Wednesday, December 30, 2009

First Time - Part 13: The Debrief

This is part 13 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While I wrote this for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

I heard a great story a while ago from one of Vince Lombardi’s players about how demanding Lombardi was: the Packers had just won their first championship (1961) and in the first official team meeting after the game Lombardi gave them a short talk about preparing for next season, then proceeded to show the game-film from the championship game and started to comment – critique – the performances of this or that Green Bay player.

Lombardi had just put his finger on the most important single element of the pursuit of excellence: the ‘debrief.’

It may come in a half-dozen different ‘wrappers:’ Lessons Learned, After Action Report, Game Film, etc. But the process of coldly and clinically dissecting what you just did, identifying what worked AND why, what didn’t work AND why not, and then developing a follow-on, a change in course, a training plan, a way to take that knew knowledge and apply it to what you are doing – that process is the heart and soul of every pursuit of excellence since the first guy stared at the rock in his hand and decided it didn’t work as well as he had hoped.

If you have ever have observed an after-action report they are generally divided into two main groupings: really good or nearly worthless. And therein lies the real problem: putting together good after-action reports, good debriefs, is VERY hard. It takes a great deal of practice and the skill, once developed, requires constant effort to maintain. (Perhaps the best I have ever seen are from the instructors at the US Navy’s Top Gun (and the US Air Force’s Red Flag) aggressor squadrons. All the great boxing coaches are also excellent.)

But, as hard as they work at the entire debrief process, they have it ‘easy’ compared to many others: the debriefs that take place at Top Gun and Red Flag are of specific, short duration events. As an event expands in time from several hours to several days to several weeks to months or even years, and from dozens of people involved to hundreds to thousands, it becomes massively complex and dissecting it becomes ever more difficult.

The result is that, in most cases, real after action analysis and reporting never takes place. Try to find a detailed study by General Motors that discusses specific decisions that were made over the course of the last 25 years that led to the current situation.

Leadership in most corporations will respond that you can’t do this kind of thing, there would be legal repercussions, they don’t have the time or resources, and most unconvincingly of all: we know what really happened.

I have heard these responses before. Invariably, they are wrong on all counts. A review of the major decisions and their outcomes is a review of facts. If a law has or has not been broken or someone is liable for this or that action, the review won’t change that fact. Not reviewing what led you to your current situation will, however, protect the poor decision-maker. More importantly, it prevents everyone from clearly identifying what went wrong and why. And so, such organizations will, almost to a certainty, never achieve excellence.

For you, in your first leadership position, it is a skill that you should learn and nurture and spread. As you rise through the ranks of your organization you can spread this process, and you will be spreading one of the essential building-blocks of excellence.

So, what is a debrief? Simply put, it is an analytic review of what happened. And there are some rules for good debriefs (I’m using the term generically: it may be a single event – the welcoming ceremony for the visiting VIP that lasted 2 hours, or it may be the building of a nuclear reactor that took years, the essence is the same.) You will review the events – the what happened, then compare them to what was planned, then discuss the difference between the two and why there was a difference. As you step through this process you will start to recognize decision points, times when a decision either was made that led to specific results (good or bad), or could have been made and was not (and also led to specific results – good or bad).

And then the hard part starts. Because now you need to engage the brains of everyone involved and discern WHY this or that decision was made? What information did they have? What was the expected result? How did that compare to the actual result and what additional information would the decision-maker have needed to be able to see what the actual result would be?

Finally, what conclusions can you draw from this discussion? What additional information will you need for the next iteration? What additional preparation is needed? How do you ensure that you replicate the ‘goods’ and avoid the ‘bads’ that you just identified?

To assist in the debrief, take detailed notes on nearly everything. Practice taking notes; practice reconstructing events – it is a learned skill and one that you lose quickly when you don’t practice it. It will take time to get good at this, the first few times you do it you will probably be awful; it’s the cost of learning.

Remember the Number 1 Rule of debriefs: they must be impersonal. Debriefs are cold and factual, egos must be ‘left at the door.’ This includes everyone. If the Big Boss is there and he did something clearly wrong, it gets mentioned.*

What do you debrief? Nearly everything. While the common image of a debrief is pilots sitting around a ready-room after a mission discussing what happened, debriefs can – and should – be used for nearly any type of event, from a football game to a meeting with your investors, from a single discrete event to a multi-year construction program. Obviously, for long-duration events, you need to keep detailed notes and you should have regular meetings throughout the course of the project.

