Welcome to the fourth episode of our Cultivating Conversations podcast, and this week our Research and Delivery Lead Steve Collins sat down with Crop One Holdings CEO Craig Ratajczyk.
Craig shares with us a little from his experience as a U.S. Navy Intelligence Commander, his adventures around the world and why he traded that all in for a career in Agriculture, as well as sharing his top tips for great leadership and his experience of starting a new role during the global pandemic.
Hello and welcome to the Cultivating Conversations Podcast. I’m Steve from Chaseman Global and today I’m joined by Craig Ratajczyk, CEO from Crop One Holdings. Now Craig, I’ve been lucky to have, in my short podcasting career, a number of really interesting guests. We’ve had an extremely talented sales leader, an ex Microsoft tech leader turned CEO, a medical doctor turned CHRO and now we have yourself with your Navy Intelligence background turned CEO.
So, you’ve had a fascinating career, can you share with us more about your background?
Yes sure, so I find my own background fairly boring to be quite honest with you. But first, I just want to say thank you to Steve and Chaseman Global for this opportunity. I see nothing but opportunities for services like Steve’s and Chaseman’s in my efforts but yes, I grew up on a small farm in Illinois. My father was a coal miner so I come from very humble beginnings. We had a strong family, a strong faith, strong beliefs. We were very hard-working and dedicated people. So that’s my background, not very luxurious, very simple but we were all together and importantly we saw the world as an opportunity.
OK sure, so where did the passion for the military come from and why did you join the Navy?
Well that’s interesting too. My father was in the military for a short stint, I think around four years. My uncle was as well for a little bit, both my uncles in fact. I really just saw it as an opportunity to see the world.
This was in the mid-80s, the agriculture industry was going through some hard times, the coal mining industry was going through some hard times, I could have gone to college like everybody else but I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. I had graduated with great scores and had an educated background but seeing the world, and what else was out there, was a big driver for me in how I felt I’d be able to work out what I wanted to do.
Why the Navy? Well, my brother went into the Air Force. I already had family in the Army. The Marine-Core was an option but I felt it was a bit too much of a commitment for me, so I thought all right I’ll join the Navy, sail the seven seas and see the rest of the world.
So, I know we’ve discussed this before, but would you say your background from your humble beginnings helped you when you joined the Navy?
Oh it certainly did! It was eye opening to see what the rest of the world had to offer through the Navy. But at the same time the discipline, the waking up early in the morning, the labour, the mental abuse in some cases – comparatively the Navy was a piece of cake! Actually, like a vacation for me compared to farming!
You’ve worked on some fascinating projects as part of your naval career. Do you have any anecdotes that the listeners might enjoy that you’d be able to share with us?
There are a tonne of them, and I know everything is not what we would call hush hush in the Navy intelligence community now but there’s nothing specific that I can share the details on.
Saying that, I love the military because you get to do so many different things - particularly in the naval intelligence side of things. We examined human intelligence, looked at military capability's studies, looked at the geopolitical situations in foreign countries, worked with other commands around the world whether they are Army or Air Force and we joined forces with other countries. The exposure and excitement of the collaboration was so eye opening to help me understand how the world works.
While there is nothing specific I can discuss, we did cover counter drugs operations, worked with special warfare groups, space warfare programs, worked on programs looking at the opposition, looking at issues in the middle east. A wide variety of things that contribute massively to an individual's mindset on how the world really works, and where the opportunities are in this planet.
You’ve lived in a multitude of locations and you’ve experienced many different cultures. Where would you say was the biggest change culturally for you?
That would be my first assignment overseas to South Korea back in the 80’s. A wonderful country with amazing opportunities, but you’ve taken a young, coal farming kid and put him straight into another culture. I found it fascinating to find everybody focused really on the same thing, everybody had a very similar work ethic, they had their own identity, their own families, but it was interesting to see the new foods, histories and dynamics. When you’re young, that really opens your eyes to the opportunities around the world, and sets the tone for the rest of your life. Again, I was 18 years old. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for a young person to go out, away from their family, halfway across the planet and explore something new.
Well, they do say that travel broadens the mind after all so I think that is something that everyone can take away from this. Whether it’s as part of the military or otherwise, learning and meeting people from other cultures and understanding them can only be beneficial.
So, the Navy to Agriculture transition obviously fits nicely with your background. But why did you decide to move back into Agriculture and leave the Navy?
Ah yes, well that is interesting.
So after Thunderbird, and I got my MBA, you’re in a recruiting process looking for a new move in your career. I was talking to lots of people about the next step and potential opportunities, and someone suggested I go back to Agriculture. It was the 90’s at this point and I thought, not many people are going into Agriculture right now so perhaps this is a way to differentiate myself while also re-embracing my roots. I thought it sounds like a great idea!
Looking back at my career, national security has always been important but so has food security, aligning with my passion of trying to make this planet a better place for everybody. With all the turmoil going on now, and coming, we always need food. It might not be ‘sexy tech’ but people don’t seem to understand there are so many advances, so much technology, so many opportunities in agriculture and food now it’s just amazing.
How did you find the transition going back into the business world from the military one?
Different of course. It wasn’t so much ‘Command-and-Control’, or the strict hierarchy of reporting. But I wouldn’t say I found it difficult. It was easier than the military lifestyle, right? Everyone has demands on your time, career etc but there’s much more freedom. I would say it’s a much more independent structure. In the military we are always surrounded by people who can help you out or provide support, you also have access to pretty deep pockets, particularly in this country, and access to a lot of other things too. That might be training, travel or mentoring, whereas on this side access to those things are harder to come by.
