Veterans in the Native American Workplace: Strength of Teamwork and a Higher Mission

Pictured left to right: Chris Carter, Brady Scott, Doug Wells and Erik Sell
Interview by Christine Faria with Tribal One’s Erik Sell, Senior Vice President, United States Air Force, retired; Dr. Douglas Wells, Business Development Executive, United States Air Force, retired, Chris Carter, Regional Director of Construction and Business Development, United States Air Force, retired, and Brady Scott, CEO, Tribal One Development and Coquille Tribal Member.

In honor of Veterans Day, TG&H spoke with members of Tribal One, the Mith-ih-Kwuh Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a federally-chartered corporation that is 100% owned by the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon.

Tribal One has been a successful entity since 2011 with a diverse team including several military veterans. We took the opportunity to chat with a few of their leaders about their success and the synergies these military veterans have found working for a Tribe.

Christine: Brady, in a nutshell, explain the work that Tribal One is involved with especially in the construction arena. 

Brady: Tribal One does contracting in the federal government market, primarily in construction, doing everything from communication infrastructure to historic building renovation and heavy civil airfield paving and more.

Christine: Doug, you talked about working for the Tribe and that it’s about the bigger picture. You said, “At the end of the day, the company needs to make money, but there is a bigger sense of purpose, about community and family.” What does that mean to you and how does that shape how you do business development?

Doug: This question is kind of addressed above, but in its applications to business development, we are playing the long game, we are starting our 10th year, we have grown this company slowly, methodically, and organically. We love building our team of all-stars with a strong developmental squad. In addition, we are always looking for great teaming partners. As I mentioned, we are in for the long game so we know that every job we do could be our last if we don’t perform to standard.

  • We communicate constantly, we take people at their word, we give our word and we deliver. 
  • We understand the government we believe in the mission and like a family we will stick it out through tough times. 
  • We believe there is nothing we can’t communicate through, if all involved are willing to put pride to the side and focus on the mission challenge in front of us, we will figure it out a solution.
  • We will always be there to deliver on the mission and our willingness to partner with our clients is truly unmatched. 

Business development is about relationships and performance, relationships take time as you must build that trust and do what you say you are going to do.  Our past performance speaks for itself and our list of projects and 10 years in the business indicate we have a strong family that sticks together.  The Tribe has stuck behind us in good and bad times and that gives our team confidence. The team/family oriented culture focused on taking care of our people makes Tribal One a very fun place to work. We love supporting the Coquille Tribe and performing mission critical projects for our clients.

Christine: Brady, you have several veterans working for you at Tribal One. What have you learned from working with a team that comes from a military, particularly a civil engineering and infrastructure background?

Brady: The first thing that comes to mind is that I work with highly trained leaders; leaders who went through one of the most intense leadership settings through the Air Force Academy. It is refreshing to have a team with such a strong intentional culture around mission and performance. It has helped me appreciate how much veterans bring to the table in the business world and whatever they may lack in civilian business experience they make up in commitment and an approach to doing things right. They are exciting to work with; they have a way of communicating with each other without requiring a lot of debate … they get it done.

Christine: Chris, Brady mentioned that you have a way of communicating that “Gets the job done.” What do you think he meant by that?

Chris: There is a level of experience veterans share. Veterans know they will have to get the job done by defining the mission training, and executing the mission. This is the same with executing construction projects.There is a level of trust working with other veterans, they’ll dig deep, fight hard, and set their owners and clients up for success.

Christine: Brady, is there any type of training or management component you have integrated into your Tribe’s business that is directly inspired by this military influence?  

Brady: What they bring to the company in terms of their leadership training and experience has helped build the culture in ways that might otherwise have required formalized training efforts. They know how to build teams in due course of business.

Christine: Erik, you and I were talking about how many employers do not understand the capabilities and qualities that veterans bring to the workplace. Specifically, you said that most folks equate veterans with PTSD and their skills are around combat. Clear the air here. 

Erik: Yes, thank you for the question Christine. I’m speaking from my personal experience and from talking to other vets about their transition from the military to the civilian sector.  After I retired from the USAF and started looking for a second career, it became very apparent to me that many civilian employers that have not been exposed to the military or veterans and had no idea of my capabilities or the indispensable job skills that are engrained in almost every veteran throughout their service. 

For myself and many others, it feels like no matter what we put on a resume or say in an interview the civilian sector sees most veterans as combat troops with potential PTSD issues.  This is frustrating, and while yes most veterans are taught combat skills we are also taught a multitude of highly technical skills that directly translate into he civilian workforce.  Skills such as low voltage data installation, construction trades, auto and aircraft mechanic skills, project management and the list goes on and on. It’s these skillsets most veterans use on a daily basis in the military as opposed to our combat skills.

