Monday, April 30, 2012

Leadership at DHS?

I remember when I was a kid my mother telling me, after I had done something stupid – again - that ‘We’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like one.’  After I grew up – and was an adult – and had done something stupid, the message changed to ‘Well, you’ll just have to take your lumps like a man.’

Unfortunately, the leaders at the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service aren’t as smart as my Mom.  Just the other day it was announced that the Secret Service will now have ‘chaperones’ for agents working various assignments that might lead to further incidents such as what happened in Cartagena, Colombia.

It is readily admitted that many organizations respond similarly to such problems: get the ‘nannies’ out, treat everyone like a child, micro-manage everything.  The problem is that this will work for a short period, and then everything will start to unravel, the situation may well get worse, and you will need ever more micro-managing.  What happened in Cartagena can be reduced to one thing: lack of proper leadership.  But leadership is not ‘being a chaperone.’  Leadership is about establishing goals, giving guidance, motivating people to perform while setting standards and holding people to those standards.  It has been my experience, both as leader for 30 years, and as an observer of leaders for more than 30 years, that people will act precisely how you insist they act.  As one of my boss’s of many years ago often told us: ‘be careful what you ask for from your guys, because it is exactly what you will get.’

In the end, Mom (and the Good Book, and a whole bunch of other folks as well) was right: when you are a child you are treated like a child, when you are an adult you need to be treated like an adult.  Treating adults like children usually gets exactly what you didn’t want: childish behavior.  It is the opposite of good leadership.

If you have some sort of discipline problem with your people, treating them like children will not solve the problem: they aren’t children.  You need to lead.  You need to make it clear what precisely are their roles and functions and duties, you need to establish clear standards of behavior and levels of performance, you need to motivate them and show them the benefits of working to achieve your standards, and you need to hold people accountable when they don’t.  If you haven’t already made crystal clear everyone’s roles and functions and duties, if you haven’t made clear standards and levels of performance, if you haven’t spent the time to motivate and inspire them, and if you have routinely failed to hold people accountable, then you are to blame – not your people. 

Publishing your standards and making everyone read them once a year during your ethics training is NOT enough.  Leadership and motivation and setting standards are full time jobs, every hour of every day.  I predict that when we eventually see the result of the investigation into the Secret Service incident in Cartagena we will find that discipline had grown slack for months, that leadership was sloppy and that inspections had become cursory.  The Secret Service is under a great deal of pressure at all times, and that requires that leaders – at all levels – remain focused.  While most of us will never operate in an organization that requires such effort, the lesson is nonetheless instructive: leadership is a full-time job and the performance of your people is going to be a direct result of your leadership efforts.  Mothering and micro-managing may be a comfortable response to a discipline or performance problem, but they won’t fix the problem; that requires leadership.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Exxon's Strategic Miss-Communication

Defining ‘Strategic Communications’ is sort of like defining ‘Obscenity,’ no one really knows how to do it, but they know it when they see it.

I make this point because the simple truth is most companies don’t have a clue about strategic communications or how to deliver it.  And the bigger they are, seemingly the worse they get at it. This thought occurred to me when I was listening to some very poorly informed people on the news discuss corporate taxation in the US a few days ago.  The comment was made that several large corporations paid little or no income tax and the corporation that was held up as the exemplar of no good, rotten companies that aren’t paying their fair share was Exxon-Mobil.

The facts are a bit different: Exxon-Mobil has received quite a bit of notoriety for having achieved the largest single yearly profit of any corporation in history: $41 billion in 2011.

But, of course, one number doesn’t really tell the story very accurately.  In 2010 (the last year for which I could find all the numbers, Exxon earned $7.5 billion inside the US.  But, total taxes paid in the US were $9.8 billion.  Exxon paid more in taxes then it earned.  And it does every year in the US.  But it gets worse.  Exxon operates in more than 100 countries around the world – many of them those developing countries that are being exploited.  Exxon does several things to those countries: it employs people, develops energy assets, and pays taxes.  The energy assets are obvious: that’s what Exxon does.  But it does it while employing more than 100,000 people world wide – most in those developing countries.  And, while generating revenue of $467 billion last year worldwide, Exxon paid $108 Billion in taxes.  Exxon paid total taxes equivalent to 23% of their total revenue.

I know this because I am, I suppose, a bit of a geek who reads financial reports and corporate statements about this and that.  Why isn’t this a bit more common knowledge?  Because Exxon-Mobil leadership fell short.

Here’s the thing: if Exxon-Mobil has no marketing plan, and no strategic communications plan, and hasn’t paid a dime for any such plan, then I can understand this level of miss-information.  But if there actually is a marketing department, and a strategic communications plan, then it has failed – miserably.  The Chairman needs to do something – he owes that to the stockholders.  

