If you interview an executive and a military leader, many aspects of the conversation will sound remarkably similar. Both are responsible for adapting to change, leading people, thinking strategically, and delivering results.
But several times during the conversation, you are reminded of just how different the stakes can be for the military leader. An executive might recall delaying the removal of a poor performer, resulting in a disruption in business. The military leader provides a similar example but with much graver consequences.
I recently met with David Neal, CEO of The Eighth Mile Consulting, to discuss his journey from the Australian Army to founding a successful business. David spent 13 years with the armed forces before leaving to build a company that helps private enterprises with change and project management, strategy, and leadership consulting.
What was your first experience in business?
David Neal: When I was 14, I worked in a liquor store. Sweeping, stacking shelves, and all that sort of stuff. I learned the value of talking to people and building rapport, particularly at a young age, because a lot of the customers were rough around the edges.
Your focus now is on leadership. What were your early influences?
David Neal: In my adolescence, I did Shotokan karate and worked my way up from a very young age, competing in the World Championships. That drew a lot of my time throughout my younger years. I was coached predominantly by my dad and spent time on the national team.
You mention your father as a coach. What other examples did your parents set for you?
David Neal: My parents worked in the tax office. That’s an interesting story by itself because my mom and dad come from pretty rough stock, a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, which for many years was the highest crime rate suburb in the whole country. My dad scored a scholarship by randomly attending a school hall once. He went into the air-conditioned school hall on a very, hot Australian summer day. To stay in the air conditioning, he had to take an aptitude and IQ test. He is a brilliant man and his scores landed him an accounting scholarship funded by the government. He created a career there with my mom, working shoulder to shoulder on many of the same projects. It’s a pretty cool story when you think back to how they pulled themselves out of tough times through education.
What was your first leadership role with the military?
David Neal: I went to two institutes: The Australian Defence Force Academy and The Royal Military College – Duntroon, where they designate army leadership officer training. It’s a very competitive environment and you get used to being uncomfortable. I also did some infantry-specific training and deployed immediately to Afghanistan. Straight out of military school, I spent 10.5 months on combat operations in Afghanistan, as a 22-year-old in charge of up to 27 soldiers at any time.
What was that like?
David Neal: That was very gritty work. My role was as part of an Australian force that could support the Afghan National Army and make sure that our soldiers were getting back alive. Wherever there was trouble, we got dragged in and would get our hands dirty. That’s where I developed my close affiliation with the U.S. because we supported each other during some tough times.
What was an early observation in that role that stuck with you?
David Neal: One of the things I observed was a difference between the U.S. and Australian forces in style and approach. I used to talk to my soldiers on a first name basis, regardless of what rank they were, and they’d be like, “Yeah, boss,” and walk off. I had a US lieutenant struck by the casual approach to the way that we deal with our soldiers. And he was like, “How can you do that? This is your rank, and this is their rank, and we’ve got to maintain discipline.” I learned not to rely on my position because the Australian Army is less structured in our hierarchies. And so what works for one military did not necessarily work for the other. We both have the same tactics on the battlefield, but the way that we communicate with our teams is drastically different. He thought they were insulting me by calling me boss, but in our world, that was a sign of respect. If they started calling me sir, I knew I’d stuffed up.
Does that lesson apply in business?
David Neal: There’s a level of respect in assuming that the people who work with you can poke fun at you. It shows that we trust your ability to deal with it. And if we don’t talk to that person or we don’t want to offend them or whatever, then that’s probably a more concerning sign in our culture.
Tell me about a mistake you made as a new leader in the field.
David Neal: I did not make the hard decisions early enough. An example of that, I had someone in mid-level leadership that was in charge of other people. I was easily influenced and didn’t want to break up the team just before we deployed. I thought that I could change or educate that person in time, and I was wrong. We had a gunfight, and this person froze at a time that I needed them not to freeze. And I now look back and know I could’ve done something about that.
Why didn’t you act on your gut sense?
David Neal: I didn’t want to ruffle feathers, and I didn’t want to upset the status quo. I paid the price for that at the gritty end. If I had groomed someone else, I wouldn’t have risked people’s lives. So for me, have those hard discussions early and be willing to justify the reasoning behind that.
I went through the same thing as a new leader. My naive way of thinking was, “I can change everybody.” It was my ego saying, “I’m a good enough leader to overcome this.”
