John has had an incredible career both in and out of the military, including his work as a White House Fellow and the creator of the color coded alert system. He is a published author as well of three books. We talk about failure, resilience, telling your story, and more.
John Fenzel is a senior Army Special Forces officer who has served on our nation’s battlefields throughout Europe and the Middle East for over 30 years. He has served as a military assistant on the personal staff of the Secretary of Defense, as a Special Assistant to the Vice President, and as a White House Fellow during the Clinton and Bush administrations. He is the author of three books: The Fifth Column, The Sterling Forest, and The Lazarus Covenant. John is a graduate of the Naval War College and the National War College. Born in Iowa and raised outside Chicago, John lives with his wife and three children in Annapolis, MD.
- StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
- Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at BeyondTheUniform.io/books
- other Author interviews
White House Fellowship program - 11-19 mid grade professionals allowed into white house to work for cabinet member (or equivalent) and for through a year of educational and experiential work.
Scriviner - program to help you roganie your thoughts around writing
- http://www.bouldercrestretreat.org/ - post traumatic growth instead of post traumatic stress
- Mentors for Military podcast - feels like in military special forces team room
- TED Talks & TED Radio Hour - focuses on one theme and you’ll learn something, even if you just listen to the highlights
- Good to Great - Jim Collins; talks about resilient companies and translates to resilient people as well. If you can internalize the lesson and view it through this lessons it’s very helpful
- Start with Why - people don’t buy who you are or what you do, they buy why you do it
- Grant’s Memoirs - the best memoir ever written. He didn’t focus on the presidency at all it’s all his Civil War experience. He completed it five days before he died, and Mark Twain published it.
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Myrtle Beach, SC is John Fenzel. John is a senior Army Special Forces officer who has served on our nation’s battlefields throughout Europe and the Middle East for over 30 years. He has served as a military assistant on the personal staff of the Secretary of Defense, as a Special Assistant to the Vice President, and as a White House Fellow during the Clinton and Bush administrations. He is the author of three books: The Fifth Column, The Sterling Forest, and The Lazarus Covenant. John is a graduate of the Naval War College and the National War College. Born in Iowa and raised outside Chicago, John lives with his wife and three children in Annapolis, MD.
How would you describe what you do for a living?
That’s a great question that I’m still trying to answer for myself. I did over 30 years active duty. I started off as a Chemical Officer and then ended up becoming a Green Beret. But like any of us that have been in uniform regardless of rank or position, everyone goes through this sheer moment of terror when transitioning, trying to figure out what’s next. In the end, though, I think this is a beneficial experience. When I got out of the Army, I worked for a group that helped military members in transition. I’m really proud of that work. I feel like I got a Harvard MBA in the five or six years that I was there.
The issues of leadership and ethics are just as relevant as they were years ago. But I realized that many times, these issues are misrepresented. I talked to my wife and we both made the choice to help people and teams try to reach their full potential. We’re just a few months into it but we’re having a blast doing it.
I’m also an author and have written three novels. I’m hoping to branch off soon into non-fiction as well.
You seem like a person that’s constantly pushing your own boundaries.
At the end of the day, it’s all about trying to continue to find a way to serve. Unfortunately, there’s no set roadmap for any of this but that’s the fun of it too.
After serving as a Green Beret, how did you end up working in the White House?
I found about this program called the White House Fellows Program. It’s a great program made up of about 20 mid-grade professionals. You work for a cabinet member for one year. You also go through a professional development and travel program during this time. I didn’t think that they’d accept me but you go through different regional and national interviews and you’re talking to a lot of people. My brother and I both got accepted into the program. He worked for the National Security Council and I worked at the Office of Personnel Management. This was during the time when the Clinton administration was transitioning to the Bush administration. So it was a great experience and I became the de facto manager for this transition for the civil service.
After the year was over, I went to work for the Vice President on his energy task force. We ended up creating the first energy policy for the United States. After we put out that policy, I was asked to join a homeland security task force. About a week later is when 9/11 happened. The task force ended up being a precursor to the Department of Homeland Security. It was a really incredible time.
Can you tell us more about the color coded alert system that you created?
