Connect, Adapt, Collaborate: Applying Army Mission Execution Fundamentals to Business

Army Ops

The U.S. Army has a timeless and sticky saying it uses in order to drive home the fundamentals of mission execution. From the very first days of boot camp, a young Private will hear the Drill Sergeants yelling “you must learn how to shoot, move, and communicate if you want to survive on the battlefield!” They then go on to spend weeks mastering their personal weapon, learning how to low crawl and find cover, and practicing how to speak properly on the radio. Over time, one learns how important these skills really are. Yes, there are many more advanced competencies to learn over the course of your career, but if you can’t do these three basics consistently well… it might all be for nothing.

These ideas are not limited to the military and there is much that corporate leaders can take away from this simple saying as well. Successfully executing any strategy, whether it be on the battlefield or the boardroom, is often a function of doing the fundamentals consistently well. So how might the Army’s fundamentals of shoot, move, and communicate apply to the modern business environment? There are many similarities but I would translate the language to connect, adapt, and collaborate.

TargetConnect – Just like the Private learning how to “put steel on target” at the weapons qualification range, business execution requires one to master their resources and connect them with distant objectives. Specifically, there are three connections to be made that foster better execution. First, master an awareness of your personal strengths and connect these innate talents with the team’s objectives. Ask yourself: what are my exceptional gifts to the world and how can I provide the most value in day-to-day execution? Next, smartly connect to the infinite resources outside of you. Who can do this challenging activity much better than you can? Savvy leaders realize their boundaries and connect with others that compliment limitations. Finally, fully connect with your customer’s needs and expectations. Little is more frustrating than executing well on something that is no longer in the greatest service to your key stakeholders. Like the bullet seeking its target, the energy of connecting with your customer is one of laser-like focus. Don’t wait for feedback; be proactive and purposeful in continuously reaching out to clarify how things are going.

mud soldiersAdapt – Successful execution is becoming less of a formulaic process, and maintaining flexibility and agility is increasingly important. In essence, we must practice our ability to move with our shifting environment and change plans as necessary. In the Army, we might rehearse a complex mission for weeks on end. Yet, we lived by the rules of “the enemy always has a vote” and “no plan ever survives first contact (with that enemy).” A more relevant example might be at Google, where the culture promotes the concept of “design and iterate.” Googlers see strategy and execution as being one – a continuously refined process of trial and error that speeds up results. We might intuitively understand these concepts; however, many find them difficult to implement. We frequently become wed to our brilliant plans or overly comfortable with stale execution processes. The key to overcoming these barriers is to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” and learn to approach potential change from a place of curiosity. When we already “know” how to execute best, we resist things that do not reinforce these beliefs. Yet, when we lose our rigidity and get curious about possibilities, change becomes a way to simply get better.

military-560475_1280Collaborate – Great execution today requires increased communication and collaboration. It seems simple enough, yet why can it be so hard to collaborate during execution? The answer lies in the two very different energies required to do these equally imperative skills. When we are personally executing, our heads are down, our eyes narrow, and we concentrate our energy so that we might overcome obstacles and complete our tasks. When we are collaborating, we pick our heads up, we open our eyes wide, and seek to see the bigger picture around us. Executing and collaborating well is an ebb and flow of contraction and expansion. We collaborate to build intent, execute initial steps, communicate needs, execute some more, check-in on collective progress, drive towards results… it’s a rhythm we all know well. Yet, we all seem to do much better at the personal execution part than we do at the collaboration part. Key to becoming a better collaborator is becoming aware of when you contract. When do you tend to put your head down and get overly focused on your piece of the execution pie? For me, I contract when I have made a personal commitment and am up against a tight deadline. In these moments, I can be a lousy communicator as I focus myself on fulfilling my promises and shut down to others in the process. Stress in general can make us all contract, so recognizing when we are stressed is a tell-tale sign that we need to communicate our needs and collaborate more with others.

Execution is what translates ethereal strategy into tangible results. Yet, disciplined execution is a rarity in today’s turbulent business environment. Learn to embody the three fundamentals of connection, adaptation, and collaboration…and all will marvel at your ability to get the mission accomplished!

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point

West-Point-1The United States Military Academy at West Point is one of the world’s finest leadership laboratories. From the very first day (called R-Day for Reception day) that a new cadet enters into the West Point system, they are immersed in a four-year-long formal leader development process that has been honed through 212 years of experimentation. Twenty one years ago I began my West Point journey and the subsequent four years taught me countless leadership lessons for which I am forever grateful. In this two part series, I have compiled some of the stickiest of these lessons that continue to guide me as a leader today.

1. Don’t point the finger, point the thumb – At West Point, you are taught the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault! While this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. When mistakes happen, one’s natural reaction is often to pass blame on to others or offer excuses. As a new cadet, you are allowed only four responses to questions, Yes Sir; No Sir; Sir, I do not understand; and No Excuse, Sir! This taught us to be accountable for our actions and question our own role in a team failure.

2. A leader is always on parade – Drill and ceremony is a central part of West Point’s curriculum and watching the Corps of Cadets conduct a parade on the hallowed plain of West Point is a sight to behold. 4000 young men and women in their most formal uniforms all marching in complete synchronicity. As a cadet, all eyes are on you to do your part and do it well. It is the embodiment of situational awareness and personal discipline. When in a leadership position— every day is parade day. You are constantly being watched and assessed by your followers. People are counting on you to do the right thing, when it should be done, and without being told to do it.

3. Embrace the suck – Cadet life can be tough and full of irony. The worse the weather, the more you are required to be out in it. No matter which way you have to march, it always seems uphill. You have two choices. Either move towards the struggle and allow it to sharpen you, or let it consume you and break you down mentally. Leaders must do the same with their teams. Worthwhile goals always require an element of struggle and there will be moments when things downright suck for your team. Be a beacon of hope in times of adversity and always be compassionate with follower challenges.

4. No plan survives first contact – One essential skill every officer must learn is the art of planning and communicating orders. Cadets memorize specific frameworks like the 8 Steps to Troop Leading Procedures and the 5 Paragraph Operations Order to assist them in this process. Using these processes, an officer can spend days mapping out the best course of action, gathering intelligence, and synchronizing resources. Yet, real world experience soon teaches us that the enemy always has a vote and plans often fall apart (and quickly). Likewise, strategy will always be an important part of today’s business processes. Yet, the best companies today are adaptable and flexible with their environments. Leaders know when to abandon the plan and nimbly adjust to new circumstances.

5. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – West Point recruits some of the smartest kids in America. The average SAT score for the Class of 2018 was 1,270 and 82 of the 1,212 admitted were their high school’s Valedictorian[1]. Yet, cadets quickly learn that people follow heart before head. Leaders must be servants to their followers and demonstrate that they are committed to putting the team before self. Competence and intelligence are important, but character defines you.

In essence, great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. The good news is that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. All it takes is choosing to lead differently and a commitment to practice consistently.

(Stay tuned for part two in this series where I’ll explore 5 more Leadership Lessons I learned at West Point.)

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[1] http://www.usma.edu/parents/siteassets/parentwelcomecl2018web.pd

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all of this content is prohibited without authorized consent of the author.