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#4: Singing With A Four-Star Army General

Of all the marketing projects I’ve worked on, one that truly stands out from the rest is the one where I found myself one evening wearing a tie, sitting down at a table at a five-star hotel in the Rocky Mountains, eating salmon and steak and listening to a four-star army general singing a Frank Sinatra song.

Episode Transcript

I have a cool job. As a self-employed marketing guy, I sometimes get so caught up in the daily grind of running my own business, just trying to keep the lights on, that I forget just how cool it can be. Marketing is a fascinating field, and being my own boss means I have the freedom to look for opportunities that other people might not have.

I get to work with people from a wide range of industries and business models, and the clients I have are so different from each other that every day brings something new. When I wake up each morning, I never know exactly how the day will go. And, oftentimes, the projects I’m working on have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

For example, I could start my day talking to a local plumbing company about video advertisements in the morning, troubleshoot tax tables with an accountant for an eCommerce website that sells acne cream just before lunch. After talking my daily walk in the afternoon, I might have a Zoom video conference with a choral group about the best options I’ve found for live-streaming their concerts, and, finally, right before heading home for the evening, I may review the inventory of weather balloons for a company that provides meteorological equipment to the government for atmospheric research. In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a small glimpse into what my day looked like just a few weeks ago.

Of all the projects I’ve worked on, though, one that truly stands out from the rest is the one where I found myself one evening wearing a tie, sitting down at a table at a five-star hotel in the rocky mountains, eating salmon and steak, and listening to a four-star Army general singing a Frank Sinatra song.

If that sounds interesting to you… keep listening, ’cause I’m going to tell you all about it. (And really, even I want to listen to this one because that sounds fascinating to me!)

Several years ago, when I lived in Colorado, I was leading a small “think tank” for organizations based in Colorado Springs. The group was called COSthink, as in “Colorado Springs + think.” A few years earlier, several marketing whizzes in the area had started the group to… well, I’m still not exactly clear on what the original purpose was. But by the time I had heard of the group, it sounded like a sort of coffee club that met once per month where a variety of people attended, and discussions were held about various marketing challenges that some groups in the region were facing.

Right before I got involved, the group was about to fold or morph into something different. The guy who was leading it at the time was changing jobs and didn’t have time to keep it going anymore and asked if I wanted to.

I thought about it and decided I didn’t need one more coffee club in my life but said I would take it over if we could come to an agreement about four things:

  1. We had to define exactly what the group’s purpose was.
  2. We needed to decide who was actually going to be a part of it (i.e., no more revolving doors).
  3. We would not just talk but actually take meaningful actions toward a measurable outcome. And,
  4. If all the above were met, I would commit to lead it for one year.

When I called the first meeting, we had a sort of “determine the relationship” conversation of sorts where I asked all the attendees how committed they were to the group.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this loose group of folks who got together for coffee sometimes actually agreed to the rules I laid out in the beginning, and they helped me create concrete steps for what would come next. After some deliberation, we even came up with a tag line:
“COSthink: a Colorado Springs marketing team empowering organizations to tell their stories and improve our community.”

Basically, we wanted the group to be local people helping local organizations, specifically by telling their stories since many organizations can’t or don’t do it very well. And, in doing so, we would improve our community.

We decided to meet every two weeks, come up with a plan for the types of marketing help we would offer local organizations, and then set up a sort of application process, where local community organizations (nonprofits mostly, but not necessarily) could apply for marketing help. We would then work with them to carve out a clearly defined scope of actions, explaining what we would and would not do, and then put a timeline on it.

If memory serves, we decided our projects would last three months: we’d collect requests for assistance, review them, vote on who we wanted to work with, and then act as a sort of ad-hoc marketing committee to help the selected organization with their particular challenge, then give them a detailed set of recommendations, action items, and deliverables, all by the end of month three.

This was great! What once was a “social club” looking for meaning now had a new meeting location, a new meeting time, members who committed to showing up and doing actual work, and a mission we could be proud of. This, to me, was worth getting up at 6:30 in the morning a couple times a month, even if I never made a dollar from it.

Okay, so you may be wondering now… “what does any of this have to do with a singing general?” Trust me. I’m building to that.

One of the groups that approached COSthink during this time was a local nonprofit that helped offer financial assistance for military veterans and their families who live in Colorado. When I say financial assistance, I don’t mean school scholarships, though… I mean, they took care of people who had requests that sounded like “My husband is deployed in Afghanistan, and I’m stuck at home with our three-month old baby, [and our furnace just stopped working.] I have a quote from a local HVAC company that says it will cost $3,800 to fix it, and I can’t afford that, but it’s the middle of winter. Can you help me?” The group would then make some phone calls to their board members and review the financial request, and if approved, issue payment to cover the emergency need very quickly. Sometimes, the same day, or next day. Their priorities for funding were (according to my original notes, which I happen to have in front of me right now): #1: rental assistance, #2: utility assistance, and #3: food assistance.

