By Paul Feinberg
We can't say for certain, but we're reasonably sure Gary Ryals (EMBA '08) is the only UCLA Anderson alumnus whose admissions interview was conducted on a secure phone line from a command center in Baghdad, Iraq.
Ryals, a Lieutenant Commander with the Navy SEALs, earned his undergraduate degree at Lewis and Clark College where he had an interest in international relations and security. He says he considered law school, but after working at a law firm, decided it wasn't for him. After speaking to friends, some of whom where working in South America in counter-terrorism, he decided to join the military. "Getting into the SEAL teams was my back-up plan," Ryals said.
As a SEAL, Ryals traveled the world, with deployments to South America, the Pacific and the Middle East. He was on deployment in Iraq when he applied to Anderson. Getting accepted required a little extra consideration.
After applying, Ryals received a letter from Anderson, indicating his application looked good, but required an interview to move forward. He told Kathy Lilygren (EMBA '98), who had requested the interview, that Anderson was his "first choice" but if he had to do an in-person interview immediately, he might have to consider other options. At that time, he was deployed to Iraq and coming to Westwood for an interview was not possible. He asked Lilygren if he could do the interview by phone. She agreed.
"When we did the interview, Kathy could hear helicopters in the background," Ryals said, noting this was not the last time someone from Anderson was considerate of his responsibilities. "UCLA Anderson was very supportive. All the classes were recorded so I could go home on weekends and review."
During his first year as an EMBA, Ryals was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroic achievement during his 2005-2006 Iraq tour. As a student, he emerged as a leadership mentor to his peers and was selected to be the class commencement speaker.
His accomplishments are considerable. Ryals most recently returned from Afghanistan, where he led numerous combat missions as the Commander of the SEAL Task Force for Southern Afghanistan. He also served on the Afghan Provincial Governor's Security Council, and earned a nomination for his second Bronze Star. Ryals currently serves as the Executive Officer of a West Coast SEAL team in Coronado, CA.
"I'm the second in command," Ryals said. "The civilian equivalent would be a chief operating officer. I report to the commanding officer, and I'm responsible for ensuring day-to-day operations are carried out in alignment with his strategic vision and intent."
Ryals' decision to earn an MBA is rooted in his ongoing interest in economics and security. Master's degrees are not at all uncommon for military officers, many of who seek degrees in international relations and public policy. "I was concerned about long-term relevance," said Ryals, who recently established a consulting practice that provides training in team building and leadership coaching development to individuals and corporations. "My interests were in security and economics. My undergraduate thesis was on the link between trade and conflict, where I found that countries that engage in trade are less likely to engage in military conflict. I felt that understanding business would help in understanding international security."
While conceding that there is not always a direct application between business and management courses and military operations, Ryals found there was great value in the team approach in Anderson's EMBA program. "As SEALS, we are trained, organized and mentally conditioned to operate as a team. Everybody puts their personal beliefs behind them, and focuses on the mission or desired outcome. It's a collaborative environment," he said. Ryals draws comparisons between that collaboration and his EMBA experience, where his classmates included executives from the financial services, biosciences, information technology, and real estate industries, as well as the medical and legal professions. "As problems become complex, no one person has all the expertise to solve the problem or anticipate second or third order effects of a potential course of action. Today's business environment requires a collaborative problem solving approach; you need experts from different disciplines."
"Part of the reason SEALs have been so successful is our ability to collaborate between agencies, across the Defense and State Departments, and even with non-governmental organizations. It's not unusual for us to work with an Army battalion in Afghanistan, and then to work off of Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, and later to support an overseas land-based law enforcement operation. I learned a lot from my classmates, but the biggest thing was an affirmation that collaborative decision-making always produces the best outcomes."
Currently, Ryals is stationed in Coronado, California, though he expects to be deployed overseas sometime soon. He does not know if he'll return to the Middle East or if he'll head for some other part of the world, where the SEALs often go to train alongside locals and aid other countries in addressing security threats such as piracy, narcotics or territorial sovereignty. How long Ryals remains on active duty remains to be seen. He's eligible to separate from the Navy next year.
If he does choose to leave the Navy, he's considering several options, including pursuing diplomacy as an ambassador or as a security expert. He also has interest in environmental issues and would like to explore opportunities in industries with sound economic values that also have little or no negative environmental impact.
As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, UCLA Anderson has selected 100 highly inspirational UCLA Anderson alumni as representatives of the enormous depth and breadth of leadership and impact among the school's 37,000 alumni. Ryals says he was "completely shocked" to find out he'd been selected as one of the Inspirational 100 Anderson alumni.
"Those in (the special operations military) community try to remain humble and out of the spotlight. We downplay our own contributions," Ryals said. "We don't always recognize how our work appears to people outside defense. I really feel honored, humble and not necessarily deserving when I see people like Larry Fink ('76), Marshall Goldsmith ('77) and Kathy Magliato ('06) on the list. It's great to see Anderson so supportive of the military and it's refreshing that people at Anderson recognize the contributions of our service members."