Pugil Sticks and Candid Conversations

One of the cool parts of running a basic combat training outfit is watching young trainees experience things for the first time. For many, Basic was full of firsts: first time away from home, first time someone really yelled at them, first time without a cell phone for more than a few hours (this was usually the most traumatic thing for them)… the list is really long.

One first that many trainees experience is actually hitting another person. Hard. And the psychological impact of hitting someone hard has an interesting effect on people. The other first for many is being the recipient of that blow. This also has a psychological effect in addition to the obvious physical impact.

When I first saw trainees don football helmets, chest pads, and hockey gloves and pick up pugil sticks (they resemble a giant Q-tip) I wondered why in the world we were still doing this. This didn’t seem like a particularly useful skill on the modern battlefield. But, it turns out, there is a point to this exercise.

It’s interesting how people take to it. Most folks are really hesitant at first, not wanting to make the first move. It often takes a lot of yelling from the instructors to get them going.

When most people hit someone for the first time a few things go through their mind. First, “OMG I just hit someone. This just got serious.” The response to that thought typically goes one of two ways. A fairly common second response is, “I think I should do that again before they hit me back.”

But the other response I saw time and again was that many people stopped and apologized.  Now I think it’s nice that we have raised people to generally be polite, but there comes a time when you have to get past niceties. Combat training is one of those times.

Either way, most people became very emotional once contact was made. Some got scared, frightened about what they just did. Others were scared about the retaliation. And some got angry. They felt that if they started it, they had to finish it.

The people who tended to emerge victorious from the pugil bouts were those that kept their heads and didn’t let their emotions dictate how they acted. This composure normally only came after a bit of practice and coaching.

I sense that there are similarities to the emotional responses to pugil hits and the interaction we sometimes have at work. We shy away from verbally hitting others, we try to avoid being hit ourselves, and when first contact is made we have a fight or flight response that doesn’t make sense in a business setting.

Because of this, we too often have benign meetings that don’t have any conflict. These are probably not the most productive meetings. Polite meetings, where everyone nods along with the narrator, are generally useless, leaving unresolved issues floating out there and eating up valuable leader time having secondary meetings to resolve the issues.

Other times there is too much emotional conflict. Someone critiques someone else and it’s “game on” like a couple of 18-year-old privates swinging at each other out of emotion instead of cool reasoning.

The same thing happens when supervisors have to deal with an underperforming employee. When we have to be critical of others, many leaders simply shy away, avoiding the confrontation. Of course this leaves them with unresolved issues and an uncorrected employee who isn’t going to improve. So tension builds up, and makes things worse. When it gets to the point where they can’t stand it any longer, the supervisor tends to hit harder than they probably wanted to, and the employee either leaves or stays and works out of fear. Neither is an optimal result.

Like the pugilist, those leaders with a calm head and control of their emotions during tense moments tend to emerge victorious. And, just like the privates learning to confront their fears with composure, leaders benefit from practice and experience. The more you practice both giving and receiving candid criticism, the better you will respond when conflict arises.

Of course this kind of interaction requires a culture of giving and accepting honest feedback. Fostering this culture and hiring people who share these values will go a long ways in cultivating a place where healthy conflict thrives.

So, leaders, don your helmets and pick up your pugil sticks for some practice rounds so when it really matters you can be the victorious one with a cool head.


Standing Desks and Math Problems: It pays to take care of your workforce!

A few years ago I took over as the new leader of a largely civilian organization. One of the first things I did was rearrange my office, including getting a standing desk. I often prefer to work standing up, especially if I am just doing email. I also became a big fan of Dr. Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World that points out that sitting is an occupational risk we can do something about.

Once my new desk was installed (and adjusted by our talented industrial hygienist) I got a few comments about it. A couple of our senior leaders questioned the purchase. “Those are too expensive!” “Now that you have one, everyone will want one, and it’s not in the budget.” “Don’t we need to go through reasonable accommodation to authorize those? Don’t you need a doctor’s note?” “We can’t afford to get these for people.” “This is just a fad!”

I was surprised at the negative response to the standing desk. I know that not everyone had read Deskbound, but certainly the smart folks here could see the wisdom of getting standup desks? But I guess the fear that everyone would want one and the impact on the budget was a legitimate concern after all.

Or was it?

I sat down with one of these leaders and did some quick, back of the envelope math.

Let’s assume 50% of our 700-person workforce will want a standing desk. That’s 350 desks. At about $300 per unit that comes out to $105k. That is a lot of money, especially if you didn’t budget for it!

But how much is it costing us not to do it? And what would $105k actually be buying us?

Is sitting the new smoking?

Well, if meeting an employee’s request leads to fewer medical appointments, we will see a savings. If they have fewer long-term health problems, they may take fewer sick days, thereby increasing productivity. If they are feeling well, they may actually work a little longer for us. If they feel like we care enough about them to try meet their needs, they may stay a whole lot longer. If we can delay the cost of replacing an employee by just one year we have more than paid for the standing desk. By the way the average cost of replacing even the least skilled employee is 10x the cost of a standing desk. Most replacements cost a whole lot more!

