway House for Naval officers while I was getting out. But it was good. I mean, there were like the university press for the Naval Institute. My office was on the Naval Academy grounds. So it’s like part university press, part professional association of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
So it was a good place for me to kind of get out from government and go into a nonprofit space that was run like a proper business. And you had to figure out what a P&L was and you had to figure out your budget and all the other stuff that you just don’t have to deal with for the most part in the military. I was on the bag for membership numbers. It was kind of almost like being a recruiting duty, which I hadn’t done in the military. But it was kind of counterintuitive because before I got out, I went through a transition program that was run by Korn Ferry and bankrolled by Excellus. And it was like a two and a half day seminar of like personal rebranding strategy. So it was like a word of mouth program that was separate from the TAP program. And we had everyone in there from four-year sergeants getting out to, there was a retiring two-star that was in a program and it was really all about figuring out what your values are and figuring out what your superpowers are and figuring out the Venn diagram between those things and how are you going to tell your story and show up in the workplace for your second career.
And I wrote down at that time, I was like, “I want to teach, I want to consult and I want to write.” And then I took a job in the nonprofit space. I did at the time because my wife was Geo Bachelor. She was in charge of 4th Battalion down at Parris Island. And right about that time, she was getting pretty vocal because she took command in 2014 and uncovered essentially 40 years’ worth of data showing that the Marine Corps wasn’t doing a great job in recruiting and training women most notably with rifle range scores. I think it was like 62% or 63% of women were passing the rifle range on the first go and 88% to 92% of men were.
And she came home one weekend, I was shooting competitively at the time at my local gun club and she’s like, “Is there any reason why woman can’t out shoot a man?” I’m like, hell, it happens in the Olympics all the time. They don’t want to combine male and female shooting because men would be taking gold all the time. And so started asking some hard questions down at Parris Island and talking to the Weapons & Field Training Battalion CO, and within four months, they were able to get the women’s shooting stats up commensurate with the men. And we were cheering about that success and Colonel Leonard over at Weapons & Field Training Battalion was cheering. But what we didn’t know is that politics back in DC was scaring the hell out of people. Because at the time, the commandant wanted to keep women out of tanks, artillery, tracks, like ground combat arms jobs. And so Kate got pretty vocal about it. And when she did, they fired her from command.
And so shortly after leaving the Marine Corps in early 2015, here I was defending her in the press, running essentially a media campaign talking about why the Marine Corps is all effed up on recruiting and training women when it comes to gender bias and here’s the data to support it. So, that was kind of counter-intuitive.
Yeah. That didn’t piss anybody off at all, I’m sure.
No. Yeah. But I mean, and I hate to say it, but the commandant at the time went out of his way to try to assassinate her character in the press. And so thank God I knew the reporters. Thank God they knew me. Thank God we had relationships based on trust because we’re able to get there first and get her side of the story out and just never looked back. So we were able to kind of run that on our tempo way faster than they were able to keep up.
Wow. So, yeah. So going a little bit more micro there. You don’t have to use this one as a particular example, but just any example. But when it comes to a communications campaign or like what you just described, it is a matter of who’s able to tell their story first or are you writing a piece and sharing it out with a whole bunch of different outlets or are they just getting a quick interview with you? What does that look like? And again, you can use that or you can use any number of a million examples that you have.
Yeah. Let me talk more generally about it. Because I think it’s more applicable to anyone who had watched this. I think, first, you got to begin with the end in mind. And we did that in Kate’s case where anytime the commander is fired, it’s a pretty emotional and hard experience. But unless you know what you want to get out of that fight and especially if you’re a whistleblower or whatever, if you’re gonna rock the boat and you believe it’s a matter of principle and you have facts on your side, then you need to know what you want to get out of that fight. Because it’s gonna be long, painful, lonely, and it’s gonna be a hard valley you’re going to go through with your name being dragged through the press.
