The Veteran’s Dilemma is Our Country’s Dilemma

After a 15-year career with IBM, I had the good fortune to be one of 12 founding members of a Joint Venture.  Success for the company came fast and furious. My years with IBM provided excellent tools, but I learned more in the first couple of years with the new venture than I thought possible.

About the time of my three-year anniversary I found myself in a meeting with an IBM executive with whom I had a close professional relationship. In a candid discussion I asked him, “If I were ever interested in re-entering IBM, what weight would my current experience carry in opportunities afforded me?” His response was immediate and revealing. He said, “Your time away would be viewed as nothing more than a gap—it would count for nothing.” Even though I had developed important skills in this new company, it was completely discounted by my former employer.  From his perspective I might as well have been in a coma for three years.

That is how I believe many veterans feel when they leave the military looking for ways in which they can put their hard-earned skills to productive use. We are bombarded daily with platitudes regarding how veterans should be honored for their service. Our politicians admonish us to take care of them; many employers create HR programs to do just that. So what’s the problem?

The problem, first and foremost, is that the loci of these programs cater to the least common denominator. If there is one thing the Washington Elite should have learned from this last election cycle is that this is a flawed approach. Republicans and Democrats in Washington offer rhetoric regarding the need to help the “middle class”, but their policies and actions are aimed at the least common denominator. For example, we hear about raising the minimum wage as a way to help the middle class. Last I checked, our middle class typically makes more than minimum wage. Their problem isn’t minimum wage. There problem is ever diminishing opportunities to succeed.

Similarly, employers and politician too often view our veterans as victims looking for a meets-minimum job, so we can “help” them assimilate back into the civilian world. Our veterans weren’t in a coma while serving! The vast majority of them were developing highly coveted, and much needed hard and soft skills that translate exceedingly well in civilian life. These talented young men and women are looking for opportunities to put those skills to work as productive citizens. They do not want our “help”. They want to be honored for what they have to offer. Anything less is at best ignorance, and at worst arrogance, on our part.

So, the next time we thank a veteran for his or her service, maybe we should ask how he or she is now serving, and whether our collective investment in his or her personal and professional development is being put to good use.  Our veterans are not museum pieces to be put on a shelf and admired.  They are valuable assets that this country needs in order to remain an innovation powerhouse.

When Good is More Satisfying than Perfect

During a crisp autumn afternoon trek along the archery trail of a local Field and Stream club I was struck by thought.   Although we live in a world that values perfection, there are times when good is better than perfect.

Using a traditional longbow, I was shooting at a target of a bear from a distance of 40 yards. While all five arrows managed to hit the bear, only one hit exactly at the intended spot on the target. In other words, while it was good shooting, the perfect-to-good ratio was 1:4 (20% perfect). At that distance I was quite satisfied. If I had been using a compound bow instead of a longbow it is more likely that the perfect to good ratio would have been 4:1 (80% perfect); a crossbow, 5:0 (100% perfect). The reason for the discrepancy is simple. Compound bows and crossbows include technologies that provide the archer with sights and mechanisms that measurably increase accuracy, especially at longer distances. Most long bows require instinctive shooting. Much like a pitcher trying to throw a fastball down the middle of strike zone, longbow shooters don’t aim at the target; they shoot at the target.

Like a fastball in the strike zone, a perfect shot is not a random event we occasionally wish for. With proper training, body mechanics and practice, archers develop an “instinct” for hitting the target. Said differently they develop, and hone, a skill. To be clear, hitting a target 4 of five times with a compound bow from 40 yards also requires skill, but one that relies more heavily on technology.

At that moment the thought struck me that is there is something measurably more satisfying when a goal is accomplished with limited resources through hard work and training; especially when the odds are against it. Maybe that is why accomplished entrepreneurs often seem so happy.

