Everybody agrees that we can all take an inspiration or two from the Marine Corps when it comes to leadership. It’s not just because of the highly disciplined and regimented way of doing things that we generally associate with military life. Most importantly, it teaches us that “leaders eat last” – that concept of servant leadership that puts emphasis on supporting each member of the team and setting them up to succeed. Retiring as a Marine Corps Major after honorably serving the country for 24 years, Chris Lovell took the skills that he acquired from the military to take various leadership roles at Amazon, Lexmark International and the Defense Logistics Agency, and now, in his own federal-level medical supplies company, Lovell Government Services. In this conversation with Alicia Couri, he shares the most important leadership lessons that he learned during his years in the Marines and how he applies them every day as a company leader.
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Leadership Inspired By The Marine Corps With Chris Lovell
I am thrilled to have as my guest, Chris Lovell. Chris is the CEO of Lovell Government Services. He is a retired Marine Corps Major who has served in many leadership roles in logistics support and contracting assignments around the globe during his 24 years of honorable service. Thank you so much, Chris, for your service. Chris’s private sector experience includes operational leadership roles at Amazon, Lexmark International, and the Defense Logistics Agency, the DLA. Chris is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy Class of 1994 and holds a Master’s of Business Administration degree from the University of West Florida. He is married and has three children. I have three children myself. That would be an interesting conversation. Let’s see where that goes.
Welcome to the show, Chris. I’m glad to have you.
Thanks, Alicia. It’s an honor to be on. I appreciate you having me.
You are the CEO of Lovell Government Services. What exactly is your business and your company?
We are a wholesale pharmacy and a medical-surgical supplier. Our primary customer is the federal government and that includes the Department of Defense, the VA Hospital System. We also serve other agencies, state and local governments to help them with their medical and emergency needs.
I came across Chris because his company is on the Inc. 5000 list. That is a huge accomplishment. I wanted to reach out because I want to talk to leaders that their companies are growing and the Inc. 5000 is the fastest-growing companies that make the list. I want to get from your perspective what your leadership philosophy is having been in the Marine Corps and now owning your own company.
What I learned from the Marines is servant leadership. The people that work with you and work for you is not “I tell you to do things because I’m the boss.” It’s, “We’re working together and what do you need to be successful?” You have goals but you want them to be successful so you support them emotionally in terms of listening to their needs, making them feel, and setting them up for success to be successful in their position. You don’t want to set them up for the wrong position and you want to be there to provide them the resources financially and emotionally to allow them to excel and be superstars themselves.
You’ve translated and taken that philosophy into your own organization.
There’s a book called Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. He spent time with the Marines to look at that and to write the book. It’s true, in the Marines, leaders do eat last. The most junior person who served the least amount of time, when it comes to eating chow, they go first because they’re the most important. It’s serve and leadership. We eat last because we want to show the people that work with us and for us that we care about them. That’s been my mantra and I learned that from the Marines. It’s done well for us.
How did you transition from the Marine Corps to starting your own business? In your bio, I did read you were in a couple of other companies.If you want to grow, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Click To Tweet
Going into the transition, I thought it’s going to be easy but it was difficult to leave an organization that you know, love, and have been with for 24 years and then to suddenly be exposed to cultures that are foreign to you. A lot of it was trial and error finding my space where I could be appreciated and use my talents to where I enjoy doing what I do. I loved all the different jobs. I worked for Amazon.com. I learned a ton from Amazon, a great culture, a great efficient work machine that opened my eyes to how logistics could be done better.
A lot of operational improvements. I’m very thankful for my time there. Lexmark International, I felt like it wasn’t a fit at Amazon after a year or so. I said, “I’m going to try something different.” I tried the Defense Logistics Agency which is not in my bio but I did work for them for a little bit and saw the government side, the consumer side. I said, “This isn’t for me either.” I asked my wife, “We’ve got to move one more time. I’m going to take a job for Lexmark International down in Panhandle Florida.” That’s where I’ve found where I could be relevant to the federal medical spaces. A lot of my clients were the VA medical systems and I would talk with them about how I could help them coming from a mindset of servant leadership, operational improvement.
I saw that I could satisfy a need in the federal government for specific pharmaceuticals and wholesale medical-surgical to give them a better product, a product that’s newer to the market, cutting edge and one that would get at a fair price that would save them money. We did that and there are wins for lots of people, not just for Lovell for our clients, for the VA hospital systems, and especially for the veterans. The products we introduced to the VA, the Department of Defense are cutting edge, newly minted. It’s FDA approved products that increased the quality of life for veterans and military members.