David Neal: Absolutely. The lead up to that, we’ve gone through four years of relatively intense training where everything is graded, marked, and assessed. You’re compared against your peers. The day you graduate, you’re rated from one to whoever is left in the class. You know where you sit in terms of your cohort, your peers, and these are arguably the best leaders in the country. And you’re getting rated against those people. I mean, that’s always in the back of your mind. There’s a competition about who is the best. I’ve got to be the fastest, and I can’t be the weakest — all these really kind of misaligned perceptions.
How did those rankings impact your judgment?
David Neal: I didn’t want to be the one with the weaker team. I didn’t want to cause problems for my headquarters. I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted to be the guy with solutions. I’ll fix it. And really what I was doing was slapping more band-aids on the problem but not curing the infection underneath. And ultimately, I paid the price for that. And then I had to endure the rest of the tour with that individual. And it hurt me. I had to micromanage to make sure that my soldiers were safe and this came at the expense of the overall operation. With a few hard discussions early, we could have fixed that entire thing.
What were the consequences as you got dragged down to a lower pay grade?
David Neal: The soldiers see that, and they’re like, “Well, why is the boss mucking around at our level? Why is this, why is that?” And I’m trying to work behind the scenes to make sure that everyone’s safe and we all get back alive. That weighs heavy on your conscience. You’re trying to make sure that we’re all going to get back. The other thing I learned, and I think it relates to corporate, military, and personal life is the value of context.
The times when my staff were most frustrated with me were when they didn’t know how or why we were doing something.
If I could talk to a younger version of me, I would say spend that extra 60 seconds on every engagement you have with people to explain the context about how and why you’re doing something. If you can cover both of those things, it will prevent 90% of the problems before they start.
What happens when a leader isn’t transparent enough?
David Neal: It always creeps out anyway. Whatever you say to one person will get back to the original person. It builds strong rapport and trust when you go up to another human and say, “I have a lot of respect for you, and I’m not going to talk behind your back. I’m going to say these things to your face because I believe that you can deal with it.” If you can frame conversations in that way, people will take it positively. One thing that took me a long time to figure out is that the more vulnerable I am, the stronger I am.
Can you elaborate on the importance of being vulnerable?
David Neal: It is counter-intuitive for someone trained to protect their reputation. The more I share about my vulnerabilities, the stronger the rapport I have with people. And I am able to leverage my network to achieve a disproportionate impact.
I find that the most productive people simply have more people willing to do them a favor.
David Neal: Absolutely. And what that looked like was, “Hey Bill, could I borrow some of your trucks? Could you give me a drop 20 km down the road with your helicopter, Harry? Because that would be a great asset for us not to walk that far.” These were favors, not orders or demands. This was over a mobile phone going, “Hook a brother up, and I’ll do you a favor later.”
How do you share vulnerability in a business context?
David Neal: When we meet someone, we tell them how bad we are at some things. We put those knives on the table before we start. We approached two-star generals with, “Hey look, this is where we’ve personally let you down. Let me explain where we’re weak. We haven’t hit the mark on this particular project.” The more we did that, the more those people protected us because they were like, “I can trust this person. I don’t need to hunt for the negative things. They just tell it to me straight away.”
As you approached the end of your term, how did you decide to start this company?
David Neal: I had no intention of creating a business. I jumped into a project manager role in a large not-for-profit organization to roll out an enterprise project. It was similar to some of the projects I worked on within defense. But while I was in that organization, I observed what I thought were Leadership 101 problems. It was a toxic environment, and I was like, “How can this business run when leaders can’t even talk to their staff? They can’t say one thing without bullying them.
So, you saw a problem first-hand and decided to build a solution?
David Neal: Yes. I started taking notes in the background with my friend Jonathan, as we were working on this project together. We got to the end of our contracts, and I said, “Do you think there’s merit in us starting a business where we can help people based on our lessons learned?” We got so comfortable working in high-performing teams, and there seems to be a complete vacuum of it. And working with high-performing teams is addictive. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re on a humming team, and everyone knows their place, and everyone’s getting stuff done. I thought, “Why don’t we start a business helping companies create great teams?”
Your company’s motto is, “Good people helping good people.” What does that mean to you?
