Military Leadership: Lessons for Business

Dov Seidman’s recent HuffingtonPost piece got me thinking about my own military experience and its non-basic training for business leadership:

As an organizational psychologist and combat veteran, consulting with corporate and government clients on the topic of organizational culture, I wholeheartedly agree. Military leadership may be perceived as “strict discipline” and “mindless followership” by those who have not experienced it firsthand, but the reality is, in today’s fluid combat environment, our leaders and soldiers must be able to adapt quickly and think on their feet. A core set of guiding principles and values in conjunction with intense training and development has enabled our military forces to adapt to the changing face of combat in impressive ways.

After our victory in WWII, it’s not surprising that the values to hierarchy and command and control would become engrained in the civilian sector as “the right way to do things” and, at the time, they were extremely effective, driving our economy to great heights, creating a strong middle class and creating the most highly educated society in the world. As the world situation evolved and warfare became less “stand toe-to-toe and duke it out” and more decentralized and nebulous, our military organizations had to adapt in ways that changed the face of warfare in dramatic ways.

Blind followership would become less effective as warfare became more dependent on small units operating somewhat independently across long distances. Small unit leaders and their soldiers had to learn how to succeed in very nebulous environments, to accomplish their mission nonetheless. They did this by rightfully training their leaders to lead by a core set of fundamental principles and to do the “right thing at the right time” as LTC Glick stated in the article.

While the military doesn’t need to show profit every month, I would argue that the price they pay for failure is exponentially greater than any for-profit business could ever fathom. Leaders in the civilian world who fail to understand that the world is evolving around them and who attempt to shape the world to fit their ways of working rather than adapting to be most successful certainly run the risk of becoming extinct.

I use the principles that I learned as an officer in the Army every day in my own business with great success. Not only is my team fully capable to working in nebulous situations, they are able to do so while working with ever-changing team structures, designed to best serve the diverse needs of our clients. My team is guided by a clear set of fundamental core principles and ways of operating and they are given an enormous amount of autonomy in HOW they actually accomplish their mission.

If the civilian sector can get past the stereotypes that many hold about the military I would suggest that there are a great many lessons that could be adapted to their work. These lessons have be learned as a result of a great many lessons learned and lives lost and if they are passed off as ‘only applicable in a military context’ I’m afraid that we may be missing some extremely valuable learnings.

Put Away the Winter Boots! (It’s Time for a Change)

When the weather gets warmer, we instinctively shove our hats and gloves into the back of the closet and pull out our sandals. The obvious change in weather or climate is easily felt and clues us in to the reality that the objects we might have needed last week or last month are not going to serve us well today or next month.

Organizational climates evolve in the same way that the weather does, yet we often continue to do the same processes that we did before. We can all think of that mandatory in-person meeting/conference that started back when so and so was in charge but is no longer an effective use of time. Or what about certain policies around working remotely that don’t reflect the current technology at the organization?

These relics from a different climate or season are often continued because no one has noticed that the meeting or policy etc. is no longer serving the organization. Or if it is noticed, those individuals trying to be agents for change often find themselves facing resistance. It is because that meeting or policy is embedded in the organization’s culture, or as we call it, a part of “the way we do things around here.” Changing a culture is hard, yet if we can understand the resistance to the change, it is possible to create opportunities for change. First, however, it is imperative to understand what is working about the meeting or the thing we’re trying to change and where the resistance to that change is coming from.

For example, in the case of trying to cancel an in-person meeting or conference where employees are resistant because they enjoy and feel appreciation through the free food/lodging provided during the meeting, one solution could be to give employees a stipend to buy their own food and/or a vacation bonus and then attend remotely. This continues what’s working (free food/lodging and appreciation) while saving the organization travel time and costs for holding an onsite meeting. Or if people enjoy seeing each other face-to-face but the meeting is not deemed a good use of time perhaps the meeting agenda, leader, frequency or length could be adjusted to increase the likelihood that it is an effective use of everyone’s time.

In short—it’s necessary for your organization to have a level of cultural awareness and a willingness to change when organizational needs are not being achieved and processes could be improved. Just like we wouldn’t want to be caught wearing our snow boots in July, we shouldn’t get stuck continuing to do things at the organization because they met the needs of a previous organizational climate.

