Monday, October 31, 2011

Do What's Right...

Believe it or not, my First Sergeant (1SGT) and I didn't get along very well. He had his idea on how to run the platoon, and I had mine. Sometimes they didn't match up. Now, normally I would bow to the voice of wisdom and experience, but sometimes my conscience wouldn't let me do it. Other times, I did things his way.

An example: early after taking over the platoon in Iraq, I was leading a patrol with my 4 tanks. During the return leg of the patrol, I saw a tank off in the field, with it's treads off and a mechanics vehicle on site to help with repair. However, I didn't see his battle-buddy. I ordered our platoon to set-up a perimeter around the disabled tank (not from enemy fire, but from a busted road wheel that let the tread slip off). I knew that if I was broken down, or if I was the mechanic, I would appreciate some extra support so nothing got hairy.

My 1SGT argued that we should return to base, we'd already been out for more than 6 hours, and the guys were tired and hungry. We had a very long conversation over the radio about it (not the best way to handle it, since whole platoon could hear the frequency). Long story short, I got fed up with the fight and told him to take his wingman and return to base if he felt so inclined. He did, and my wingman and myself stayed an extra hour to overwatch the tank that was repaired. We all went back to the base together. By the time I tracked down my First Sergeant, he was asleep, and I decided that I needed to cool-off before having the conversation.

Unfortunately, the conversation didn't happen. I was young and unsure of myself. Instead of believing in myself, I started to have doubts brought about largely by the other NCOs in the company constantly asking me why I risked my men and stayed behind for a tank that wasn't in our company. I realize now that they were trying to keep me from reporting the argument higher by producing doubts. The platoon split between us, and it stayed that way for a couple of hellish weeks. We took patrols separately, and only talked if the mission required it.

About 3 weeks later, my 1SGT returned to the states because his wife needed surgery. He was gone almost 12 weeks. During that time, my wingman took over the platoon (he was the senior sergeant in the platoon) and we started to patch the rift between the two wings. By the time my 1SGT got back, the platoon understood my thought process and followed my directions.

My 1SGT pretty much removed himself from the platoon upon his return. If he could find an excuse to stay behind, or manage from the rear he did. I think he realized the shift in dynamics, and knew for once that the young butter bar (2nd Lieutenant, for you non-military people) actually wasn't a complete dumbass, and he couldn't treat me like I was (unlike the person I replaced, another blog entry on that one... someday).

Unfortunately, instead of trying to work together, he stood apart. He still looked after the platoon, but we didn't butt heads, because he new it wouldn't work. My SSG (my wingman) and I took over the missions for the platoon, and eventually everyone went home safe.

So what is the lesson in this? I think it is two-fold. First, I did what I thought was right, and gave orders to that end. My men didn't always agree with me, but in the long run, I earned their respect and they followed me. They knew I wasn't sacrificing them for some recognition or reputation, but instead doing what I felt was necessary to ensure we all got home safe.Your team is smart (no matter what profession). If you treat them right, and do what's right, they will follow you through hell (mine did). If you don't, if you use them for your own advancement, they will know and in some cases work against you.

The funny thing about this first lesson, is that my 1SGT at one time told me his biggest problem with me was that I was doing things because other people were, not because I thought it was the right thing to do. In that case he was referring to my taking shifts on guardpoint (something none of the other 1SGTs or LTs were doing...). He thought I was doing it because he was. In truth, I was doing it because I saw him do it and thought it was a good way to let my guys get some more sleep. He didn't see it that way, and I think this result is from the second lesson.

The second lesson is don't avoid the awkward conversations. If I had addressed the issue the next morning, rather than letting it sit and letting doubt fester, my 1SGT and I may have worked things out, and the platoon wouldn't have split. Also, the 1SGT may have lent more of his experience to the platoon on the tougher missions, rather than staying behind. He was sorely missed at times.