Wow. This group was a slam dunk: we certainly wanted to empower this organization to “tell their story” and improve our community. How could we say no?

Their particular marketing challenge was a pretty common one. Like most nonprofits, they were mostly volunteer-driven, and they didn’t have staff members to help them with marketing. I could get into a lot of the nitty-gritty details about exactly what we did and how we helped them and that sort of thing, but that part gets kind of boring.

All that really matters is that they came to us looking for help, we learned a lot about their organization in a three-month period, came up with a plan to help them solve their problem, and we were there to help them implement it and offer support afterward.

As far as I can tell, it was a successful effort. I had a blast throughout the process, and I think the organization learned a lot, and hopefully, they were able to implement our help to better their marketing efforts.

But that’s not what this episode is about. It’s about what happened next. But I bring all that up because context is important. What happened next was… My contact at the organization in question let me know that their annual fundraising dinner was coming up. This was their big end of year event where they would collect a chunk of the funds they use to help fill their coffers to actually pay for these financial gifts they give to military members. My new friend had a few tickets he could offer to people who helped the organization at no cost.

Once again, how could I say no? Several of us from the group were able to make it, and we were each able to bring a guest. This event was going to be a big, high-falutin’ deal: it was hosted at the Broadmoor Hotel, by the most famous hotel in the Pikes Peak region. The Broadmoor loves to tout its credentials as a “five-star, five-diamond resort… truly unique in the luxury resort market.” (Sidenote: I can’t argue with this: I used to work in hospitality at a different hotel in Colorado Springs, and everybody knew that the Broadmoor was the gold standard).

Since I knew it would be a formal gathering, I told my wife she could buy a new dress for the occasion. She was excited because it would be fun and fancy. I was excited to go because I’d never actually been to the Broadmoor.

The night of the dinner, while we were getting ready to go, I started thinking: “What is this event going to be like? I really had no idea what to expect. I’m not in the military, I’ve never been in the military, and I don’t really come from a military family. My grandfather was an Air Force Pilot, and one of my uncles was a Marine, but I didn’t grow up in a military house, and I’ve never had to live with deployments, moving every two years, and other aspects of military life. So I wondered to myself: “Am I going to feel completely out of place tonight? Am I going to be the only one with no military connection at all?”

Since it was a formal affair, I decided to put on a tie. And, let me tell you that was a big deal for me. I had to borrow my little brother’s tie for the event because, back then, I didn’t own any ties, and I didn’t know how to tie one. I had to have my little brother tie my tie for me.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were a little bit late. So by the time we walked into the ballroom, almost all of the tables were full. And as I surveyed the audience, what I’d suspected was exactly right: almost everyone there was military except my wife and me. At least there were a few other civilians at the table I was sitting at, with m fellow marketing people. The dinner was fantastic: salad, salmon, steak, red wine, white wine, and cheesecake and coffee to top it off. The keynote speaker for the evening was General Martin Dempsey, who at the time was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That means he was the highest-ranking military officer in the United States of America. There’s only one person who outranks the Chairman, and that’s the President.

So, I was very excited to see him and hear him speak. This would be an incredibly rare opportunity for a civilian like myself, with no military background at all.

About halfway through dinner, the presentation started, and the opening speaker introduced us to the organization, who they are, what they do, and why it mattered. But then the lady on stage asked a question that completely took me by surprise: “Are there any World War II veterans in the house? If so, please stand and be recognized.” A handful of people stood, and I sat in amazement as the room filled with thunderous applause. At that moment, my relaxed, wine-saturated grin faded, and I forgot all about the lighthearted conversation I had been having at my table. The heaviness of the moment weighed on me, and I thought to myself: “I am in the presence of greatness here. I am sitting next to America’s greatest generation. These are heroes who fought in the Great War.”

Well, after that sobering introduction, the emcee told us to pick up the small booklet that had been sitting on our seats when we walked in. I hadn’t even noticed that there was a booklet on our seats when we walked in; I must have just set it on the table or under my seat or something. But now, I picked it up and noticed that it was a World War II songbook. I flipped through the pages, and I saw lyrics for songs such as ‘This Is The Army Mr. Jones, “On A Wing And A Prayer,” “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition,” and I wondered, “Wow, are we going to stand up and sing these songs? That would be funny.”

…and that’s exactly what we did. There was a piano player up by the front of the stage, and he began to play these historic fighting songs. This was a little bit awkward for me, and I wondered what to do: I didn’t know any of the songs since I hadn’t heard most of them before. I figured, though, it would be like in church–you know, where you just try to listen to someone standing near you who sounds like they know the tune. I stood there, holding the songbook in my hand, soaking it all in, completely overwhelmed.