You mentioned transitioning was difficult and because this show is about confidence, not just leadership. Being a commanding officer in the military, as you go up the ranks, your confidence grows and now that you don’t have that, where did you feel like your confidence was once you left? You know what you’re doing when you’re doing it but now you don’t have to do that so your confidence was wrapped in that.
I’m going to try to wrap it into everything we talked about. It’s being uncomfortable. It’s an excellent question because it allows me to talk that it’s not applicable to the military or entrepreneurs. In life, if you’re going to grow, you have to be uncomfortable. What I love about veterans and why I hire a lot of them is when you step into and you sign up and going to serve the military, you’ve never been to basic training before if you’ve never served. You have this desire to serve and excel to do great things but you’ve never been until you stepped foot there and start the training. That’s uncomfortable.
Your confidence is low because you’re unsure, you’ve never been in a situation, and you don’t know what to expect but you have this will and the desire to perform. The military is great at harnessing that from young men and women that go and we could teach them to be even greater than they are. If they have the desire, we’re going to teach them the skills and give them the confidence to do it. What I found was when I left the military, it was the same. It was this, “You’re uncomfortable again. You got your right.” As a commander, you’re in charge, you’re confident, you know your job, you leave and you go to something completely foreign. You step into an Amazon warehouse where there are hundreds of people and they don’t know that you’re a commander.
They know that you’re the guy in charge of this zone here in the warehouse. It was uncomfortable. That’s when you have to go back on internal, you go, “I’ve been in hard situations before and this is how I cope. This is how I do things. I get to work.” You also have a support group. My family has been extremely supportive. My wife, she’s a trooper who moved ten times in years of marriage. She was a great supporter of mine in trying to figure out what this new path is for me. What is the new occupation that I’m going to land on after leaving something very familiar for 24 years? She supported me through, “It’s not working for you. I’ll support this next and I’ll support this next.” At some point she was like, “Chris, you have to find something that you need to settle on.” I settled on something that I’m good at.
You’re passionate about too in helping veterans.
I’m passionate about helping veterans. At the same time, it was uncomfortable that financially, it was a struggle. I see a lot of advice about people that say, “Start your own company.” Sometimes, I want to say, “Run away. Don’t be uncomfortable because it’s tough.” It is tough but it’s been rewarding. It wasn’t uncomfortable in a lot of ways. There’s something different no matter what you do is uncomfortable. Let me ask you, I think you reigned as Miss Florida.
I was. 2019 Miss Florida and then Miss United States Women of Achievement.
The first time you ever stepped out onto the stage when you’re live, is that uncomfortable for you? You’ve practiced for it but the first time you do it, were you uncomfortable?
It was unfamiliar but I wasn’t uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to expect but I had grown and built my confidence to the point where I knew who I was. It didn’t matter what other people thought about me. I’ll have to tell you that story because making the decision to do it was my uncomfortable. That’s where I was uncomfortable even making the decision to say yes to that opportunity.
There was a point where you were uncomfortable.
There was a point but by the time I made up my mind to do it, I’m there, I’m in it to win it. We get uncomfortable in unknown situations all the time. When you have situational confidence where if what I’m doing, I’m confident but then if I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t be as confident. We have to get to the point which is what I help people with. No matter what the situation is, you know yourself, who you are, and what you bring to the table by understanding yourself and your skills. I call them your tags, your talents, your assets, your gifts, and your skills, which is what your military training did for you, that no matter what situation you put me in, I got this. It’s about building and having that internal confidence that doesn’t depend on the situation anymore. I have many questions for you. I’m excited but now you stepped in, you started growing your company, how did you develop the team culture that you have to become one of the fastest-growing companies of 2019?
It’s strange to say, I don’t like stress. When people work for me, I don’t have a zero-default mentality. Right from the beginning, I let people know I make mistakes every day, you’re going to make mistakes but we’re all going to learn from them. I’m not going to get upset whether it’s a threat. A lot of times, get in positions where they’re like, “If you don’t make these numbers, that’s your job.” I had a unique opportunity with Lovell to create my own culture. Once I started hiring people, I said, “I hire for character, I’ll train. You’re going to make mistakes right off the bat, we know that.”
Everyone is going to make mistakes. I still see them make mistakes. I make the wrong decision sometimes. I make an educated guess based on what I have. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out with the best but at the end of the day, I make people feel like, “I’m going to challenge you but you’re going to make mistakes. I’m here with you and I’ll work with them.” Everybody in the company, we sit down together at their desk and we work through it. What helps me is I did this for myself for the first five years of the company. We’ve had employees maybe 2.5 years. Every employee, I train them to do something that I was doing myself.
