03-21-2014 12:22 PM
Wealth management specialist Stella Peña quickly shakes the sleep off at 4:30 a.m. as she arrives late for formation at USAA’s headquarters in San Antonio.
She gets an earful from Kat Bailey, senior administrative support associate in Enterprise Learning & Development, who’s also a retired Air Force senior master sergeant. She readies herselffor the day ahead and joins 300 of her colleagues on yellow school buses bound for a training field. Today is Zero Day PT.
The short ride to the field represents the first step on the journey from civilian to military life. She steps off the bus and is greeted by veteran NCOs, officers and currently serving Air Force and Army drill sergeants ready for her arrival.
“I’m just going to try my best not to cry,” Peña says.
We know what it means to serve
Zero Day PT, or Zero Day Physical Training, is a simulated first day of military boot camp that helps employees connect with USAA’s military members. It’s a great team-building exercise and a way to give employees a small slice of the total mind and body experience that trainees get over a eight- to 12-week period to convert to military life.
“I think the most important thing we can do is know our members and understand them,” says Dan Cable, retired Air Force officer and executive director for the member experience process performance and engineering team. “It’s an opportunity that can be offered nowhere else in the country. I don’t know of any other company that goes this far to get into their members’ shoes to walk a day in their lives.”
At USAA, 23% of employees are veterans, reservists or have spouses with a military affiliation.
An experience like no other
The veterans and reservists who organize Zero Day PT at USAA say it is fairly realistic — except instead of hopping onto a school bus with a water bottle, military trainees would receive two 40- to 60-pound duffel bags and be stuffed into smelly, old cattle cars. Instead of a cool spring day, trainees might begin their military conversion in the blazing heat of August. Instead of three hours for training, service members might face 16 hours.
“We try to do a very good job of creating a realistic environment, given our limits,” says Jonathan Velazquez, director for member experience performance optimization and a major in the Army Reserve. Velazquez and Brian Parks, the event’s founder, have organized the event since 2012.
To create a realistic experience, Parks and Velazquez call on drill sergeants from Camp Bullis, military training instructors from Lackland Air Force Base, and veterans and reservists currently employed at USAA. In all, 50 volunteer military mentors make up the training cadre that leads participants in the physical activities a service member might experience on the first day of basic training.
After the initial welcome, the cadre breaks participants into smaller training groups. Then drill sergeants bark orders to do dozens of situps, pushups, flutter kicks and other exercises, all while other members of the cadre shout in participants’ ears. After an hour of calisthenics on the field and drill and ceremony instruction, participants run two miles in a single formation and chant military cadence.
Breaking down to build the team
“The purpose of Zero Day for the military is to begin the process of breaking down the individual so you can start to build the team,” says Steven Sanchez, a member of the cadre and an IT project manager at USAA. Sanchez is an Army veteran. “The first step in Zero Day is to let people know it’s all about the team,” he says.
Organizers say they’ve gotten good feedback from participants, many of whom ask to repeat the experience. “People say that they’re surprised by how hard it is,” Sanchez says. “But then again, they’re also surprised by the feeling they have after they’re finished.”
Participants feel exhausted but exhilarated, and they appreciate the opportunity to have this unique experience.
“It was an awesome and humbling experience,” says Chris Cox, vice president for digital experience in the member experience department. “It was an honor to be here with everybody else. It provided me an experience of what it means to serve.”
At the end of the event, executive sponsor Wayne Peacock, executive vice president of member experience, tells the group that after more than 20 years at USAA, he “still had a lot to learn.”
“When we’re on the phone talking to young recruits, we need to empathize with them and try to understand what they’re going through,” Wayne says. “I can think of no better experience to help you do that than this.”
No Department of Defense or government agency endorsement.
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