How about you? Ever had a moment where you should have spoken up, or stepped forward, and didn't from doubt? Had a moment where you did the right thing without looking for reward, and had your leadership valued because of it?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Colin Powell's Lessons in Leadership - 4

You can find links to the first three below:

Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.

I love the last line of this one... "Good leadership encourages everyone's evolution." Think about your team.  If you have an expert on your team, congratulations. But is that expert continuing to grow? The rate of human knowledge growth is exponential. That means it continues to grow at an ever increasing rate. If you have 30 years in a field, are you aware of the changes in the last six months? Test your experts, and don't accept them at face value. They gained their knowledge from a lot of hard work, but if they are relying solely on that old knowledge, then you (and they) are hurting the team.

Scrubs, a pretty good sitcom, had an episode with Dick Van Dyke makes a guest appearance. Dick was a doctor with over 30 years experience, and continued to treat patients the "old, reliable way." In fact he even said during the show that he doesn't have the energy to keep up with the new medical discoveries. In the end, Bob Kelso (the head of the hospital), had to let his friend go because he was endangering people with his out-of-date treatments. Funny to find a leadership lesson in a sitcom, but there it is.

If you find yourself with an "expert" who isn't growing anymore, you need to challenge them. If they aren't challenged, they won't grow, and you may be putting your team in danger with out-of-date techniques. Scary thought, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wacky Wednesday

I try to avoid Dilbert Comics, but sometimes I wonder why I fight it. Scott Adams is adept at finding the little things in leadership and office life that make you roll your eyes, groan, or slap your forehead. Here's one that I find particularly interesting:

Overall, we have too many experiences like this. We pretend to know what the future will be, and produce a monstrous plan that has no grounding in reality, only to have it disrupted in 5 minutes. We as leaders can and should do better. Look at the facts, and create a realistic plan. Address issues, and make forward progress, before somebody else comes and takes the room...

Monday, October 24, 2011

When the Rules Change...

Back in 2003, I was a fresh-faced Lieutenant in the United States Army, and I recently arrived at Fort Hood for my first "real" duty assignment. We were scheduled to deploy to Iraq, and I was told that I had 2-3 weeks before I would be jumping into (not out of) a plane. With this knowledge in hand, I planned out my next 2 weeks, so that I could find a storage center for my stuff (only about 1 bedroom of stuff), set-up a power of attorney, and pack my bags for the trip (which was only supposed to be 6 months, should have known better on that one...).

Unfortunately, the rules changed on me. Thursday morning my commanding officer came to me and said "Matt, we need you on the advance team. Your flight leaves Saturday morning. Take the next 2 days to get what you need done."

Have you ever tried to pack 2 weeks worth of activities into a 2 day period? Thankfully, my first thought (after reaching for a cold bucket of water to put out my hair) was to sit down and revise my plan. I called the JAG office for an immediate appointment, and while waiting in the JAG office for my power of attorney, I called around to the storage centers to reserve a lot; called my buddies in Austin and told them where they could find car keys and pick-up my Jeep, set-up a rental U-haul to move my stuff, and enlisted a couple of soldiers to help me move my stuff (with the offer of beer and pizza; which seems to be a universally accepted payment for young men all over America).

That night, I called my girlfriend (now my wife) and had a long conversation about my impending deployment to a combat zone. Then I called my mother, and told her to check her email for a copy of my power of attorney (no, I didn't make my girlfriend my power of attorney, too many soldier horror stories to do that).

The next day, I ran around to all the pawn and military surplus stores that surround a military base, looking for equipment I knew I would need (extra TA-50, a better Ruc Sac, flashlights, batteries, a portable DVD player, you know the essentials). After the mad dash for supplies I spent Friday night stenciling my info and packing my duffel, Ruc Sac, and tanker ruc. BTW, a personal note, if your bags are going to be one of 300 of the same style bag, find a way to differentiate it (I ran yellow electrical tape around the outside, and spray painted one of the bottom corners of each bag a fluorescent orange, both easy to spot in a sea of olive drab).