They know I have their back on training. They know they can come to me at any time to go, “You told me this one time, I forget, I’m getting stuck.” Anybody can walk into my office and say, “Chris, I’m stuck with this.” I’m happy to stop if I have time. The open-door policy to a point and I get to it. We get it done. We solve it together. The culture that’s been built, I can’t take credit for it. It’s the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is a great proof source for teamwork, serve and leadership. Everybody is in it together. If you want to win, everybody’s going to have to sacrifice. It’s not just the people that are new.
I did an interview. What he was saying is there are some organizations that even celebrate failure. They celebrate the mistakes because they want their employees to feel that it’s good to go through that process and don’t be afraid to make a mistake because that’s when we grow and we innovate. Not just at the end of the year do they give awards for top salespeople but who made the biggest mistake.
I want to win that award. I don’t know if I can do that.
Who was the biggest failure? What did we learn from this? You don’t have to feel like your job is at stake if you make a mistake but rather, what did we learn from this because you did this, now we get to learn and innovate around this to make us all better and grow. I love that you said that.Having kids teaches you to become a better person and leader. Click To Tweet
I have Marines, we’ll train, I’ll teach them things. They’ll do great things and things go wrong. They’re making progress and things aren’t perfect with the project, the contract and in the management of it. They’ll say, “Chris, I’m sorry. I wish this wouldn’t happen this way.” I’m like, “This is good because if you hadn’t been uncomfortable, if you hadn’t tried to do new things, we wouldn’t even be to the point where we’re talking about correcting things. It’s a good place to be.” I encourage them to keep pressing through things that happen. Things are going to go wrong. We have something go wrong with a truckload delivered in South Philadelphia. I said, “Let’s work on how to fix it.” We white boarded it and worked it out. They’re like, “You’re not mad?” I’m like, “I’m not mad. Let’s figure out how to solve the problem.” I like solving problems. I coached them on their cheerleader for giving them the space to solve their problems on their own and their way.
As we were talking about mistakes, I do want to ask you, what is the biggest leadership mistake you’ve ever made and what were the lessons that you learned?
The biggest leadership mistake I’ve ever made is not saying thank you. I learned it early on in the Marines. There’s nothing wrong with saying thank you. It sounds strange but even if they didn’t participate to the level that you wanted them to participate, thank them anyway. We all like to be appreciated for the efforts we make. Everybody is all subjective in terms of everyone has a different opinion on performance. Early on I learned that it’s important to say thank you. When you don’t say thank you, there’s animosity. There’s a wedge there between the leadership and the people that work for you. I’m always big to say thank you. I would say that was my biggest leadership mistake I learned early on is I didn’t have an attitude of gratitude for the people that worked for me. I learned that quickly by modeling the great leaders that I had the opportunity to work with.
Who has been an inspiration for you in your life?
My wife. We have three children. My wife has said, “I am going to be here for you to encourage you to do what you can do in terms of pursuing your passion.” She did an amazing job of helping me with the kids. She did a lot of homeschool for a period of time where they needed to be homeschooled. We have a special needs child and watching her never give up and watching her efforts make the difference for success for our child was huge. Her doing that while I’m saying, I’ve got to go to DC. I’ve got to have some meetings.” Her being there for me to do that was instrumental. She’s my biggest inspiration for this. I will have to share this with her, the wins and sometimes material things or appreciation but say, “I appreciate you sticking it out when we didn’t have enough money to pay the bills and to fix the microwave.”
That’s precious to have that rock and support at home so that you can feel free and not stressed about building something that can become a legacy because of what you’re doing. What is your wife’s name?
Her name is Paige. I tell everybody that if it wasn’t for Paige, this never would’ve happened. Everybody has their startup business horror stories. Mine was, I lost two clients right off the bat and that was my only revenue. I had to make the decisions to pursue this, I had a passion for it. There’s nothing wrong if they get a job. There are a lot of great jobs out there they could have done. She said, “You’re going to have to sell your stuff.” I go, “What?” “You’ve got to sell all of it.” I’m like, “You’re okay with that.” At that time, I’d already made a career.
We’re starting from scratch, struggling with cashflow and she said, “You’re going to have to sell the Mercedes.” I’m like, “Okay.” She’s like, “Your truck, your camper, your house in Pennsylvania. You’ve got to sell everything.” She even volunteered her jewelry. She was like, “Here, take this to the pawnshop. Let’s pay the mortgage for this.” She’s a rock-solid. Somebody had the vision with me and she said, “Go do it.” She found the minivan that we drove for four years. I can’t stand minivans. God bless people who do but it’s not my favorite. It was good when the kids were little. She found it for me. She’s like, “This is what we’re going to do. You’ve got to have this.” That was the only vehicle we drove early in 2014. We only had one vehicle instead of two for her to have what she needed. We scheduled time around the vehicle for the kids and what they had to do.
