As I work with different companies, I often hear people in leadership positions tell me “Leadership was easy when you were in the military; you just order people to do something and they have to do it.” I am always amazed by that statement because a leader in the military will never succeed if she or he depends on ordering people around. In fact, the only times I remember anyone giving direct orders was during Basic Training, or as a formation lead in flight.
Military leaders spend a great deal of time communicating the mission to those they are leading. When the members of the unit understand the mission, they understand the plan for the mission much better. More importantly, they can make appropriate adjustments to the plan as the situation changes.
I always try to find out, as I visit companies, how much the workers know about the strategy of the business. If the workers do not know the company strategy, I find they are not very engaged. They tend to do what they are told, and when the task is finished they wait for further direction. When the situation changes, the really good employees will try to make adjustments, but without understanding the strategy they are sometimes just guessing. If they guess wrong, they are usually reprimanded and thereby trained to wait on direction. These workers quickly become disengaged, to the great detriment of the business (more on employee engagement on a future posting).
Like the military leader who has to make sure the team understands the mission, business leader need to make sure everyone understands the strategy. The strategy has to be clear, and have specific goals. Those strategic goals must be broken down by year, quarter, and month. Those monthly goals must be flowed down to departments and individuals as weekly and, ideally, daily goals so every employee knows how she is contributing to the enterprise strategic goals each day.
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
– General George S. Patton
Those strategic goals flowed to the departments and individuals tell each employee what they and the company need to accomplish, the “what” they need to do. The next task of the leader is to make sure each employee can apply their ingenuity to determine the best “how.” Leaders must encourage employees to make improvements and ensure they know how much latitude they have to try improvements. Most importantly, Leadership must encourage reasonable risk taking, help the organization learn when the improvement doesn’t work out as expected, and reward ingenuity. True, some businesses have less flexibility than others – for instance, processes that are certified by a government agency (such as the FDA or FAA) must remain compliant with the certification. It is also true that these businesses have a procedure to consider and approve changes.
Military leaders explain the mission and expect subordinates to adjust the plan to take advantage of changes in the tactical scenario. Business leaders can get better results by explaining the strategy, setting SMART* goals rolled down to departments and individuals, and let employees contribute their creativity and ingenuity to make the business successful.
*SMART Goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely (or Time bound).