Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Personal values are often a better indicator of your chance of long-term success than where you went to school”, With Dan Park, CEO of BuildDirect
Personal values are often a better indicator of your chance of long-term success than where you went to school or even where you worked.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Park, the CEO of BuildDirect, a company that pioneered the online sales of building material products, bridging the gap between manufacturers and end-users and saving customers up to 60 percent on retail pricing. Dan’s career in leadership began at the US Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering before going on to become a US Ranger in the US Army. Dan’s career has spanned various sectors and executive management roles, including McKinsey and Company, Target, and Payless Shoesource. Before joining BuildDirect, Dan helped create Amazon Business, a B2B marketplace he built from scratch to several billions of dollars and one of Amazon’s fastest-growing businesses. Dan also has a Master’s of Business Administration from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
My parents were immigrants from South Korea and settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia (near Washington, DC). My younger brother, sister, and I were second-generation immigrants — trying to fit in among our friends but always feeling that we were between two countries and cultures. I was sheltered by my parents when I was growing up — it’s how they showed their love for me. There was no summer or after-school job flipping burgers. My life was all about studying and getting into the right college. It wasn’t enough to be a B-plus; you had to aim for the top. It was the Korean American dream.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
In September 2017, I left my job at Amazon (after founding Amazon Business) to become Chief Operating Officer at BuildDirect, based in Vancouver, Canada. I joined BuildDirect because of a personal experience I had remodeling our 1910 Tudor home in Seattle — it was not an enjoyable experience. I immediately recognized that BuildDirect was disrupting the home improvement industry by leveraging technology and innovation to solve decades-old problems like discovering and sourcing fashionable, high quality and affordable building materials (e.g., flooring, countertops, decking), and doing it online.
One key challenge that has kept building material online sales as a percent of total sales to single digits is the logistics: The average weight of a BuildDirect order shipped to the home or job site is 1,500 pounds. BuildDirect has created a proprietary heavyweight supply chain network to deliver these products faster, more reliably, and at lower costs and damage rates than competitors, including Home Depot, Houzz, and Wayfair.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
When I graduated high school at a worldly 17, several universities accepted me, but I ended up at the United States Military Academy at West Point. At West Point, you not only had to be on top of your classes, but you also went through physically rigorous basic training, and you learned about how the military operates.
It started at six in the morning; the days were long, and how you performed under duress made the difference. Constant testing, physically and mentally, was the norm. I remember being awakened at 3 a.m. and asked to reel off the top stories from the New York Times — you learned to think fast and learn fast. It wasn’t about whether you had been class valedictorian, student president, or the captain of the football team. My first year started with1,450 cadets. Four years later, 950 of us graduated.
After graduation, I served as an officer in the U.S. Army for five years, which is the mandatory service required following West Point.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
One of my most memorable times from the military was getting through Ranger School. Of the 120 people who started, only 20 of us graduated three months later. That was the typical graduation rate for this grueling leadership program. If you were to line all of us up on day one and guess who would graduate (i.e., the fittest, most decorated, motivated, or experienced), you would have been wrong.
I did not necessarily fit the part, but I was able to graduate, I believe, because of what was inside — the perseverance and grit that kept me going even when I felt like quitting, or when things looked bleak. This trait is something that I have looked for in my team members as I have transitioned into a business leader.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I will take this in a different direction as it would be obvious to pick a military example and label that person as a “hero.” Instead, I will share the long and difficult journey my wife and I had to have our first child. Like some couples, conceiving naturally did not work, even after trying for several years. We were fortunate to have the financial resources to try IVF. However, we learned this process took a much larger toll from an emotional and physical standpoint, especially for my wife.
I won’t get into all of the ups and downs, but let’s say we endured a few tragic moments during this journey, and we almost decided to stop. Based on the advice of our IVF doctor, we decided to try surrogacy, and our son was born healthy four years ago via our surrogate in Boise, Idaho (while we were still in Seattle).
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I view my wife as a hero. She sacrificed her health, career, and underwent a lot of emotional trauma to persevere and stick with it. Our story is not one we’ve told many people for obvious reasons, but it’s something that has shaped our personalities and life outlook in many ways. We are grateful every day that we can be parents. We can empathize with others who have (or are going through) their own journey to be parents.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Absolutely not. I see heroism happen every month at our company. One example last quarter was when we had to rally to execute our Black Friday event, one of our key revenue-driving events of the year. We faced a lot of headwinds including resource challenges in a few key departments, being halfway into a transition to a new technology stack, and a conscious decision to reduce our marketing spend. Our team rallied together and we ended up having one of the most successful events in our history.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Personal values are often a better indicator of your chance of long-term success than where you went to school or even where you worked.