That’s how you make it work. You had a solid partnership at home to model with as you were now developing your identity in your company to build from. It almost seems like, “I’m taking this and modeling it for what we’re building over here.” That collaborative partnership. Let’s do what it takes to get it done.
I would give it up and say, “This is hard. Give me a reason not to do this.” Give me a reason to say, “I’m going to take that job. Would it be okay?” She said, “If you want to do it, you’ve got to sell your stuff.” She’s on-board the whole time and that’s not easy.
It’s not easy at all. Is it a boy or girl that has special needs?
Does he inspire you as well to keep going?
Every parent thinks this and I know a lot of people vocalize it. Kids make you a better person. They teach you patience. They teach you compassion. They teach you to be a good listener. They teach you serve and leadership because let’s face it, when they’re little even they’re a little older, there’s this certain amount the parents have to have. If you’re the parent, you’ve got to help and set them up for success in whatever they want to do. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. My hats are off to the moms.
What advice would you give your children about being a confident leader with all the experience that you have?
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Know who you are, know your strengths, and know how to tap into those when times get tough.
What’s even more important too is knowing your blind spots, understanding the things that trigger you whether you want to hold onto those things or not. We call them back of the t-shirt when we’re talking with leaders. What are at the back of the t-shirts stuff for you? What is one of the things that you can’t do, difficult for you, or trigger you so that when it comes your way, you know how to handle it? That’s important I believe too. Understanding not just your strengths but also what things make you go in the opposite direction. You could quit if you didn’t have someone pushing you to success.
That’s part of knowing yourself too. It’s like, “Where do I stop this process? Who do I have around me and my team that’s going to help me drive through this instead of stopping where I would normally stop?” You talked about your wife so beautifully, how she was the strength in your life, and has also been a catalyst for this business to keep growing. If we’re talking to someone coming out of the military now, what are those transferable soft skills that you would be looking for or you would tell someone that can help build their confidence when they start becoming uncomfortable?
The drive to accomplish the mission. If you leave the military, you understand mission statements, mission intent. You understand that mission is a goal. They know how to accomplish a goal. They know how to work as a team. Relevant to what’s going on in the country, the diversity debate, there’s no better person who understands the power of diversity than the veteran because veterans come from all walks of life from every part of the country and they’re thrown together. They’d have to rely on each other early for their lives to accomplish goals.
That bond is a great marker for the rest of us to model, the rest of those that aren’t in the military, those are watching what’s going on in television, some of the friction and this unity. I would say look to the military. Look what these guys are doing. These guys and gals. They’re doing these phenomenal selfless things and they come from every walk of life, religion, creed, color, you name it, phenomenal people and phenomenal organizations.The ability to get along with anybody is the best soft skill that military veterans can take wherever they go. Click To Tweet
That’s amazing because it is so true. You are thrown together and you have to become this family, this team that has each other’s back. You can’t be, “You’re not from my neighborhood or you don’t understand what I’ve been through.” It doesn’t matter because we all are in this together, we all have to work together, and we have to figure it out. Let’s find a way to figure it out.
You can figure it out with anybody. You can get along with anybody. I would say it’s the best soft skill for military members, they can get along with anyone.
I think sometimes they come out and they feel a little lost.
That’s part of it. You’re used to that, you leave that structure and that amazing organization that’s set up to help everyone be successful, work together, and you don’t have that. You’ve got to find that next group, support, or team that you’re going to feel a part of. That’s going to be normal and stick with your gut. Know your abilities. They can work in any group with anyone to accomplish a goal or mission. They’re hardworking. They know the value of being on time. A lot of people think that’s silly to say, it’s old fashioned. You’ve got to be on time.
The military understands time and being precise. They understand how to integrate with the culture. They wear t-shirts. For me, it was like, “Amazon wears t-shirts and shorts.” It’s uniform, I’ll do that. They say instantly, “You understand they should wear a collared shirt.” “It’s okay.” This is what they do. This is their culture. You’d be part of their culture and work with them to do great things. They know how to do that. They know how to assimilate and how to lead and follow at the same time. They have that serve and leadership. I believe that they know when it’s their turn to implicate on that. “I need to support the leadership as best as I can with my talents and skills.” They have amazing soft skills. They need to drive through that discomfort and lack of confidence in something new. Know that just to get into the military now is difficult. All the things they’ve done, they attest to the fact that they’re a successful person and they’re needed in a lot of organizations to be contributors.
