Fred Gonzalez, Managing Editor
Oct 2020

Former Marine Jake Wood is the Co-Founder and CEO of Team Rubicon, an international non-profit disaster-aid organization that relies on military veterans to support its response programs. Wood discusses what their efforts in Haiti, Houston and Puerto Rico taught him about team culture and success.

How has Team Rubicon assisted during the pandemic?

Team Rubicon moved really aggressively and early into the battle against COVID-19. We didn't really have a framework for a pandemic here in the U.S., but that didn't stop us from acting. We  pivoted our medical teams that typically focus internationally and began deploying them in the U.S. We established a 250-bed field medical station in Santa Clara, California, when they feared that was going to turn into the next New York City. We later sent 100 medical professionals into the Navajo Nation to decompress their healthcare system there. It was a really remarkable mission for us to treat about 3,000 patients from one of the most underserved populations in America. Beyond that, we very quickly sent our teams in to food banks in partnership with Feeding America, which was a really tremendous way for us to help with logistics and operations and just set up the nuts and bolts of packing and delivering food.


Photo of Jake Wood courtesy of Team Rubicon

What qualities do you look for when adding members to Team Rubicon?

My COO and I always talk about the three characteristics we believe are the keys to success within Team Rubicon. The first is initiative. Our mission is too important, we have too much to do and there are too many people counting on us for people to be sitting around waiting to be told what to do. We need people who are self-starters, who are identifying problems, thinking through solutions, proactively collaborating with their peers to accomplish objectives. The second one is tenacity. You can have all the initiative in the world, but you better not crumble at the first sign of opposition. Initiative without tenacity is worthless. We need the type of people who improvise, adapt and overcome in the face of uncertainty, in the face of limited resources and limited information. You will often hear us say, “Find a way." Failure is not an option. And finally, enthusiasm. You know, having initiative and tenacity isn't worth a damn if you're a jerk and no fun to work around. We need people who, the crazier a situation gets, the calmer they become. We look for folks who demonstrate that infectious enthusiasm that people want to be alongside. 

How do you tackle diversity and inclusion within your teams?

That's a topic we've been tackling for a couple of years now, and obviously it's become front of mind for many executives. The military is one of the most diverse institutions on the planet, and it makes them better as a fighting force. Different perspectives in life just bring a richness of ideas. That's a really important element of succeeding or surviving on a battlefield. So we try to take that same approach. We have a really diverse full-time staff, and that's what we can control and select. Our volunteer ranks are not as diverse as we would like them to be. But we don't get to choose our volunteers. They join us. They choose us. But nonetheless, we make an effort to pursue people of all backgrounds. And it just goes back to our philosophy. We talk about racial diversity, but also about cognitive diversity and the importance of it. And so to achieve cognitive diversity, you go outside the box and go for that experiential diversity. Sometimes that's reflected in things like race or sexuality, but it doesn't have to be. 

A Team Rubicon member provides assistance at a food bank in Bloomington, California, in 2020.

What’s the key to being able to scale a company so quickly, as you grew from eight volunteers to 1,000 to now 130,000?

I am a big believer in culture, and it starts with your company's vision. For some people, culture is kind of a squishy topic because they can't put together a cultural flowchart. They don't see value in it. That's a disservice to culture. We say, “Culture guides decisions in the absence of orders.” If you're a fast-growing company, there's no way to design a system that is explicitly informing everybody in the hierarchy what to do when, especially when your mission is responding to the most chaotic and ambiguous situations on the planet. There's just no road map you can give people. So how do you consistently get people to make the right decision, perform the right behaviors in the absence of those explicit guidelines? It's culture.

A lot of people focus on the elements of the business that are easy to plot out, things like policies or practices or procedures. But they must reflect the stated cultural values of your company. If there's a disconnect between what you say you value and the things that you put into practice, it's going to create a rift where your employees are not buying what you're selling. Some companies want to treat their people like family, but they don't have a family leave policy. Others say they trust their employees, but don’t let them take their computers home at night. That disconnect is just the death knell for the strength of an organization's culture.

How would you describe Team Rubicon’s culture?

Our culture is firmly rooted in our American military heritage. The military relies extensively on culture for the same reasons we do. It guides decisions in the absence of orders and that's very important on the battlefield. You need people to take initiative. And you can only do that if you know how to act. 

But there's a lot that's bad about military culture. It’s historically been misogynistic. At times, it has been closed-off. It's sometimes overly bureaucratic. As we were setting out and starting from scratch, we looked at all that the military does that is great when it comes to culture, and said, “Let's find a way to reincarnate that at Team Rubicon. But also, let's make sure this is the most inclusive environment possible. Let's make sure that we're not letting people down with unnecessary bureaucracy.” 


Team Rubicon conducts a water rescue mission in Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2017

What was the genesis of Team Rubicon?

I've always been service-minded. When 9/11 happened, I was a freshman in college and felt compelled to serve in that moment, but frankly, I didn't have the courage to do it. Every once in a while, though, life gives you a mulligan. Eight years later I finally found the courage when the earthquake hit Haiti [in 2010]. I had this feeling of,  Don't let it pass by again. Don't feel this impulse like you did on 9/11 and find a way to bury it.

 I decided to go to Haiti but there was no intent to start an organization. The only intent was to hold the line down there and then come back, go to grad school, and make a bunch of money on Wall Street. While we were down there we ended up organizing a bunch of military veterans and doctors together in the worst disaster zone of the last 30 years—the medical need was so apparent. That was the spark, and we came back and just kept going.

Life is a series of moments and decisions that we're faced with, and sometimes we don't realize what they are. It doesn't have to be as dramatic as an earthquake or a terrorist attack. These moments build upon one another, and how we react in those moments forever change the arc of our personal lives.

What are you most proud of about your new book, Once a Warrior (out Nov. 10), which follows the Team Rubicon journey?

I actually tried to write this book six years ago and got rejected 37 times. In the end, the same publishers that rejected me were fighting for it, so that's kind of fun. But beyond that, I look back and hope that this book is a fitting tribute to the men I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tribute to the memories of the guys we lost, but also, more uplifting, a tribute to all the men and women I have had the opportunity to serve alongside at Team Rubicon. Let's be honest: This is the most toxic era in American history. That's not hyperbole. A lot of people are, frankly, a little downtrodden about the future of this country, and that's sad. That's just unfortunate. I didn't fight for America to be average. I fought for America to be exceptional, and we're not living up to it. I see exceptionalism in our volunteers every time they go out. That's a really powerful testament that more Americans should know about. So I hope this book can serve as an inspiration for people during a period that's lacking it.

With the holidays approaching, and themes of thankfulness and giving back on our minds, it seems like the perfect season for Team Rubicon. Do you take a time-out during this period?

It's funny that you frame it that way, because this period from Thanksgiving to Christmas and New Year's is typically pretty slow for disasters. It seems like Mother Nature usually gives us a break around that time. We are big believers in encouraging our people to unplug. You only have so much capacity for things like compassion and real empathy, and you can become overwhelmed by the mission and the enormity of helping all these people. The stakes are often so high that it's important to unplug and drain a little bit of that out and spend time with your family watching stupid holiday movies and getting ready for whatever the next year is going to bring.

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