Tom Deierlein – Co-Founder & CEO, ThunderCat Technology

Tom Deierlein is a West Point graduate, successful serial entrepreneur, Airborne Ranger, combat-wounded military veteran, and philanthropist who co-founded the TD Foundation. He is passionate about leadership development, business ethics, sales, overcoming adversity, and helping others less fortunate, both locally and globally.

Tom was recently named “EY Entrepreneur of the Year” and is the co-founder and CEO of ThunderCat Technology, a systems integrator that specializes in data center solutions for the Federal government. Founded only 7 years ago, ThunderCat is already ranked #60 on the “VAR 500” and was named by Forbes as one of “America’s Most Promising Companies.”

Tom has been a single digit employee and C-level executive at many successful startup and early-stage companies, including as chief operating officer of Dynamic Logic, a digital media startup he helped to bring from a 7-person operation with less than $1M in revenues into a 125 person, clear market leader. He helped lead the acquisition of DL by WPP in 2005. Previously, he was the NYC branch manager for NetGravity (IPO in 1998 and now a part of Google).

Tom started his career in sales working for Johnson & Johnson and Parametric Technology Corporation in the mid-90s. Tom is also a partner in a real estate investment firm, Bull Run Properties, LLC, based in Kansas City, Missouri. A Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, Tom is a retired U.S. Army major and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” veteran. Graduating from USMA, West Point in 1989, Tom spent nearly five years in the military, first earning his Airborne Ranger qualification and then onto various leadership positions with the Berlin Brigade. In late 2005, Tom was recalled to active duty serving as a civil affairs officer in East Baghdad. After graduating from the JFK Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, he helped manage over $290 million in reconstruction and economic development projects.

In September 2006, he was shot by a sniper and critically wounded. After 8 months of intensive care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the VA Polytrauma Spinal Cord Rehab Center in Tampa, Florida, Tom returned to the business world in June 2007. He has been quoted and featured in The New York Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Parade, FOX News, MSNBC.com, SmartCEO, and NBC Nightly News.

In Fall 2006, a foundation was started by Tom and others to assist children impacted by war Iraqi and Afghan Children. This includes the children of wounded warriors and fallen heroes. To date, they have provided more than 50 life-saving surgeries, more than $200,000 in school supplies, and more than $25,000 in vitamins. Additionally, Tom is a certified peer mentor with the Wounded Warrior Project, and mentor with Care Coalition. He coaches other severely wounded and disabled Special Operations Command soldiers. Tom is also a founding board of advisors member of Troops First Foundation. Lastly, Tom serves on the board of directors for The Joseph Riverso Foundation, a scholarship fund for student athletes named in memory of his elementary and high school friend who lost his life on 9/11.

Tom earned an M.S. in Systems Management from the University of Southern California in 1993, and an M.B.A. from NYU Stern School of Business in 2000. He lives with his wife Mary Beth and three boys in Garden City, NY.

1. How do you define success?
At its core, the definition of success is simple: It is setting, then achieving goals. For many people, that may equate to professional successes or financial successes. For others, success is being the best possible mom or dad. It could be a high school student trying to make the basketball team sophomore year after getting cut as a freshman, or a nonprofit trying to prevent veteran homelessness. The goals and objectives are vastly different, and they can be personal and silly (solve the Rubik’s Cube in under 5 minutes), professional (have my own business), or financial (pay for my three childrens’ college education).

Whenever I think about success or become too narrow-minded and focus on financial or professional goals, I also come back to this poem that hung on my refrigerator in NYC for about a decade. This poem is often misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson but written by Bessie A. Stanley around 1904:

“To laugh often and love much;

to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children;

to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends;

to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self;

to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;

to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – this is to have succeeded”

There is a new movement afoot to get Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to change their definition to include “happiness.” So, for anyone reading this, I would simply encourage them to come up with their own definition of success. Then, set up a series of goals and interim milestones to achieve your vision for your own success.

2. What is the key to success?
To me, the key to success is in the definition itself: setting goals. If success is goal achievement, success starts with setting realistic and meaningful goals. When I was a 13-year-old, I set my first real goal: I wanted to go to West Point. I spent the next 3.5 years focused on that goal. That led to a series of shorter goals to make that happen, everything from getting an “A” on an exam or a class, to becoming captain of the track team or president of the Ski Club – all of the little things I knew I needed along the way to hit the big goal.