Needless to say, I made the flight, and in April of 2003, I arrived in Kuwait (in point of fact, if I remember correctly, my commander told me on April Fools Day that he needed me for the advance team... huh, I guess he did have a sense of humor). But why share this story?

As a leader, I think we all know that rules can change, and that the best laid plans never last. However, when the rules change, let your team know about it, as soon as possible. In fact, if it even looks like the rules MIGHT change, let your team know. If I knew that I had ANY chance of being on the advanced team (which the rest of the advance team knew 2 weeks before I did), I probably would have moved earlier to get my "To Do" list done. Instead, I thought I had weeks to spare, so I planned accordingly. That isn't a good way to treat your people. It causes undue stress and frustration.

I would say that this "rule" (ha ha) needs to go beyond simple scheduling. If requirements, compensation, vacation, overtime, ANYTHING changes, then the team has a right to know it changed; preferably before the impact (In other words, don't tell them Friday afternoon at 4:55 PM that they need to come in on Saturday at their regular time). I know that in some cases the change is immediate, and there is no way to "warn" them in advance; but I've found this to be the exception rather than the rule.

Don't make your people run around with their hair on fire because you had to play with a blow torch. It's not good for moral, and not god for retention (even more so in the civilian sector). Be a strong leader, own the change and COMMUNICATE it to the team, so that everyone can adjust accordingly.

Monday, October 17, 2011

If You Don't Schedule Your Time...

I had lunch with a new acquaintance recently. It was interesting. He was curious about my experiences as a PM and how he might move from a BA position to a more Project Manager style role. I shared some stories, some guidance, and a couple of "tasks" that were meant to get the ball rolling (if he chooses to follow them, yet another blog entry for the future).

Towards the end of the meal, my new friend told me he found this blog from my LinkedIn account, and wanted to know why I wasn't writing anymore. He liked some of my previous blog entries, in particular, this one; where I could have been a hero, but ended up a zero...

Anyway. I think the last thing I told him at lunch was "If you don't schedule your time, somebody else will." It is actually the last line in a speech I give on multitasking, which has proven very popular at Project Management Institute events. In fact, it's gone beyond that, because I will be presenting the speech again at the Toastmasters International District 56 Fall Conference next month. If you are in Houston, I think it will be worth showing up, not just for me, but for the Humorous Speech Contest. I've been to several Area Contests, and some of the speeches are hysterical...

Back on topic, later this same gentleman emailed me back and said he printed out my tag line and posted it on his wall. Why?

Well the answer is because our days are often filled with little fires that literally only eat up a couple of minutes. The problem is that as you allow those minutes to be eaten, you lose the time to complete your own goals. You blink and it's 5 o'clock, your exhausted and your "to-do" list isn't any shorter. You leave for the day, come back the next, and the exact same thing happens; so you are even farther behind. Before you know it you are sacrificing personal time (vacation, family, sick days) to catch-up, or at least not fall further behind. Sound familiar?

So, how do you combat this? My recommendation is to take a long hard look at your calender (in Outlook, probably). Each week, schedule time to get specific things done (project proposal, evaluations, whatever). Then STICK TO THE SCHEDULE. When people come bursting in with their hair on fire (as always seems to happen), point them to a bucket of cold water (figuratively) and tell them you are busy for the next (however many hours you are scheduled) and YOU will FIND THEM when your schedule is open. Ask them to have solutions prepared by the time you get there.

In my limited experience, I've found this to be a very useful tool for development (as well as my own sanity). The reason is that by the time I go find them (and that is the important part), they usually not only have a solution suggested, but are executing said solution. That transfers command to your staff, and gives them more pride in their work.  It is EMPOWERMENT. If the solution is wrong, then usually it is easy to backtrack, because they only just started down that path.

There are several other tricks that I talk about in the presentation, but I won't share them here (if I did, why would you need to come to the conference?). I am hoping to tape this one, so if you are lucky, you might actually get to watch my presentation. Stay tuned for more.

P.S. thank you, my new friend, for getting me to write again.