Curt Cronin is the co-founder and CEO of Ridgeline Partners, a management consulting firm that aims to help businesses see beyond a linear growth path, engaging instead with a purpose and an improvement-focused mindset. The company advises organizations from niche startups to Fortune 500 companies to stoke innovation and capitalize on lessons learned.
Prior to Ridgeline, Cronin was the managing partner at the McChrystal Group; before his transition to business, he enjoyed a 19-year career in the U.S. Navy. He was deployed 13 times and earned two Bronze Star medals for combat valor.
Where did the idea for Ridgeline Partners come from?
My co-founder, John Joseph, and I had a desire to create a space where others like ourselves — energetic, independent thinkers and doers — could come together to capitalize on our strengths and help leaders and organizations build their own winning teams. We couldn’t stand the pain of seeing potential left unmanifested; we felt that 99 percent of “geniuses” never manifested their gifts because one “blocker” stood in their way. The only way to prevent your gift being minimized by your limitations is to build a team where each person’s superpower becomes the strength of the team, and each of our individual weaknesses is compensated for by other members of the team.
My background and skill set is somewhat atypical in that I spent 19 years in the U.S. Navy, a majority of that time in the Navy SEALs; I cut my teeth as a leader running elite special operations in dynamic environments. We’ve found that special ops experiences, specifically, are quite advantageous when addressing and solving issues that inevitably arise in the business arena. Our focus is to leverage and transfer those experiences and skills when working with our clients so that, at a certain point, they are fully equipped to handle any issues independent of us.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
One of the things I like most about my role is that there is no “typical day.” That said, the challenge with such a dynamic schedule can certainly be focus and productivity, so I’ve developed rituals that help keep priorities in line and daily tasks manageable. For example, I’ve found that if I take a moment each morning to create a simple list of the top three items that must happen that day, I mitigate the panic to get through everything on a never-ending to-do list.
I find that if I can crank through those three things with gusto before noon — because, after all, it’s just three things! — and go through the ritual of physically tearing up that sticky note where they’ve lived all morning, I have a deep and motivating sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. That feeling drives me to start tackling the other items on the longer list lurking in the background.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Generally speaking, the most important thing you can do to breathe life into an idea is give it time and space to grow and evolve; doing so requires quite a bit of patience and persistence. Oftentimes, great concepts are snuffed out before they’ve even been given a chance to show an inkling of potential, let alone develop into either exactly what you thought they might or, more likely, into something completely unexpected but more successful.
The moment that you have an idea or decide to start a company, the company will never have more things wrong with it. Because it’s new, there are no processes, and there’s no marketing plan, no developed product plan, and no amazing team to support the idea. The most important (and difficult) aspect of bringing an idea to life is the patience and persistence to help it evolve.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m fascinated by the technological advancements in automation and artificial intelligence. Both are driving us toward a future where basic needs are taken care of by automated functions and we are afforded the ability to focus more of our attention on areas of creative discovery — areas of interest versus areas of need.
Of course, a perceived danger lies in that opportunity: If machines can do most tasks faster and more effectively, the onus is on humans to tap into our ability to create and innovate at a more rapid pace than ever. I choose to look at it as a chance to both get to and have to evolve.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
This may sound peculiar, but a while back, I made the decision to only die once — not 10,000 times a day by overanalyzing each and every point of failure or uncertainty. It reminds me to continually look forward instead of fixate on past mistakes; whatever comes my way is an opportunity for success rather than a time to hedge against potential failure.
In practice, it frees me and my teams to continue forward momentum and leverage all available resources toward creating innovative solutions instead of being held back by perceived restraints. While this shift in perspective does wonders for general productivity, the true benefit for me, personally, is that I’ve grown to be a positive and optimistic champion of people and ideas.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Cast all doubts aside, and believe in yourself: You belong at the table. One of my biggest regrets in life centers on not seizing the moment and undercutting my abilities. I can point to multiple instances in my past when I pigeonholed myself in a smaller role: as the awkwardly, skinny freshman football player in high school; as the small-town kid at the Naval Academy; or as the military professional with no business experience. In truth, we all house a spectrum of identities spanning our past, present, and future — the trick is to be able to learn from and leverage them as we continue our own journey. So be confident that you belong; your experiences bring a unique but important quality that no one else can supply.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Many businesspeople believe that “the right management team in the wrong industry cannot win,” but I respectfully disagree. I believe that the fundamental unit of every business transaction is the human. My team and I know from our collective experiences in the business and military worlds that the right team — a band of individuals aligned under a common purpose — can lead an organization, regardless of the environment.