And so, we had five strategic points like objectives. We want to accomplish these things. And if the story or the opportunity didn’t fit with one of those, then we passed, right? If they did fit, we took it and we sought further opportunities that linked up. And it was good because it really helped us focus especially when your own amygdala is fired up and your brain is kinda like sensing all sorts of threat, you’re not getting great sleep at night. And I actually ended up writing an article for GovExec. I think it was titled 8 Lessons From Taking on the Government (and Winning) in the press.
And I think the other lesson is if you’re gonna operate in the public space and don’t be the first time you meet a reporter be during a crisis, right? You ought to know who the reporters are, who they’re talking about, your business sector. You should have relationships with them cultivated before a crisis point. It’s a smart business, right? And I was able to leverage those relationships to get our side out in the press first and repeatedly, right? And you can almost create this perpetual motion machine where you go to the press and tell your story, you get the stories published, then you go to Congress and you jam those into Senate and House staffers and say, “Hey, did you see what the New York Times was saying about the situation?” And then they speak on it. Now that creates another story. And you feed that back to the reporter. Now, you kind of get this kind of ping-pong ball thing going, which gains its own energy.
But I think one of the keys of success in our case with Kate and with other clients that I’ve helped was if it’s just you versus the machine or you versus the government, people are kind of mildly interested in a David and Goliath story, right? I mean, they’re a dime a dozen and they’re not interested in a sob story of like, “Oh, I’m the victim. They did this to me. This is so bad.” What they are interested in are motivational stories about a great higher purpose. And that’s where I think we were able to elevate the case to: No, this is wrong. This is ultimately about opportunity for women in the military and especially in the Marine Corps and especially in the Marine Corps that wants to restrict job opportunities in ground combat arms because this group of people has XX chromosomes and all these other people with XY chromosomes that have been enjoying this space for a long time, been getting, by and large, a pass. And so we advocated for opening these jobs up to women, but keeping the standards task-based and rigorous, right?
And I think it was really kind of interesting cause we were able to get the Fox News crowd being like, “Yeah. She’s saying the stuff that I didn’t have the courage to say when I was on active duty.” Because there was the kind of that element of it, challenging the status quo and then you have the left, the MSNBC crowd being like, “Yeah. Go! Because she’s opening up opportunities for women and helping that effort.” So, it was a weird confluence of right and left, agreeing with different parts of her story and being supportive. I think if you can kind of create that kind of energy, then you’re doing pretty good. And I think we were strategic, but we’re also kind of lucky in some instances, too, with how we roll that story out.
No. Well, I mean, going back to the strategy of it and beginning with the end in mind, I think it was brilliant because what you did was kind of to the point about not making a sob story, right? Because you could have played the sob story line, right? It could have been like this, “Hey, you’re assassinating one of your own for speaking out.” And that’s only as high as the conversation gets, but you took that and made it about an issue about women’s rights inside of the Marine Corps and you had data, right? And so it’s kind of hard to argue with that. I mean, we can argue all day, but yeah, the facts are facts.
The facts are. And I think what we didn’t realize at the time, when she started that whole journey of digging into the data and looking at the rifle range scores, looking at the physical fitness scores, all the why women were underperforming in cognitive events like the swim test or all the recruit graduation categories to include the non-physical ones, they were underperforming. And she’s like, “Well, why?” I can understand the average woman’s not going to bench as much as the average guy, but why would they not be able to do as well on the general skills test or all these other things? And they found it was like the Golem effect. When you have low expectations, people will meet low expectations. When you raise those expectations, they will. And when Kate saw that, when they changed the pull-up requirements. They set the bar fairly low, women trained to the standard and they had to raise the standards again when they made that change. Because women were like, with the proper training, we can do this. And the rifle range was the same way.
They realized it came down to three things. The mostly male coaches on the range just thought that women can’t shoot. So if I got to put time into the male recruit on my left or one female recruit on my right, I’m going to spend more time in the male recruit, right? And they got better instruction training. They found that the female drill instructors were stressing out the recruits on the range, which was a big no-no, right? That’s supposed to be a low, low stress, low threat kind of place. Scared recruit, loaded weapon, crazy drill instructor was the recipe for failure. And then the third thing was that the expectations given to the female recruits. They weren’t being told to knock the black out of the target and they were being told to just pass, right? Don’t embarrass me, just pass. And once they change those three things, it was amazing. They had that a female shooter take high score on the range and it was like, everyone was – but the aggregate of all the women came up, which has tremendous downstream effects. Because if prior to that, one third of them were being recycled in training, at what cost, you know what I mean? So, yeah. Plus it made them better Marines and better shooters and the whole force more lethal.