Personal traits, like perseverance, empathy, and the ability to build teams, can be more important than where you worked or went to school. When I’m hiring someone, I don’t want just to hear where they went to school or what their last job title was. I want to know how they performed under adversity; how they managed at a time in their life when everything wasn’t going well, when they were getting through a crisis.
2. How you perform and respond under duress is a measure of your leadership and character.
In the military, especially as an officer in wartime situations, you can be under tremendous stress physically, mentally, and emotionally. You’re responsible for people’s lives, and everything doesn’t go as expected. The test of your leadership and character is how you perform under harsh and challenging conditions.
3. Before you can become a great leader, you have to be a great follower and a great team player.
You can’t become an effective leader if you don’t know what it means to follow. If you’re fortunate enough to be part of a team where good ideas are valued, you’ll learn how much stronger a group can be working together than any one person going it alone.
4. A diverse team is a strong team.
I saw a lot of diversity in the military: socio-economically, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, etc. Our love for our country and a desire to protect it united us, and we had a strong sense of camaraderie and working for each other. One person was not better than another. We were stronger for having come from all parts of the world.
5. It’s all about the people.
Finding the right people and convincing them to join you in your mission is one of the essential characteristics of a successful leader. I learned sometimes it’s about the person first and the organization second. You need to find out what their dreams are, what they want to achieve, and you give them the role or responsibility where they can best bring value while realizing their own goals.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Going to West Point and serving in the military was a life-changing experience for me. If it wasn’t for my time at West Point and the Army, I’m convinced that I wouldn’t be in a leadership position today.
The 5 Leadership / Life lessons I shared in the earlier questions encapsulate much of what I learned. One example I can share has to do with Lesson number 2: “How you respond under duress.”
At Target, I was part of a cross-functional team, and we were under a very tight deadline causing a lot of stress for the team members. One day one of the members was yelling at me in front of the rest of the team. I waited until he finished, I re-stated his point so that I was clear on why he was upset, and calmly answered and addressed his issue. The other team members were amazed that I kept my cool. Being under stressful (in some cases, life or death) situations in the military helped prepare me for that moment.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I was deployed to Haiti, which was technically a peacekeeping mission, but it was still a bit rough. I know classmates and friends who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and did struggle after their deployments. My father-in-law served in Vietnam, and he ended up counseling veterans who had PTSD or other post-deployment issues. My opinion is that we need to continue to focus on post-military transition services to help our service members and veterans successfully transition to civilian life by:
- Expanding counseling and other services to address PTSD and mental health, including making it OK for people (especially men) to raise their hands and ask for help.
- Expanding services to help find jobs for veterans. Companies like Home Depot, Amazon, and Pepsi love veterans and have formal recruiting programs focused on these candidates.
- Creating informal mentorship programs between veterans who are now in business (like myself) and those who are transitioning into business.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on a series of leadership articles to share some of my experiences. The first one, appropriately enough given our topic today, is about what I learned about leadership at West Point.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Set a North star direction for your team. Each month make time to communicate to the entire team how you see the company (or your team) progressing in that direction. It could be via email, in person, or by video. You can share specific examples or recognize people who have done extraordinary things to achieve your Mission and Vision.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Managing a large team means you are managing other leaders (versus individual contributors). When hiring for these leaders, make sure you put as much weight on a person’s leadership skills (i.e., the ability to coach, inspire, develop people) as on their functional skills. Second, if the size of your team is less than 200 people, get to know every person’s name and two personal facts about each.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This might seem like an obvious answer, but I learned something from each of the nine managers I’ve had over my 28-year career. Interestingly, now as a CEO, this is the first time where I don’t have a formal manager or boss.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Aside from personal charities my wife and I are involved in, I am most proud of the recent collaboration between BuildDirect and Crabtree Corner. Crabtree Corner is a YWCA facility that houses a range of programs and services under one roof to help marginalized women and families living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside feel healthier, more connected, and empowered to make positive choices. BuildDirect worked with one of our suppliers to donate brand new flooring (including installation) to replace the worn-out flooring at this center.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would humbly ask each person who reads this to choose one person they know reasonably well and who they believe is hurting (physically, mentally, emotionally). Reach out to that person (for coffee, dessert, video chat, or a phone call) and spend 45 minutes talking to that person. After that conversation, do one thing that can lessen the hurt or pain for that person.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A favourite quote of mine is from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
That quote has resonated with me, and it is a useful reminder in interactions with people in both my business and personal life.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Not to get too political, but I would choose Andrew Yang, one of the US Democratic presidential candidates. I believe that he is on to something — that some Americans are struggling today, primarily because of how technology and digitization are automating tasks and removing jobs.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.