Building HPTs Rule #6: We Will Always Have Each Other’s Back

During high school, I had a passion for photography. So, I converted my parent’s half bath into a darkroom, allowing me to experiment more freely with the art form. I had dreams of becoming a photojournalist for National Geographic. This desire, combined with a lifelong love for water sports ignited an interest in underwater photography, which led me to take up scuba diving as a hobby. One of the cardinal rules of scuba diving is to always dive with a buddy. There is a list of reasons dive buddies are important. One in particular comes to mind when considering rule #6 for building high performing teams.

Most of my diving experiences took place in two places—off the coast of the Florida Keys and in the waters around the island of Bimini. Anyone racking up dive time in those waters knows they are likely to encounter sharks from time to time. While an underwater shark encounter might sound scary to a landlubber, it is much safer than surface swimming in the ocean. To understand why, we only have to empathize with the shark. To paraphrase an old adage, we need to swim a mile in his fins.

Sharks are athletes of the undersea world. Like most athletes, sharks burn more calories than some of their reef dwelling neighbors (think couch potatoes). As such, they need to consume more calories. Since sharks are unable to take advantage of GrubHub they have to hunt for their food, but like many of us, they want to expend the least possible amount of energy to consume the most calories (think fast food restaurant or opening a large bags of chips). So, even though they are predators of the undersea, they are not interested in taking down the biggest, meanest hombre out there.

When viewed from a boat, a swimmer may appear to be gliding (or floating) gracefully along the surface, but the view from below is a silhouette of something thrashing around the surface of the water like a weak, wounded or dying creature. To a shark, that looks a lot like the McDonald’s drive-thru lane.

If however, a shark encounters a creature, considerably larger than most other sea creatures, swimming around under the water looking all macho in his or her scuba gear, he may be curious but is unlikely to attack, because down there, size matters! So, if it is so safe down there why even bring up the subject of sharks when discussing the need for a dive buddy?

Well, so far, I have told you the truth, nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth is that undersea divers are sometimes predators themselves, because there are few things tastier than really, really, really fresh Snapper or Grouper. Since few have the skill to snatch them up with our hands we must resort to the use of an undersea weapon (I preferred the Hawaiian Sling), which causes blood to be spilled. The problem with blood in water is twofold. First, a little bit goes a long way. Secondly, blood is another key indicator sharks look for when considering prospective takeout—think wounded.

If you ever find yourself under the ocean with a dive bag full of bleeding Red Snapper, and you encounter one or more sharks circling you, there are some important things to remember. First, don’t panic and try to out swim the shark. That is why a dive buddy is so important. You don’t have to out swim the shark. You just have to outswim your dive buddy. Just kidding!!!

Instead, you will want to continue moving very deliberately. Remember, thrashing around can signal you are weak or wounded, but remaining completely still can signal that you are already dead, and you do not want to look like easy prey. Next, you will want to get really close to, and back-to-back with, your dive buddy. First, it makes you look bigger—size does matter. Secondly, it is important to be back-to-back in order to provide a 360-degree view of your surroundings, and being face-to-face would just be weird. There are a number of additional steps you should take, but I will not share them at this time, because if you are crazy enough to find yourself in this situation without first receiving the proper training, you are unlikely to remember anything I am sharing here.

The point I am trying to make is that your peripheral vision, is limited to 45-degrees in either direction of dead ahead. So, when you encounter a hungry predator with lightning quickness and razor sharp teeth circling you, it is very helpful to have a 360 view (eyes behind your head). In this situation, your dive buddy literally has your back.

When I think of the quintessential high performing team (HPT), our military Special Forces come to mind. There is probably no better example of the highest level of performance from a small team, often in unimaginably dangerous situations, than that of America’s Elite (Navy Seals, Rangers, Delta Force Green Beret, Marines, and Special Forces ODA…). Not surprisingly, these teams operate on a day-to-day basis under some of the same principles described in my earlier HPT Rules blogs:

  1. Specialized skills are more important than hierarchy (Rules #4 & 5—no boundaries based on position, and honor and leverage each other’s strengths).
  2. The successful completion of the mission/objective is of paramount importance (Rule #1 & 3—work only on things that matter, and ensure strategic fit)
  3. Always have your buddy’s back, and never leave a teammate behind (Rule # 6—we will have each other’s back).