If the challenge is vision or mission, they can recreate the organization so team members can see themselves and understand how they contribute to the organization’s overall success. If the challenge is that the environment has changed and their previous product is irrelevant, they can pivot the organization through strategic nesting to shift focus from the past to the current and future priorities to ensure the organization has its greatest resources on its greatest opportunities.
We’ve certainly experienced this firsthand as we’ve grown Ridgeline Partners. We all come from various backgrounds, spanning multiple industries and environments, but at the end of the day, we’re aligned around our organization’s purpose and drive all decisions toward meeting our goals and objectives.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
As individuals, we’re all constantly evolving. A large portion of the pain we encounter is self-inflicted by clinging to an identity we’ve outgrown. To my earlier point, we all house a spectrum of identities, but we should evaluate which can be leveraged and which can be shelved.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We fundamentally believe that all humans want to be part of something larger than themselves; anything we do has to have a critical purpose, meaning it’s so powerful that it’s worth investing our most limited asset — our time — to accomplish it. For us, that purpose is to enable others to realize their full potential through creativity, innovation, and growth.
This purpose is both strong and ubiquitous across our organization, which means we require an environment where the term “team” means something more than just an assigned role and function. By fusing together individuals with varying perspectives under a unified mission, we are better primed to understand and change the world for the better.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One failure that has come up a few times in my past is assuming that effective communication has occurred. In the military, for example, if we were told that one aspect of a given mission “might be a little bit of a challenge,” that meant we’d take care of it in some fashion and be on our way. In the State Department, however, it was actually a polite way of saying, “We are not going to do that.” It was a foreign nuance to me, but I learned quickly!
As a civilian, that challenge presented itself in a slightly different way. My business partner, John Joseph, and I failed to launch a business for more than a year because we had differing ideas of what “easy” meant. To him, it meant that he knew the right solution, but it might take two years to implement, whereas to me, it translated to something that could be done within a week. As you can imagine, that disconnect led to a substantial gap in timelines and expectations.
To overcome this challenge, our team regularly checks ourselves for assumptions from our past and current experiences to mitigate blind spots. We try to provide full context as much as possible. We also drive closed-loop communication, allowing team members to be fully heard and understood. And we maintain a cadence of updates to provide iterative guidance and feedback as projects progress and evolve to ensure we stay in the same conversation.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Given all the various food and household delivery services my family uses at any given time, there has to be a way to aggregate the apps into a larger platform, something that allows you to organize and track Google Express, Instacart, DoorDash, Amazon Prime, and others at once. It would go a long way toward helping me and my wife keep track of what’s coming in, how it’s used, and how much it’s all costing us in the end. On second thought, maybe I don’t want this!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
It wasn’t $100, but it sure was the most important $6.89 I’ve ever spent. When I first met my wife, she was a senior in college, and I had just completed my Navy SEAL training. I asked if I could take her to dinner, but she said she was too busy studying for an exam. So I asked her out for breakfast, to which she replied she had early-morning pre-med classes. In what some may describe as “not getting the hint,” I carried on for another several minutes and continued to get nowhere until I hit upon that one magic question: “Can I bring you some ice cream?” Her response: “What flavor?” Success! $6.89 in mint chip ice cream, 19 years, three wars, and four children later, I’m still the luckiest guy in the world.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
We recently migrated to Pipedrive and find it immensely useful in our business development efforts. Because we move at a breakneck speed, it’s been an instrumental component to keeping our team productive in terms of external data mining and execution, as well as structuring our internal processes to be more efficient and effective. There’s also something to be said for its clean user interface; it removes the hurdle of adoption and enables team members to hit the ground running and never look back.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
If you haven’t already, make time to read “Journey to Center” by Thomas F. Crum. Tom has been decades ahead when it comes to understanding and harnessing the power of purpose. Tom leverages the principles of Aikido to help others reach proactive, peaceful, and value-added resolution in response to the turmoil, pain, and separation driven by a quest for perfection.
By helping people shift toward a discovery mindset (as opposed to one of perfection), Tom teaches others to learn to center themselves in everyday and extraordinary stressful environments. What’s truly fascinating at this point in time is that the conclusions he intuitively drew through martial arts are now being scientifically proven through the work of his daughter, Alia Crum. Alia currently runs the Mind & Body Lab at Stanford University and has been successful at measuring the real and positive effects of centering oneself.
What is your favorite quote?
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney