Monday, November 29, 2010

A Leader Learns from Failure

Almost 13 years ago I learned a valuable lesson at a summer job. This was my first time in a true "Leadership" position. I was working at a Boy Scout Camp in Rhode Island as the kitchen manager for one of three Camps within the larger camp. I was the assistant kitchen manager the last two years, so I thought I was prepared. I was wrong.

To set the scene, the kitchen I "Led" served 300+ meals a day, 3 meals a day 6 and 1/2 days a week.  On Sundays we didn't serve dinner. The kitchen was hot and humid all day, every day. The staff consisted of a professional cook, the Kitchen Manager (KM), the Assistant Kitchen Manager (AKM), and about 5 boys from 16-18. Each person had 1 day off a week.  If the kitchen staff was solid, a person could literally be out the door before the merit badge centers opened, so a lot of advancement was possible. 

So, here was my problem... I had a brand new staff, with nobody who worked in the kitchen before. My AKM was from a different staff the year previous. He impressed me, so I requested him. We worked well together, but he was clueless in the kitchen, and hadn't led in a work environment before.

So here were my mistakes, as I look back.

1. During the 2 weeks of camp set-up before campers arrived, my guys were pulled all over the place, instead I should have fought for them to spend some time in the kitchen learning the job. I had plenty of people helping me clean up the kitchen, getting ready for the health inspection; but I didn't plan any time with MY guys to TRAIN them on their new job, or to set the expectations for them. They came in blind, expecting an easy job. They were wrong and that was my fault.

2. As the Kitchen Manager, I was also the assistant cook. That meant my back was turned to the kitchen through most of the meal because I was cooking the meal beside the actual cook. I didn't tale into account the amount of time I would need to spend cooking rather than watching and working with the staff. My AKM wasn't aware of the priorities, and to be honest, couldn't manage the staff. He tried hard, but we always seemed to be falling behind. I should have taken time to pull him aside and ensure he knew what the duties were and the proper order in which to perform them, as well as the expectations for the staff (which was the job I did for the previous KMs!).

3. I didn't evaluate my staff often enough, and in some cases I did this in order to avoid being mean. A leader must work for the betterment of his team. That meant I should have given reviews weekly (as was expected), and if there was a problem with a specific person (there was) I should have either confronted and addressed it: or I should have transferred him to somewhere he would perform better (he was always sneaking off to the Nature Center). In the long run, if I didn't think he would work out at the Nature Center, I should have fired him rather than transfer my problem to somebody else. By letting him stay and continue to run off and hide, he was dragging the morale and work ethic of everybody else into the gutter.

4.  Our hours were ridiculous. We would be in the kitchen by 0530 to start breakfast. On most days we worked through to the end of lunch, which took us until 1400 (2 PM). Then the staff would have to be back by 1600 or 1630 (4/4:30 PM) depending on the dinner. Clean-up would take us until 2000 (8 PM). And the KM had even longer hours because of prep-work and cooking needs. A good group would be in half that time but we weren't a good group (see all of the above). So basically, it was extreme hours in a rough environment with very little down time, and it repeated for 6-7 days a week (we may not serve dinner, but Sunday was the extreme cleaning day). The guys were getting burned out and I didn't address it.

I didn't organize anything fun. Something I learned in Iraq. No matter how tired the leader is, he/she needs to let his team have fun as a team. I could have scheduled an afternoon canoe race, or maybe a challenge course; but instead I was so tired from the long hours from my team not knowing what to do that all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

As a second thought, I could have instituted an afternoon off program so that people could go work on merit badges, swim, or maybe just sleep. If I made it merit based, I could have created a carrot.

5. My immediate boss was a former kitchen manager. He was a giant pain in my ass, always telling me how he did things, and pointing out where my staff was insufficient. On top of that, he used the kitchen as a place to escape his responsibilities as Camp Director; so he was always there! Instead of resenting him for it though, I probably should have taken him up on some of his advice. He was a pain about how he offered it, but even a jackass has a good idea every now and then. Don't throw out the message because you don't like the messenger!

6. Finally, I didn't set goals for myself or my staff. I didn't use a stop-watch to see who could clear dishes the fastest, or set-up the trays for the next meal the quickest. I didn't offer recognition for the cleanest floor, or the best preparation for the next meal, or the most neat and organized storage area. All I saw was the work and I let my team down. If I had set metrics and then recognized based on those metrics, the group would have steadily improved, and we wouldn't have worked such ridiculous hours.

