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Mike Fransen: Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Be a light, shine bright: This term might have a Biblical tone to it, but in a world fraught with tension and animosity, it is a rare gift when we can bring authentic positive energy into our interactions. It doesn’t mean that I cherry coat tough situations, but as we always coach our teenage daughters, make sure that when people finish engaging with you that they feel better for having interacted with you. When we operate from that place of trust, we then earn the right to engage people graciously about the tough stuff in route to better outcomes for everyone.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Fransen.

Mike grew up in Southern Oregon with his younger brother and two teacher parents. After high school, he attended West Point and from there served in the US Army in finance for the next five years. After leaving the military, he earned his MBA from Yale’s School of Management, and since then has been working in commercial real estate in the office sector. Mike lives in Houston with his wife and 2 daughters.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was blessed to be raised in loving home with two devoted parents, who invested heavily into my brother and me. From them, I learned from an early age the value of hard work, loving others, and staying grounded. My parents originated from Colorado, so between summers there and living in Oregon, I grew up with an affinity for anything outdoors. My brother and I both played sports which, while revealing lack of a professional future, developed a passion for team and competition.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Almost three years ago, burnt out after dutifully climbing the corporate ladder, I left my job as a COO for a big office real estate company, to explore the future of work. From that, I formed a new company, Workng, dedicated to operating and consulting with large office portfolios in a way that better reflects the way people work. Perhaps more importantly, I recalibrated my attention at home with my wife and our two daughters and became more active as a husband and dad. Finally, in this season, I discovered a real passion for writing, and this came in the form of white papers and thought leadership for Workng as well as writing a very personal and reflective book, The Legacy Book.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was one of just a few people graduating from West Point that went into a very small branch of the Army, Finance. In that branch, as I sometimes joke, I was the GI Joe that paid GI Joe. I was stationed at Ft. Hood, deployed to Kosovo during 9/11, and finished my time working for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Part of what makes the military such a special and unique hotbed of learning is the wide-ranging set of missions and tasks that you are expected to learn and successfully accomplish in a short period of time. My most rewarding experience was a deployment to Kosovo where I worked for NATO. With virtually no formal handoff, I was the fund manager for all of engineering reconstruction projects going on in the region for the next 6+ months. Our team was a wonderful and diverse group of European engineering colonels, and my immediate boss was from Turkey and did not speak much English. My takeaways from this deployment included:

  • Fake it until you make it: This sounds like terrible advice but in the face of new situations like Kosovo, I learned that while it is easy to panic inside, it is critical to instill confidence to those around you, while you get your bearings. You can’t fake it long and need to be competent soon, but the ability to come into uncertain situations and boldly embrace them never disappoints.
  • Human Capital the most valuable: The world is a far from perfect place, but the ability to rally around quality relationships and a shared cause can bring about meaningful outcomes. Some of the most memorable times I remember in Kosovo were the Saturday morning meetings, where we all gathered to exchange project updates. There were so many differences in how everyone shared, processed information and worked, but seeing the shared efforts to help rebuild that country was always evident.
  • True growth happens in the places that are initially most uncomfortable: There was so much about Kosovo that was so new to me: food, people, job, etc. But I cannot imagine being able to replicate the growth I made as a person and leader in almost any other situation. I sometimes naturally crave those cruise control stages of life, but at least for me, very little growth ever happens there.

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 recently met a modern-day hero, Jeff Struecker, who was one of the main real-life heroes from the famed Blackhawk Down conflict in Somalia in 1993. He was the leader and driver of the group of U.S. Army Rangers who went back repeatedly through endless gunfire in the war-torn streets of Mogadishu to save comrades. What really cements Jeff’s “hero” status to me extends well beyond that one moment in time because of how he let that singular event become the catalyst from which he has gone on to become fully invested of countless people as a chaplain and pastor.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

To me, “hero status” is earned when humility and selflessness are fully displayed in a moment in time (often unplanned). We see so many examples from the military over the years because it often involves the imaginable ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life to save that of another or others. I think there is also a component of heroics based on defending a very important shared ideal, as we have recently witnessed in Ukraine as it fights to preserve its very ability to operate as a free nation.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

Our world is starved for heroes that live inspired lives in the seemingly mundane interactions of everyday life. One of the real encouragements I unearthed for myself and hopefully others in The Legacy Business, is that the hero (or legacy leaver) all of us are overly qualified to be, is simply the one that builds a life of consistency, invested in the betterment of others more than themselves.

