Story

Accepting the Leadership Challenge: the First-Time Supervisor

As a young lieutenant I had the privilege of serving on the operations staff in an Engineering Battalion. It was a great assignment as there were really talented people working really hard to keep the organization running. I learned a tremendous amount in the year I served on staff, and understanding how the higher headquarters ran made me a better leader when I went back down to the line.

One of the guys I got to know on staff was a Captain named John. He was one of those all-around great guys that didn’t hold his rank over us junior officers.  He essentially treated us as equals on staff and was a pleasure to be around.

And then something changed. John was selected to go to a line unit and take command.

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Essay

Bailing Water with a Cup

Three guys out fishing start taking on water. The first guy to notice it grabs the nearest thing he sees that can bail water: a tiny little cup. He starts bailing furiously, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The other two haven’t noticed yet, as they are busy fishing. The first guy assumes this is a temporary problem and keeps bailing, all the while looking back at his rod in case a fish bites.

It starts getting worse.

The second guy realizes there is a problem, and he, too, starts bailing. He has a red Solo cup, so he moves more water than the first guy, but he still isn’t making a lot of headway. He doesn’t want to leave his fishing rod, either, so is pretty distracted from the bailing effort. Every once in a while he gets a bite, stops bailing, and tries to land the fish. He finds it is more difficult to net the fish when you have to rummage in the water in the bottom of the boat for the net.

The third guy is late to the party. He has been solely focused on fishing and finally catches on when he can’t get to the live well because of the water they are taking on. Something has to be done! He grabs a bucket and starts bailing, too, still with one eye on his rod.

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Essay

Animal House: Leading Change Blutowski Style

If you haven’t watched National Lampoon’s 1978 masterpiece Animal House in a while, it may be time to break out the VHS tapes and grab some popcorn. It is laced with famous scenes and features many budding actors that went on to highly successful acting careers. If you are one of those Millennials who wants to get some insight into the culture that influenced your grandparents’ generation, it’s worth figuring out how to stream this classic. If nothing else it is worth watching Blutowski’s inspiring “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech.

This great film came to mind recently as I listened to a senior executive talking about the many changes he was trying to implement across his organization.  He had some great ideas about the direction his firm needed to go, and his energy and enthusiasm for the future was infectious. His audience was inspired and hopeful and the much-needed changes were long overdue.

But soon after the CEO left, the mid-level managers began evaluating the CEO’s proposals. “That will never happen, the VPs won’t implement that,” said one. “There are too many policies and too much institutional momentum for any of that to stick,” said another. “Unless you get rid of the old guard up there, none of this is going to get anywhere,” said a third. They all agreed that the CEO’s proposed changes were necessary, but none of them believed they would ever happen.

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Story

It’s Too Easy to Live Hard

As very junior officers serving in Germany in the early 1990s, we often found ourselves “in the field” at various training centers. “The field” was designed to replicate wartime conditions for units, requiring them to sustain themselves without the benefit of the buildings or infrastructure most of us have become accustomed to.

For the troops, this meant sleeping in vehicles or tents in between battles, eating lukewarm food when you could get it, cold MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) when you couldn’t. Typical rotations at the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) in Hohenfels (now the Joint Multinational Readiness Center) lasted ten days, long enough for most of us to run out of pogey bait (food the troops smuggle in). This duration also forced leaders to figure out how to get troops and themselves the right amount of sleep. Some folks think they can go days without sleep, and they’d be wrong. Few things are funnier to watch than a company commander who thinks he can go 10 days without sleep falling asleep mid-sentence while trying to brief his battle plans on about day 3.

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Story

Chicken Metrics: Driving Your Organization the Wrong Way

About fifteen years ago I had the privilege to sit in on an executive leadership training session for a major corporation. During this session, corporate leaders discussed various issues their company was having. Most of these discussions centered on stories; anecdotes that represented issues the company faced. One story in particular stuck with me…

A well-known fried chicken chain restaurant was being inspected by their corporate efficiency team. The goal was to improve operations at all of their outlets in order to maximize profits. This seems reasonable as making money is usually the goal of such places.