If he wants any ideas, I would be happy to help – give me a call or e-mail me.  But do something.

For the record, I own no stock in Exxon-Mobil, I have never received a dime from them; I’m quite sure I don’t know anyone employed by Exxon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Chicken or the Egg

One of the confusing situations that develops when the leader of any organization is trying to change and grow that organization is whether he should hire a new senior executive first or develop his strategy first.  I have seen this often enough to wonder if there isn't an evil genie who sits and waits for the hiring of every new chief executive, because - unfortunately - the usual answer is that the Chairman and Board of Directors decide to do both at essentially the same time.  And that is probably the worst of the three options.

If you hire a new senior executive while you have also brought aboard some consultant – or worse – hired an EVP for Strategy to help you develop a strategy you will do two things at once, and both have a negative impact on your organization.  First, you will create a conflict between the new Executive and the strategic planners as to who is in charge.  Any new executive who comes aboard will have his own plan, his own strategy (unless he isn’t worse his salt).  He will immediately view the planning team as, at a minimum, a hindrance.  More likely, he will view the strategic planners as the 'enemy' who are going to take away his freedom of action.  And he will immediately start to undermine their efforts.  Second, at the same time you send a conflicting message to all the people in the organization as to exactly what is going on and who is in charge.  If the strategic planning team really has your 'ear,' then what is the real authority of the new executive?  Or, if the new guy is really in charge, what are these folks in the planning team really doing and why are we wasting the time and money for them to do it (whatever ‘it’ is)?

So what is the right answer?  As with much of life, the right answer is: it depends.

Assuming you - the leader - owner, majority stockholder, chairman of the board, board of directors, etc. - know what are to be the real goals of the organization, and you have a fairly clear framework of how you want to get there, the correct answer is to hire a consultant or stand up a strategic planning team first.  Let them, under your guidance, develop a strategic plan that meets with your approval.  Then, go and hire the new executive, using that strategic plan both as a guide in the specific qualities and skills needed for your new CEO (or whatever his title), and when you start the interviews, make certain that the prospective hires are all aware that this – show it to them in rough and general form – is what they are being hired to execute.

It is also obvious that, with every good plan comes constant adjustment, and they will be responsible both for execution and those adjustments, and the branches and sequels that should be the part of every comprehensive plan.

On the other hand, if you are not certain of your goals, or the boundaries of your plan, the constraints and restraints, the key assumptions - then you need to bring in a strong executive and give him a carte blanche to form his own planning team, and to complete the hiring of the rest of new executive team.  (By the way, the WORST thing you can do is bring on a new exec, tell him to start forming a new plan, and then hire new execs - not letting the new exec form a plan OR a team of his own - you have just stripped him of any real authority.)

I can hear the cursing and gnashing of teeth.  "No,” everyone says, “you need to bring on the new exec first so he can be part of the plan and the planning process and he feels that he has ownership.  Otherwise, he will spend all sorts of time trying to twist the plan around, tweak it, so that it is his plan. You are setting yourself up for further conflict with him."  If you do that, it will be his plan, not yours.  If you want him to form the plan - let him.  If you want it to be your plan, and you want ‘the new guy’ to use your plan, you need the plan first, at least in general terms - which a strategic planning team can give you in just a couple of weeks - and then you bring the new exec on board to execute the plan.  You present it, you ask him if he wants to join the team.

Very simply, the question is who is really the leader and who is the executor.  If you want to lead, to set the real goals and milestones, it has to be your plan.  If you know longer want to lead, then you need to let the new executive form the plan.  But you can't have it both ways - unless you want to fail.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Midway - Once Again

This June we will observe the 70th anniversary of the battle of Midway, one of the half dozen most important naval battles in history (Salamis, Lepanto, Trafalgar, Tsushima, Jutland, Midway).

I was going through an account of the battle last night and two points kept coming back to me: the level of clarity of the assigned missions on each side and how they differed, and level of prudence – or what might be called skeptical planning – practiced on each side.

On the Japanese side Admiral Nagumo, at the key moment early on the first day, switched the load on the aircraft on the flight deck from torpedoes to bombs (from being ready to attack the US fleet when found, to re-attacking Midway island) - this led to the first in a series of false steps that left the Japanese carriers with airwings not ready to launch and their flight decks and hangar decks with more than normal levels of ammunition – bombs and torpedoes – then was prudent, leaving the carriers exceptionally vulnerable to attack.

On the US side Admiral Spruance, understanding the capabilities of his intelligence, and trusting the assessments that had been made relative to that intelligence, made the decision to launch the US air strike at the extreme range of those aircraft.