Time for a commercial break! Well, actually, since this podcast is brand new, and I barely have enough time to come up with the episodes in the first place, I don’t have a sponsor yet… except for myself. Since I run my own business, technically, everything I do in life is funded by my company. So, with that said… Micron is made possible by Lieder Digital. Lieder Digital is a digital agency for small businesses that don’t want to stay small: we design, build, and host websites, then provide internet marketing services including search engine marketing, digital ads, blogging, email newsletters, social media management, and much more. Most importantly–we make your phone ring. If you have a business with a website that sucks or if your marketing needs help in a serious way, visit liederdigital.com and get in touch ASAP. Seriously, it’s my company: if you contact Lieder Digital, you’ll be talking to me–the host of this show. How cool is that? Once again, visit liederdigital.com that’s l-i-e-d-e-r digital dot com, and get in touch, and I will be happy to help you harness the power of the internet to spread your company’s message online while will grow your business and make your phone ring. All right, all right, back to the podcast.

Here I was, a young marketing guy, eating a nice dinner, in a very fancy hotel, with World War II veterans, singing battle songs that they probably sang in actual battle at one point, fighting Nazis, perhaps somewhere in France, or Germany, or half the world away in Africa, not knowing whether they would come home alive, not knowing what we now know as obvious fact–that we would actually win the war.

A lump formed in my throat and my hands started shaking. By the third song, I was so choked up at these thoughts; I couldn’t even sing. I set the songbook down on my chair and folded my hands. Everyone else continued to sing: they sang “Anchors Aweigh,” “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder,” “The Marines Hymn,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” After we’d made it through all the songs, the piano player started playing a familiar ditty; the intro to the old Frank Sinatra tune “New York, New York.” At this point, I was confused because I didn’t’ see the song anywhere in the songbook. Then, the pianist leaned into his microphone and said: “Let’s see if we can get General Dempsey to come on up here and sing for us.” The audience, and I, laughed because that was a funny joke… or so I thought.

As the piano tinkled that famous intro, all of a sudden, General Dempsey jumped up from his chair, ran onto the stage, grabbed a microphone, and belted out the first line: “Start spreading the news…” We erupted in laughter and applause as we watched the nation’s highest-ranking military officer sing karaoke for us.

He finished the song, then walked up to the lectern then started giving a speech. I’m sure what he said was profound and important, but I honestly don’t remember a whole lot other than the fact that he said the military had always been here for us, and this evening’s fundraiser was a great opportunity for us to now return the favor and be there for our military members.

General Dempsey was an impressive guy; I just don’t remember a whole lot because the evening was so surreal to me, my head was spinning at what a fun and crazy evening it was, and… how was it possible that I could even be a part of it?

When he got done speaking, we had dessert and stayed for a little while, chatting with each other; then, when the evening was over, and people started shuffling out the building, I saw the General standing over by the wall with a group of military folks lined up to meet him, shaking his hand.

I thought to myself: “I wonder if I could walk there and say hi to the General and introduce myself. So I told my wife, “let’s go see if we can meet him.” I awkwardly walked his direction with droves of other people, mostly soldiers. He was surrounded by men in black suits, probably secret service agents, and as I stood waiting in line to meet him, a voice inside my head started asking me, “Wait a minute… this is silly. What am I doing here? What on earth am I going to say to him? I’ve never met a four-star General before. I never met any General before! I’m not even in the military. Am I wasting his time?” Standing in line, I kept inching closer, trying to talk myself out of it. I kept wondering… where do I start? Should I crack a joke? Is this the time to be funny? Should I say something very serious and profound? All I hoped for was that my mind wouldn’t go blank or that I wouldn’t say something stupid.

Finally, it was my turn, and I timidly walked forward and held out my hand. I thanked him for his service, for coming to Colorado Springs, and for supporting the nonprofit that I had helped support. He told me that he loves coming to Colorado Springs and loves staying at the Broadmoor. It’s one of his very favorite places to visit whenever he got a chance. Then he pointed over to my wife, and said “and who’s this lovely lady?” (Did you hear that? A four-star general said that my wife is a lovely lady).

We all got a photo together, and… that was it. I thanked the general, and we left the hotel. Afterward, I started following him on Twitter and liked his page on Facebook so I can see what he’s up to. And I was just struck with this thought: what an incredible place we live in, isn’t it? I can meet the man who runs the entire military, and just walk right up to him and shake his hand, and then connect with him on social media afterward. I’ve always been appreciative of our military, but this event really drove home for me what a sacrifice it really can be for people serving in the military and how often we forget to thank those people or find ways to help them in their time of need. And I was just very thankful that I could be an average civilian just sitting at a table, eating steak at a nice hotel because of the sacrifices that other people in that same room had made.

It was a great event. I was glad to be a part of it. I was really glad to meet General Dempsey, and most of all, I was glad to hear him sing. Apparently, he’s got a reputation for it and performs publicly on a regular basis, at least a song or two here and there.

And how cool is that that a four-star general who leads our military has the time to pursue fun things like singing on stage for audiences? As I reflect on all of this, I think the moral of the story is: never turn down an opportunity to lead a disorganized marketing group that meets for coffee once a month. You never know what’s going to happen, where you’ll end up, and who you’ll meet along the way.

Or something like that.

Thanks for listening.

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