Find Your Match: 3 Steps for Building Mutually Beneficial Business Relationships

“Building and leveraging productive partnerships can bring immeasurable value to your business, but it requires careful research, effective communication, and a willingness to compromise.”

In this LinkedIn piece, Chris walks readers through three steps for forming productive and strong strategic partnerships. Read more.

How Leaders Can Fight Impostor Syndrome

Leading at the top of the organization is lonely. According to a recent study called by The School for CEOs, 93% of top leaders require intensive preparation to take over an organization. Technical skill gaps that a leader faces as they take on positions of greater responsibility, such as making decisions about organizational structure and managing various stakeholder groups, often times receive more attention than some of the emotional and psychological hurdles they face. Impostor syndrome, for example, a major phenomenon that many leaders experience as they navigate a more complex landscape often causes people feeling ill-equipped to do the job. This has real performance implications both at a personal level and for the organization.

Leaders that experience impostor syndrome generally feel like a fraud. Often times, the story that replays in their minds is that they are going to be “found out”. In fact they often attribute their success to other factors – “ I was in the right place at the right time” or “I ended up here because I got lucky”. It’s also common to see executives that suffer from impostor syndrome not taking credit for their accomplishments. And if they do, they are usually pretty convinced that they won’t be successful the second time around.

It turns out that execs with impostor syndrome, tend not be vulnerable and this lack of vulnerability inevitably leads to a lack of self-awareness and development . To overcome this, creating a peer support system that can become a trusted network of advisors and serve as a go-to resource can be helpful. Working with an executive coach to look at some of the underlying beliefs and assumptions that are driving certain behaviors and then creating strategies to overcome them can also be of tremendous value. So if you or someone you know is feeling like an impostor, it’s normal and there are things that can be done to address it.

Organizational Culture, Talent Management and Onboarding Across the Generational Divide

Recent articles such as “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” and “The Brutal Ageism of Tech” highlight and reinforce the importance of adhering to some crucial tenets when thinking about organizational culture and onboarding across the generational divide.

1. Your organization’s culture will impact what kind of talent you attract.

Policies for employees are a critical part of your organizational culture, or “the way we do things around here.” For example, guidelines like a minimum vacation allowance rather than a maximum limit, the frequency and energy at organizational happy hours, and the expectations around working hours might attract younger employees. Conversely, policies such as paternity leave, stock options, retirement contributions and a set 9-5 schedule will likely attract an older demographic.

2. This culture you created and the talent you attracted will also impact how you onboard them. If the culture values innovation, trial and error and is moving quickly, and then the onboarding process might involve some shadowing of a colleague, personalized coaching and meeting with some more tenured colleagues for learning about a deeper sense of organizational mission, history, and values. However, if the culture values structure, hierarchical process, consistency and might be in a less of a hurry, a more formal, standardized onboarding process could be necessary to make sure that the new employee will be perform consistently and with clear expectations.

It’s crucial to remember that no culture is necessarily “better” or “worse” nor is there a “better” or “worse” approach to talent management or training. What is critical, however, is to ensure that your organizational culture and onboarding is intentionally designed in such a way to attract and train the talent you need to be successful as an organization. This alignment between culture and talent and training is one often overlooked piece of the puzzle in achieving your organization’s mission and well worth a close look.

Color Your Culture Picture with Data

We live in a world of data. Every day we are inundated with more and more information. In fact, the internet alone is estimated to comprise about 1.2 Zettabytes of information (that’s about 2.6 billion times the size of the average computer hard drive). We use data to help us make decisions in many parts of life from where to go to dinner, what schools to send our kids to, or where to invest. The use of data in business planning and operations is just beginning to take off and is expected to increase exponentially as data storage costs continue to decline.

So what exactly does this have to do with culture? Surprisingly a lot. Organizations regularly collect large sums of data regarding their workforce and operations. Some common types of information include: retention and recruitment numbers, workforce size, sales figures, and customer and supplier orders.

