I was fortunate enough to attend college on an Army ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) scholarship, and receive a commission in the United States Army. I spent the next 4 ½ years serving in various leadership roles in the 3rd Infantry Division. It has been almost 15 years since I left the Army, but the lessons I learned there still ring true today. Here are 5 things the Army Taught Me About Business.
- Patience – This may not initially sound like something you learn in the Army, but if you have ever served in the military you can relate to this one. Hurry up and wait is something you hear often. Brigade Change of Command formation is at 6:00am? Well guess what, your Battalion Commander doesn’t want to be late so he schedules his formation for 5:30am. Want to take a guess what the Company Commander does? You got it; he schedules his formation for 5:00am so no one in his unit is late for the Battalion 5:30am formation. You get the picture. It is very frustrating at first, but once you understand it is not going to change, you learn to deal with it. Patience has been an invaluable tool in business. I have learned not to get frustrated when results don’t happen immediately. I learned to focus on the things that I can personally control and not worry about those I can’t. Your project does not have immediate results because IT has to approve it? Launch a new business online and have very little traffic? Have patience. It takes time. Focus on what you can control. The sooner you learn you don’t always get immediate results, the better off you are going to be.
- Take Action – We just talked about patience and all of the time you can spend sitting around waiting. You spend plenty of time waiting in the Army, but when it is time to accomplish a mission you take action. You may spend hours planning for a training exercise, but you can only plan so much. When the time comes to execute the mission, you take action. If you sit around planning for every possible contingency, you will never accomplish anything. A good plan that is executed now will always defeat the perfect plan executed later. Taking action is also critical when reacting to something you didn’t plan for. When you are caught in an ambush, the Army teaches you to immediately orient yourself on the enemy and attack. You don’t sit around, discuss what the best course of action might be, you take action, immediately. These same lessons apply to business. Don’t sit around planning for every possible contingency or course of action. Come up with a plan, take action, and adjust. I know many people want to be an entrepreneur, but they never take action. Take action applies to unplanned circumstances as well. Lose a customer that is responsible for 90% of your revenue? Better not sit around looking at the data to figure out why they left and what you should do next. Take Action!
- You Can Delegate Authority Not Responsibility – As a leader in the Army, I had a multitude of tasks I had to accomplish. When preparing for a field exercise, we had to plan the route, ensure our vehicles were running properly, get radio frequencies loaded, etc. As a platoon leader, I could never do all of these things myself. I had to rely on my Platoon Sergeant and Platoon Noncommissioned Officers to get the platoon prepared. I could give my Platoon Sergeant the authority to act on my behalf; however that did not relieve me of the responsibility of my platoon being prepared. If something went wrong, I could not just shrug and tell my commander I told Sergeant Smith to get us ready, it’s his fault. As a leader, I should have given better direction and I should have checked to make sure it was done. A former commander told me, “Trust but verify”. You have to trust your subordinates but ultimately you need to verify with your own two eyes because it is your responsibility as a leader.
- Review Performance – The Army does a good job of reviewing performance on an individual level and at the unit level. Like many organizations, the Army has an individual performance review process. Officers and NCOs receive reviews annually or when a unit commander changes. Where the Army really excelled though, was outside of this process. If someone was not performing to standard, their chain of command ensured they understood right away. Not in 6 or 8 months at the next review, immediately. I have found this valuable in my civilian career as well. If you have someone not meeting expectations, don’t wait until “Review Time” to tell them. Let them know when it happens and come up with a plan to help them improve. The Army truly excels at reviewing performance at the unit level. After any training exercise, leaders conducted a candid After Action Review where the entire unit discusses what went wrong and what went right. The leader talks about his mistakes and what he will do next time to improve. It is very open and candid. The focus is on improving performance, not pointing fingers. Think about your last major project your organization. Did you candidly and constructively talk about what went wrong and how it can be improved next time? If done properly, it can really help your organization continually improve its performance and avoid the same mistakes time and time again.
- 90% of Leadership is being present – My Battalion Commander told me this over 18 years ago and I don’t think it is something I will ever forget. You can’t lead people from your office. You can’t lead people via email and PowerPoint. If my soldiers were performing maintenance on their vehicles I was there with them versus sitting in my office. I talked to them. I learned from them. I learned things about my job which I would have never learned from reading a field manual sitting in my office. Visit the people on your team. Do you work in an office? Stop by their cube, talk to them. It is amazing what you can learn, and how you can explain your vision, one on one, and really get buy in. If you are not present, you are not leading.
What do you think? Love to hear you thoughts in the comments.