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. People First: Once we eliminate all the things in life that wear out, distract us, or leave us feeling empty after we accumulate them, we’re left with the relationships we have. In the Army, people are truly the most valuable asset. To “maintain” that vital resource, you must be fully invested in all aspects of their wellbeing and development. One of the truths I learned is that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  2. Anything worth doing is worth doing well: One thing that is pounded into your head early into the West Point experience is the precision and excellence you need to learn to do everything with. The military purpose behind this ultimately saves lives in life and death situations. And admittedly I do fold my white t-shirts the exact same way today that I did then. But beyond that, it became less about a rallying cry to unachievable and obsessive quests of perfection but really an opportunity to always strive to do all that you are capable of.
  3. Don’t be scared of new situations: Change is hard for all of us even though we all inherently know it also often brings life changing benefits. The military has a way of conditioning you to expect the unexpected. When I was sent to the Washington DC area for my last two years in the Army to work in the classified community of the Defense Intelligence Agency, I knew that almost nothing I had done in the Army up to that point would be like this final job. During this same time, I got married with us both living away from of our families. But to this date, some of the most foundational growth we experienced separately and together occurred in that two year window.
  4. Respect is a two-way street: The military is set up with a rigid hierarchy where rank in many ways forces respectful behavior. That system is hugely important to the health of the critical mission it has. However, as I have seen over and over, in life and interactions of all kinds, organizations operate at such a high level when respect is part of its cultural and DNA. I have probably signed on behalf of office owners over 800 leases with companies of all sizes and types. I got to the point on the countless tours of office space I was part of that I could immediately spot good and bad companies simply by observing the interaction of the people on that tour.
  5. Be a light, shine bright: This term might have a Biblical tone to it, but in a world fraught with tension and animosity, it is a rare gift when we can bring authentic positive energy into our interactions. It doesn’t mean that I cherry coat tough situations, but as we always coach our teenage daughters, make sure that when people finish engaging with you that they feel better for having interacted with you. When we operate from that place of trust, we then earn the right to engage people graciously about the tough stuff in route to better outcomes for everyone.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

No question. Today’s business world is more fluid and uncertain than it has ever been. Success becomes less about a particular skill than it is about having a resilient mindset, capacity to be flexible, and ability to influence a group of people to press forward to accomplish a given task.

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?

Candidly, my one deployment to Kosovo was nothing like the subsequent years of deployments that took soldiers to the middle east. So I did not have to wrestle through some of the horrific images and events others have. However, reentry back into the U.S. does take some mental sorting out. I was about to get married after returning from Kosovo, and, for us, I realized I had to be focused and intentional about communication. I witnessed too many relationships around me in the military dissolve because of the inability to talk and walk effectively through that reentry process.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I remain excited about the potential of Workng to really help advance the way we think about the future of dedicated work environments. The way we built office towers 30–40 years ago, where, in the absence of technology, coming into the office really was the only way to get work done, is way overdue for disruption. Covid has been an accelerant to this disruptive thought pattern, but now we need to leadership in the industry to help accelerate the necessary change. We to quickly begin to create and operate the kind of new world work environments where humans connect with other humans in person to innovate, create, and thrive. If we can start to make this paradigm shift, it will have a profound effect on how we think about “work”.

I am also encouraged by the book I just finished, The Legacy Business. This was really a passion project that I wrote to myself at the halfway mark of life that I needed to read. Without the benefit of every question of what was next professionally answered, I wanted to leave our daughters and hopefully many others, with practical words of encouragement about how we can all more actively live and lead a life that matters.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

“Servant” leadership is a popularly used term but a seemingly lightly applied one. Serve your team well, look out for what matters to them and develop them, and they will run through walls for you. The risk for many today is to become so consumed by their own progression up this latter to often nowhere, that they abandon the time-proven, others-first leadership qualities that build and sustain the most effective teams.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Manage your talent proactively so that you can delegate to people you trust to do what needs to be done. I learned this after a merger we had. The amount of real estate and size of the team I would immediately begin managing tripled. I had to rethink everything and give up certain tasks. As an admitted fcontrol freak, that was unnerving but when I think about all that we were able to accomplish, in truth, I found someone who was actually better at some of those tasks to run the day to day operations, which allowed me to vision cast, strategize and lead more effectively.

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?

There are so many unbelievable humans who have invested in me, helping propel me way beyond where I would be today. So by isolating this one example, hopefully I won’t in any way diminish many other big impactors in my life. My wife, Stacey, is the ultimate life partner and eternal encourager. To leave the kind of job I had, you need a Stacey in your corner, not only comfortable with the risk factors, but somehow a staunch and consistent cheerleader. She pushed me, sparked me to write the book, and has never once waivered in her support, even during a challenging process.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I sure hope so. I am a big pay it forward fan, and I firmly believe that there is no number of people that I could ever help now or in the future that will offset the help I have been gifted with throughout life. That mindset was a big catalyst to authoring The Legacy Business. Through our church, my wife and me have also found great fulfillment in mentoring others.

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 call it the “others first” movement. There is nothing I have ever applied to my own life that has been more fulfilling. The beauty is its endless benefits are available in every possible setting. The challenge, of course, is that our culture and human tendencies drift towards “me first”. Putting others first tends to be inconvenient, sacrificial, and untimely, but boy, for me, has it been life giving.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Proverbs 3:5–6 “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding. In all of your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” Sometimes, the oldies are the goodies. Life has been filled with unexpected and uncertain tosses and turns, so being able to have complete confidence that none of it has happened outside of God’s plan is a powerful gift.

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 :-)

At this transitional stage of life, I find myself craving the wisdom and encouragement of people further down the road of life. I would enjoy sitting down with leadership guru John Maxwell. In both his speaking and writing, I find a unique combination of depth, candor, practicality, and call-to-action. He has seen and intersected with so many key busines and world leaders over his lengthy career. To glean from him in person would be a gift.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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