David Neal: We look at projects and change initiatives holistically, but with a lens of, “How do you engage with people?” Because so many problems are disguised as something else. Most of what we deal with is people. What looks like a technical problem is often one person won’t talk to another because they don’t like them, and the company is trying to patch it with a new system that costs a million dollars. We ask why they don’t get the two talking to each other or get rid of the offender.
You started Eighth Mile Consulting with your longtime friend, Jonathan Clark. How important has it been for you to start this business with a partner?
David Neal: It’s massive. We made a deliberate choice that we would fulfill two roles, as we have two different styles. Behind the scenes, we do very different things. I’ve adopted the part of the gap-finder, forward-leaner, opportunity-finder, relationship-builder. Jonathan has adopted the systems, processes, structure, design, organization, management, and operational side. Knowing your place in the team and defining it is crucial. We hold each other accountable, and I think our team thrives on that.
How did you think about positioning for Eighth Mile?
David Neal: In true military fashion, the first thing we did was purchase a whiteboard and a big marker. Jonathan and I sat there over bourbon and wrote about where you might not see two knuckle-dragging ex-infantry consultants. Where can we be a point of difference? And we focused on not-for-profits, clinical care, medical, and education. We’re going to lean into these areas where we are a point of difference.
What was your marketing plan?
David Neal: We tried LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with different messaging. I aimed at these various industries to see where we might provide value. LinkedIn quickly rose to the top, and I developed a few tactile skills on that platform. So we started building our personal brands concurrently while we were making the company brand. Our messaging slowly switched to, “Well, if you like me as a human, you should see the rest of my team, because they’re incredible.” Since our business has been running, we’ve spent less than $500 on advertising.
How did you obtain your first clients?
David Neal: For each of the industries, we identified 10 CEOs via LinkedIn. I wrote to each CEO with a handwritten letter and said, “Hey, this is my company. These are things I’m identifying about your company and your team. And this is a bit about us. I’d love the opportunity to have a chat. That had a phenomenal conversion rate because it was a bit unusual that people are writing handwritten letters in today’s world.
David Neal: Right. It’s traditional, and we saw the value of that in the military. Before you went to a new unit, you wrote a letter of introduction. And I was like, “Why don’t we just do that? It’s a polite way of showing who you are, and it shows that you’ve dedicated time to this person.” And that created new projects, opportunities, and partnerships. We are still seeing the legacy of that campaign today.
How many letters did you send out, David?
David Neal: I did one day’s worth of writing. I sat down, and I put some music on and wrote letter after letter — maybe 30, something like that. And that generated enough work for us to have a massive surge of capital for our company. The response rate on those cold letters was probably 70%. Now roughly half of our business is based on referrals.
You built a strong personal network of nearly 30,000 followers on LinkedIn by writing short, daily posts on leadership. How does social media benefit your business?
David Neal: It’s a fine rub, and this is an almost daily discussion for our team. How do you provide value and build brand loyalty? So if people want to be associated with our Eighth Mile community, at what point do you charge for it and start selling things? The Aligned Leaders Summit was a great example of where we pressure-tested our network. Some of our team members were like, “Hey, look, in about nine months, twelve months, we could start looking at running leadership seminars.” And I said, “Well, let’s do it in six weeks. If our network is that strong and they’ll purchase our products and our ideas, then let’s do it in six weeks. Why are we waiting for nine months?”
So your messages on social media transitioned from free, helpful content to commercial requests?
David Neal: Exactly. And for the first time, you saw Eighth Mile selling a great product that provides a lot of value to people. But what I saw in the data, the moment I started selling, engagement dropped. I continued to test that burn up until we delivered the Summit, which was very successful. But I think we found the limit of our business brand versus its ability to sell. So now I’m a little bit hesitant to sell on LinkedIn. I bring people organically to my company by showing value. I do that by giving away vast amounts of free content.
How does this translate to paying customers?
David Neal: There are plenty of consultants. If anyone wants this information, they can find it on YouTube if they’re willing to invest the time. The difference is the people delivering it. Where we differentiate is our people. We are strongest in our ability to deliver information so that it lands.
What advice would you give to someone starting a company today?
David Neal: In the small business world, you do everything for a while. You don’t have the capital, and you don’t have the revenue coming in. Your margins might be small. Write down your strategy. It’s a contract with yourself and that should incorporate a linkage to your personal life. Do not commit to starting a new enterprise or a new business if you think that it will not affect your home life.
Originally published on Forbes.com