Yeah. I mean, there’s tons and tons of benefits from that. That’s a great example. I appreciate you kind of walking through kind of what’s going on in your brain of how you formulated some of the elements, that strategy and what you assess to be really items of importance and a little bit of the tactical level actions that you’re taking to make that happen. So really interesting insight there in terms of how you made that happen. Go ahead, Joe, please.
We’re bruised and through the whole thing. And I think we both were – especially her, but she was able to inform a national level conversation that she wouldn’t have if she would’ve just shut up in her job and just pushed them up and made the pieces like you can do, I mean, just to get not rock the boat and just go along to get along. But it was a satisfying victory and Ash Carter directed the Marine Corps to rescind the policy in December of 2015, I think. And then shortly after that, people were gonna asking. She had a book put out in 2017, 2018 – now, I can’t remember the year – detailing that experience. And it’s like well-behaved women don’t make history, right? I’ve seen that on a bumper sticker somewhere before.
I’m sure, I’m sure. Well, again, thanks for sharing that. I’m sorry that you had to go through all that, though.
Yeah, that’s life.
Yeah, yeah. That’s something else. So take us through then what’s your next steps have been. So you’ve gone on to work at a few pretty, pretty nationally recognized veterans nonprofits, and then recently, now you’re getting more into the consulting space. So kind of walk me through that journey that you went on.
Yeah. So like I said, it started with Admiral Daly and the Naval Institute and they were great. Great colleagues, good mission, increasing professionalism within the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and learning marketing, which is very different than PR and very different than media relations. And that was an education for me. And so I did that for two years, but I started realizing that it was a cyclical kind of job and watch and repeat and recruiting duty is never, never fun, right? Because you could do have a great year and then the next year, it’s like, okay, grow it again by another two and a half percent. And so I wanted to challenge myself in different ways and I started getting an itch for wounded veteran advocacy in the VA because I started getting some spidey sense of feelings that they’re going to try to privatize the VA, which I don’t think would be the best plan for America’s obligation and commitment to wounded veterans.
So I went over to the American Legion to rebuild their national media relations division in their DC office. So they’re lobbying a policy shop in DC. And that was a good to be able to hire in a new team. And one of the former gunnery sergeants that I hired is now leading that office as the executive director. So that was success. And I did that for, I think, about 18 months. And then I got recruited away to go over to the Wounded Warrior Project to help them complete their reputation turn around. So they really kind of stepped in it in 2018 with the press. And the ironic thing was that the things that they were being accused of back in that time period, there was no fire where the smoke was, but their response to the media was really lacking and circling the wagons and not talking to the press is never a great strategy.
And when the board of directors forbade anyone from talking to the press, they just sat back and took torpedo after torpedo and it cost them $177 million in donations between that year and the next year. So they fired the CEO. They fired a lot of the C-suite, brought in new people to include Lieutenant General Mike Linnington from the Army who had recently retired and had a great reputation. And so that was all kind of kicking and I joined the team to help with telling the story about the turnaround.
That’s an incredible.
In DC press, yeah.
Yeah. No, I just want you to jump in because that was a national story. Wounded Warrior Project was getting a ton of heat about – but what was the general premise? It was just lavish lifestyles and just crazy expenditures. Or it was some something along those lines. I mean, I’m sure I’m misstating that, but I believe that was the general gist of it. And so you had to come in into a smoldering reputation mess and help clean that up. So I mean, it’s a great case study. So I mean, let’s dive into it. I know we’re only getting about 15 minutes or so.
