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Behind the career: Nate Bailey, ADG Creative chief operating officer

(Nate Bailey)

Nate Bailey

Position: Chief operating officer, ADG Creative, a strategic communications and advertising firm in Columbia.

Nate Bailey attended the U.S. Naval Academy because he believed it was the best place to enhance his leadership skills. After graduating, he served as a naval intelligence officer and did three tours in Afghanistan before leaving active duty. He joined the reserves and took a job as director of advancement at Rockbridge Academy near Annapolis. Bailey also founded a consulting firm that trained people working overseas. He will now lead internal operations at ADG Creative and create a strategic five-year plan for the company.

How did you end up in naval intelligence?

What I wanted to do was be naval officer and lead people and serve my country. If I had my choice because of my political science major and because I was reading Tom Clancy books in junior high school, I would have loved to have gone into it directly from the academy. But the way it’s set up at the academy, unless you are physically unable or medically not qualified, you need to go into one of the warfare communities, i.e., aviation, surface, submarine, seals or Marine Corps. I was selected for aviation. I went down to Pensacola and really enjoyed ground school, really enjoyed all the water survival training, did great except any time I would encounter [negative G forces, while flying]. I ended up redesignating and I got picked up for intel, which ended up being a great thing that I just loved doing.

What prompted you to leave active duty?

We had three kids at the time. I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not spending time with my kids. That’s really what drove me to consider is it time to move on. Yet at the same time, I really do love the Navy. I love serving my country. I love leading some of the great sailors that we have. I was able to do both by transitioning to the reserves. My wife likes to joke that the reserves is really my paid hobby.

Most people leave the military for a defense contractor job. You took a job at Rockbridge Academy. Why?

Part of it, honestly, was I just saw it as a challenge because it was so unconventional. I thought, let’s give it a try. The other part, quite frankly, my wife and I by that point had moved nine times. We had fallen in love in Annapolis, and we always wanted to get back to Annapolis. This was essentially an opportunity to get back to Annapolis to invest in the community, which was something that I didn’t have the luxury to do as an actively serving officer. Was it totally different? Yes. In fact, in my interview with the school board, I told them that they shouldn’t hire me because you’re in the D.C. area for crying out loud. You can’t swing a stick without hitting someone who has fundraising experience.

How did the job at ADG Creative come about?

The founder of ADG Creative used to serve on the board [at Rockbridge Academy], and I worked with him quite a bit. I consulted for ADG. They did some work with the Office of Naval Intelligence. There were a few projects like that where I would come up for a few hours and help out. Jeff [Antkowiak] has a real talent for finding talent. He’s pretty unconventional about where that comes from, and isn’t afraid to take risks. Hiring me, someone who doesn’t necessarily have that MBA and whole business-track pedigree, some risk was involved with that, but that’s something he hasn’t been afraid to do.

How do you see your role at ADG Creative?

One thing I think is important in any organization — and to me this is the basic principle of leadership — that leadership is creating an environment for people to succeed in the mission. Now there are other parts of leadership — such as defining what the mission is, finding the right people — all of those things are subsidiary attributes and skill sets to do the big thing, and the big thing is creating an environment for people to succeed.

How do you think your military career prepared you for this job?

I have not had the same job twice in the military. Every job that I’ve had they’ve said, “Here’s the mission,” or at least, “Here’s what we believe the mission is. Can you help refine it? Here’s the people that you have to work with. Help us make things run better. Help us inspire people. Help us keep people here. Help us make sure the boss has what he needs to make true smart strategic decisions.”

What about this job intrigues you?

I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I think ADG Creative doesn’t like to be pigeonholed, either. I guess what appealed to me about ADG is it’s kind of hard to pigeonhole it. Here you’re able to do a lot of really, really great missions for a diverse client set where no day is the same and you’re expected to think differently on how we approach our clients’ toughest problems. That is very, very exciting and appealing.

You talked about becoming a leader in high school. How have you grown as a leader since then?

If I could go back to the Nate in high school, I would say “Hey man, you really don’t know it all.” This sounds cliche, but the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know, the more I realize that true great leadership needs to be accompanied with a big dose of humility.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given in your career?

One I would say is don’t be afraid to lead, because I believe that so many people are held back from leading because either they don’t want to offend, they don’t believe in their own abilities, or they don’t want to presume. I think in so many organizations people are craving leadership. Take a place like ADG Creative where you have some incredible artists and designers. They want a predictable process to do unpredictable things. You need to be comfortable enough in your own skin that when you do make a mistake you admit it, because if there’s a perception that the only way leadership can be exercised is with perfection, well that’s never going to happen.

— Interview with Kathy Orton



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