But, while much has been made about these decisions, and the luck – good an bad – on both sides, my repeated reading of the histories involved keeps leading me back to the conclusion that luck had nothing at all to do with it. Rather, it was a function of two superb tactical commanders, in very different situations, making a series of decisions based on two central issues: their understanding of the situation, and their understanding of their assigned missions.

On the US side, Spruance understood his mission to be: defend Midway – that is, prevent the Japanese landing, and attack and damage the Japanese fleet – while not unduly risking the US fleet. Spruance benefited from superb intelligence that had accurately predicted the Japanese attack, understood the disposition of forces, and had correctly estimated where the Japanese fleet would be at dawn of the first day of battle.

On the Japanese side, Nagumo understood his mission to be: attack and occupy Midway, and draw the US fleet out for an engagement – and this is where it gets difficult – with the main battleship force that was several hundred miles further to the west (Nagumo’s rear). Japanese forces and the Japanese commanders (Admiral Yamamoto as overall commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet) were unaware of any hint that their radio codes were being broken by the US, and were confident that they would enjoy tactical surprise. They did not expect the US fleet to be operating within striking range. (Nevertheless, they were conducting reconnaissance flights as was prudent. Unfortunately for the Japanese, these reconnaissance flights were their only hope of early alertment of the true situation vis-à-vis the US fleet, and the overall reconnaissance plan was not as robust or as effective as it needed to be or could have been.)

Both officers were superb; Nagumo was an exceptional officer, outstanding in every respect, bright, well educated, morally and intellectually tough, brave, and dedicated. And he was supported by a superb staff; also bright and very experienced. Spruance was equally as bright (or brighter), intellectually and morally tough, equally brave and dedicated, though with less experience than Nagumo. Spruance’s staff, which was in fact Admiral Halsey’s staff, was not only less experienced then Nagumo’s, they were working for Spruance for the first time and there was a good deal of friction in their efforts to support Spruance.

There are hundred of leadership lessons from this battle, but I will focus on just a few of the lessons to be learned from the two tactical commanders, without trying to review the entire battle, which others have done far better than I can.

At the center of Spruance’s decision-making is that Spruance kept focused on the prime mission of his fleet: protect Midway while not unduly risking the fleet. If Spruance could protect Midway, the Japanese advance was stopped. If he could inflict enough damage on the Japanese fleet, the Japanese advance would also be stopped. Spruance trusted his intelligence, and his airwing and squadron commanders understood the mission, the importance (and value) of striking the Japanese fleet first, and they also had been told to trust the intelligence. (Arguably, Admiral Fletcher, and the airwing commander on the third US carrier (HORNET) did not understand or fully trust the intelligence, hence all but one squadron of HORNET’s airwing flew to the wrong spot in the ocean and missed the engagement. The torpedo squadron joined up with the torpedo squadron from the other two carriers (ENTERPRISE and YORKTOWN) and did participate (at 100% causalities) in the attack.)

Nagumo on the other hand, had a more difficult mission in that he had two competing tasks: attack the island of Midway, clearing away defenses so that Japanese forces could be landed, and drawing out the US fleet, attacking and weakening the force and then drawing them further out into the northern Pacific where the Japanese battleships could sink them, eliminating the last major elements of the US fleet in the Pacific.

On the first morning of the first day of the battle Nagumo’s forces bombed Midway, while the aircraft remaining on the carriers were loaded with ordnance suitable for attacking US ships if they should be found. When his aircraft headed back to the carriers after the first attack on Midway and reported that they had not destroyed many of the targets on Midway, Nagumo, with no report yet that the US fleet was at sea, decided to download the ordnance on the aircraft on the carriers (weapons for use against ships), and upload weapons for use against the island’s defenses. When, a short while later he received the first detection of the US fleet, he had no aircraft to launch against the US forces. He ordered the weapons changed again. By the time the aircraft were ready to launch, the first strike, returning from Midway, had reached the Japanese carriers and was low on fuel. Nagumo had to delay the launch of the strike against the US fleet.

The lesson here for any leader is to understand your prime goal. Admiral Yamamoto shares the blame because he did not provide Nagumo with the clarity that would have allowed Nagumo to maintain a loaded strike force on deck – because there was no requirement to launch a second strike on Midway in short order. Nagumo could have slowly and deliberately conducted strikes on Midway all day, while maintaining an adequate response capability against a possible US fleet, but he felt the need to rush the restrike.

It is also worth noting that, while the Japanese approached Midway from the north-west, a more or less traditional approach, they could have approached from due west or the south-west, approaching with the invasion force, which would have allowed sustained attacks for at least a full day before the US carriers could be in position to challenge the Japanese. There were, at the same time sound tactical reasons for approaching as they did. I only point them out to highlight that the leadership made specific choices, based on their available information. Some of those choices were beneficial, some were not. But it was not luck that placed the Japanese carriers where they were on that June morning, nor was it luck that placed the US carriers where they were, but the decisions of the leaders involved.