One of the good things is that you can take lessons from your military experience that you can apply now. What would you say are you most applicable lessons from your naval career that you can apply to your role at Crop One now?
I call it the three C’s. Communication. Collaboration and Coordination.
Communication – As you know wars have started, other bad things have started, all because of poor communication. With great communication great things happen too. That is so critical!
Collaboration – The team must be working together, like the acronym says ‘together everyone achieves more’, it’s a fact. There are cowboys out there that assume they can do it all themselves, it doesn’t work. You need to rely on your team to get things done.
Coordination – Teams need to be working with other teams and make sure everything is done in alignment for a successful outcome.
I’ve learnt through my career that these can really make or break a project or organisation.
I’m guessing that you’ve spent a lot of time around strong leadership, and become a strong leader yourself. What advice would you give to leaders wanting to tweak their style or people aiming for leadership in their career in the future?
Yes, well the biggest thing is Empathy. Understanding that everyone is different. Everyone is unique. You really have to, as you want to grow through your career.
From a junior level perspective – at this point you need to focus on your technical skills, your managerial skills, focus on those things that will establish a strong career for yourself.
As you move through your career you simply have to be a better leader. You need to listen to your team, listen to outside resources. If anybody tells you they are the expert, and there are a very few self-proclaimed actual experts, listen to them. I am well into my career but by no means an expert, as I get older and learn more I understand that I do know less. That’s when you have to pull other people onto your team to push things forward.
The ‘Command-and-Control' perspective we associate with the military is all fine and dandy when bullets are flying and people's lives are at risk. But most of the time, in today’s world that’s not the case. To make an organisation better, don’t feel you need the responsibility fully on your shoulders you will have a great network to reach out to and don’t be afraid to do so.
Good people surround themselves with good people.
Exactly, and I tell you what. This past year, when I was looking into the next career transition, everybody was willing to help in one way or another.
I think that’s one of the beauties of the pandemic, the world has become more of a united community, and people like helping other people. So by surrounding yourself with good people as a leader, then that can cover and elevate yourself too.
Exactly. And a little bit of humility goes a long way right? That’s what people want to see. They don’t want to see arrogance or narcissism. They want people who can listen, that people feel comfortable around, that people want to communicate with. Always remember that everybody has something to contribute to a conversation.
Let’s jump onto Crop One, as we’ve not spoken much about that yet! What can you tell me about Crop One?
Phenomenal company. This is exactly why I made this career transition. This is career 3.0 for me: the military, the row crop side of things and now the vertical farming. I just see this as the pinnacle of my career frankly. It does so much that other industries are trying to do. It has the intelligence side of things, it’s got the agriculture and food side of things – trying to make the most perfect food product possible not using chemicals, pesticides or fungicides. I get excited when I think about it because I don’t see any downsides to this industry, I see it as the way of the future and I’m excited to introduce it to my kids.
How have you found settling in?
It’s a full steam ahead. The team, the board and the investors see this as a groundbreaking enterprise, 15 hour days, 80 hour weeks isn’t unusual at the moment, I’ve only been there a month but it’s enjoyable. Everybody in the organisation wants to move this company forward, there are no major bottlenecks, everyone is behind it.
You chose to do all this, including the relocation to Boston during a global pandemic? How has that affected things?
Not too bad. If we resort back to my roots as a farm kid, coal mining kid you know how to see the world and weather through things. The military trains you for crisis like this. Covid is out there but people still want to eat, they want clean food etc, but I think that if people ate better, ate healthier then Covid, the flu other diseases would have less of an impact on their lifestyles, their health and everything. Covid is just another obstacle, this year it’s Covid, next year it’ll be something else. You just have to navigate through it and keep forcing ahead.
Advice for other people looking for a new role right now?
Get help! Don’t try to do it yourself. I don’t want to be a sound piece for Chaseman Global, but Steve has been a great mentor in this process as well. It’s not just looking for a new job it’s finding the next career you find exciting. Just don’t do it by yourself, it’s going to be emotional, stressful and from a mental and spiritual perspective you do need to get assistance and help. Don’t feel like it’s on your own.
I think I made 500 new friends over the last year trying to work out what I wanted my next move to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone has been there; they know what you’re facing and they will want to help.
Well firstly thank you for the kind words, I might get that printed out and put on a badge. That’s great advice and something we say often and it’s been a pleasure helping you through this process.
My final question is, any advice on people starting roles remotely? Leaders with teams spread globally and unable to meet the wider team yet?
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Everybody is comfortable using zoom etc now, this is becoming normality. You can’t beat the watercooler conversations of course but for now set up a quiet space in your home and give yourself a routine. Stand up, get exercise, eat right. You have to be disciplined. Speak to your friends find out their advice and how they are coping.
I’m lucky to be older, I’ve experienced working in prison cell type offices in the middle of nowhere where I was used to being isolated and in that mode. We had to embrace it and navigate through it. It’s a change, people don’t like change but there is a light at the end of this tunnel. I could be a military person and say bear with it, keep focused and you’ll make it through. I tell my team - nobody is shooting at you or trying to kill you, you’ll be fine.
In the military there’s always someone out there who wants to remove you from the planet, that’s when things get complicated but other than that you’re doing great.
Thank you so much Craig, I’ve found that really insightful and I’m sure the listeners have too. Thank you all for your time.