If you think back on that time, you’ll remember that right after 9/11 there were many different alerts and people were concerned about subsequent terrorist attacks. The Attorney General and FBI Director had to stand in the White House briefing room to raise the United States alert level. As soon as Governor Tom Ridge came in, that was tasked to him. I was in the press briefing room with Governor Ridge and I could see how frustrated he was that we didn’t have a formal system for raising and lowering alert levels. This was in the December after 9/11 and there were some real threats out there. So I talked to the Governor and offered to create a coding system to classify threats. So that’s how it all happened. I wasn’t the one who invented the colors - I’m actually color blind. The enduring point was that we did need a public warning system for terrorist threats.
What was it like serving in such a high capacity during 9/11 and the months that followed?
When you’re in the military, whether you’re enlisted or an officer, it’s a great honor to work in the White House. But in many cases, you take the uniform off during the time that you’re there because you’re wearing a suit. People can’t always tell that you’re a member of the military. You find yourself heading up meetings with tremendous responsibility. That took some getting used to.
On the morning of 9/11 I can remember that I was in an elevator when the first plane hit and we all thought it was some kind of accident. Then we saw the second plane hit and people asked me what was going on. I told them that it was a coordinated terror attack. I walked down to the Secret Service agent at the end of the hallway and I asked what he was hearing. He told me nothing really. Right after that, the phone rang and we were told that the Pentagon had been hit as well. After that, it wasn’t bedlam at all. It was really a coordinated effort.
It was really an incredible time. I was in the White House Situation Room when I found out that one of my former NCOs that had worked for me had been killed in friendly fire. That experience really did have a way of focusing me and it became an impetus for everything I did afterwards. During those months, there really was no partisanship like we see today. It was everyone working together.
My brother also was working in the National Security Council during this time. I received a call from him in the evening one day. My brother was working for the Head of National Special Operations Command. He said that the General wanted me to work on the Special Operation annex for the invasion of Afghanistan. So we worked on that but we only had about four hours to come up with a good outline. We sent it to the White House and that ultimately became one of the primary plans that was carried out in the invasion of Afghanistan.
For veterans that aspire to public service, can you share more about how you’ve navigated through your career?
I could never have predicted any of it. None of us really know what we’re going to do when we step out of uniform. The thing that’s in common is that we all want to continue serving and making a difference. If possible, it’s always great to have a continued affinity or affiliation with veterans and veteran families. That kind of took over as my direction. And then I decided I could also focus on leadership and ethics. That has become my current direction.
Do you have any advice for veterans looking to get involved in public service?
For what it’s worth, everyone has to figure it out for themselves. I would say you have to know yourself. All those values that you learned growing up and in the military stay with you. All of us have different leadership styles because we lead from our own perspective and background. My belief is that everyone is a leader.
The one thing I can tell you after having worked in the C-Suite is that character counts way more than experience ever will. You can develop competencies and skills over time but character is something you either have or you don't. So when you make the transition to the civilian workforce, you should be absolutely confident in your ability to succeed.
I can remember when I was working in the White House, there was also a guy there that was a billionaire. We were sitting having breakfast one day, he told me that veterans don’t know how much they’re worth in the civilian sector. The challenge is to get people to understand your experience but once you can get people to understand that, you’re going to be able to succeed.
Leaders are nothing more than dealers in hope and confidence. So all you need to be an effective leader is to be optimistic and to set that example for others.
What got you into writing?
I’ve always written but I had never seen myself writing a book. But we come back from all these deployments and people always ask what it’s like. So I decided I would write a book about it. It took me a while to write it - a good 15 years. That was the Lazarus Covenant. And then since then, I’ve written two more. I find it pretty therapeutic too because you really think through different events in your life. So I encourage everyone to write because everyone has their own story.
How did you find time in your day to write?
You learn as you go along. With each book, you’re starting with a blank slate. For some authors, they really like seclusion. For me, I like to write at 4 in the morning before everyone else has woken up. But I can also write in a crowded coffee shop. I really don’t need to have it be completely quiet or distraction free. I try to start outlining story but when you start writing, you start going outside the story.
When you were writing your first book, at what point did you begin to engage with a publisher?
