I had the pleasure of interviewing Branden Marty. Branden is the owner of Veteran Roasters Cup O’ Joe Coffee, a Chicago-based, small-batch coffee company focused on hiring homeless and chronically unemployed veterans by providing them skills and experience in the coffee industry. As an active veteran advocate both in Chicago and across the US, Branden has helped thousands of veterans by building networks of support through organizations such as Rags of Honor, Combined Arms Chicago and the Department of Defense Warrior Games. Prior to his work in the daily brew business, Branden served as helicopter pilot and Navy officer which led to his passion of supporting, assisting and leading those who served in the military and are currently struggling to reintegrate back into their communities.
Chris: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? Can you tell us about your military background?
I grew up as the oldest of four with three brothers and one sister in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. While I loved my home state, I decided to attend college at the University of Michigan. Luckily, Ann Arbor offered Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) so the path from Navy Midshipman to Ensign was laid. I graduated with a degree in History and received my commission in 2002; attended flight school for two years and was designated a Naval Aviator in 2004.
My deployments as an SH-60B helicopter pilot came fast; one aboard a Guided Missile Cruiser and the other aboard a warship called a Frigate. Following my time as an aviator, I became the aide-de-camp for the Nimitz Strike Group Commander from 2008–2011. While the travel and experience were fantastic, my wife and I wanted to settle down closer to home. I took a billet to serve as the Midwest Program Director of Navy Wounded Warrior Project for two years and later transitioned to the Reserves before taking the plunge as a “full-time civilian” and entrepreneur.
Chris: What from your time in the military, do you think most prepared you for business?
That’s a great question! Two particular thoughts come to mind when I look back on how my time in the service prepared me for business. First, the military does an incredible job of preparing an individual to remain calm under fire. No matter your field or occupation, whether military or civilian, pressure can get the best of us. Through the military, I’ve been fortunate to learn the importance of keeping cool, remaining professional and taking decisive action when a challenge or crisis comes up. Change and uncertainty is inevitable. Once that fact is accepted, one can move forward and successfully navigate whatever chaos is thrown your way.
The second is leading and managing people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. The military is a melting pot of American culture. Different races, religions, ethnicities and core values permeate the ranks from Seaman to Admiral. Learning how to lead and motivate across such a diverse group to achieve a common goal was invaluable life experience.
Chris: How would you define your leadership style?
As an entrepreneur and former military officer, I have considered myself a servant leader. My focus is often on the needs of others, especially in developing team members. In my experience, servant leadership means teaching others to lead, providing opportunities for growth and demonstrating by example. I’m not always leading from the front, but find value in regularly soliciting feedback and empowering others to make decisions and learn in the process.
It’s what led me to join the military and now serves as the foundation of my leadership philosophy. When put into practice, servant leadership provides those who work for me the tools and autonomy necessary to be successful. Train and set expectations, but understand that mistakes are part of the process. In leading by example, I make every effort to remain open, honest and transparent with my teams, especially when I’ve made a mistake. I’ve found this approach fosters a culture in which teams are open to feedback. The finished product includes self-analyzing, ever-improving, productive employees.
Chris: What are your “6 Leadership Lessons Businesses can learn from military experience? Please share a story or example for each.
(1) VUCA Prepared: Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity surround us daily. The individuals and organizations that both adapt and flex quickly in the midst of this “fog of war” are often the victors. On one of my deployments, we were tasked with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) while in the Persian Gulf. One night after landing, I found out we’d been re-tasked to the Horn of Africa in response to developments in that Area of Operations. By morning, we were full steam toward East Africa while simultaneously planning for an entirely different mission set with less than 72-hours notice. The ability to recalibrate in the face of volatile and uncertain situations taught me the valuable lesson of not getting too comfortable; be ready for anything.
(2) Roughly Right: An 80% solution now is better than a 100% solution tomorrow. With that, I’ve learned to simply make the decision and learn from the outcome. Whether I was in the field, on the ship, or at my desk in the midst of start-up world, timely decisions have consistently led to successful mission execution. While the environment is not always perfect, time is the most precious resource and comes at a premium. The most recent example was the launch of our Veteran’s Roasters coffee website. My team and I had gone back and forth on the branding, the messaging and the overall build. In a perfect world, we would have every resource at our disposal and could go multiple rounds on edits before launch. But like many e-commerce shops, needed to lay the tracks and keep the train moving at the same time by massaging the brand in tandem with selling our product. As I learned in flight school, make the best decision you can with the information available before it’s too late to affect positive change.