A debrief begins with the detailed description of what happened. Training yourself, and others, to observe and report accurately is neither simple nor quick. It will require a good deal of practice. But it is the foundation for the debrief. Whenever possible, take notes. If not possible, practice remembering key elements of any event. Focus on accuracy. (This also helps you in simply being a focused member of any team.)

Consider that most mundane of events, a meeting with some potential investors. You have been chosen to give the presentation. First, always try to bring at least one other person who can not only take notes, but is a good ‘observer of the human condition’ who can ‘read’ (think body language, tone, etc.) the investors and report accurately. Some of the things you may want to discuss when you and your team get back to the office would be:

What happened? = Sequence of events and outcomes
Overall impressions
Who should have been there? Who shouldn’t have been there?
What should have been said? What shouldn’t have been said?
Where should we have held the meeting?
What do we want to do for the next meeting?
Based on what we just learned, How do we change the presentation?

In the end, the key to any debrief is answering the question ‘Why?’ Why did you do ‘X?’ Why did the other guy do ‘Y?’ This will lead you to ask the important questions such as ‘What should I have done so that the other guy would have done ‘Z’ instead of ‘Y?’

More importantly, debriefs, reviews of what you have done, no matter how successful, allow you to understand the value of each decision in the entire process. This allows you to improve your planning, improve your decision-making and improve your execution.

* In the US military, during the debrief of any tactical aviation event (think of the movie Top Gun), no matter who is flying, if he did something wrong, it is pointed out. I have seen 2 and 3 star admirals and generals in debriefs and they are, for the purposes of the debrief, treated exactly the same as LT (jg) and 1stLT. Of course, I have seen one or two admirals who didn’t take it well – they are the exception to the rule. Nevertheless, if you know the boss has a delicate ego – treat it carefully.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

First Time - Part 12: Holding Meetings

You're the boss, which means you both hold meetings (you're in charge), and you go to meeting (you're one of the folks being 'talked at.') In both cases you have an opportunity to shape the meetings. And meetings can either be productive or a terrible waste of time and effort (and money). Consider the following:

There are five general types of meetings:

Information – This is the most basic of meetings. The daily meeting (discussed earlier) is a version of this meeting. Its purpose is to tell people something. This meeting can also be used as a means of large-scale communication. Leadership can use these meetings in a 'town hall' setting to answer questions and get the word out. As a rule, information meetings should be kept to about 30 minutes, though town halls may run to an hour; longer than that and you will start to lose people. Information meetings should avoid issues. When contentious issues come up that require specific debate, note it, move on, and then revisit the issue with the relevant parties. Use a later information meeting to keep everyone informed about that issue.

Lectures are not meetings; meeting share information, lectures allow an expert to teach. Don't confuse the two. If you have an expert that is going to give a lecture, don'tmake it part of the meeting; schedule a lecture.

Decision meetings. These are tightly focused meetings, and are normally short in duration and have a very limited audience. Hard decisions are rarely made with more than a few people in the meeting. Most senior leaders will make a decision with just their deputy or chief of staff, their senior officer for the relevant department, and perhaps a legal representative. In the military you will often find the commander, the deputy (or chief of staff), and the operations officer are the only ones in the room when decisions are made. The intelligence officer and the JAG (Judge Advocate General – the lawyer) may also be in the room. These meetings need to be kept to an absolute minimum number of attendees. Very few decision-makers are comfortable making decisions with lots of people around. (Dr. An Wang, founder of WANG, noted that no decisions are made if there are more than 8 people in the room. My experience has been that that is an accurate statement.)

Post Decision meetings. Many leaders will use a public meeting to 'stage' a decision. Having already decided what they are going to do, they then review the 'bidding' in a larger venue and 'make' the decision in front of everyone. This is properly speaking theater, but it can be very effective in done properly. If your boss is going to do that and you're running the meeting, you need to know so that you make sure the situation is 'teed up' and doesn't go astray. Remember, bosses do this to make sure that the word gets out and so that they can look in charge and communicate to the organization that they are in charge.

Planning meeting. Planning meetings are for planning teams, and really are group work sessions rather than meetings. If you are part of the planning team you should be there, if not, you should not be there unless they need your expertise. Planning meetings can literally last days or weeks.