If you want to publish a book today, there’s a lot of different routes you can go. But back when I wrote my first book, I found a great agent that was really excited about my book. But even doing that, there were a lot of rejections. We had one publisher call us that said that they really liked the book but they wanted to change a few things. They wanted all the characters to be American and all of the locations to be in the United States. So I changed the whole book in the course of four weeks. But I really didn’t like the product so I went back to the original and found a smaller publisher that wanted to work with me. So there’s lots of different agents and publishers out there, you just have to find the right one.
When the publisher wanted you to change the storyline, was that an easy decision or was there a lot of back and forth?
There was definitely a lot of back and forth. It’s never easy. When you write a book, it’s kind of like your baby. So you have to look yourself in the mirror and see if you’re willing to make the change the publisher is requesting. For me, Lazarus Covenant was very personal. Everything from characters to the plot was based on real people and places. So it becomes a trade-off if you’re being asked to make changes to the story.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I would just say write and don’t stop. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Also, write about what you know. I would start with the question of ‘why’ you want to write and then just go from there. If you’re writing fiction start with ‘why’ and then move on to ‘if’. Think about different plot lines. In the case of my last novel, The Fifth Column, my co-author Tom Rendall and I asked the question of what would happen if our nation was taken over by a group that was solely motivated by prophet and personal enrichment. The best fiction stories out there make you laugh and cry but most of all, they make you think. So that’s always my goal with writing.
Do you have any advice about cultivating confidence and not giving up through more challenging times?
I’ve been broken many times along the way. But failure is a good thing as long as you learn from it. It becomes a stepping stone. I have a cousin that’s a great skier and I asked him how he does it. He told me the best was to ski through moguls on a mountain was just to ignore them. I think it’s a great metaphor for life because there will certainly be bumps along the way but you just have to ignore them and keep going. Do everything on your own terms and go in your own direction.
Today, a lot of us come back from combat zones and hear a lot about PTSD. There’s a great organization in Bluemont, VA called Boulder Crest Retreat. They refuse to all it post traumatic stress. The call it post traumatic growth. So if you can grow from challenging experiences, you’re going to be able to achieve all of your goals.
The other thing I would say is to just tell you story. When I worked at the Pentagon, I would often go for a run during lunch. I would stop at Arlington Cemetery and walk through the different sections. Many times I would end up at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The thing that struck me was that all of those people had a story. But maybe these stories hadn’t been recorded. So I encourage people to record their story in whatever way feels comfortable.
Do you have any advice for people that are leaving the military after having done a full 20 years?
The first thing to keep in mind is to have a plan but also realize that the plan is going to change. You need to have an understanding of what your mission is, what defines you. As you think about different opportunities, think about roles that fall in line with things that you’re enthusiastic about.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was from Donna Shalala. She told me to never eat lunch alone. So frequently today are on their phones or on their computers but it’s important to get out and get to know people. In the end it’s those relationships that matter. If people know what you want to do, if they see an appropriate opportunity, they’ll pick up the phone and call you. So don’t hesitate to cultivate those relationships. My experience has been that if you’re looking for a career opportunity, it’s relationships that will get you there.
Are there any resources you would recommend?
This is a great podcast and there are other good ones out there, too. One is Mentors for Military. You can listen to people from all kinds of military backgrounds. Another good one is the Ted Radio Hour.
As far as books, I would recommend Good to Great because it talks about resilient companies and also resilient people. If you internalize the lessons in the book, I think you can achieve some enduring success.
I also like Start With Why. The author’s point is that people don’t buy who you are, they buy why you do it.
I also recommend Ulysses Grant’s memoir, it’s one of the greatest memoir’s I’ve ever read. He wrote it a few days before he died and his friend Mark Twain published it.
The more of a foundation you can have in reading and listening to different things, the better prepared you will be for your transition out of the military.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners?
You really have my admiration for doing this for veterans. As you’re looking for your direction in life as you step out of uniform, it’s far more art than science. One thing I would say is just to be confident in what you bring to the table.
I would also encourage you to stay connected to the veteran community. Those relationships will follow you through the rest of your life. If you ever find yourself in any kind of adversity, they will help you through that.
If you face adversity, view it as opportunity and as a challenge. I have a good friend that was a POW and he has a great saying - adversity is terrible thing to waste.
There’s an awful lot ahead of you and you have great things to look forward to.