It's common knowledge that military experience breeds leadership. Dawn Halfaker, founder and CEO of Halfaker and Associates, is a shining example. In 2004, while serving as a U.S. Army captain in Iraq, a grenade blast ripped through her platoon's Humvee, resulting in the loss of her right arm. But Halfaker still felt a need to serve. In 2006, she founded a Washington, D.C.-based contracting firm that provides services such as IT and logistics to the military. Halfaker, who is slated to speak at Inc.'s Leadership Forum this week, spoke with Inc.'s J.J. McCorvey about how her experience in the military molded her leadership strategies. Today, she's CEO of her company, Halfaker and Associates, which has 170 employees and doubled its revenue last year to $27 million.
What motivated you to start Halfaker and Associates?
While I was serving in Iraq, civil war had broken out. It was a full-blown insurgency, and the military was just not prepared or equipped to deal with it. We didn't have an exit strategy, and we really didn't know what we were doing. They had tank units on the ground trying to perform missions in a city where the streets were half the size of the tank. I felt the information that commanders needed to be able to make decisions on the ground and the strategy and tactics just weren't well aligned. I really saw a need to get in there and really help shape the policy arena, based on practical, on-the-ground, combat experience.
What do you think it was about the military that kept drawing you in? In your military and in your business, it seems that you felt that you had this duty that was unfulfilled.
When you're part of a unit and you're part of a team where everybody's sacrificing and working hard, and the feeling of suddenly being pulled out of that, you just feel like you're kind of ripped away from your family. You would essentially die for these people. So to no longer really be a part of something that gave you such a sense of purpose just leaves a huge void. After I was injured, I wanted to fill that void. I wanted to recreate that sense of purpose.
How has your experience in the military shaped your leadership abilities?
In the military, you have to be prepared as a leader to motivate a group of people that all come from different walks of life. They're each in the military for a different reason. The education levels vary, the skill sets vary, and whether they're male, female, black, white--it doesn't matter. You need to find a way to bring all these people together. Who all, by the way, put their lives on the line to accomplish something. A lot of times, you're under-resourced, so you plan with what you have and you try to make it work. So I think that going into small business, it was a very similar environment. You really have to do more with less, and you have to count on the people around you.
Has that lead you to develop any general rules-of-thumb, as founder and CEO of your company?
In business, you're focusing on taking care of the people who are generating revenue--the people who are close to your customers. Show them that you care, and that they are valued members of the team. In the military, I knew that the driver and gunner were going to be taking care of me when the bullets started flying. And I wanted to make sure they knew I was taking care of them.
In business, leaders forget who's going to be covering for them and who's going to be sticking their neck out, literally, up the turret while the bullets are flying. Sometimes leaders tend to get into an ivory tower and it's important to remember that the ivory tower is not what makes the company successful. You just can't sit there and watch everybody else sacrifice and not be out there with them or taking care of them.
When you were injured in battle, you obviously displayed a great deal of resilience during that time, and through your recovery. How does that affect your drive today?
The biggest thing I learned being injured is that with every adversity, there's opportunity. Whenever something doesn’t go right with the business, I always try to keep perspective. A.) Nobody died--hopefully. And, B.) Let's learn from this, and find a way that we can do better next time. How can we leverage this to our advantage? And again, that's what leaders are there for. They’re not there for when things go perfectly. They're there when you face adversity and everybody's down and the team's all looking at each other. Maybe people are starting to point fingers. It's someone who can get everybody out of that funk, pick them back up, and figure out how they're going to move forward.
Dawn Halfaker: Continuing to Serve
After losing a limb in leading a platoon through an ambush in Iraq, Halfaker transformed her life of service in the military into a life of service through entrepreneurship.