The 'meeting' meeting. These are meetings that are held for the purpose of getting everyone in the same room at the same time on a periodic basis. The formal discussion and agenda aren't really terribly important. Rather, it is an effort by the boss to stimulate and sustain cross–pollination in the organization. One of the finest leaders I have ever met or worked for, General Gary Luck, used this kind of meeting to great effect, bringing all his senior staff and component officers into a meeting once a week to ensure that he saw them all and they all saw each other and talked. The result was much greater integration of his organization, at a remarkably low cost in time and manpower.

Final thoughts:

It is best not to mix types of meetings – really.
Set an agenda and stick to it.
Set time limits and stick to them.

Friday, December 18, 2009

First Time - Part 11: Keeping Book

Experience is the best teacher, and the best experiences are those that others have suffered through. So, learn from the experiences of others. The best way to do this is to take notes on those around you. Get a notebook and keep a running ‘log’ of the leadership examples around you. Here are some ideas on what I call ‘Keeping Book:’

(And remember, keeping track of good decisions, good processes, good communication, good ‘leadership,’ is often more difficult then keeping track of the bad. You need to keep book on both and learn from both.)

Decision-making: How did someone make a tough decision? What steps did he take, what information was used, how was the problem dissected and analyzed? You can do this from ‘up close’ from your peers, your boss, and some of the other executives or officers in your organization and parallel organizations. You can also watch it in trade journals and the news. Once you start thinking of it in those terms, you will see this kind of information everywhere. Start keeping track of decisions made and then routinely revisit the log, check what has happened as a result of various decisions, and begin assessing what happened. At first, just put down the facts. After a while, you will begin adding commentary.

Communication: How are decisions communicated to the organization? How is information communicated? What techniques are being used? Formal talks, ‘town halls,’ ‘All Hands,’ e-mails, letters, posted notices, informal chats at the coffee machine, a few words at the cookout; all have their place. Watch how various leaders use these opportunities – and others – and watch how well, or poorly, they keep people informed, focused, and motivated.

Planning and meetings: Take note of how various people use and keep control of meetings, how they use and lead planning, how they resolve crises. Some people use them very well, others don’t. Some can control a meeting or planning effort, others can’t. Take a few notes down and think about what went right and what went wrong.

As you keep your notes, try to note the following:

What others do well. Why do they do well at ‘X?’ Is it part of their background or is it something they learned?

What seems to work well for a number of different people? If significantly different people are doing the same thing, is it because it is a fad or because it really works well?

Mistakes, errors, omissions: every time you leave a meeting with the boss and you say: ‘Gee, I wish he had…’ write that down. It is a lesson you need, and a mistake you should avoid.

What others did that pissed you off and why. Whenever you leave a meeting angry, turn the anger into something productive. What made you angry and why? Take note of it because you don’t want to do the same thing to anyone else (unless it really is necessary). As a general rule, angry people aren’t productive.

What I will never do. This is obvious, or should be. But I have seen too many people break this rule: if you see a leader make a decision that really goes against your values, take note and then spend some time thinking through various situations in which you might find yourself with a similar situation, then work out how you would act.

Two final items of interest: try to take note of those decisions and actions that you thought would work that did not and those that others did that you didn’t think would work, but did. Obviously, this requires that you note down decisions and add the simple comment at that time that “I like this decision, it seems like the right thing because …” or “I really disagree with this course of action because…. I would have preferred that we…” Then you need revisit these entries after the fact and look at the outcomes and consider why the chosen course yielded a result different from the one you anticipated.

You will find a wide range of things to write down. Many may never occur again, but many will. The most important part of this is to spend some time every day thinking about the actual mechanics of leaders: watch how they work (and don’t work) and try – every day – to learn from them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

First Time - Part 10: Going to See the Boss

You will need to go see the boss, we all do. ('Boss' is used here to mean the next person up the chain of command, the one your report to – and might be anyone from a lieutenant to a 4-star, from the shop manager to the CEO, from the pastor to the Pope).  But there are two ways to distinguish yourself when you go to see the boss – one bad, one good. You can either be the guy with the problems who asks the boss for the answer, or you can be the guy with solutions. Be the second guy.

This is really a straightforward issue, and ties directly to the issue of decision-making. Before you go to see the boss with an issue, do two things.