It’s important to write those things out. Don’t think about it but sit down, write those skills, and those attributes out. When you go in for an interview or when you’re seeking an opportunity, sometimes you may not have it on the resume because you’ve been serving in the military the things that they’re looking for but then you have that x-factor that they don’t even know yet that they’re looking for that. If you’re trainable, if you can learn any skill, if you’re open to learning, you can learn how to do anything. There are some things that if you can articulate to a potential employer, I’m on time. I’m a team player. I can solve problems. We’ve been taught how to solve problems.
When you articulate those things, that builds your confidence too. As I was saying with the pageant, I knew who I was. I know what I bring to the table. Nothing that anyone else says will dissuade me or distract me because I know what I have. When you know those things and you can articulate those things to someone for them to say, “We want you because we think that we can teach you what you need to do. These other things that you’re telling us, this is what we need.” It’s important to write it down.
That’s a confidence builder for sure.
It definitely is a confidence builder. How long have you been on the Inc. 5000 list? How did you celebrate that and what are your plans for the future? That’s three-parter.
This is the first time we’ve been on the list. This is a big deal. What did we do when we found out we’re on the list? Not a whole lot. We had some balloons and we had a little barbecue. We’re working. We have staff going on. All the employees, that’s it. We went back to work. We’re like, “High five, what’s next?” We got back to doing what got us on the list in the first place. That’s pursuing excellence for our customers and clients. At the end of the day, we take that approach here with each other.
We also take it with our clients when we have a client. We have a lot of customers, our clients or our customers. If they have new products they want to introduce to the government, they’re our customers. We want to make sure what do they need to have happened? What do they need us to do for them? How do we help the veterans with this? How do we help the procurement people make it easier for them? Everybody is a customer so we’re busy making the customer happy. It’s customer-focused events here.
The last thing is I see us growing. I’m not sure what that looks like in terms of numbers. I have the vision to be double. I have 24 employees. We have a building we’re going to build. We’re working with the county to develop our first flagship headquarters and fulfillment center together in Santa Rosa County, Florida where we anticipate it will be a place holder for about 90 additional jobs once we’re in full swing for our future goals. I see us growing but maintain that culture of a small company when you were a small startup. Our goal is to keep doing what we’re doing and do more of it.
Finally, I do want to say when we spoke first, I interviewed you for an insights paper that I’m writing about how this pandemic has affected your company and your business. I was impressed because you said, “No one was furloughed nothing. In fact, the team became more cohesive.” You guys jelled more. Do you want to speak a little bit about that?
For me, as the leader here talking about audacious confidence, I was confident we could survive. Was I concerned? Sure. It was completely different. No one had ever seen anything like this especially economically with the shutdowns and things. People weren’t doing surgeries or numbers were dropping. I shared all that with my employees. I shared it with the team. I said, “This isn’t easy. The things we’re going to do. We’re not going to furlough.” We didn’t furlough but we did say, “These are the things we’re going to have to do to survive. We had to pivot to do things that we normally don’t do to continue the revenue, to keep everybody here, and to continue on with the things we have as our goals.”
I noticed the more I shared with them, I had confidence in them that I hired the right people to where I let them know what was going on. They didn’t candy it or anything. I said, “This is going on, people. We need to do this, this and this.” They rose to the challenge. I’m still impressed. We all grew from it. I learned that I can trust people. I don’t have to do it all myself. I would say one of my weaknesses is I like to do everything myself. I’m bad at delegation. What I’ve learned is as the company grows, you can’t do everything yourself, you’ve got to let it go. They taught me I could and they helped me with that. I thank them for that. Thanks for letting me have a life. Thanks for letting me go home and not have to work until 11:00 at night fulfilling purchase orders.
One of the hardest things leaders have to understand is they can trust other people to let some stuff go. I enjoyed this. I hope you enjoyed it too.
I loved it. It’s an honor to be on with you. I appreciate it.
Is there something you want to share before we close on anything, leadership, being bold, being confident?
I would say two things. The veterans out there, people, be confident. You can do it whether you’re applying for a job or you’re going to do a startup. You have the ability to do it and if you’re uncomfortable, go do it. To the potential employers out there, if you don’t take a veteran and put them on the top of your list for candidates, you’re going to miss a great opportunity for the staff, how to force multiplier for your organization. Veterans are bringing a ton to an organization and you won’t be sorry to hire them.
With that, we’re going to close out this interview. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see you next time.