With 26 years in the military under his belt, Matt Drayton has learned a thing or two about leadership. He started out as a logistician in the Army, moved into operations, and was deployed to Iraq in 2003. “At one point in my career, I was gone about 200 days a year,” he recalls. “Nothing broadens your horizons and makes you appreciate what you have like travel.” While he retired from active duty in 2004, he went on to serve another 14 years as a senior Department of Defense civilian for the US Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. Now, Drayton shares his 40+ years of accumulated knowledge with both corporate clients and at-risk youth through his work as a speaker, writer and mentor.
What he learned in the military about leadership and about planning, coordinating, and synchronizing military and training missions is broadly applicable, says Drayton. He started Drayton Communications when he became a DOD civilian and began mentoring at-risk youth in North Carolina through a local not-for-profit. Having grown up in an underprivileged environment in Georgia, he originally saw the Army as his way out; it turned out to be a path to financial independence. Mentoring was Drayton’s way to give back to the kinds of kids he had grown up with.
Drayton’s transition from operations specialist to speaker and writer came naturally, he says. “If you stay in [the military] as long as I did, you're required to do a lot of briefings, you're required to get in front of people and talk,” he says. When he became a civilian, he realized that much of what he had learned about leadership and management would be useful to corporate leaders. Among his most important tips for leaders are:
1. Listen with a commitment to understand, not merely to answer. “I think so many problems can be solved if we just listen,” Drayton says. “Getting to know people who are on your team on a personal level, especially if you're in charge of them, is very, very important.”
2. Small problems, unaddressed, become big problems. “A lot of times in organizations, people are non-confrontational, so they don't want to address things. What I have found throughout my career is that if there's a slight problem and you don't address it, it rarely gets better on its own,” says Drayton.
3. Always have a backup plan. “When you plan something, have a couple of contingencies,” says Drayton. “Rarely in business do things go exactly as planned. If you have a backup plan, then you can just keep moving forward with less delay.”
While it would have been difficult to have a backup plan in the event of a pandemic, Drayton felt lucky that he did have a passion that he could focus on when his speaking gigs dried up in 2020. He loves to exercise and actually got his personal trainer certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine several years ago. “I didn't get it for any other reason other than to understand exercise science better myself, so I could take care of myself,” he says. But after he was certified, he felt compelled to share his knowledge with others and worked at a commercial gym, a hospital fitness center, and a high-end spa. During the pandemic, he offered online training sessions to individuals through Trainerize. “I’ve worked with multiple clients and had a lot of success helping people get in shape,” he says. Recently, he’s seen his in-person speaking bookings begin to pick up.
Drayton has always enjoyed writing and was attracted to Newsweek Expert Forum because of its brand prestige. “Newsweek is a well-known established brand in journalism. I enjoy the opportunity to write and the exposure that it gives,” Drayton said. He contributes frequently to Expert Panels, which he shares with his network; he also participates in monthly virtual meet-ups with other members of the forum. “It’s a community of like-minded people who share good information,” says Drayton. “I’ve enjoyed this past year, and being able to write about some really relevant topics.”