In the end, we survived the summer, but only barely. Most of the staff (myself included, but that was due to ROTC commitments) didn't return the following year, and I don't blame them. Looking back now, I can say I learned a lot from that experience. It was a failure on my part, but sometimes you learn the most from failures. I wouldn't be the leader I am today without this experience.

So, there is one of my Learning Experiences. Anyone care to share his/her own? We can all learn by example.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wacky Wednesday

So no matter how big and bad you are... there are somethings you just can't change...

I've heard the story before, but this video is extremely well done.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Leader Requires Vision

A leader needs a vision, along with goals to achieve. How does a leader come by those goals? Are they set out for them? Are they something defined by the leader? Or are they a group effort, with a culmination of ideas leading to a solid goal with steps laid out for achievement?

The honest answer is all of the above. I am the President of the company's Toastmaster Club, and the goals for the club are pretty much set-up by Toastmasters International (TMI). TMI has a program called the Distinguished Club Program, which is a series of 10 goals that a club is expected to aim for. If you get 5 goals, the club is Distinguished. 7 Goals gets the club Select Distinguished, and 10 Goals makes the club Presidential Distinguished. Since the corporate club is only a little over a year, and needed that year to get it's footing, I am shooting for 5 goals. Usually, a President should probably have the club shoot for 10 of 10, but in this case, the club doesn't have anyone ready for the advanced awards. It will be a struggle to get the lower level awards certified before June. In a manner of speaking, those lower level awards are the stretch goals. But as the leader for that group I have a vision: the InNOVators Toastmaster Club will be Distinguished this year.

To pull back to a different time, when I was a tank platoon leader in Iraq, there were goals for the leaders. Each mission had a specific objective, so each mission was a goal. But those missions didn't coalesce into a vision. My vision was simple, get everybody home safe. A tough vision in a war zone, but I was responsible for 16 guys (counting myself), and I know how much it would have hurt me to leave Iraq without all of them. So what goals did I have to set to accomplish this. Largely, the goal was to be tactically and technically perfect (or as close to it as possible). It also meant responding with force in a lot of difficult situations where others might have hesitated. However, within several months of taking over the platoon, my platoon had a reputation as one you didn't mess with. The reputation got so strong that after 6 months, we weren't attacked with IEDs or fired upon anymore. Our tanks would roll through ambush points without being touched. The regrettable thing was that other platoons and convoys would get hit 5 minutes later. I don't know for sure if it was our reputation that made them wait, or it was just the way life works, but it still sits heavy on my conscious. However, I can't complain too much, all my men came home safe (I wish I could say the same for all the soldiers I knew in country).

The last question is probably the best situation for a leader. Many books, groups and people talk about the selfless leader, and I would imagine that it is that person who is able to go to his team and say "What can we accomplish this year?" and expect an answer that isn't lazy, or the easy targets. I rarely have the opportunity to work in a group like this. More often I find myself in charge of a group that needs drive and direction. Perhaps that is a personal flaw? I often wonder if I am not giving my people enough opportunity to sink or swim. I would love to have a meeting where a brainstorming session not only sets up the vision for the group, but also the goals necessary to achieve that vision. Perhaps I need to concentrate more on getting the right people "on the bus," to steal a concept from Jim Collins. Then the team could have that moment.

So, then the question is... how do you find vision for your teams? How do you Conceive it?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Veteran's Day

I just wanted to say thank you to all my brothers and sisters in the military. Your sacrifices are appreciated. Have a Great Veteran's Day!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Leading by Example

I don't know how many time this topic comes up. It sounds cliche, Lead By Example. What does it mean? Sometimes it means being with the team when the times are tough...

It was almost 1600 hours on a day that started at 0400 the calendar day before. Not a completely uncommon occurrence when you are a platoon leader in Iraq. The Brigade had just searched a town in Iraq outside of Baqubah which was the source for a regular mortar attack on 2 nearby Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). We were tankers who had been dismounted for over 12 hours, with a late night patrol the night before. Most of us slept last night, but not all (including yours truly)...

When we arrive at the new rally point (we shifted rally points when we moved to support another platoon's  house clearing) there was a problem. The vehicles for my men had arrived.... at the old rally point, 2 miles east of our current location, and they couldn't move to the new rally point due to a lack of security vehicles to escort them. If you know what a Charlie Foxtrot is, this about fits the definition.