But if I had to point to one single trait or characteristic, the one “key” of successful people, it would be grit. To be successful, you must be resilient and persistent. A Ph.D. at Wharton, Angela Duckworth, has studied uber achievement and developed a grit scale. It is a bigger determinant than IQ and EQ and all other factors at predicting success. She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long-term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

In my opinion, anyone studying success or looking for one single key, must also study the work of Angela Duckworth and the concept of GRIT. If allowed to give “keys” plural to success, and I do believe there are a few vs. one, then I will mention them as well. As mentioned already, successful people set (and write down) S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic and Timed) goals, and are persistent. Here are a few other traits and behaviors I found in my research, that have worked for me over the years, and I think worth emulating:

– Be positive and surround yourself with success-oriented people. I definitely feed off quotes and motivational phrases. Sign up for a few of those newsletters or follow them on Twitter. If you’re having a bad day, reflect on a quote.

– Educate yourself. Constant learning and voracious reading on your chosen topic. Put down the TV remote and pick up a book, article, or white paper.

– Find a mentor or coach to develop, advise, help and encourage you.

– Maintain a to-do list to prioritize and focus. This makes it easier to say “no” to distractions.

– Volunteer and help others. It will help them, and trust me, help you even more.

– Network physically and digitally. My mom loved the phrase “no man is an island.” You are going to need plenty of friends and connections to help you along the way.

– Eliminate the words “luck” and “unlucky” from your dictionary. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.

– Seems self-evident, but there are no shortcuts. You must work hard and stay focused. I remember at West Point during my first summer of basic training, we did road marches, and there were various quotes along the way posted on poles and trees. One of my favorites, 30 years later, remains “the only place where success comes before work is the dictionary.”

– Sacrifice. You must have the willingness to sacrifice in order to succeed. Say “no” to short-term pleasures and distractions. Some people call this self-discipline or self-restraint. The reality is that if you focus on long-term, meaningful goals, it will require sacrifice and hard work along the way.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
As I get close to 50, I am thinking more about having an overall successful life vs. some of the goals and successes I may have had in life. So, this interview comes at an interesting time as I have been reflecting quite a bit the past month.

I think it is arrogant to say you “always knew” you would be successful. I can say that during my life when I set certain life goals, I certainly have had it in mind that “I always knew” I would be successful. At age 13, I decided to go to West Point, and plenty of people thought it was foolhardy, but I knew I would do it. At 17, when I decided to become an elite Airborne Ranger, plenty of people didn’t think I could do it. However, I knew I would. It took me three tries, but I did it. When I decided to get an M.B.A. part-time, there were plenty of reasons to stop or quit, but I knew I would do it. I am not a good swimmer, but I always wanted to do a triathlon. I waited a long time to try, but once I signed up and started training, I knew I would finish. In the end, I have failed many, many more times than I have won in life. But being successful does start with a mentality that winning or being successful comes with many false starts and many setbacks along the way. You must be resilient and bounce back from them. Even the profession I chose, sales, comes with many more no’s than yes’s. Someone closing 10-20% of all the sales cycles they start is at the top of their company. A baseball player hitting 30% of the time is an all-star. It is all a matter of perspective and, as pointed out earlier, it is important to view success in the long-term and be unphased by short-term setbacks along the way to achieving goals and objectives.

Albert Einstein once said, “I think and think for months, for years; 99 times the conclusion is false, but the hundredth time I am right.” General Patton said, “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” So, maybe this is a long way of me saying that I think only quitting is not being successful. I know that I will never quit something important that I put my mind to, so, therefore, maybe I do know that I will successful on important goals since I never quit.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Focusing on the original goal itself again becomes the key factor. If you took the time, energy, and effort to set a S.M.A.R.T. goal, then you must go in realizing that two things are true. First, there will be roadblocks and obstacles along the way. Second, if it were easy and simple, everyone would do it. Negative thoughts and self-doubt are a cancer. If you let them start, they will grow exponentially and kill your dreams. They are inevitable, but catch them early and stamp them out quickly. They will creep back, so kill them again. They will keep coming back. Kill them, over and over. Do not let them win. We all get shots against our self-confidence, ego and belief in our goal. That is natural. Just don’t let them bring you down or keep you down. I almost got kicked out of West Point after being arrested plebe year and I, then, thought about quitting myself, and a few times cried myself to sleep. But I didn’t quit. At Ranger School, you need to be in the top 1% just to be selected to attend, and then only 1/3 complete the course. I failed twice but kept trying. While in the course, I thought about quitting every day. On the second day of climbing Mt. Ranier, I literally thought about quitting with every single step. After being shot by a sniper in Baghdad and lying in a hospital bed at Walter Reed for 8 months, I certainly had some dark days. But in each case throughout my life, my focus on the long-term goals and reading motivational quotes kept me from quitting or giving in to negative thoughts.