One: try something. Going to the boss before you have tried something is to say 'I really don't know how to be in charge,' and may suggest to the Boss that you are 'wrong' for the job. So, before you go to see the Boss, try something.

Three things can happen: 1) Whatever you do works. Problem solved, and you don't need to see the boss. 2) You do something, but nothing happens. If so, try something else. 3) You try something and it clearly doesn't solve the issue. Only in this case do you go to see the boss.

But not yet. Before you go to see the boss, the second thing you need to do is make sure you understand the problem so you can brief him on it. And, have arecommendation, one that necessarily and clearly exceeds your authority. (If it didn't exceed your authority you wouldn't need him to do something, you could and would just do it yourself.)

Now, you have told the boss that you are not afraid to act and lead, that you understand both your role in the organization and the boss's, and you have provided him the necessary information and some options so that he can tackle the problem quickly rather than having to start from 'zero.'

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Time - Part 9: Making Decisions

This is part 9 in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership.  While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a 'getting back to basics' that everyone needs every now and then.

Making decisions is the real hard part of leadership, it is where the ‘rubber meets the road.’ There is a quote from a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that is illuminating:

"A decision is the action an executive must take when he has information so incomplete that the answer does not suggest itself."

Admiral ARTHUR W RADFORD, US Navy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff - Time 25 Feb 57

Consider that that’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about making decisions, from a man who commanded two separate carrier strike groups during operations in the Pacific during World War II.

The point is that decision-making is not easy. The admiral knew that. You need to understand that. So, how do you do it?

A few ‘simple’ thoughts can help you through this:

First, particularly when you are starting out, but whenever you have a complex problem, break the problem into pieces. This is an acquired skill. The first time you try to break a problem into pieces you will probably find it to be very difficult and you will probably feel rushed, as if there is no time to acquire even the most basic facts. Take a deep breath, and then see if there are any simple things that you can start. Are there set procedures that you have been trained on? Walk through the procedures.

Are there any obvious pieces that ‘come off’ the main issue? If so, take care of them right away, or, if they are simple but time consuming, set them aside to deal with later.

When you get to the main point, make certain that you understand your time line: how much time do you have? You need to understand the ‘processes’ of your parent organization and how those will affect your own smaller organization. If you need something in a month, but the request takes three weeks to process, and one week to order, and all requests must be filed on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and you just found out about your need on Thursday morning, you may find that after you account for preparing a justification for your boss and ensuring the request is in the right format that you have less than an hour to dig up all the information and actually make the decision. Even so, it is better to make a decision in a compressed time line then to wait and then have the decision made for you by the bureaucratic process.

But assuming you now find yourself with less information then needed for ‘the answer to suggest itself’ what do you do?

First, understand that there is no magic answer.

Second, take a look at what information you have, including the opinion of those you work with, and then – take a deep breath and – Decide! There is one simple piece of guidance I have heard from several different leaders over the years. They all said it slightly differently, but it came out this way: make the decision you would want made if you were in charge of the whole thing, or as if you owned the whole company.

That won’t seem to help at first, but remember these few points:

1) In most cases to act is better then to not act: acting gives you some direction and in the wide range of cases any action, if carried out intelligently and aggressively, will succeed.
2) To not ‘act’ means you intend to react, to react to events driven by others; now you are following and they are the ones setting the course.
3) When you act and act aggressively you will find out all the sooner whether you are on the right course or not. One individual I knew used to call it the difference between the rhinoceros and the turtle: turtles move VERY slowly and therefore make few mistakes, but they never get anywhere. Rhinos move quickly and smash into things; they make lots of mistakes. But they will figure out they are headed in the wrong direction very quickly and can then change course. Rhinos make things happen.

When you aren’t faced with a decision, look around you, study your peers and study their situations and their decisions. Practice; think about the kinds of things that you might be called on to do. Imagine yourself in a given situation. Think of the decisions you would want to make, chew on them, and when you think you have them right, ‘store’ them in a ready corner of your mind.

Finally, keep notes. Review your decisions and the results. That review and analysis is one of the key elements that make good leaders into great leaders.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

First Time - Part 8: Charisma

This is part 8 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

By now you’ve noticed one or two folks in your organization who have something ‘extra,’ some spark, that makes people sit up and take notice. It seems to draw people in, makes everything they say or do seem so much more effective and more important, no matter what it is. Folks call it charisma.