It was fairly obvious then (and now) that if the US fleet were destroyed, the assault on Midway would have been a ‘gimme.’ And the obvious ‘tool’ to destroy the US fleet was the Japanese carrier force. Yet the Japanese plan envisioned the use of the Japanese battleship force as the tool for destroying the US fleet, drawn out after the Japanese had already (per the plan) landed on Midway. In retrospect (and so it seemed at the time to the overall US commander – Admiral Nimitz), the real Japanese plan should have been to draw the US fleet out and attack it with an overwhelming carrier force. (The Japanese actually had more carriers, but only used four in this specific battle, with another active off the Aleutians.) In short, the Japanese had a complicated plan, with too many ‘moving parts,’ unclear goals – in the sense that it wasn’t clear which goal came first, and the responsibility to sort it out placed on Admiral Nagumo. That they could have used a number of different options to attack the island and draw out a response from the US is obvious. The Japanese could have clearly stated that Nagumo’s number one task was drawing out and attacking the US fleet. But Nagumo had ‘two number ones.’

And, while Spruance trusted his intelligence and his staff’s plans, he was a sound enough tactician to recognize that the plans would not work flawlessly. There was great risk in the plan: three US carriers facing four Japanese carriers, with the Japanese having considerably more experienced crews. Spruance had to exploit his intelligence – which he knew to be superior, and that meant surprise. But he also insisted on continuing fairly aggressive reconnaissance flights to increase the odds of early detection of the Japanese fleet. At the same time, Spruance knew that if he kept his carriers well to the east that it would be difficult for the Japanese to ‘run them down’ while also preserving adequate fuel for the invasion force. If he was careful he could keep the fleet safe.

Spruance understood the precedence of his tasks, and benefited from the clarity that while he must stop the Japanese advance, he must not risk the fleet itself – risk was to be balanced. This allowed Spruance the additional clarity that, even though he had sunk the four Japanese carriers and achieved a spectacular victory, he not only need not, but should not pursue the Japanese fleet, despite the suggestions of literally everyone around him. Midway had been saved, the Japanese fleet had been badly mauled and pushed back, the US still had two large aircraft carriers. Mission accomplished.

None of us will ever face a situation as momentous as did the leaders on both sides at the battle of Midway. And both sides had truly superb leadership, not only with their senior leaders – Yamamoto and Nagumo on the Japanese side, Nimitz and Spruance on the US side. But we can learn from them. And three lessons that we should learn are these:

1) Be clear as to what your goals are, and what is the precedence: number 1, number 2 and number 3.
2) Get the best information you can on the situation, and the best assessment, and then keep evaluating it. Don’t ever get comfortable with your assessment.
3) Understand your risk, and never get so greedy in your success that you let go of prudence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Party in Cartagena

Here's a news flash: young men will blow off steam. Sometimes that means guys will have a few extra drinks, some guys will get involved with some gals. The propensity to do this when you are out of town probably can be said to increase (on average). The same goes for being overseas.

So, the event in Cartagena involving some Secret Service agents and some military who had been detailed to the Presidential support team is being blown out of proportion? No, actually, it isn’t. Let me be the first to say that I have seen more than my share of guys having one too many, of maybe going a bit too far, and all the other things that can happen in those situations. But there are a couple of things that make this a bit different.

First, they were part of a Presidential support team. Are Presidential support details supposed to be made of saints? No, and no one is saying they should be. Can the team members have a few glasses of beer when they finish up their watch? Sure. But, they are part of the President’s support. Not only does that mean they are in a ‘high vis’ position, more than the simple ‘representative of the nation’ that everyone is when on duty overseas, it means some very specific things: they are aware of the President’s schedule, they are privy to key details of the President’s itinerary and his various support packages, they have access to key gear and facilities. This is important because, despite what most of the nation and the world have forgotten, the President’s security is a good deal more important than simply making sure he isn’t jostled in a crowd. The President is responsible for the security of the nation, and for the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. That is the very real reason that the President must be, in effect, in constant contact with certain elements of the US military. This fact must be dealt with in a very serious manner. It wasn’t.

Second, there is the simple truth that these people must all, as part of their position, have access to a great deal of classified (secret and top secret) material. At the most simple level, there is always the possibility, as discipline breaks down – and it did break down – that the ‘rules’ will be forgotten and material that should have been locked up is not and as a result is compromised in any of a number of different ways.

Third, there is the more subtle problem that untoward behavior is a boon to the intelligence arms of other countries, and presents and opportunity to place one or more people – who ostensibly have access to sensitive information concerning the President – in compromising positions.