Make no mistake. The rigorous physical, emotional, psychological and intellectual training the members of these elite teams receive contributes to the courage and confidence they carry into every situation, but much of that courage comes from knowing you are not alone. Knowing that there is someone with you, who shares your dedication and devotion to the mission, and will be there for you, no matter how dicey the situation may become.

While I do not subscribe to the old adage, misery loves company, knowing that my teammates will fight with me, and for me, when things go sour instills loyalty to the team, and devotion to the completion of the mission.

Building HPTs Rule #5: We Will Honor and Leverage Each Other’s Strengths

Over the years I have had the opportunity build and lead many teams. Whether it was an existing team I was charged with or building a team from scratch, I observed a very predictable group dynamic.

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman introduced a model for group development known by many as Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing. In this model Tuckman asserts that in the first stage of team building (forming), individual behavior is influenced by a desire to be accepted by the others and avoid controversy or conflict. In this phase team members tend to be self-centered, trying to gain the trust and confidence of teammates and the team leader. While Tuckman claims this is an important stage in team building, he acknowledges that very little work is accomplished during this time.

High-performing teams are able to move through this stage quickly, making them productive much more quickly than others. So, how does this happen? Is it personal chemistry that allows one group to move more quickly through these stages than others? The simple answer is no.

Leaders skilled in building HPTs understand the human dynamics related to Tuckman’s model and are able to accelerate matters by appealing to a need greater than the desire to be accepted. It is the need to have value. Each and every one of us needs to feel purpose in our lives. It is what validates us in our humanity. It is what gives us soul.

While many people on a team can possess the exact same skill, each individual on the team possesses a unique mix of attributes, gifts and talents that allows him/her to offer unique value to the team. The first order of business for an effective leader is to quickly identify the unique value of each team member, and to call it out publicly.

Let’s be clear. I am not suggesting that you announce to the team that the finance person, Tina, is good at finance. Everyone expects Tina to be good at finance. That is what she was trained for. If she’s not good at finance, she shouldn’t be on the team. A good leader will quickly recognize that Tina has the ability to see patterns of opportunity emerge, or that George excels at building consensus. A good leader recognizes Natalie’s gift for diffusing disagreements before they accelerate into all-out warfare, and Tim’s attention to detail.

Once an inventory is taken of each team member’s unique capabilities, the HPT leader must honor each one publicly. Letting both the individual and the team know the value this unique gift brings validates each individual on the team in a meaningful way. By quickly calling it out, you can accelerate the forming stage, allowing team members to shift the center of focus from themselves to the establishment and attainment of goals and objectives.

In summary, rule #5 for building high-performing teams is that we will honor the unique strengths of each individual on the team, and rely on those strengths to help us achieve our goals.  Stay tuned for rule #6 in an upcoming post.

Building HPTs Rule #4: No Boundaries Based on Position

A woman dies. As she encounters Saint Peter at the pearly gates she says,

“St. Peter, it is good to see you, but how did I get here?”

“Welcome Dr. Fluesham, your position as the Head of Emergency at Flipsum Memorial Hospital is what got you here.”

“Please, call me Lucy, but I thought I would have to at least make Chief Medical Officer at the hospital in order to be guaranteed a spot in heaven.”

Saint Peter gave a warm chuckle, and said,

“Perhaps I should explain further. As the result of a horrible car crash, you sustained traumatic brain injury, and were rendered unconscious. The EMTs transported you to Flipsum Memorial. Dr. Headstrom was on call, and determined you needed a decompressive craniectomy in order to get your ICP below target levels, and save your life.”

After receiving this information, Lucy became agitated, surprised and indignant, exclaiming,

“This makes no sense! Flipsum Memorial is best in class when it comes to brain trauma. I should know. I am—or should I say was—head of ER. Did the EMTs screw up transporting me? Did Dr. Headstrom botch the craniectomy?”