The corporate team brought with them hundreds of metrics designed to identify and minimize all the little inefficiencies that creep into such operations and nibble away at profit. The local store in question was doing pretty well. They were “green” on most of the major metrics and had very few “red” ratings. One of these red categories, though, was costing them quite a bit: they were throwing out too much chicken. Health codes, of course, limit how long chicken can sit on the rack before it loses its serviceability and must be disposed of.

This local store was leading the region in thrown out chicken, an obvious hit to the bottom line. Something must be done! The corporate inspectors chided the local manager and left him with instructions to fix that metric. They would be back in 60 days to check on him. Continue reading

Essay

Rethinking Innovation in a Bureaucracy

About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

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Story

A Poor Sailor Blames the Wind

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.

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Story

Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

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Story

Not in my job description…

In the Winter of 2016 I found myself at Fort Carson, Colorado participating in an Army exercise. A major snowstorm hit the area, dumping about 14 inches of snow on the installation. Now Ft Carson and Colorado Springs generally don’t do a whole lot about big snowfall like this as the roads will be clear in a couple of days. They simply close the post while they clear the big stuff and let the rest melt.

Being part of an exercise you can’t really afford to take the day off, so the troops either walked or braved the slick roads to get to work.  Jon, a friend and fellow Colonel, decided we needed to swing by the dining facility on the way in that morning as we likely wouldn’t get out again the rest of the day.

When we arrived at the DFAC (pronounced dee-fak, short for dining facility) we were met by a young private who was assigned the unenviable job of scanning ID Cards as people entered the DFAC. He looked bored. It turned out that the two of us Colonels were two of only a handful of folks who had bothered to get breakfast on that snowy morning. We scanned in and then ordered some food from the Army specialist behind the counter.

While we waited for him to prepare our food we went to gather condiments and such for our to-go order. There weren’t any.  The napkin bin was also empty, as was the cup dispenser for coffee. I can understand when a place is really busy why they might get behind on things like this, but since there was virtually nobody here we couldn’t figure out why nobody had bothered to restock and tidy up.

Jon approached the private who had scanned our cards. “Hey private, do you realize that you are out of napkins, cups and condiments? And that this place is a mess?” The private snapped to attention, obviously distraught at being addressed directly by the colonel. “ummm…” he started. “Yes, sir. I can see that. But I don’t work here.”

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Recommended Reading

Bob’s 2017 Reading List

This year’s reading list is geared towards helping people develop as leaders. To me, being a good leader requires a variety of skills: self awareness and empathy (understanding yourself and those you lead and follow), clear thinking, strategic thinking (including systems thinking), an understanding of your context (the environment within which you are working), a robust understanding of your work, and some flare. The books below don’t cover all of these characteristics, but they are a good start. “Thinking about Thinking” helps leaders understand why they and others think the way they do. Strategic Thinking helps leaders understand where their problems exist within a larger context, and gives insight into what external things may be influencing your problems.

The section labeled “Leadership” touches on mentorship, motivation and creativity in leadership. If you are looking for a basic primer on straightforward techniques on leadership you can do a lot worse than the basic Army doctrine manual, Field Manual 6-22 Army Leadership.

“Thinking About the World” introduces some different opinions about some emerging areas influencing society. Data, social networks, different views that challenge conventional wisdom… the point is to question the accepted views on a variety of topics, not to change your mind but to exercise your ability to consider different views.

“Just to be Different” section is really about introducing and exercising divergent thinking. How might this make you a better leader? Look, everyone is trying to do the same things as everyone else, only better. The way I figure, everyone is trying so hard to be “normal” that we are missing out on the things that can really make a difference in our organizations. If you look throughout history for those folks who really made a difference you don’t find too many conformists. Yes, you have to figure out which rules you need to follow, but following the herd isn’t going to make you a great leader. Think differently.

The final section is geared towards my own organization and our specific context. You should develop a short reading list for your place as well. One of the best ways to get folks socialized is to send them a book that helps them understand their new firm before they arrive.

I know it’s a long list… but you have as long as it takes. I recommend reading one from each category, taking a break (read some fiction… I’ll recommend some in a later post), and then looping back through. Continue reading