People call it many things like drive, ambition, focus, competitiveness, mental toughness, or intestinal fortitude. But it is actually simple – don’t quit. 99% of people do, and if you want to be in the top 1%, don’t. I can’t explain it any clearer terms than that. Grit.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
My parents taught me to have values, integrity, and to work hard. From an early age, I had chores and jobs including delivering newspapers, caddying, and babysitting. Those chores were inspected and repeated, if not done to standard. Those jobs in elementary school taught me to work hard, be dependable, and rely on myself to get things done. My parents expected A’s in school, and for me to put in the effort to earn them. There is a difference between support and helping. My parents supported me, but didn’t help me with my goals. They supported, encouraged, and made me believe in myself and my abilities, but they didn’t actively help. I had to do it on my own.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have three young boys – ages 5, 3 and 1. I enjoy spending time with my wife and family. I also enjoy traveling, and I have been to 46 states and 52 countries. I also enjoy playing (or attempting to play) golf.

I don’t know if this counts as “spare time,” but I also run a small non-profit, The TD Foundation, which “provides aid to children directly affected by war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to children of wounded warriors and fallen heroes here in the U.S.”

7. What makes a great leader?
I feel it breaks down into three major areas:

1. Values and character: People want a leader they trust and who makes the right choices, regardless of the consequences.

2. Concern for your people: Genuine concern and desire to help them be their absolute best, personally and professionally.

3. Decisions: Willingness to make decisions, including the hard ones, and be held accountable for them.

4. Results: Without success, the other three don’t matter.

I also believe that great leaders exhibit 11 principles. Back in the summer of 1985, when I first entered West Point, there were many pieces of “knowledge” that the new cadets (incoming freshmen or plebes) were required to learn and repeat verbatim, on demand, by any upperclassmen that inquired. It required hours of studying and memorization. It took self-discipline to remember them word-for-word, and then confidence to repeat them under pressure, when asked. During the first week, these bits of knowledge included some fundamentals like “The Mission of The United States Military Academy,” “The Code of Conduct,” “The Honor Code,” “The Corps” and “11 Principles of Leadership.”

The “11 Principles of Leadership” were first developed in 1948 and published in an Army field manual on leadership, in 1951, more than 60 years ago. What’s fascinating is that they are still taught, basically unmodified, ever since. Today, they are still used by all the U.S. Armed Forces, at all levels in basic training, including the Marines, Air Force, and Navy.

I enjoy going back to these principles frequently when I reflect on my own performance and look for areas of improvement:

1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement

2. Be technically and tactically proficient

3. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

4. Set the example

5. Know your people and look out for their welfare

6. Keep your people informed

7. Ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished

8. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people

9. Train your people as a team

10. Make sound and timely decisions

11. Employ your work unit in accordance with its capabilities

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
Nothing takes the place of good, old-fashioned integrity and hard work. But I guess it goes back to the advice I give for someone to be successful in any life endeavor. Successful people set (and write down) S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic, and Timed) goals, and are persistent and have the grit to complete those goals. Here are a few other traits and behaviors I found in my research, worked for me over the years, and I think worth emulating:

– Be positive and surround yourself with success-oriented people. I definitely feed off quotes and motivational phrases. Sign up for a few of those newsletters or follow them on Twitter. If you’re having a bad day, reflect on a quote.

– Educate yourself. Constant learning and voracious reading on your chosen topic. Put down the TV remote and pick up a book, article, or white paper.

– Find a mentor or coach to develop, advise, help and encourage you.

– Maintain a to-do list to prioritize and focus. This makes it easier to say “no” to distractions.

– Volunteer and help others. It will help them, and trust me, help you even more.

– Network physically and digitally. My mom loved the phrase “no man is an island.” You are going to need plenty of friends and connections to help you along the way.

– Eliminate the words “luck” and “unlucky” from your dictionary. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.

– Seems self-evident, but there are no shortcuts. You must work hard and stay focused. I remember at West Point during my first summer of basic training, we did road marches, and there were various quotes along the way posted on poles and trees. One of my favorites, 30 years later, remains “the only place where success comes before work is the dictionary.”

– Sacrifice. You must have the willingness to sacrifice to succeed. Say “no” to short-term pleasures and distractions. Some people call this self-discipline or self-restraint. The reality is that if you focus on long-term, meaningful goals, it will require sacrifice and hard work along the way.


This interview is an excerpt from Never Give Up by Jason Navallo.

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