Carlos Rivera had been an enlisted man in the United States Navy for nine years, nine months before he completed his bachelor’s degree and was poised to become an officer. But when he was told he would be commissioned in July, he had to insist that the date be postponed to the first of October. His superior officers were baffled. They explained that Carlos would begin receiving higher pay and his new career would begin a full three months ahead of schedule, but Carlos was adamant. This was how it had to be. It was all part of the plan.
“Three decades ago,” Carlos recalls today, “or two years before I would become an officer, I was at a picnic. When a colleague asked me what my plans were for the future, I was not sure what he meant.” At the time, Carlos and his colleague were Navy Hospital Corpsmen attached to the Marines. Carlos had two years of college under his belt already, but beyond finishing his degree, he had no plans for his future in the Navy. “This fellow corpsman said that I needed a plan,” he continues. “He talked me into it, and in broad strokes, I put one together for the first time. I would finish my degree, get a commission in the Navy, and then become an Information Systems Officer. I planned it out, to the day, when each stage would come, giving my life a structure and purpose I had not experienced before.”
In this sense, the overarching plan of Carlos’s life has been augmented throughout its development by a myriad of small plans—solutions and reactions to life’s unexpected obstacles and opportunities that together create a rich pattern of success. But long before he had any sort of plan for himself, his father had an idea of one for him. Both of Carlos’s parents were attorneys, as well as their siblings and parents, so Carlos’s father decided his son would attend law school.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carlos is the eldest of six siblings. His childhood was largely carefree and enjoyable, guided by incredibly busy parents that nevertheless instilled in him strong family values and a sense of social responsibility through their example, working as attorneys for the Puerto Rican government. His father worked for the equivalent of the U.S.’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, and his mother worked for the Department of Education.
“Both of them were brilliantly focused attorneys, but perplexing,” Carlos says. “For example my mother had a PhD in law and helped craft some of the laws still in place today dealing with kids with disabilities in the school system. And yet, in comparison, she never learned how to drive a car.” On summer days, Carlos would drive his mother to work and then head to the beach to hang out with friends before picking her up again at the end of the day.
Becoming old enough to drive also allowed Carlos to work for his father’s law office, where he became acquainted with the fundamentals of law and negotiation. “I learned a lot from him,” Carlos says. “I came to understand what is important in a negotiation, and how you find that red line in a negotiation that you can’t cross. This informal education has served me all my life.”
Working for his father engendered a fondness for law in Carlos, and in a family full of lawyers, he could see himself becoming one as well. But after heading to college and completing one perfect semester, an unexpected detour would change their plans.
“After my first semester, I moved into my own apartment with some friends,” Carlos says. “I spent less time studying and more time partying. And partying, and partying.” At first, Carlos told himself that he just needed to put his head down and get through it, and then he’d go to law school. “Then I had what I thought was this moment of brilliance,” he recalls. “I said I wasn’t going to do the next semester and decided to drop out.” Carlos believed this plan would prevent him from receiving bad grades for the semester and any corresponding disciplinary action, but unfortunately, he soon ran straight into a brick wall of adult reality.
“I was eighteen,” Carlos says, “and I thought I could tell the school what to do. I told them they couldn’t suspend me because I had dropped out and I was no longer a student. But they had a rule that they could suspend you even if you weren’t a student. They took my I.D., escorted me off the campus, and that was the last time I stepped foot there.”
Equipped with a more mature understanding of how the world works, Carlos set about pursuing a new path. His father urged him to apply to Boston College, but he didn’t know anything about the U.S. north of Florida. “I knew Boston was cold, and that’s really all I needed to know,” he laughs. “I wanted to find my own way, so I decided to look into joining the military.” After Carlos was turned away by a U.S. Army recruiter who had already met his quota, Carlos went next door to the U.S. Navy recruiter. After signing the paperwork, he had to take it home to have his parents co-sign. “Even to this day, my parents say that signing those papers was one of the hardest things they had to do in their lives,” he remarks. “But it led me where I needed to go, and seven years later, at the urging of my fellow seaman, I made a new plan—the first of many.”
One of those plans involved completing his degree, but the key element that would allow that to happen—his wife, Irene—had been an unexpected miracle. The two met shortly after he joined the Navy and returned from a NATO deployment. Six months after they started dating, Carlos was sent on a Mediterranean deployment for another six months, and shortly after he returned, they found themselves with a weekend for which they had made no plans. “I just said, let’s go get married,” he remembers fondly. “We were wed by the Justice of the Peace on a Saturday. That was it. Then I installed a radio in her car later that day. It was perfect in its modesty and beautiful in its simplicity, and we’ve been married for over three decades. She is the counter-balance I need. She focuses me when I need focusing.”
As Carlos worked to implement the plan he put together at the urging of his fellow Navy corpsman, Irene’s role proved crucial. First, he planned to finish his degree within three years, but by the time he was a mere three credits from achieving his goal, he was exhausted. Three years of evening classes, four days per week, plus attending class eight hours a day on the weekends and homework, had taken their toll. He was mentally exhausted, and as the start date of his final semester rapidly approached, he still hadn’t registered. That’s when Irene stepped in. “She just looked at me,” Carlos says. “She asked me what I was doing. I tried to tell her how tired I was, but she just said ‘Not on your life! You are registering today. You are going to finish what you started.’ She’s the reason I got my degree and my commission. She’s the reason my plans translate into reality.”