What about requiring a doctor’s note before we buy them a standing desk? Well, I think the cost to the organization for getting said note actually exceeds the cost of the equipment just in lost productivity and paperwork. Processing “reasonable accommodation” requests also takes time and money. Not having to pay for that paperwork drill alone will pay for the standing desk.

I recognize that there is some debate over the benefits of standing desks, especially when people don’t use them correctly. And I know there are varying degrees of cost and quality in the standing desk market. But the simple math is this: this particular purchase pays for itself rather quickly and several times over.

So how many other little things does the math work out like this? I’m not sure, but it is worth asking the question when an issue like this arises.

The problem, as I see it, is not whether this is a budgetable item or whether or not employees should be standing at work. The problem is that too many of us look at taking care of the workforce as an expense rather than an investment. Too often, we default to seeing the bill instead of seeing the payoff.

I’m not suggesting that companies need to go off the deep end and hire private chefs to provide free meals to employees around the clock or anything like that. I am suggesting that there are small investments you can make for your workforce that will pay for themselves, and that leaders that won’t even consider them will find themselves spending more time and money hiring their employees’ replacements.

Leaders have a responsibility to manage company resources wisely. Many of us publicly state that our people are our most important resource, yet we consistently fail to invest in them in ways that may increase their productivity and reduce turnover.

Too often this is because we value the budget more than we value our employees, and we haven’t really done the math.

So break out the stubby pencils and the backs of envelopes, and stand up for your workforce.


Wash the Windows: Appreciate the World Around You

A few months ago I was visiting a hydropower plant in the Northwest. The people that keep the federal hydropower plants running throughout the nation are an incredibly smart and hardworking bunch. You would have to be to keep this aging infrastructure functioning in spite of dwindling budgets and increasing costs.

By their very nature, hydropower plants are generally located in some really beautiful places. Hydro plants overlook rivers, and the one I was visiting was nestled in the Columbia River Gorge. This gorge is the largest national scenic area in the US, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year because of its natural beauty.

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Leading While Distracted: 5 Tips to Better Focus

Last year I attended a Bon Jovi concert. The band was amazing, and they showed that some folks can age well and keep rocking. Most of the crowd had not aged as well as the band had, but most of us were having a great time remembering back to the first time they heard Livin’ on a Prayer (go ahead and click the link… the walk down memory lane is worth it; we’ll wait here). It had been a while since I had been to a concert, and I was more than a little surprised by how many people who paid good money to see the show spent more time on their mobile devices than actually watching the show.

I don’t begrudge the world the amazing tool these devices are, but I can’t help but wonder when we decided that whatever is on there is more important than what is right in front of us. When did we as a species decided that we are good enough at life to dedicate only a fraction of our attention to what we are doing?

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Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

bus-thrown-under-198636530Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess. Continue reading

Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

hiringHire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading


Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

Veterans Day 2018I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

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Following Superman: Doing it all yourself doesn’t actually help

Superman-logoA few years ago I succeeded Superman in a job. As you can imagine following the Man of Steel was really hard.

I took over as the chief of staff for an engineer unit, and my predecessor had done an amazing job at running the unit. He knew everything about the maintenance, logistics, personnel, and administrative systems, and he knew how to leverage those systems to keep the organization going. It was, frankly, intimidating thinking about how much I had to learn.

Fortunately, I have a staff around me that will help me figure it all out, right?

Well, sort of… there were people assigned as staff officers with responsibility for those areas. That’s not the same thing as having a fully functional staff.

One of the first meetings I got to attend in my new position was the budget meeting at our higher headquarters. I called in the budget officer and asked him to bring me the books so we could review them before the meeting.

The budget officer told me he’d be happy to come over but that he didn’t have the books. “They’re in your office. Your predecessor did the budget himself.”


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Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

jujitsu2This starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.


I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

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Get the Rock out of the Road: Leading Change amidst resistance

rollstone-boulder-1[6] copyAs a brand new Lieutenant I was welcomed to my first battalion by a senior lieutenant named Ed who was getting ready to leave the unit. He had been there three years and was headed back to the states to get promoted and go to Captain School. (It wasn’t really called that, but most of my followers aren’t familiar with the Engineer Officer Advanced Course, and I though Captain School sounded cooler).

Ed was full of wisdom. And since he was older and wiser and I was (as my platoon sergeant so eloquently put it) still wet behind the ears, I listened intently.

He offered advice when I attempted to buy an extra large rucksack. “Why do you need that?” To carry more stuff in the field. “We’re a mechanized unit. You have a vehicle for that.” I know, but we may need to dismount and walk a ways. “If you walk more than 300 yards you should fire your driver.” Ed was good at pointing out the obvious stuff for me.

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