My platoon was ordered to run across the town to the old rally point. Never mind that we just searched every house (and kicked in some doors), so locals would be upset. Never mind that my men have been on their feet more than 12 hours in body armor and helmets, with only about 30 lbs of gear each anyway. And never mind that the sun was starting to set, so visibility in the alleys and rooftops would either be shady or obscured by the low sun. Great idea!

So what does a leader do? With the rank I had, I could have stayed with the vehicles (I was the highest ranking guy on the ground, and could have claimed command of the convoy). That would mean that the platoon would make the run without me. Now, how demoralizing is that to your team? The leader bails when the going gets tough?

Well, like the old song, instead WE got going. I told the radio operator to inform the other rally point to hold all vehicles because we were coming across town. Then my 25 guys and I took off at a run (yes, my platoon grew for this one operation) across a town where we weren't exactly the guests of honor. It was quite possibly the longest run of my life. 2 miles in the mud, after being on my feet for more than 36 hours, with about 60 lbs of extra gear (30 lbs gear, ~30 lbs body armor/weapon), in fading light, while trying to keep 25 people moving as a cohesive unit so that we could support each other if the Charlie Foxtrot become a Mike Charlie Foxtrot. Ever see the movie Black Hawk Down?  That situation went from a Charlie Foxtrot to a Mike Charlie Foxtrot, and this one only needed a little nudge to get there.

Long story short, we made it to the old rally point (without the nudge, thankfully), where I was asked "what took you guys so long?" by a First Sergeant in a nice clean uniform who had spent the day back at base until it was time to release the pick-up convoy. And guess who it was that didn't send enough vehicles to the RIGHT rally point. Sometimes rank doesn't mean competent...

If you want to know about the whole day, send me an email and I may talk about most of it. Rather long drawn out story. So why share even part of it? Because when things went Charlie Foxtrot I was there with my men, visible and in the same mud as them. I LED BY EXAMPLE.

I talked about this once before, about being present when there is a problem. So why bring it up again? Because it needs to be said over and over. Because it isn't cliche.

But really it's because I was talking with somebody who reminded me about this incident and the outcome; and because it reminded me that it doesn't always need to be a Charlie Foxtrot situation. So what does this mean in the business world? If you got people working late on a project for you, stay late and help. If you have people on the shop floor cleaning up after a long day, go out with them and grab a broom (you only have to do it once in a while, I promise). Prove that you are willing to do what they are told to do. They will love you for it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Situational Awareness

A small patrol was walking a town street in Iraq. Some people kept their distance, others shouted obscenities, and others approached to ask for help or shake hands. Typical day. Suddenly a young man (15-16, so a kid really) stands up from behind a parked car with his arm cocked. The members of the patrol have an instant to react. Does the young man have a rock? Or a grenade? Do you shot or don't you?

Thankfully I didn't encounter this situation. One of my friends did. The man had a grenade, and a young corporal took the shot while everyone else was still deciding. The grenade fell under the parked care and exploded. Only the young man was killed. Nobody else was hurt, unless you count the car (an old POS Toyota).

Also, thankfully, most leaders today don't face those decisions. Mostly they worry about P&L statements; the trouble making employee; or making next month's figures. But that doesn't mean that situational awareness isn't important.

Situational awareness is the knowledge of what is going on around you. A leader cannot be oblivious to his surroundings, his environment. In the Army, that can mean the difference between life and death. In the business world it can be the difference between pro-actively fixing a problem or reactively trying to salvage something from it.

So, how aware are you of your surroundings. Do you know what your team is working on? Do you have metrics in place? If you do have metrics, what are the expected boundaries for good performance? And how often do you check them?

In a previous blog I talked about making time to meet with your employees individually. That would be a time to gain some situational awareness. You gain understanding about your team.

Another example would be with the metrics I mentioned earlier. The PMBOK talks about how to gauge those metrics, and how corrective action can be taken before an item falls outside the proper limits. How do you know? If the results of your metric move in a particular direction 7 times, then you know you have a trend that needs to be addressed.

So, lets say that you lead a quality department, and you notice that a particular piece you manufacture is sliding on the Factory Acceptance Tests that are performed. It is still within the acceptable range, but 7 times in a row that model of equipment  is losing ground. Now would be the time to address the situation, because you are aware that it WILL BECOME a problem. You handle it before it IS a problem.

In essence that is what Situational Awareness is. Taking care of problems before they ARE problems. Sometimes it is in an instant, other times measured out through careful review of results. Either way it is about being one of the favorite words of leadership: PROACTIVE.

So, the real trick here is making sure you have the right metrics, and asking the right questions. Ahh... sounds like the potential for another blog entry. What do you think?