In short, this is not as easily dismissed as a bunch of guys from a navy ship going ashore in Colombia (or Italy, or Thailand, or Australia – fill in your favorite country), drinking too much, maybe getting mixed up with a ‘lady of the evening,’ and getting into a little trouble with the hotel manager.

They messed up and they need to know it.

More importantly however, is this question: who was the senior guy and what the heck was he doing? There is an old saying in the Navy-Marines that you take care of your shipmate. Translation: you don’t let your buddies get into trouble. And if you are the senior guy, you REALLY don’t let you shipmates get into trouble. So, the real questions here are: who was the senior guy who knew what was happening as it happened? Why didn’t he stop this in time to not only save careers and prevent embarrassment to the nation, but also before there was any real risk of compromise or of a counter-intelligence screw-up? And if he was not competent as a leader, if he was not clear enough in his own head as to his responsibilities to prevent such an event, how did he wind up in charge and who put him there?

The simple truth is the ‘troops’ will go raise a little hell from time to time. Good leaders let them, but also keep them from getting into trouble. Let me repeat that: Good leaders don’t let a situation get so far out of bounds that you will get into trouble. (And good leaders know that the boundaries change depending on what you are doing and where you are doing it.) Good leaders take care of the troops, don’t let them hurt themselves; don’t let them get into real trouble. Good leaders make sure the team knows what it can and can’t do and make sure the team is kept safe.

This was more than anything a failure of leadership. It is probably true that the ‘troops’ will be punished, and that is probably unavoidable at this point. But the folks who should be ‘taken out to the woodshed’ are the leaders who failed to lead and let this happen.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Creating the Right Environment

I saw some precise, accurate and absolutely meaningless advice the other day, and it is worth sharing because you need to avoid providing similar advice or, worse yet, leadership.

One article, which was very well intentioned, offered that you should ‘provide a work environment where people feel comfortable talking about problems and issues at work, particularly when their dignity has been challenged.’ Another offered that ‘as the leader,’ you should ‘conquer your stage fright.’

Both are absolutely correct, and provide nothing of value to anyone. Of course you should have a work place where people feel free to speak, that they can report problems, that they are treated with dignity. And of course the leader should get over his stage fright. The question is: How do you do these things?

None of the answers are easy, but here are some simple behavioral points that every decent leader shares:

Talk to your people. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with people in a crowd, start with just one or two, make the setting informal – the coffee machine is a good place to start – and keep it simple.

Listen to your people – really listen. Don’t listen for opportunities to speak, listen to them and let them tell you what is on their minds, what is troubling them. If it makes it easier, take notes; they won’t be offended.

Speaking publicly, even to small numbers of people, can be very intimidating. If you are uncomfortable, remember to practice, keep notes, and keep things simple until you develop more confidence. And remember to smile. There are always a few jerks in the crowd, but most people will empathize with you. It gets better with practice, so force yourself from time to time to speak in front of people. In the end it will be an invaluable skill.

Dignity is hard to provide and convey – and easy. Remember the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. When in doubt, do what would make your grandmother pleased with your behavior – yes, it’s that simple. If you would feel glad about telling your grandmother that you did ‘X, Y and Z’ for/to one of your employees, then it is a good bet it’s OK. (Assuming your grandmother isn’t Ma Barker.)

Particularly following a crisis of some sort (a death in someone’s family, a severe illness, or worse some sort of violent crime committed against one of your people), remember to do two things at once: show them the same level of concern you would show to a member of your family – make yourself available to talk to everyone involved, visit the hospital, always attend funerals. You won’t know what to say, and it will probably be very stressful. No getting around that. Being there is enough. But you need to be there. And make certain that the company is doing what it can legally to aid and assist those hurt or involved in the crisis.

Crises will develop, no matter how hard you want to avoid them. Your role as ‘the boss’ is as likely to be defined by how well you handle crises and the people in the office as by anything else you do. There are no absolutely right answers, but your best guide is to simply remember to treat people the way you would want to be treated.

Friday, April 13, 2012


As a kid my father told me that when you answer someone – anyone – you always finish with ‘Sir or Ma’am.’ When I asked him why he told me: ‘You have to remember that just because you may be brighter or better off then someone else, that doesn’t mean you are better then him.’ I have found that to be a pretty good rule to live by. How that translates in the work place is that you should always act like you are visiting your grandmother’s house: say please and thank you, stand and greet people when they come into your office, speak to everyone: your secretary, your assistant, the man who fills the vending machine with Snicker’s, your very biggest customer, as if they are the most important people you will meet that day – they are.