We haven’t talked about it yet. Yeah. I know it’s a classic HBR case study in how not to handle a crisis. And I don’t want to sound slug because it’s easy for anyone to Monday-morning quarterback decisions people make when they’re in extremis. But there’s a great book out there called Wounded Charity by Doug White that kind of spells it all out. So if you want to read that or read Senator Grassley report, those are pretty two good source documents to look at what went wrong and how and why. And I think the best way I can come up with telling people about my take on what happened, not being there was that, they grew faster than they had the ability to scale, right? So when they started, they were like a $200,000 a year mom and pop nonprofit like handing out backpacks at Walter Reed. They hired a guy who was able to essentially reverse engineer what St Jude’s does to raise money and double their income every year for 10 years.
And so, going into 2016, they’re on track to be about a half billion dollar a year nonprofit. I mean, they’re 400 million plus on line 12 on their 990. And from what I’ve been able to study in the post-mortem is with they’re still kind of operating under startup culture when they should have been operating like a Fortune 100. And typically, you see in the business space and I’m sure you’ve seen this, a founder plants a seed grows an organization, turns it into something special. And once they start hitting 25 million, 50 million in revenue, the board is usually like, “Okay. Mr. CEO, you’ve done a great job or Ms. CEO, you’ve done a great job in bringing this along, but we’re talking about some real money now. And you can either become like the chief technology officer or the chief evangelist, or whatever.” But they don’t usually last into that next realm of scaling.
And then they bring in some Fortune 100 companies’ people personnel that run big stuff and that didn’t happen. And so they’re still operating from what I could tell a kind of startup culture, had some fairly brutal firing practices, a lot of opacity around the communication about why people were being let go. And there was former employees group on Facebook, about 40 of them, who got together to commiserate about being fired from the organization and when the New York Times came around asking about, “Oh, do you have things to say?” They had a lot to say. And the organization didn’t respond. Have you ever seen the photo or the painting Edvard Munch did of The Scream. It’s an impressionist painting.
I think so.
Screaming. I would use that. I kept it on the inside of my notebook when I was in the Marine Corps because when I would run into senior leaders, they didn’t want to talk to the press when things was going wrong, I’d pull it up and I’d be like, “This is the portrait that your opposition has painted of you right now. This is what you look like to the press.” So if you don’t want to talk to them, you’re going to give them the entire canvas to paint on and all the paints and all the brushes. So you want to tell your side of the story? You can start coloring your own image and putting your frame around it. But in my estimation, even BP did a better job when they blew up the golf because the CEO is out there screwing it up, but the CEO is out there talking to the press, right? So, in my estimation, it’s just circling the wagons and I’m trying to hide from the press is never a strategy when you’re in a crisis.
Yeah, for sure. So you were a part of that response effort then?
Afterwards, yeah. So that all happened. And then I was brought in, I think, about a year after.
Oh, okay. So the fires had basically simmered down at that point. That fire had burned way longer than it needed to.
So, yeah, I got you. I got you. Yeah, that is crazy. That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. And that’s a great visual, too. The Scream. That’s priceless. That’s a priceless visual.
I owe the Munch family some royalties on that.
Yeah. But I mean, it’s like, I don’t know in DC, people are policies. So I think when they start hiring folks with good reputations to come on board and they accept, it shows that things are turning around. So they had a solid vice president of government affairs. He came over from the Pentagon, who I knew. So she brought me in to help her with that team. And they had a really good, smart way of going about almost having their own venture capital and philanthropy. So they formed a small foundation because Wounded Warrior Project rakes in a ton of money every year. That’s a zero-sum game in the veteran space. And so to kind of do some major corporatism and build a coalition, they would help fund smaller post 9/11 nonprofits that were doing things that either replicated what they did to supercharge the efforts or fill gaps in programs and services.
So that was a smart little known thing, but I mean, they’ve done tens of millions of dollars in funding of other nonprofits that doesn’t even get talked about.
Wow. Yeah, yeah. You’re the first I’ve ever heard from about that. So, yeah. That’s nuts. Well, then with the few minutes we have left, talk me through then your exit there and then the last couple things you’ve been working on. Take me up to present day.
