John Rosenfeld’s Leadership: From Special Forces to Jenius Bank
John Rosenfeld flying in a helicopter while serving in the U.S. Army.
No, that’s not how many employees report to John Rosenfeld at Jenius Bank (with over 200 people and growing).
That’s how many times he jumped out of planes while serving in the United States Army.
Most parachuters jump from a height of 1,000-1,500 feet. His most memorable jump was from 27,000 feet.
“We jumped at night when it was pitch black,” John recalls. “You had to waddle out of the plane because you had an oxygen bottle on your left leg, your rifle on your right leg, a backpack strapped to your thighs, a parachute on your back and an oxygen mask on your face.” Altogether, the equipment weighed around 200 pounds.
After making it out of the plane, he fell for about a thousand feet before pulling his rip cord and gliding under the cover of night for nearly 20 miles before landing with his team and continuing the mission.
It’s been a few decades since John jumped out of airplanes, and while his laptop only weighs about two pounds these days, the lessons and strategies that gave him the confidence to make those jumps shine through in his daily leadership at Jenius Bank.
Focused on Forging a Path
Joining the military was always on John’s mind. Growing up, he listened to his father’s stories about his own service in the Army infantry. “My father always spoke fondly of it [the Army],” he recalls. “From a young age, it was something that was interesting to me.”
John has always been an achiever, working his way through Boy Scouts to Eagle Scout in his younger years, earning a full four-year Army ROTC scholarship to Norwich University in Vermont, and rising through the ranks to be a Scout Platoon Leader and then a Planning and Operations Officer in the Army’s Infantry.
From the Infantry, he entered Special Forces training, a series of courses to find the top soldiers for the elite cohort. While completing his field training, he remembers getting a radio call informing him that his wife was going into labor with their twins.
Quickly trekking to the given grid location, a Humvee picked him up and took him to a helicopter to fly to the hospital, arriving just in time to see his twins born. Though he may have scared the staff, given that he was still in camouflage and had his rifle with him.
When training was over, John earned the position of A-team leader and became Captain of a Special Forces unit. John still has his green beret in his office, along with a picture of his special forces team.
Leading this team is often the inspiration for decisions he makes when leading Jenius Bank.
Leadership Lessons from the Military
Hire Experts and Listen to Them
“In a normal military unit, the commander may have hundreds of people reporting to them,” he says. “In Special Forces, you have 11.”
Beyond the size difference, Special Forces units are made up of experts in their fields, including Intelligence Sergeants, Medical Sergeants, Weapons Sergeants, Engineer Sergeants, and Communications Sergeants.
According to John, the person on the team with the least knowledge is the Commanding Officer. That is to say, the Commanding Officer isn’t an expert in any of the specialties and relies on his team to bring the best options to the table.
“In Special Forces, you’re leading a team of people who know more about their specialty than you ever will,” John says. “The only way to lead that kind of team is if you earn their respect. And you earn their respect by listening, understanding what they can bring to the table, and asking for their opinions.”
John has carried this collaborative leadership style with him to Jenius Bank. Since Jenius Bank launched as an idea in 2021, John has supported the onboarding of over 200 employees who are experts in their fields.
These experts have decades of traditional banking experience under their belts and all share John’s passion for building a better bank. Relying on these experiences, the team set out to understand what people want from their bank. With John’s support, they conducted extensive research and were able to formulate a best-in-class product that will outpace rivals after our 2023 launch.
Keep a Cool Head
Beyond recruiting experts, John relies on his military training to help him keep a cool head during stressful situations.
“There have been several tough days at Jenius Bank,” John recalls. “Where something went wrong, or somebody raised a concern that, at the time, none of us knew if, or how, we’d get through it. But, based on my experience, there’s no challenge you can’t eventually overcome.”
On the tough days, John thinks back to his missions and the knowledge that no plan survives contact with the enemy, an idea often credited to German field marshal Moltke the Elder.
“The first thing you have to do is stop and assess the situation,” he says. “From there, you identify the resources at your disposal, consider what the organization is trying to accomplish and what is your part in it. Then you develop a sequence of steps to accomplish it and figure out how to communicate this to everyone.”
When creating a plan to work through a tough situation, it’s essential for a leader to listen to those around him. John relies on his team to advise him and help him chart the best path forward for the organization, rather than laying out his own plan and expecting others to follow.
Lead with Your Team
A group of Jenius Bank, Manufacturers Bank, and SMBC leaders at a meeting in Boston in October 2022.
Beyond listening to his team, John creates an atmosphere that makes employees want to be part of the company’s future. From weekly all-hands meetings that include shoutouts to team members and recognition of major accomplishments, to regular updates on Jenius Bank’s plans and future.
His vision for the company is clear and whenever a new task needs to be done, he creates a set of actionable goals that everyone contributes to.
“Whenever I give someone a task, I’m giving them the five W’s,” he says, referring to who, what, when, where, and why. This clarity gives his team the information they need, while also offering them latitude to be creative in their approach.
It’s a testament to John’s leadership that so many Jenius Bank employees have worked with John at other companies in the past and were excited to join him in his new venture at Jenius Bank. John also makes a point of connecting with employees throughout the organization, not just his senior leaders.
"A successful Special Forces leader leads with their team, not ahead of them," John says. His focus on connecting and inspiring has created a culture of trust and innovation.
Rallying a group of over 200 people on a Friday morning isn’t an easy task, but John makes it look effortless. His charisma and ability to connect with people, even through video screens and across time zones, makes everyone want to play a part in the future.
Given his background and many leadership positions, some people may expect John to be a no-nonsense guy, but he’s quite the opposite. He’s quick to make jokes and puts everyone he chats with at ease.
As Jenius Bank sets out to tackle the digital banking world, John makes the team feel safe and supported in their decisions. His confidence permeates the organization and creates an atmosphere that everyone wants to be part of. And while he may not be jumping out of planes anymore, this adventure is still an adrenaline rush.