BTU #305 - Lt. General to Arizona State University leadership (Benjamin Freakley)

When you join the military, everything is decided for you - what you eat, what training you go to, what time you need to get up, etc. There’s always a map in front of you. So when you get out, you fear the unknown.
— Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley

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Why Listen:

Lt. General Freakley had an incredible career of over 36 years in the Army prior to his retirement. Yet, similar to nearly every guest I’ve had on the show, when he approached his own transition to a civilian career he experienced fear. In this interview, we talk about how to approach that transition, how to cultivate curiosity and learn something new, and we talk about leadership - we talk about leadership in the uniform and beyond. We talk about Ben’s work at Arizona State University and the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and more.

About Ben:

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley is the Special Advisor to the President for Leadership Initiatives at Arizona State University. Additionally, he serves at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. He recently retired from the U.S. Army after more than 36 years of active military service, and was serving as Commanding General, U.S. Army Accessions Command, at the time of his retirement. He started out at West Point.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:

Joining me today from Arlington, VA is Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley. What did you learn from leading the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan?

It was a joint mission between US Armed Forces and many of our federal government partners. My one big leadership lesson was patience. Our team was made up not only of Americans but also international partners and the Afghanistan people. I also learned how to understand the culture you’re leading. As you move from one leadership position to another, it’s important that you understand the needs and makeup of each group. 

Leaders have to establish a vision and then delegate with the belief that the people below them will execute on that vision. Our team in Afghanistan was made up of nearly 25,000 people so as much as possible, I shared my vision and then delegated to those beneath me so that they could execute the vision. 


How did you continue to evolve as a leader over time?

One thing that helps is to understand the difference between direct and indirect leadership. As an NCO, you’re a direct leader. You’re telling your team what they need to do. As you get up to the Lieutenant Colonel or Commander level, it goes more towards indirect leadership. You need to be delegating to those beneath you to carry out the mission. During that transition, the style in which you lead will shift. It’s an art form to be able to adapt over time to fit the environment you’re leading. 


You currently serve as the  Special Advisor to the President for Leadership Initiatives at Arizona State University. Is there a difference in leadership outside the military?

Anybody that thinks they can go into higher education and just order people around is out of their mind. It’s a lot of consensus leadership and it can take more time to accomplish goals than leadership in the military. 

Both inside and outside the military, it’s important that you know your people and try to get the best out of everyone. 


You took over the Army’s Accessions Command at a time when the Army was not meeting its recruiting goals. How did you lead the Command out of that?

Army’s Accessions Command oversees the recruitment process. I had never been a recruiter but I was familiar with the initial training process. There was a tremendous learning curve. I traveled over 200 days during my first year in the position. I traveled to Texas where we sponsor high school programs and also go to various universities and study their ROTC programs. I would also travel to recruiting stations to talk to recruiters about what they needed to better do their job. 

One thing I was impressed with during all of the visits to these different places during this time was how good at our Army’s men and women were at putting the team ahead of themselves. One of the most translatable skills for a veteran going into the civilian workforce is the ability to put others ahead of yourself. There’s an idea in the military of service before self. That will allow you to make an immediate impact on the civilian side. You may not know every skill and technique that you will need in your new job but you know leadership, loyalty, and teamwork. Those will carry you far while you’re learning the specifics of the job. 


How should military members leaving the service at the rank of O-5 or above manage their transition?

There’s an element of fear in the transition because you’re going from the known to the unknown. When you join the military, everything is decided for you - what you eat, what training you go to, what time you need to get up, etc. There’s always a map in front of you the whole time. So when you get out, you fear the unknown. 

I don’t know that you need to know exactly what you want to do when you leave the military. I think you have to be agile and adaptable because you never know what available positions you’ll find. 

You want to balance three things during your job search - how much you’ll get paid, what your job function, and where you want to work. You have to set priorities with your family regarding what is most important. 

I looked into defense as I was transitioning but then I decided that I wanted to do something completely new and different. During my time in Accessions Command, I was exposed to higher education. I was able to meet the President of Arizona State University. I was inspired by his idea of creating an institution that welcomed students of all backgrounds. That lead me to ultimately take my current position. 

I would say don’t be afraid - you will find a job. But also be realistic about what would be a good fit for you. Put in the time to research available jobs in your desired job field. You might at first have to take a step back in order to get into your desired industry. Then, once you prove yourself, you’ll quickly move up in that organization. 


How would you explain what you do for a living as the Special Advisor to the President for Leadership Initiatives at Arizona State University?

At ASU, I work at the most dynamic, inclusive, and innovative non-profit university in America. We have 80,000 students on-campus and 20,000 online students. We have 8,000 veteran students. We welcome people of all backgrounds. We need at least 40% of America’s workforce to receive a college education so that new and innovative ideas can drive us ahead in the future. One thing that bothers me is that a college education isn’t accessible to everyone. We try to solve that at ASU by providing different programs that will allow students from many diverse backgrounds to get a college education. 

We work with veterans to allow them to access ASU coursework from all over the world. For students with the GI Bill, the cost of tuition is completely paid for. 

We also started the Arizona State Public Service Academy. We bring people in on a full-tuition scholarship to train in the areas of public service and non-profit operations. Those people then go to work in those fields. 

The Pat Tillman Veterans Center is also located at ASU. It’s a one-stop shop for the resources and support veterans need as they make there way through higher education. 


What is your role at the McCain Institute for International Leadership?

Our mission at the McCain Institute is to counter human trafficking while encouraing service to caues greater than self and advancing economic equality. 

We bring in a group of international leaders each year for a year-long leadership development training. We help develop leaders so that when they go back to their home countries and communities, they are able to make a larger impact in those areas. At this point we’ve trained people from 62 different countries around the world. 


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

The Decision Theater is a wonderful initiative at ASU that focuses on using big data to allow leaders to make better decisions. We’ve worked with companies like Adidas as well as public health organizations and local governments to help them use data to make smart decisions

I’m so proud of the men and women serving in our nation’s military. I’m also proud of the families of these men and women. A lot of people aren’t aware of all the places that are military men and women are stationed around the world. 

I encourage veterans to get connected in their communities and reach out to veteran organizations that can help you learn about new potential careers or jobs. Instead of complaining that there’s nothing out there for you, be willing to put in the work to find those opportunities.