Yeah. So I talked about how when I was leaving the military, I wrote teaching, writing and consulting on a piece of paper. And the last summer, it kind of had a realization. I’ve been doing this for six years now and haven’t done much of either of those three goals. And so I was getting the itch. I felt like I did pretty much what I could do in my current billet at my current company. And the pandemic was kind of a rock to everyone’s world, but I was trying to figure out what lessons I could learn from that experience.
And the first one was when I’m not commuting to DC, I’m getting 12 hours of my life back every day, every week. And it’s just like a whole day. And how also, we marry people to spend our lives with them and then trudge off to an office for 40, 50, 60 hours a week to spend with relative strangers that might be nice but aren’t family. And so, watching what my wife had done building her practice and having the goal of always working together, last August, I finally got to a point of I don’t want to say dissatisfaction or whatever, but it just started to itch on me. Like I’m not really doing what I set out to do. And so she’s like, “Okay. Well, we always talk about working together and you kept your job, your W-2 job, for me to get started in the business and build a client list and get enough revenue coming across the threshold to make sense for me to step away from my day job and we’re at that point. So when are you going to do it?”
And kind of put me on the spot and coached me through it. And I said, “Okay. Q1 of 2021, I’m gonna jump.” And which really kind of scared me a little bit, I’ll be honest with you. Because you know what, first time in my adult life, I haven’t had an employer, right? It’s like going from the W-2 employee world to the consulting world of 1099 in contracts and really like a hunter-gatherer experience of like you’re going to eat what you bring in, right? Yeah. It was a significant emotional experience for me. But saying it out loud, she had me say exactly what date or range of dates I was going to actually make the decision and go, in many ways made it easier. Because once I started telling people that’s what I was going to do, then psychologically, I was even more committed. Because everyone I told became another verbal contract with them.
Yeah. And so I’m glad I did. I was going to give it till March 31st of this year. And then I just realized after the turn of the year, the longer I sit on this decision and make move, the longer it’s going to take me to get where we want to go. So finally, February 2nd was my last day there and I’ve been figuring out the consulting space since.
That’s awesome. How has it been? I mean, I know you’re still fresh to it in terms of just learn on your own, but I mean, first 60 days.
It’s good. So I quit first week of February, the next week, I had a Fortune 100 client that I was doing an engagement with, a lot of excitement and things were great. And then the week after, I didn’t have anything paid coming in. And then the week after, I didn’t have anything paid coming in and I’m just starting to panic a little bit. And there was these doubt creeps would come at two in the morning, like, hey, did you make a good decision? Can you really do this? And what I realized was I was talking a good game about, you know, it’s not the job, it’s not the title, it’s not the money, it’s not the ego, but those things all of a sudden mattered to me and keeping me awake.
And I was just like, I need to flip the measure of success. Because I think in the West, we always feel like we have to be in harvest mode all the time and always bringing in the crop and the cash and the rest of it. And what I’m finding about the consulting space and when you start to work for yourself is you’ve got to plant seeds for them to grow, right? And there’s a learning curve just like any new job. Like when I walked into the Pentagon in 2010, I didn’t know anybody. I had to learn the job, had to learn the people, had to learn the processes. And it’s the same thing with this space. And I kind of underestimated that a little bit.
But once I kind of flipped my metric from what’s my paycheck at the end of the week to did I learn anything new today and who did I help, and once I started thinking that way, it started coming in. Like the next week, I had a referral from somebody I didn’t even know. Had a reputation management client come to me who needed some help with the press. And that was a successful venture. And then a couple of weeks into that, another friend was like, “Hey, I just landed a project that’s too big for me to handle by myself. Can you come and help me for the next three to four months?” And I’m was like, “Yeah, sure.”
So between that and teaching at the local community college down here, which I finally shore that up last fall, and I teach a class this semester and it started to generate enough multiple revenue streams, where it all makes sense. So it’s good. It’s good. It’s good to learn this. And I think with our business model, we don’t want to scale it and start managing the labor for other people, we just want to do the research design and delivery ourselves. So I think between that and some of the pro bono clients I have that show promise and maybe lighten the wick on their startups and we’ll see where it goes.