Carlos’s adherence to the plan didn’t end with the date of his commission. When he began negotiating his first set of orders in the Navy as an officer, he immediately declared his desire to become an Information Systems Officer. “The Navy Captain on the other end of the phone said to me, ‘Well, young man, that’s not the way we do things. We’ll get you in a training program at a hospital and see how it goes,’” Carlos remembers. After that call, Carlos called the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the entire Navy Medical Department. When he answered, Carlos introduced himself, voiced his desire to become an Information Systems Officer, and outlined every reason why he should work for the CIO. By the end of the call, the CIO was convinced. He called the Headquarters of Naval Personnel and informed them that Carlos would be working for him.
Despite Carlos’ strict adherence to the timeline he laid out as a young man, however, it would ultimately be his flexibility that would enable him to overcome his most unexpected and challenging obstacles in life. “A plan is not necessarily rigid,” he says. “Like life, it’s a work in progress. You can’t fixate on something if it’s not working. You need to be able to adapt.”
Today, three decades after becoming an officer, Carlos will be the first to tell you that things didn’t always go as planned. But the methodical determination and tenacity originating from his first plan, tempered by his levelheadedness under pressure and ability to adapt as needed, have proved to be the yin and yang of his success story.
Considering the transformative experience Carlos had when he put a plan in place in his own life, it is fitting that the very nature of his business today is about making and executing plans that help government and commercial clients achieve their goals. Today, at the helm of his second successful professional services business, Vysnova Partners (Vysnova), Carlos and his team focus on four key areas: 1) management consulting; 2) public health, including veterans’ health; 3) improving government operations through training and acquisition support; and 4) information technology. Founded by Carlos in April of 2012, Vysnova was formed with a contract base brought over from his first company, CAMRIS International. In its first nine months, Vysnova saw over $2 million in revenue. For 2013, revenues reached almost $4 million, and that figure is set to double in 2014.
“At my previous company,” Carlos says, “we grew to more than 150 employees and consultants doing over $30 million a year in revenue. But I discovered I wasn’t a fan of the bureaucratic necessities of a larger, more established company. Personally, I like the entrepreneur stage, where I’m working directly with the clients. I also like working with our people and brainstorming how to solve someone’s problem.” Indeed, Vysnova’s work with information systems and project management is about drawing on experience and resources to create systems that direct a staff and prepare them for all possible outcomes, but the leadership aspects of Carlos’s work are what truly drive him.
“As a leader, your primary role is not to tell your folks what to do on a daily basis, but to support them,” he points out. “If you have to tell them what to do, then you hired the wrong people. I know there’s a theorem that claims all companies are really a set of policies and procedures that get executed every day with a focus on the client and on quality, but I don’t think that’s leadership. Rather, I think leadership is expressed in a number of different ways. For example, I want to hire staff members that feel empowered to approach every client engagement without preconceived notions or having to agree with me. Conversely, if we have to let someone go, I want them to come out of it saying we were fair. That doesn’t mean softening it up, but it does mean helping the employee understand why they are not a good fit. Leading means that you don’t stop until the job is finished, and there’s no job beneath you. If we’re getting a proposal out, I’m the guy out there formatting documents or manning the three-hole punch.”
Carlos’s tenure in the Navy was essential in defining the nuance of his leadership style, especially one experience he had while responsible for directly overseeing the ordering of tens of millions of dollars in medical supplies every year. At the end of one government fiscal year, after reviewing data reports on his purchases, he suddenly realized that several orders that had failed to go through the first time had in fact been duplicated. The original orders eventually processed, resulting in overspending by over $11 million. “After sitting there for some time and getting past that moment of, ‘Oh my god, what did we do,’ I asked myself what I could do to fix it,” he remembers. Carlos went back through the system and identified every unnecessary duplicate that hadn’t shipped yet, which would clear $8 million of the total $11 million. Then he looked at the orders that were still on backlog. Once he determined how to even out the entire overage, only then did he go to his superior officer to report everything and lay out his plan for moving forward.
“What happened next was a remarkable lesson in leadership,” Carlos says. “I told our Commanding Officer exactly what happened. He was very calm. When I was done, he asked me what we were going to do about it. I told him what I had worked out and proposed the solution, including what we would do to make sure that the problem would not happen again, and he told me to go ahead and do it. Within 24 hours, I had completed the plan as laid out for him, and was certain that, at that point, he would fire me. I went back to provide him a status report, expecting the worst. I even came out and asked him if he was upset. But he told me that he wasn’t. He said it was a mistake, and that I had identified it and figured out a short-term—and, more importantly, a long- term—solution. He said that it was good work. That was leadership in action.”
Today, Carlos painstakingly plans ventures long before he decides whether to execute them or not. “For instance, I looked into buying a vineyard,” he says. “I can tell you the operating costs, the management costs, the land costs, and the tax and liability issues. How many grapes would I need to be profitable? I go through the whole iteration and develop the concept of operations, and then I reach a point where I can just say no, take it all off the table, and start with something else. I do all that work to determine if the investment is correct. If it’s not, I have no problem saying no.” Along with this clear-eyed, pragmatic ability to turn down unpromising ideas, however, is an equally clear-eyed and almost noble ability to know the right moment to say yes.
In advising young people entering the working world today, Carlos could offer any number of advice points, but the ideas he chooses to hit home are the importance of planning, and putting character over pure monetary achievement. “Just remember this,” he says, referring to one of his favorite motivational sayings. “Nothing we do is measured by the amounts in our bank accounts. It’s about making a difference in someone’s life. Of course I pursue my business goals, but I like to help people too. So I try to do the best I can toward those two goals every day.” Indeed, when you plan to be the best you can and leave room enough to be flexible for the unexpected people or situations that come into your life, you turn out even better in the end.