People are not your most important asset; rather, they are your only asset. Take the crew off a ship and you have thousands of tons of inert steel. The people who work ‘for’ you and with you, the people who buy your products, the kid who delivers the paper in the morning, every single one of them is important, not only in a metaphysical sense, but in the most practical of senses: nothing will get done without them. If you are positive and friendly and polite, if you make them part of your day and communicate with them as equals, they will respond, and everyone benefits. It’s that simple. So, remember dinner at ‘Nana’s’ house and be on your best behavior – all the time.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It Costs Nothing to be Polite

A crisis has developed. The boss has made a decision, but the hero knows that the boss is weak, vacillating. He confronts the boss. The argument turns into a loud confrontation. Screaming follows. The boss is cowed; the hero is recognized as right. He saves the day.

Every night you can turn on your TV and you will find the most amazing lessons in leadership. More specifically, you will find lessons in how not to lead. The folks in Hollywood may know how to make movies and TV shows, but they know next to nothing about leading people and managing organizations.

Let’s just start with one simple rule: you don’t yell. Oh, sure, there are some possible exceptions: the building is on fire; someone is shooting at you; you just won the lottery. (Actually, having experienced the first two a number of times, there was no yelling in either case. I have yet to experience the third event.)

When you yell most people don’t really hear you. It does very little good. Rather, try to explain what it is that you want people to do. Be polite. When necessary, be forceful. But yelling is mainly a demonstration of that you have run out of ideas.

As a simple rule, well-led organizations are fun places to be around: people respect one another, people are polite and friendly, the boss takes care of his people, they want to be there. And the opposite is also true: poorly led organizations are not fun to be around, the level of respect decreases the worse it gets, people are not polite or friendly, the sense is that the boss is not taking care of his people, and as a result people don’t want to be there.

Remember that in a very real sense that you – as the ‘boss’ – work for them. Your job is to make sure that the folks who actually do the work have everything they need to get the job done. Turn that ‘Org Chart’ upside down; you should be on the bottom, all the ‘little boxes’ should be on the top.

The fact is that your mother was only half right when she said ‘It costs nothing to be polite.’ What she left off was that it can cost quite a lot when you are impolite, when the folks who work ‘for’ you hate doing so, when they dread going to work, and when those feelings ‘bleed over’ into relations with customers.

The question can also be asked this way: do you think someone’s performance will improve if he hates being at work or if he likes being at work? So smile, explain yourself, keep your voice down, and be polite.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The "I" in Team

It's a staple of interviews with star players on team sports:

“There is no ‘I’ in team.”

This is particularly significant here on the day after the NCAA Finals (and a tip of the hat to Kentucky for their victory, for Kansas for a great game, and for every team involved in March Madness for great basketball, great sportsmanship, and great entertainment).

College sports are perhaps the best example of the “I” in Team. If you don’t think there is an “I” in team, ask yourself who was responsible for UCLA’s winning streak? John Wooden had a career record of 664 – 162, won 88 games in a row, had four perfect 30-0 seasons, between 1962 and 1975 went to the Final Four 12 times, a won the national championship 10 times. The obvious point here is that, while he had great players, no player ever played more than 4 years with him. Every year there was turnover. Every year he had to make a new team. Perhaps my favorite Wooden saying is that: “It takes 10 hands to score a basket.”

Basketball is a team sport. (Fill in your favorite team sport). The team wins, not the individual. And particularly in college sports, making a bunch of players into a team becomes the essential element, the one irreplaceable ‘ingredient,’ to success. And that is the coach.

But beyond sports is where you start to get into real ‘team events.’ For nearly any business to succeed the members of that business need to act as a team. For a military command or police squad or fire department to succeed, teamwork is essential. And for elite units, the combination of training and unit cohesion represent all the difference in the world. Simply put, the more cohesive that team, the better the performance.

And who provides that cohesion? Who takes the individuals and makes a team? The coach, the CEO, the commander, the team leader – call him what you will – is THE essential ingredient. The leader – YOU – have to make the team. That is your job. They come to you knowing how to: play basketball, fly airplanes, swim, run jump, sell cars, make satellites, drill oil wells. You need to make them into a team.

So what does all this mean?

Very simply, you need to recognize when you are the ‘I,’ the key ingredient, for creating the coherent vision, for pushing through with the production of a real, workable plan, for building the team and keeping it motivated. You need to recognize when that situation exists. And then, while making certain you never share that one thought with anyone except perhaps your confessor – and certainly NEVER with any member of your team, you need to move your team, your organization beyond you, you need to make certain you are not indispensable by building up your followers to be leaders, by making the vision so compelling that you are no longer needed, and by finally, stepping out of the way.