Each of these data points tells a story about what is happening in the organization. The key is to make meaning of this information by identifying connections and correlations between data points. For example, “Big Box” Inc. discovered the following connections following an analysis of its culture and operations:

  • Sales is driven by customer satisfaction, overall safety compliance, and employee retention.
  • Retention is driven by employee satisfaction, employee satisfaction is closely associated with safe work environments and the availability to opportunities to mature skills.
  • Safety compliance is closely linked to the maturity of the processes that govern the company.

By understanding these connections we have a more colorful picture of how the moving pieces are interrelated. Using the example above, our individual data points are now connected in a network of relationships where each individual part impacts the whole. For instance, improving employee retention not only requires us to improve professional development opportunities but also to closely examine the safety of the work environment. That in turn compels us to look closer at our processes and how we use them to manage the organization. To address a specific problem, we have to understand the system and how it functions.

Data isn’t just for business intelligence departments. The wealth of data (both quantitative and qualitative) we can access today makes our understanding of our culture much richer and nuanced. If we can use data to peel through the layers of our culture, leaders are able to address core issues earlier and employees will be more satisfied with their work, and all stakeholders will have the necessary information to tell better stories about where they work and why it matters.

Engaging, Sticky, and Effective

I’ve seen a lot of professionals forget what they’ve learned through training programs. And I’m not talking here about detail and minutia – but about the KEY objectives and takeaways. If they’ve forgotten those, they’ve wasted a lot of time and money. And, those two things are in short supply these days.

Many people turn to Experiential Learning to deliver the “sticky” (Heath Brothers, I’m looking at you), because making things sticky isn’t just important. It is essential. Nigel Rayment wrote a recent Huffington Post piece regarding Experiential Learning that got me thinking:

Given his take, the question becomes: Are your experiential learning programs really learning programs?

Consider Rayment’s criteria:

  • Specific learning outcomes: The outcome of the exercise must be specific and have depth
  • Participants should understand their starting point: no guesswork here…as Covey taught us all, “Begin with the end in mind”
  • Structured learning cycle: experience, discuss, learn, apply, review
  • Interact with the participants: this is a facilitative approach
  • Debriefing is a key: immediate and intentional discussion
  • Structured re-assessment: sustain the impact of the learning, rinse/repeat

If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all six, there is a danger that your experiential learning programs aren’t achieving the desired results. If that is the case, you’d either have to revise the experiential learning program to meet the criteria, or consider the real possibility that experiential learning isn’t the right answer for this instance. (Option 3 could then potentially be that it is time to vacation…?)

I started using this criterion in my consulting practice,hesitatingly at first, because I feared the worst: that my experiential learning approach might have been engaging, innovative, and TOTALLY without value. Let me report: it has been a great test. Where I thought such a structured approach would inhibit the enjoyment factor and creativity of the designs, it has been just the opposite. Instead, the structure has been liberating, and given me permission to add additional creative wattage. And clients have noticed. The connections to mission, “real” work, daily impact have been tangible for them. First, in the session, and in the weeks to come, I’ve heard positive feedback regarding the effectiveness of the sessions.

Building a ‘Get Ahead to Stay Ahead’ Culture

I was surprised when the cup of coffee I bought the other morning was handed to me in a styrofoam cup. A few months back, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced legislation that would ban all styrofoam containers from the city’s restaurants. The measure still sits in debate, hence my Saturday morning cup of joe’s ability to stay steaming hot on my subway ride up Manhattan’s west side. Mid-train ride I got to thinking about the styrofoam lobby (yes, that exists) and their fight against the ban, which is understandable considering that the country’s most populous city could initiate a domino effect of anti-styrofoam campaigns. Could there be another way? Where is innovation happening?

I’m no scientist, but I have to believe that with the right brains in the right rooms, those styrofoam guys could come up with a new type of packaging that is better for the environment yet still keeps things toasty inside. So why haven’t they?

The most successful companies are the ones who don’t wait until their star starts to set before they begin to think about new ways of doing business. Still, too many wait to innovate until they’re in a crisis situation, and crawling out of that hole is difficult if not impossible.

