Lessons from my ongoing military experience that impact my work at Peraton
By Brian Wagner
Brian Wagner is Director of Strategic Communications at Peraton, where he leads external and internal communications. Peraton is a next generation national security company that provides innovative, reliable solutions to the nation’s most sensitive and mission-critical programs and systems.
This is one in a series of conversations with speakers featured at StratCommWorld 2020 on June 1-2 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This is not your typical conference. StratCommWorld is your connection to globally minded experts and communication strategies that challenge the status quo in corporations, the military and government agencies, and in NGOs.
STRATCOMMWORLD QUESTION: In your career—as you have concurrently progressed to leadership positions in the military and the private sectors—what insights and skills acquired in the military are the most “transferrable” and useful in the private sector?
Many people think about the transition from military to civilian as a one-time, one-directional affair. But for people like me (and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg), who joined the military as reservists while their civilian life was still evolving, our experience was different.
Instead of a one-way transfer, we saw how skill development and transfer flowed both ways; what you learn in the military informs your civilian job, and vice versa. It can be a more schizophrenic experience at times, but it also allows you to cherry-pick the best lessons and habits from each ecosystem. Here are three lessons from my ongoing military experience that impact my work at Peraton:
1. Sailor First, Public Affairs Officer Second:
In the Navy, even if you are the PAO, you may get asked to fill a role that seems foreign to you or be expected to comprehend the issues impacting operational leaders. You may even get asked to man a broom. Don’t get stuck in a pure communications bubble where your worldview begins at press releases and ends at media hits.
You are more to your organization than just your skillset. Learn to put yourself in the shoes of the MBAs running the organization, the HR executives trying to align talent with need, and the accountants trying to pay the bills. You’ll be a better communicator for thinking of yourself as an employee first.
2. Manage Up, Manage down:
Operating in a highly formalized, hierarchical environment like the military drives home the critical importance of being able to manage both up and down the chain of command. As a communicator, you need the C-suite to see you as a trusted advisor worthy of a seat at the table. As a leader, you need those who work for you to respect you, to understand what is expected of them and to know that they can come to you for assistance. Mastering both skills is a key to long-term success in any organization.
3. Be OPEN AND HONEST:
In the military, you do not serve only your military branch or the Department of Defense. You serve the American people. In military public affairs, that sets a high hurdle to be truthful and honest.
Leaders in both the military and private sectors cite similar top challenges, but with some important differences in priority and magnitude which require targeted skills. On June 1-2, 2020, Brian Wagner will lead discussion at StratCommWorld at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to identify challenges associated with leading in the public vs. private sector as well as the skills and behaviors required of successful leaders.
Monday, June 1, 2020, National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
Complete agenda and registration available at https://stratcomm.world.
We may not couch it in the same way in the corporate world, but our stakeholders—whether investors, employees or the media—should be able to trust us as communicators to convey information without deception or omission. And if we are asked to ignore our better judgment by an employer, we are better off finding a new job.
One adage I always keep in mind came from retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, the former Navy Chief of Information and State Department spokesman, who used to say, “I don’t care if it is good news or bad news, I want them to hear it from us first.”
STRATCOMMWORLD QUESTION: What do you enjoy most leading a strategic communications team in a large, technology-oriented company like Peraton?
In making the transition from public relations to strategic communications over the last five months, I have fallen in love with the interconnectedness of Peraton’s broader corporate communications team, where Strategic Communications, Marketing and Stakeholder Engagement work together (with only limited turf wars) to deliver the most beneficial outcomes for the company.
I also love contemplating the interplay between my team’s external and internal communication functions and exploring how we maximize our efforts in order to simultaneously bolster brand equity and employee satisfaction through our efforts.
As a young company, we face an uphill battle to get people to pay attention to us—and to not confuse us with Peloton—which means that we are continuing to introduce ourselves to a lot of stakeholders.
One of the biggest challenges I am tackling in 2020 is to identify, extract and deploy Peraton’s most powerful ideas, most impactful successes, and most inspiring employees to bolster our brand awareness and brand equity in a way that gives us a seat at more tables, and encourages more people to proactively seek us out. It obviously helps when we can announce new contracts or client successes, but it also is important to look within the company as it exists today to find what makes us special, unique or different, and find ways to project that to the outside world in both earned and owned channels.
If my team is successful in 2020, more people will know our name, and will know that we have positioned ourselves as a mission capability integrator that serves a wide range of civil and military government clients, and that encourages its employees to “Do the Can’t Be Done” every day.
ABOUT THE sTRATCOMMWORLD speaker
Brian Wagner is Director of Strategic Communications of Peraton. Previously, Brian was president of ScoutComms, a communications, marketing and research firm focused on the veteran and military family communities. Also, he has worked as a director and vice president at multiple public relations agencies, and as a Congressional staffer in the Washington state delegation. Brian currently serves as a U.S. Navy Reserve public affairs officer and is a veteran of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan. In 2019 he was selected as the Navy Reserve’s Junior Public Affairs Officer of the Year.