I’ll close with one more quote from John Wooden, apropos of preventing a big head just because you may be irreplaceable right now:

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

O'Brien's Law: Why Your Staff is Growing

I had lunch with some good friends of mine the other day and they were lamenting that the organization they worked for was ballooning in size, a large staff that simply kept getting larger, and with each increase in size the efficiency and effectiveness decreased. I felt it necessary to introduce them to a tenet of organizations that I recognized a number of years ago and which I call “O’Brien’s Law.”*

O’Brien’s Law, based on years of observing staffs at close range, is simply stated:

“If left unchecked, a staff will double it’s own workload every 3 years.”

Those who are blessed to be unfamiliar with how a staff works will ask: why would any group want to double it’s own workload? The key to understanding a staff – any staff – is to recognize that a staff will take on a persona, and the central fact of that persona is that growth in size and importance is the key determinant of success. It doesn’t matter what the greater organization is about, the staff is first and foremost concerned with its own size and importance.

But staffs don’t produce anything. Staffs in commercial organizations do not run production lines, they produce no profits; staffs in the military do not train troops, nor do they lead them into battle; staffs are ‘extra’ or ‘overhead’ and can only be counted on to produce studies, and comment on the efforts of those who are actually doing something. Staffs produce paperwork – studies and reports. In and of themselves studies and reports, briefs and ‘read-books’ are neither good nor bad. They are necessary in so much as they help the leadership of an organization make the right decisions.

So, how can a staff protect itself? The easiest way is to make itself more important. And the simple means to do that is to generate requirements for more information and more reports. By producing an ever-expanding series of the very things that staffs consume - reports and studies – the staff creates pressure to expand the staff. More people and more reports and more information from the various elements of the organization, and more intrusive prodding into the daily actions of members of the organization will in turn create even more pressure for more people.

So, doubling the workload will justify doubling the size of the staff.

If left unchecked, staffs will simply continue to grow. Let me give you some examples: Admiral Nimitz’s staff (Admiral Nimitz led US forces in the Pacific during World War II) in early 1945 consisted of 250 men. Admiral Nimitz was leading a force of roughly 2000 ships, 20,000 aircraft, and nearly 2 million men. General Mattis’s staff (General Mattis is the Commander of US Central Command – which is running the war in Afghanistan (in concert with NATO and the Commander of US European Command)) is more than 4,000 strong. General Mattis of course has benefit of computers, sophisticated communications gear and a range of technology that Nimitz could only dream of, all of which should – ostensibly – make command more effective. But Mattis is commanding a force of perhaps 75 ships, 400 aircraft and less than 200,000 men. In fact, Nimitz was commanding a force that is substantially larger than the entire US military. Mattis commands an organization that is less than 10% the size of Nimitz’s force, but use 15 times as many people to do so.

Virtually every other staff in the US military: each of the service staffs, each of the combatant commander’s staffs, each of the smaller 2 and 3 star staffs, have grown in similar fashion over the past 50 years. The only effective constraints on these staffs have been the buildings or ships that they have been located in and the need in the case of the more junior staffs to be able to deploy. Whenever given the opportunity to move into a new command facility the staffs have enshrined their growth with new office buildings.

Consider the “EOP” – the Executive Office of the President, what is known colloquially as ‘the White House Staff.’ Washington of course, had no staff. He did have a secretary, paid out of his salary. Jefferson had a messenger and a secretary, also paid out of his own salary. The first separate salary for a clerk was created by Congress in 1857. By Grant’s Presidency there were 3 official positions on the President’s staff. By Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency the staff had grown to 13, and under Harding the staff grew to 31. Hoover added two more. The staff remained at 33 until 1939, when things began to change. Through the 1940s offices were added, to include the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council Staff and the staff grew to be several hundred strong. It also became difficult to track the actual size, as people were (and people still are) sent to work on the staff while still being ‘carried’ in other offices around the government, meaning the staffs since the 1940s have routinely been substantially larger than the numbers provided in budget submissions. By 2005 it had grown to 1850 people actually funded inside the EOP, and current estimates place the size of the EOP in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 people. And this is with the caveat that there are more people on the staff, but they are funded by other agencies throughout the government.

Obtaining specific numbers as to the size, and the growth in size, of the largest corporations is difficult, some size data are available. Prior to going broke and being rebuilt, General Motors was well known for having a legal staff alone that numbered in the thousands (this when total employment at GM was roughly 225,000 – most of whom were ostensibly making cars). Small companies are equally at risk, with the tendency to add ‘secretarial’ and administrative support to the organization as it begins to grow. The result can be a spurt in number of employees with little to no growth in actual productivity.

The only effective limits to the size of these staffs has been and remains direct leadership from the very top, insisting on rigorous justification for any and every staff increase, a careful eye on every type of report to ensure it – the report – is really needed and that the requirement has not been generated by the staff, to support only the staff; and of course physical limits to growth. Nothing else has served to slow the growth of these staffs.

Is there a way to fight back?

