One of the best jobs I ever had was commanding a battalion responsible for transforming raw recruits into Soldiers. There are many great professionals involved in this very difficult mission, but the key to successfully training young men and women lies with the Drill Sergeant. This is a tough job which tends to wear out our NCOs, so the Army normally limits a Drill Sergeant’s time “on the trail” to two years. This means that every training unit experiences 50% turnover in its most critical personnel every year.

Training units responsible for Army Basic Combat Training are typically required to brief their performance and training achievements semi-annually. This consists of a series of briefings from subordinate companies which are then rolled into battalion briefings and presented to a General Officer somewhere up the chain. In typical Army fashion these briefings are most often PowerPoint marathons where staffs compile and present often-meaningless statistics that “prove” the unit is doing a great job training young recruits and managing their training cadre.

Likely the most mockable portion of these briefings is the inevitable “Red, Amber, Green” assessment (or T,P,U assessment where units report if they are “Trained, need Practice, or are Untrained”) which require some form of assessment by commanders about their own units. There is usually some magical formula behind the ratings that give the appearance of objectivity to the proceedings.

A few years ago, as a new battalion commander, I got to watch a series of these briefings where I saw nearly every company commander report themselves as Amber or “needs Practice” on the Mission Essential Task of “Train Soldiers.” The reasoning behind the Amber rating was that each unit had “lots of new Drill Sergeants who lacked the experience to get us to Green.” This was usually acknowledged with a sympathetic knod.

In a business where the personnel model practically guarantees that 50% of the key personnel are new each year, leaders must figure out how to incorporate, train and certify these new folks quickly. This is not an excuse for less than “Green” performance: it is a condition of the organization and its mission, and is no more a reason for sub-optimal performance than the fact that it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

In future briefings I forbid the use of this excuse, instead requiring leaders to incorporate their turnover rates into their plans for success. Getting rid of this excuse led us to reconsider other reasons for Amber or Red ratings. How many of these “reasons” were beyond our control, but were still predictable conditions of our trade? How might we account for them?

The fact of the matter was that everyone knew who was leaving the unit well in advance, and the personnel system (while not perfect) was generally reliable in getting replacements into units. Our leaders did a great job of adjusting their training tactics in hot or cold weather, why was personnel turnover any different? It wasn’t. When leaders acknowledged this and accounted for it, I quit hearing this as an excuse. Instead, I heard leaders tell me how they were overcoming this challenge with rigorous training and certification programs, senior leader mentorship of new Drill Sergeants, and partnering senior with junior Drills to ensure continuity over time. As soon as the excuse was gone leaders responded. For the record, I never told my leaders how to account for new folks: I told them that having new people was part of the work conditions and to account for it. They came up with the solutions.

Just as a sailor plans for favorable or ill winds, our leaders must account for the variables our businesses are subject to. Some of those variables can be influenced, some can not. Either way, good leaders acknowledge the conditions they may have to deal with and have a plan for adjusting to them. Mediocre leaders explain away poor performance by pointing out the external forces that made their jobs harder. Good leaders plan for a variety of conditions and adjust accordingly. They certainly don’t make excuses for predictable changes in conditions.

What changing conditions impact your business and organization? What do your subordinate leaders do about them? How often do we allow unfavorable winds to blow us to and fro without accounting for them? How often are those conditions completely predictable? Most importantly, how often do we accept scapegoating the conditions of our world to accept poor performance? What kind of excuses do you hear most often?

I think a lot of organizations accept mediocrity with excuses about typical conditions that can be overcome. IT department activities… known higher headquarters policies… laws, regulations, etc. are often presented as the excuse as to why something can’t possibly be done well. The reality is that these are known conditions on the field of play. These conditions are like the constraints a football coach has in planning out his game: the size and shape of the field, the rules of the game, the number and kinds of players that must be employed. While all of these rules must be followed, successful leaders minimize the impact of adverse conditions, exploit favorable ones, and lobby to change the ones they can’t overcome. The only thing they can’t do is complain about how the field is holding them back. It isn’t.

Seeing the conditions your organization deals with is paramount. There are many conditions you can impact, and you should fight to change those to your advantage. Others, like the wind, are not under your control. These must be acknowledged, and not used as an excuse. How you and your organization deal with these variables separates the master sailors from those that are destined to remain adrift in mediocrity.

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