That’s cool, man. There’s a lot there. I mean, just even in the last statement that you said just about work in a few things pro bono in an attempt – really in a way, to help prime the pump, generate some case studies and get some quick wins that way. These are things that you can point to and help build your reputation and help get a little bit more of the word out. Like, hey, this is my experience with Joe and with all that he was able to do for me, he did this for me. He can definitely do this for you too. And then that gets out, right?
Yeah. It’s amazing what you can learn. Like I never thought I’d be involved in an artificial intelligence company, but this friend of mine from 30 years back, we were first lieutenants together and he’s like, “Hey, I’m starting a new thing and I could use your expertise around storytelling.” So he’s just like, “I can’t pay it, but I can give you a percentage of the company when we get this off the ground.” Yeah. I mean, it only costs me time. I get to help a friend and learn along the way, right? So for me, it’s win-win win. So it’s just time. It was my only investment.
So what’s the core product, core service that you’re providing?
Yeah. So data evaluation ventures. What we realized last fall is that there’s no standardized, commonly accepted process for valuing data sets. And if you can’t put a price on it, you can’t treat it like an asset. Insurance companies don’t know what to insure you for. You don’t know what to buy it for what to sell it for. So right now, billions of dollars are traded in data every year and the price is implicit, right? Why is Facebook worth, I don’t know, what 700 some odd billion dollars? Who knows? What is 250,000 medical records worth? Or if somebody uses my data, what should they pay me? Nobody knows. And so through AI machine learning and other layered mathematics, this team has put together what could become like the Kelley Blue Book of data.
Yeah. So providing a range of acceptable prices for buyers and sellers to come together. But the beauty of the AI is that it would let the buyers know if the data that they were looking at would even answer their business questions before they bought it. And so it’s much more transparent system. So the ultimate goal is to really get to a two-sided market where data owners can generate passive revenue streams by uploading and making their data available to the system. And consumers can come in and saying, “Hey, I’ve got these business questions.” And when they ask the AI to answer the question, if your data is tapped by the system, then you would get paid as a data owner for a piece of answering that question.
Yeah. It’s an interesting concept. And I’m really looking forward to seeing Chris light the wick on this thing because I think it’s gonna be really exciting.
Yeah, no, that’s super cool. And then what’s the core service that you’re providing through Cassandra-Helenus Partners?
Oh, yeah. So for our company, Kate’s built the practice around leadership, coaching and organization development, change leadership management type stuff. And so I’m trying to figure out like how does 20 years of PR experience come into that? And so I think when we throw all our tools in the middle of the table, we realize that ultimately what we want to get to was culture work and how do you increase psychological safety in the workspace, how do you increase leaders emotional intelligence state to create that strong team and not be afraid to be vulnerable in the workspace and be real and cut through all the bull crap. And once they improve their EQ, then they still got to transmit everything up here to their teams and turn them into results. And I think that’s where a guy like me can come in, who is used to dealing with internal and external communication and thought leadership positioning and things like that.
That’s cool. Oh, that’s really cool. Well, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you? How would you recommend people reach out if they want to learn more?
Yeah. I think either through our company is cassandra-helenus.com or joeplenzler.com is my website. And there’s a little tool that send me an email through there. And if not that, then LinkedIn. Just shoot me a message on LinkedIn and that’s a great way to get ahold of me.
Okay, great. And so for those of you listening that can’t see this flashing all these across the screen, so it’s cassandra-helenus.com, CASSANDRA-HELENUS.com and then joeplenzler.com. And then you can find him on LinkedIn and it’s just /joeplenzler. So pretty, pretty straight forward. But Joe, I mean, time flies when you’re having fun. Man, it’s been a blast. I really, really do just want to thank you for carving some time out for me. Thanks for sharing your experiences and the things that you’ve learned, the challenges that you’ve and the journey that you’re on. I really do appreciate you sharing some time with me.
Yeah. I really enjoyed it, Aaron. Thank you for having me on your show.