The most important thing is that the leader, the commander, the CEO, must be clear as to what he expects from the staff, and what information is required to develop those reports. Then he must mercilessly and ruthlessly curtail growth in the staff at every opportunity. Every request to grow a staff should be denied unless the requirement is so painfully obvious that you are willing to take a loss in profits or productivity or readiness to fund the growth. In particular, you must refrain from giving the staff any authority it does not absolutely need. In particular, the staff should not be authorized to ‘bless’ budgetary requests that concern the staff. Most importantly, ask yourself, and insist that the staff regularly show, how staff actions support actual production or actual operations.

* If someone else has already made this observation and claimed the right to name it, I have not been able to discover this fact, though I have searched quite a bit. Until such time, I’m sticking with my name!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is a common misconception that the real pros – in anything (you know who I mean: the Michael Jordan’s, the Zubin Mehta’s, the Richard Feynman’s, the Steve Jobs,’ etc.) all cruise through life, that they don’t need to work as hard as the rest of us. The fact is just the opposite: these are the hardest working guys in their fields. That’s why they are who they are, that’s why everyone knows them.

Ted Williams, Red Sox slugger and Marine Corps fighter pilot, encapsulated it in this “simple” piece of advice: “Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. And when you think your done, practice some more.”

The point was just made recently by a friend of mine who pointed out that the people who were developing a new car managed to send two vehicles off to test drives with separate magazines, major magazines for this kind of thing. The car being tested was a new, high-end hybrid sports car. The tests were both something far short of stellar, with the car not even able to start in one test, and unable to run on batteries in the other.

The sad part is that I would be willing to bet that back at corporate headquarters (funded in part by a loan from Uncle Sam for more than $500 million) they probably found time to make up some nice excuses both for why the tests didn’t come off as intended, and why it wouldn’t matter that much. Why do I think that is a safe bet? Simply this, organizations that can allow the two failed demos are the same kind of organizations that will search for excuses.

This is not to say that other roll-outs of new and later successful products have always gone well; they haven’t. New product releases often don’t go well. But the simple fact is that in every case, several things are true:

The Product was not properly and fully tested prior to roll-out. If you want something to work, if you want it to be reliable, you had better test it – a lot. A number of years ago I was tangentially involved in a discussion with a US ally who was looking at a particular weapon system and comparing it to a similar system which had – on paper – slightly better performance than the US system. One of the guys who was directly involved in the ‘sales pitch’ made an interesting point: do you want a system that looks good on paper, or one that no-kidding works when you press the button? Because the competition’s system had been test fired 25 times; the US system had been test fired more than 800 times.

Roll-outs are groomed. This is particularly true with cars, but in any product that has fancy expositions, and equally fancy magazines covering them, there is a well-developed methodology for demonstrations. If you aren’t sure what I mean, go to the next military exhibition, where companies show their latest armored vehicles; you will find tanks and IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and self-propelled howitzers – and in each case the paint has been freshly applied, bare metal is polished, tires are cleaned and rubbed with Armor-all. Everything is groomed. And the implications should be clear to all: if you see a weapon on display, and there is something less than perfect (scratches on the nose-cone, screws loose (or over-torqued), etc., then you have to ask yourself what else is wrong in regular production? Where else are they sloppy?

On the other hand, go take a look at companies that know how to do roll-outs. I was at an auto show a few months ago and there were competing demonstrations between Lamborghini and Ferrari. The cars gleamed, the leather smelled heavenly, and when they turned the keys the engines purred and then roared. Anyone who even just sorta, kinda likes cars had a big grin on his face. At that moment every single person in the hall wanted one of those cars.

The makers of the Hybrid allowed two tests rides, in quick succession, go to the dogs. That is the kind of thing that should get someone fired – publicly. After the first test there should have been a very serious re-appraisal of the entire approach to test-rides and roll-outs, and they should have bent over backwards to get that magazine a second test opportunity with a completely groomed, ready to go vehicle. They did not. Instead, they used a vehicle with a drained battery pack for a test ride so that they never even demonstrated the electric propulsion.

There is an old saw that you should never make the same mistake twice. My bet is that they have actually made this mistake more than twice.

While they failed in these very visible test rides, the real failure is not recognizing that every day is a ‘roll-out’ for the customer walking into your business for the first time. Every test ride is important, every customer is your ‘ambassador’ to the market place. And that means preparation. You need to ensure that products are tested – fully tested, that items ‘on the showroom floor’ are cleaned and working and ‘groomed’ and ready to go, and that your people – not just the sales people, but all your people, can speak intelligently about your products, whether you are selling grass seed, hamburgers, jet fighters or MRIs. That means taking the time to prepare. And then taking more time to prepare. That’s what the real pros do: they groom and practice and train. And then they do it again. And again. And Again.