“No, my dear. The EMTs immediately recognized the potential for brain edema due to raised intracranial pressure. They knew that Flipsum Memorial specialized in brain injury and the Dr. Headstrom, the best of the best, was on call. They called ahead to make sure Dr. Headstrom knew you were on the way. The ER was prepped and ready, and you were transported in plenty of time to be saved. Dr. Headstrom performed brilliantly, quickly determining that IV fluids and oxygen infusion would not suffice to reduce the brain swelling. Anticipating the possible need for a decompressive craniectomy, he arranged to have an Operating Room prepped before your arrival.”

“It was at this point that your position brought you to heaven. Because decompressive craniectomies are a last resort, and very expensive, you issued a directive last week indicating that none shall be performed without your approval. If only you weren’t unconscious.”

As far-fetched as this little parable may seem, leaders frequently allow boundaries based on position to govern the performance of their team.

Rule #4 for building a high-performing team is that there are NO boundaries based on position. If your subordinate believes you are about to make a bad decision, or believes a better course of action is in order, you want them to speak freely. If there is not time to discuss it with you, and she is the expert, she should make the call.

The perception that hierarchy and position are in place to ensure proper decision-making is a throwback to the industrial age. Hierarchy and position are in place to provide direction and adequate resources. One of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, the United States military figured this out a while ago. Generals describe strategic objectives, and highly trained soldiers on the field determine the best course of action to accomplish the mission. Few would argue that there is a better example of high-performing teams than the U.S. military.

In today’s highly competitive, fast-paced and complex world, the person doing the job must be more expert at the job than anyone, including his boss. Even if his boss had the job first things change fast enough that his domain expertise quickly becomes dated. With HPTs, knowledge, training and perspective are what matter most—not position.

Building HPTs Rule #3: Strategic Fit is a Must

The late George Harrison frequently paraphrased the Cheshire Cat in chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland by saying, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” He often used this phrase when describing his good fortune in knowing as a small child that he wanted to play guitar. The most casual music lovers know of George Harrison as one of the Beatles. More serious aficionados of 70s music also know him from his solo career, from his earliest works (Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound) to his more notable contributions (All Things Must Pass, The Concert for Bangladesh, Living in the Material World).

What few people recognize is that Harrison was one of the greatest guitarists of his time. His studio collaborations were numerous, including co-writes and guest appearances on recorded songs with well-known singer-songwriters such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Dave Mason, Billy Preston, Dave Lynne and Tom Petty, to name a few. In referring to Harrison, Tom Petty said, “He just had a way of getting right to the business, of finding the right thing to play.” Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner described him as someone who “played exquisitely in the service of the song”. Said differently, Harrison understood strategic fit within the purpose of the song.

This brings us to rule #3 for building a high-performance team (HTP): When considering new programs we will challenge each other to ensure a proper fit within our strategic map. I will offer a simple 3-step approach for implementing rule #3.

Step 1 – Develop an easy to remember optic to describe the strategic map for the team—the simpler you can make this, the better.  When building Drexel University’s Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship we defined our primary focus as having two desired outcomes regarding entrepreneurship; creating interest and passion, and promoStrategic Map Opticting thought leadership and best practices. Once that was determined we created a simple chart with interest & passion on the Y-axis and thought leadership & best practices on the X-axis. Once complete, we looked at every prospective program relative to if/where it fit on the map. This accomplishes two things. First, it ensures that we expend effort only on programs that fit within the map. Secondly, if a fit exists, it also informs where on the map it fits, allowing us to build complementary programs.

Step 2 – When making day-to-day decisions regarding programming and strategies, it is important to consider those decisions in the context of the strategic map. More importantly, that consideration should be made aloud.   This helps to reinforce the team’s sense of purpose, vision and mission daily, and also provides an ongoing compass.