What is Charisma? The word comes from the Greek kharis, which means favor or grace, and dictionaries will tell you that charisma is personal charm or grace, particularly when it is used to persuade others. Frankly, that doesn’t really tell me much.

From what I have seen, charisma actually is one “simple” thing: it is ‘passion communicated.’

Take a look at the great coaches, and then listen to the players they coached: you invariably end up with the same stories from the players: stories about how the coach may have understood the game (football, basketball, etc.) but the thing they remember was how he brought all the players together and motivated them, how he took a bunch of individuals and made a team.

That’s charisma. It’s a passion that is so complete that it overcomes all the obstacles in your way, your unease with speaking in front of large groups is forgotten, the fear that you may be on the wrong path is swept aside, the concern that you may not be able to actually do what you have planned turns into a challenge.

When someone becomes truly passionate about their goals, they focus their energies, they study harder, they devote themselves to their goals. Their goals become part of their lives, and, in a very real sense they no longer work, rather they are consumed by their goals and it can’t be defined as work.

That passion is not only all consuming, it can be quite infectious. In some areas those with a passion are called ‘geeks,’ think of a comic book convention. But, arguably, all great leaders had something in common with those we often label as ‘geeks:’ they too had an all consuming passion, something that keeps them up late at night, that gets them up in the morning; they are always talking about it, and always want to talk with you about it.

Fans of any sport sense this in the great athletes: not only is the athlete’s performance remarkable, the commitment to that performance, and to winning, the passion for the sport, is communicated in everything act of the great athletes.

As a life long hockey fan, having grown up in Boston, I, like millions of others, was always struck by how Bobby Orr could rally the team without saying anything. Watching him play hockey, even 40 years later, you can see his passion and you can see his teammates feed off that passion.

So – find your passion. Even if the organization you are in is not your passion, bring your passion into your work – connect to your passion through your work, your leadership. Become ‘invested’ – go back to Maslow: move beyond ‘survival,’ move up the pyramid. How far? Great leadership demands that you be at the level of self-actualization.

Now, once there, you need to communicate that passion to others. You are self actualized, and you need to get them to buy into your self-actualization, you need to communicate your passion – in words and in deeds. Put on the mask of leadership and leave it on.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

First Time - Part 7: Walk About

You have probably heard the phrase ‘Management by Walking About.” Except it’s not managing, it’s leading. Simply put, you need to be seen by your people. And not in your office. Get up out of your chair, get out from behind your desk, leave the office, leave the tent and go walk around. Make it a point to be seen every day in your workspaces – no matter how they are defined.

Robert Townsend, who many years ago made Avis #2 from its former position at the bottom of the ‘pile’ (“We try harder”), referred to the wood-paneled offices of the senior executives in many companies as ‘the mahogany prison,’ where senior executives sequestered themselves behind paneled doors and plush carpets and disconnected themselves from the real organization.

To combat this is a life-long effort and it begins with your first day on the job in your very first leadership position. You have to work at it every day, and you should make it part of your daily schedule. I learned this lesson from a long list of great leaders, who every day made it a point to spend time ‘among the troops,’ walking around the ship or the garrison, or walking around the factory floor, or across the trading floor.

But the key was that they were seen regularly and frequently, and they made themselves available for discussions with their ‘troops.’ The impact on the people is always striking and positive – even during the worst times. People not only saw the boss, they could talk with the ‘boss,’ find out what was really going on, what was just nonsense, make suggestions, and simply get to know and be known by the ‘boss.’ And the boss gets similar benefits, feeling the real pulse of the organization and understanding the real hopes and fears of the people ‘on the shop floor.’

In the Army or the Marines you will sometimes find young platoon leaders and company commanders ‘hanging around’ battalion, waiting for pearls of wisdom from the ‘old man,’ and often waiting to be seen. Some Battalion commanders – the poor ones – will reward the ‘sucking up.’ But the good ones will wonder why you are at battalion when you should be with your platoon or company. In fact, the good platoon leaders and company commanders are the ones they don’t see a lot of. The same is true in any business.

Getting out of your office, no matter how constructed, will become increasingly difficult as you progress up through the organization and you must fight for spending time doing this every day. This is a simple, but invaluable lesson. But it is one you need to start to learn on your first day and work at for the rest of your career. So, get up and go for a walk.