But what is less obvious about these successful, cutting-edge companies is that all that creativity doesn’t just live in the R&D department, but throughout the organization. The right organizational culture makes it possible for innovation to occur.

As my colleague Ashley recently wrote, innovation requires promotion of risk-taking and acceptance of failure throughout your company. Research also shows that people are more creative when they have a supportive work community, autonomy, projects they perceive as challenging, time and space to focus on those challenges, a mindset friendly to ambiguity and enough wiggle room to try something new – whether that’s creating a new breakthrough product or simply revamping the way the department organizes documents.

gC worked with a client to design a leadership summit last month for one of most important revenue-driving divisions within a global powerhouse company – a division of nearly 1000 people. At the summit, the division leader proudly told the story of a junior employee who had an idea for improving a crucial process. She took the idea to her manager, who elevated it quickly to the top. Her idea is now changing the way the division does business, increasing efficiency and productivity. Imagine if their company’s culture wasn’t flexible enough to incorporate new ideas or even allow space for them to percolate, empowering of its junior (and senior) employees, or willing to try a new way of working while knowing full well it might fail?

As a leader, being open to the ambiguity required for your organization’s culture to stay innovative isn’t easy. But then think, when’s the last time you drank out of styrofoam cup?

The Secret Power of Introverts (as Leaders)

First published in Full Start, March 23, 2014

People tend to automatically think of leaders as extroverts. After all, an outgoing nature, openness, and inherent sociability are all basic requirements to being a leader, right? Not necessarily.

Research shows that 4 out of 10 top corporate executives are introverts — and for good reason. Introverted leaders bring quite a few qualities to the leadership table, such as their ability to form deeper relationships and think through decisions. These traits make them a powerful force in a business setting.

In this Full Start article, Chris Cancialosi discusses the misconceptions people often have about introverts and explains the hidden values a more reserved leader can bring to a company.

A Bright Idea @ IDEO

What does a flying fish tell us about corporate culture?

At design consultancy, IDEO, the answer is – quite a bit. When IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, hoisted an Icelandic lamp made from a lacquered, deboned cod above his desk in IDEO’s office space, it was more than a quirky design decision.

The lamp is a symbol of Bennett’s experiment to work differently. One day, the chief creative officer realized that his hyper-scheduled workday was preventing him from living an important cultural value at IDEO: ‘Talk less, do more.‘ Scheduled in back-to-back, ten-minute micro-meetings left no room for doing.

One of Bennett’s core roles as chief creative officer is to ‘help inspire people’. With no space for the type of organic interaction and spontaneity that inspires creative thinking, Bennett felt his energy was misdirected.

So, he ran an experiment:

  1. Clear the calendar: Say no more than yes
  2. Buck the ‘hot desking’* trend: Be an anchor amidst the fluidity
  3. Do ‘doctor’s rounds’: Spend ½ day at the desk, ½ day visiting colleagues
  4. Respond in real time: Allow for 5 minute or 2 hour interactions depending on the real needs of the organization

*Hot desking = No designated workspaces; Employees at IDEO sign up for desks every morning

Claiming a permanent desk and stringing the massive cod lamp above it are symbols of Bennett’s commitment to change his leadership behavior:

“When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible and approachable. And it’s a huge incandescent fish: As a surreal object in a public place, it can shake you out of your office stupor and help you think more creatively” Paul Bennett (

Bennett’s experiment is a perfect response to one of the trickiest aspects of managing culture. Culture is grounded in habits. Thankfully, habits exist to save us the time of making drawn-out decisions about…how to sign an email, for example. But, leaders and organizations run the risk of relying on habits that once served them well but are no longer driving high performance. Left unchecked, this is how culture can derail organizations.

Bennett’s habit of hyper-scheduling wasn’t helping him contribute to the creativity and organic interaction that IDEO values. Leaders should be deliberate, like Bennett’s experiment, in course-correcting behaviors that aren’t aligned with their company’s values. Ultimately, leaders set the cultural direction for their organizations. The fish lamp, the dedicated desk over which it hangs, and the stories behind them are artifacts of IDEO’s culture that can’t help but reinforce the value of ‘talking less, doing more.’