Additionally, coupled with these technical skills, veterans are typically good communicators,  extremely honest, disciplined, hardworking, dedicated employees and are probably some of the best leaders a company could ever hire.  While it is true many veterans have “been through a lot” it is these experiences that give them the grit to push through tough tasks and the ingenuity to figure out a way to get things done when the job may seem impossible to others. These experiences and “soft skills” are what I believe set veterans apart and should make them sought after employees.

Christine: Doug, let’s talk about team building and building a culture of trust. You said that there is a connection with the Tribe that was like what you experienced in the military and that you didn’t find in other businesses. Tell me what you mean by that.  

Like the Air Force, the Tribe has core values. The Tribe is not solely focused on profit and the profit they do make they invest in the Tribe/Community.  In the service we have a mission and everyone is working toward that same mission. The Tribe has a mission to support its people and community. In the AF our Core Values were Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in all we do.

In addition, we are heavily trained in leadership and the three of the main tenets in leadership are:  “Lead by Example,” “Know your People,” and “Know your Job.”  As you can see from the below tribal core values listed below they are People Focused and Service Oriented. Building a team is about your people.  You are selecting people who you feel match your desired culture or will enhance your culture. I think if your people know you truly care about them, trust becomes easy. We work hard to build our people up and invest in them. I know Erik feels the same way – we love our people and we love watching them grow. The Air Force was like being in a big family and working for the Tribe feels like a family.

As a sovereign nation we dedicate ourselves to:

  • Promoting the health and well-being of Tribal members and our community
  • Providing equitable opportunities, experiences and services to all Tribal members
  • Taking care of our old people
  • Educating our children
  • Practicing the culture and traditions of potlatch
  • Considering the impacts to our people, land, water, air and all living things
  • Practicing responsible stewardship of Tribal resources
Pictured right: Chris Carter and Erik Sell in Bagram, Afghanistan, 2005

Christine: Brady … Doug had brought up how very important it was to provide excellent value to the government and ultimately taxpayers. Chris said it was very important that “We get to support the mission of the government entity we’re working for.” What are your thoughts on this?

Brady: I love having that part of our mission is that we want to be a high value provider and how committed the team is to this. There is no doubt we provide excellent work. A low bidder might find every way to cut corners. There will always be people only focused on money. But we all believe that the right way to profit is to build relationships and provide an amazing outcome.

Christine: Erik, as someone who has a very long and successful career in the Air Force, would you encourage Tribal youth to consider time in our modern military? What skills could they bring back to their Tribes that perhaps they are not aware of?

Erik: Personally, I feel there is no better way young person can spend a few years of their adult life than in service to our great nation. So yes, I would absolutely encourage Tribal youth to consider serving. In addition to the things I mentioned above the military gives you a greater appreciation for the freedoms we often times take for granted in  this country, it builds and develops strong interpersonal skills, and gives people a great appreciation for the diversity of America, and finally, it provides an awesome opportunity to access higher education.

Christine: Chris, you have a team that is made up of both ex-military and civilian employees and the work you do is primarily in the government sector. Why do you believe your company is so successful?  

Chris: In respect to working in the government sector, now that we’re on the “outside” we can articulate with our clients better than some companies because we’ve walked in the shoes of our current clients—we were the client relying on federal construction contractors to take care of us in while we were in the military. Within Tribal One, the folks we work with who are not veterans, they are awesome, and it adds to making our company culture bigger and better. It’s a win-win, the benefit is that the government receives high value, and our profits support the Coquille Tribe.

Christine: Chris, how has your extensive leadership training in the military impacted the team you work with at Tribal One?

Chris: There have been challenging projects the last two years due to COVID; the “great resignation” is still going on. My team has stuck together, has stayed positive and we are on the same page. I believe mentorship and leadership played a role in making that happen.

In addition, you can also see the impact of leadership on large projects: you visit a large construction site  where you have framers, roofers, electricians, all different backgrounds and disciplines. Experienced leadership can get everyone on the “same sheet of music” and the end result is a successfully orchestrated project.

Christine: Doug and Erik – on this Veteran’s Day, what do you believe is the best way we can support our current military families and veterans? 

Doug: If you see a veteran, tell them “thank you” for caring so much about our country that they were willing to serve, make a donation to your favorite vets organization. Put your flag up. The suicide rate amongst veterans is a brutal statistic, and I don’t think the general population understands the stresses and sacrifices our troops and their families make.

Erik: A simple smile and a “thank you for your service” means more to veterans than most people will ever realize. While most of us typically fumble with how to respond to a thank you and may be a little embarrassed by it, it means a lot to us.

It is with much gratitude we say thank you for your service to our Veterans today. Thank you to the Tribal One team for their time and candid words.