Daily Press (Sunday)

This Navy vet can help make meetings less boring

- By Sandra J. Pennecke Staff writer

Navy veteran John Hawley enjoys solving other people’s problems.

“I don’t think you need to lock yourself in a room for several hours to solve a problem when you can have a lot of fun solving a problem,” he said.

Hawley and business partner Johnny Saye Jr., who consider themselves “people nerds,” facilitate problem-solving, team-building and strategy through fun customized workshops, research tactics and consulting. They launched innovation and growth agency Stale Chips in March 2021.

“I understand team dynamics,” Hawley said. “Facilitati­on, really, is the human element of everything.”

And he understand­s the importance of knowing who the audience is, getting them excited and on board to tap into ideas and turn them into tangible actions. The tools don’t matter — the people do, Hawley said.

Hawley, a Virginia Beach native and resident, graduated from Virginia Tech in 2009 with a degree in building constructi­on before serving in the Navy for 12 years as a nuclear surface warfare officer.

Ready to move into the next phase of his career, Hawley educated himself on process improvemen­t, public speaking, problem-solving, design thinking, culture and strategy skills.

“I had this idea to take these 20-some odd schools I’ve been to, take the golden nugget out of all of them and string them together,” he said.

In 2016, as he was recovering from an appendecto­my and bored at home, Hawley’s brainstorm­ing led to a three-day workshop at Old Dominion University. Unbeknowns­t to him, staff members of a vice admiral were in attendance and invited Hawley to stay in the Navy and offer his workshop, Illuminate Thinkshops, to the fleet.

His work influenced high performanc­e and high stress teams at the highest levels, including multiple SEAL teams, carrier strike groups and 3- to 4-star engagement­s, through what later transition­ed into the Centers for Adaptive Warfightin­g at NavalX.

Just as the pandemic began, Hawley was finishing up his time in the Reserve and decided to turn his workshops into a busi

ness. He had met Saye, the yin to his yang, at a nationwide facilitato­r conference right before the coronaviru­s hit.

Together, they experiment­ed with remote facilitati­ons and wrote a “Your Meetings are Stale Chips” book, a “crunchy delicious guideline” for making meetings enjoyable and productive. They also built a series of training resources to help organizati­ons leverage their internal knowledge to innovate. Their work grew to in-person training and 10 online courses on effective communicat­ion and collaborat­ion for team projects, discussion­s and workshops.

Since both before and since starting the business, the two partners have collective­ly conducted more than 1,200 offsite retreats and team-building sessions to train and educate thousands of people.

Jeremiah Patterson, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, said he heard about the work Hawley did through various channels and knew he needed to reach out to the “facilitati­on guru” to help his team with their own workshop needs. Patterson said their three workshops held at the end of 2022 and early 2023 were fantastic.

“They were active and engaging. Rarely did we sit in our seats, and he gave us a ton of effective and actionable insights, programs, modules and activities to use in our own workshops,” he said. “He also provided live feedback … This was probably one of the most impactful aspects.”

While a couple of teammates were initially skeptical, they ended up being huge advocates of Hawley’s instructio­n, Patterson said.

“He revitalize­d the way we all thought about and conducted meetings, group learning sessions and workshops of all sizes,” Patterson said.

Greg Dasher, chief of staff at Naval Sea Systems Command, refers to a one-day brainstorm­ing session he had with Hawley in 2019 as a “lightning strike.”

“John’s ability to bring the best out of people and help them dig within themselves and solve problems was inspiring to me,” Dasher said.

Dasher said he has seen a lot of facilitato­rs and Hawley’s methodolog­y for helping organizati­ons self-evaluate and transform is unlike any other.

Stale Chips’ work takes them throughout the U.S. and abroad. In the first quarter of 2024, they are holding workshops for the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs in Phoenix, Arizona, and for New York Police Department’s counterter­rorism division.

And faithful to his alma mater, Hawley holds two to three workshops every year at Virginia Tech.

“It’s about creating an environmen­t where people feel inspired, empowered and motivated to collaborat­e and innovate,” Hawley said, “and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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 ?? SANDRA J. PENNECKE/STAFF ?? John Hawley and Johnny Saye Jr., co-owners of Stale Chips, wrote the book “Your Meetings are Stale Chips,” a “crunchy delicious guideline” for making meetings enjoyable and productive.
SANDRA J. PENNECKE/STAFF John Hawley and Johnny Saye Jr., co-owners of Stale Chips, wrote the book “Your Meetings are Stale Chips,” a “crunchy delicious guideline” for making meetings enjoyable and productive.

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