Thursday, March 8, 2012

Keeping the Good Guys

I had a chance to sit and talk to a good friend last night, a very capable and experienced leader, who has demonstrated his talents under the most stressing of conditions – repeatedly. He is a combat commander who has successfully led men in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is very concerned with what he sees as a ‘hemorrhage of leadership’ in the US military.

His perception, which I share based on my own observations, as well as conversations with other middle grade officers throughout the services, is that a disproportionate percentage of the cream of the young officers – those with several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have reached the 8 – 12 year point in their time in the service, are choosing to leave the service. Two questions arise: why are they choosing to leave? And what can any organization do when faced with the same problem?

One of the basic problems facing any organization is the organization itself. Every organization of more than a hand-full of people very quickly takes on a persona; it has unique characteristics. And as it ages, people within the organization will take on some of the characteristics of that persona. We speak of people becoming ‘company men’ but don’t often reflect on that fact that organizations do cause real change to people, in their behavior, in their beliefs, in the way they act and the way they dress. As the organization grows larger and older, this persona, and eventually an accompanying rule set – hard and fast conditions that must be adhered to – grow larger and stronger.

While these are outward manifestations of the organization’s persona, the more important characteristics are the ones that are not seen, the suppression of characteristics that are dangerous to the organization. And what would those be? Essential to every organization is survival. The older, and the larger, an organization becomes, the more energy the organization expends on its own survival. Other issues, other goals, become secondary. The organization truly focuses only on one thing – its own survival. And this forces unusual behavior.

For example, in a business in a very competitive field, survival means remaining competitive. The business rewards those who contribute to remaining ahead of the competition, finding new ideas, saving unnecessary expenses, hiring the most talented workers; the organization strives to remain nimble, profitable, competitive. In short, the business behaves in a manner consistent with what we expect from a business.

What happens when a business finds itself in a field that is highly regulated? The business spends more time lobbying government, more time looking for people who understand the regulatory process, who are comfortable ‘maneuvering’ within the regulations, and less time looking for bright, competitive, imaginative people. The focus shifts.

When we move to a large government bureaucracy, where money is a function of ensuring a given House and Senate Committee is satisfied with the agency’s plans and their distribution of money’s to various programs or districts, the focus shifts again. Agencies are not rewarded or penalized for performance or non-performance, respectively. Rather, agencies are often rewarded (receive more funding) for identifying that a problem is worse than last estimated, as well as for identifying new problems that had gone unnoticed. Within the agency, people are rewarded not for saving money (except at the lowest levels), they are rewarded for significant growth in funding. Managing a multi-billion dollar program through to completion is a major ‘feather in your cap’ in Washington, and will lead to more senior positions in the future. Identifying that a major program was grossly over funded will lead to a few days or weeks of notoriety, but rarely leads to more senior positions.

In the DOD, in uniform, the situation is much the same: while junior officers, those with less than 12 – 14 years of service, promotion is based on fairly clear performance: do well, in fairly clear, simple terms, and you will be promoted. But, as officers approach their first command selection (as Commanders or Lieutenant Colonels), the services begin to select officers based not on aggressive, risk taking, aggressive behavior, and creative thinking, but instead, begin to look for those who will not only place the unit (battalion, ship, squadron) at risk, but also will, over time, learn how to not place the service at risk. The Organization is now starting to cull the herd, looking for officers who can be trusted to do ‘the right thing,’ that being those actions that will not bring any challenges to the status quo, officers who can be eventually placed in front of a Congressional Committee and will say what the system wants to hear. Officers who might stand up and say ‘there is a better way, a different way’ are dangerous in that they threaten the organization and it is therefore important to cull them from the herd.

As these officers continue on in their careers the culling becomes more pronounced: selection to colonel, selection for major command (a colonel/captain level command, such as a brigade, regiment, wing, major ship, etc.), and then selection to ‘flag’ (brigadier general/rear admiral). In fact, selection continues after that, with only the most trusted being nominated for 3 stars, and later 4 stars. Even then, it is notable that the services will end up with ‘mavericks’ at the 3 and 4 star level – not often but there are usually 2 or 3 in the service at any one time. These men will only wind up in Washington as a 3 star by mistake and never as a 4 star. Rather, they will be sent to an operational command – CENTCOM or PACOM, etc. There they can command troops, fight wars, meet with foreign powers. But what they cannot do is participate in budget decisions, they cannot and do not participate in the ‘inside the beltway’ combat where, as one chief of service said a few years ago, ‘the real work takes place.’

Who then do they select of these key three and four star jobs, the admirals and generals? Simply put, the pick the guys who have exemplary records, bright, capable managers, but who will not think for themselves. They pick the company men.

And the culling begins when they start choosing those battalions commanders. And that is what the JOs see – guys starting to bend, to ‘sell out’ to the organization in order to get their command.

What do we call the guys who don’t select, the guys who are weeded out because they are perhaps a bit too energetic, take a few too many risks? What are such people called? Leaders.

This is what the junior officers are seeing: the most capable colonels aren’t making brigadier, the most capable lieutenant colonels don’t make colonel. And the ones who do are the guys the junior officers see as the bottom half of the barrel. And a few officers, who the junior officers saw as tough, creative leaders, change, and they are promoted. And so, not wanting to change, and not wanting to be led by men they don’t respect, they leave.

That is a tough situation. There is little we can do about it right now, and fixing it is a serious issue. But there are also lessons to be learned from it for any organization.

The first lesson is this: as the leader of any organization – learn to accept risk. Selection of ‘company men’ is founded on the simple truth that all organizations are inherently risk averse and become ever more risk averse as they age and grow. The leader must do all that he can to tamp down risk aversion, and it begins with your daily behavior and you willingness to delegate authorities.

Second, develop a clear long-term strategy where the goals are clearly outside the organizational construct. Clear long-term goals that speak to external realities (leading the industry, etc.) can be used to force your organization to remain nimble and competitive. Vague goals will drive the organization inward. (Being able to defeat the Japanese Navy (the US Navy goal immediately prior to WWII), vice ‘protect US interests’ which leads you to ask what interests, from whom, and how well?)

Third, pay particular attention to promotions. Develop a real process to identify good leaders AND bad leaders. Include junior people in assessments (people assessing their bosses.) Keep asking yourself if the selection process is adequate for identifying the very best people, and don’t be satisfied with the process as it exists.

Fourth, spend real time and money training and educating your junior leaders and spend time evaluating their performance. Ask hard questions and demand high performance.

Finally, learn how to delegate. Let your leaders grow. Give them room to try new things and room to fail. In fact, put them in positions where they must fail and watch how they get up.

One of the hardest parts of leading is identifying the young leaders who will replace you. Give it the attention it deserves.


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