(3) Two Ears and One Mouth: Like your teachers (or mom) said, “Pull the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” As a young lieutenant right out of flight school, I was immediately put in charge of 30 sailors. Their well-being was my responsibility, but we also had a job to do. I was lucky enough to have a chief who worked for me, yet had significantly more supervision experience than I. He served as incredible sounding board during my tenure and I learned the value of listening to him, my sailors and superiors alike. Today, I believe it’s still important to listen to those who support your efforts, the ones in the trenches doing the work and making it all happen.
(4) People, People, People: In the Navy, not everyone gets their first choice of assigned area of expertise or specialty. This often leads to a lack of motivation in the current role, especially if the individual has no opportunity or pathway to work toward their desired specialty. When I was a Division Officer, I had an Avionics Technician who wanted to work in the IT world. We worked with the IT department to provide him some on-the-job training while on deployment, so long as he didn’t let it affect his primary responsibilities. Providing him the cross-training opportunity kept him motivated and he was later afforded the opportunity to transition to an IT position down the road. Today, I understand the importance of knowing what drives and excites my team. As a military leader turned business owner, I learned to build teams that can efficiently turn a vision into a successful mission.
(5) Lead by Example: As leaders, we are called to set the tone for the organization and actions always speak louder than words. During my time in the military, I oversaw an aviation maintenance detachment and was often the first one to jump on the aircraft to assist with corrosion inspections or help troubleshoot issues. It takes tremendous confidence for a pilot to walk into a hanger and see a $30 million helicopter disassembled into thousands of pieces and know they can trust the maintenance team of 19 and 20 year-old men and women to come through in ensuring safe routine maintenance and reassembly. While it takes time to build trust, it all starts from the top in setting the tone, leading by example and understanding each person’s role to ensure solid communication across the teams.
Whether you are rebuilding a helicopter or building a consumer product, I’ve needed to discern when to lead from the front and when to step back and grow and support those around and behind me. The military survives in this mentee, mentor model which ensures information is passed on to the next group of subject matter experts and leaders. I frequently allowed the sailors below me to brief my bosses or lead the maintenance meetings to get the experience they needed to lead the team and succeed in their next opportunity.
(6) Aviate, Navigate, Communicate: In a crisis, pilots are taught to prioritize actions, determine the problem and learn how to control it. On my very last flight off the ship before rotating home, my crew and I found ourselves in some particularly bad weather. To compound the problem, we had a full passenger load and the creeping “The Get-Homeitis” syndrome that plagues everyone at the end of a deployment with pilots trying to reach their destination at all costs.
What was supposed to be a ten-minute flight turned into almost two hours of in flight delays, with holding and waving-off multiple approaches without landing at our home airport. Everyone was stressed and nervous. As the aircraft commander, I had to take a deep breath, remember to take it one-step at a time and prioritize: aviate, navigate, communicate. Control the aircraft safely, fly it where it needed to go and keep the controlling agency informed.
While this is an organizational term for pilots, the lesson carries over to the day-to-day in business. Customers, clients, and people in general understand things go wrong, so long as we come to them with actionable steps to correct it. It’s our job as leaders to identify and control the problem, guide the organization to a solution, then communicate to ensure institutional awareness.
Chris: The future of many industries rely heavily on millennials and gen-z in regards to consumers and talent. Can you tell us something you or your company is doing to stay ahead with attracting both?
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to grant all employees autonomy as micro-management is never effective. Millennials and gen-z sometimes get a bad rep, but like every other generation, they want to contribute and leave their mark on the world. Understanding their passions, taking a genuine interest and creating an incredible product that supports an important social mission is how Veterans Roasters will stay ahead.
Chris: Can you tell us one person in the world, or in the US whom you would want to sit down and have a drink or cocktail with?
Barrack Obama or Joe Biden — but, preferably both would be down for a drink. They’re both absurdly charismatic and who wouldn’t want a bourbon in hand, with a front row ticket to the world’s most historic bromance?
Chris Quiocho is a combat veteran and pilot of the United States Army. Millennial leader and CEO of Offland Media, the premier content partner for business aviation. Chris is an insightful and motivational public speaker, and an emerging thought leader for the aviation industry.