Step 3 – Encourage each member of the team to challenge one another regarding strategic fit. Each member of the team falls in a different spot along the spectrum between discovery and delivery skills. For example, I am stronger in discovery skills. As such, my tendency is to continually conceive new ideas for programs to offer our constituents. I am also good at convincing myself that  my idea is stellar, which they are not, making it important that I shared my brilliant idea with my partner expending delivery effort. My partner would earnestly listen to my idea,then often question the strategic fit in a professional manner. This process always resulted in one of two outcomes—both good. In some instances it gave me an opportunity to explain the strategic fit, providing my partner a better perspective of our vision. In the early days this occurred with about 2% of the ideas. The majority of instances (98% of the time) it helped me to quickly see that my brilliant idea was not strategic.  Another interesting outcome was that over time, my partners understanding of our vision was so complete that if she challenged the strategy, 99.8% of the time it was not a good fit.

Building HPTs Rule #2: Ask Only What You Need

Over the years, we have witnessed many excellent management concepts lose potency and currency once acceptance moves from the early adopters to the majority. This happens for two reasons:

  1. Once a concept starts to trend, many want to jump on the bandwagon.
  2. Although many want to join the fun, few want to do the hard work necessary to truly understand the concept and put it into practice. In an era of sound bites, instant gratification and quick fixes this problem becomes exacerbated.

In the 1970s we were introduced to the powerful leadership idea of MBWA (Management By Walking Around). As it gained wide acceptance, managers used the concept as an excuse to make “gossip-rounds” or to “check-up” on their folks to make to ensure they were busy working at their desks. In the 1980s the important management focus on quality often produced nothing more than increased layers of bureaucracy. Ironically, after Phillip Crosby’s book Quality is Free became a best seller, companies spent billions on consultants and programs to improve quality. In the 1990s folks used the concept of Empowerment as an excuse to act irresponsibly. More recently, we hear the term High-Performance Team (HPT) awarded as liberally as little league soccer trophies.

Just saying you have of a HPT does not make it so. One good indicator is how those outside the team view you. If outsiders see your team driven by a sense of purpose, enjoying your work, accomplishing a great deal with limited resources, and making it look easy in the process there is a good chance that you are part of a HPT.

It is important to understand that the nature of your team’s relationship with outsiders helps to predict their response to you. If they see themselves as your customer the most likely response is trust and admiration. If they see you as a competitor the most likely response is distrust and disdain. If they see you as a customer or partner their response becomes more dependent on how you treat them than how you perform as a team. If they feel your success benefits rather than threaten them they will likely view you as an ally.

Here are some tips for increasing your chances of being viewed as an ally.

  1. If you sincerely recognize that your success is due in part to their involvement, and share the rewards and accolades proportionally with them, you may be viewed as an ally.
  2. If their involvement with you makes them a better team, you may beviewed as an ally.
  3. If you never ask them to do something you would be unwilling to do, you may be viewed as an ally.
  4. If you never waste their time, you may be viewed as an ally.

Recently I had the privilege of leading a HPT. Feedback I received in a discussion with a fellow executive were very revealing. When asked how she viewed our team she said, “My team enjoys working with your team for three reasons. First, you always give us plenty of advance notice when you need a big project completed. Secondly, you never asked us to do anything that you do not use. Finally, the things you asked us to do for you often challenged us to stretch, making us become better at what we do.” Her feedback provided evidence that my team was performing at a high level.

This brings us to Rule # 2 for building HPTs: We will never ask anyone outside of the team to develop work, or provide support, for anything we do not fully intend to use.

Building HPTs Rule #1: No Busy Work

There is a time and a place for busy work. During summer breaks as a child I quickly learned to never utter the words “I’m bored” in the presence of my father. Even during the school year, if I found myself lying on the couch on a Saturday morning watching cartoons, I always kept a keen ear on the driveway. Most Saturday mornings consisted of dad, a general contractor, checking on some of his jobs and typically returning mid-morning. Because his schedule was unpredictable, I never knew exactly when he might show up. What I did know is that if I was on the couch when he arrived he would find something for me to do. Something certain to be more fitting than zoning in front of the TV—at least in his mind. He had a knack for constructing a list of chores on the fly that would keep me occupied for the entire day.

I have come to learn over the years that each chore had a purpose far greater than having a weed-free lawn and garden, a spotless storage room, a well-swept patio or well-polished shoes. In fact, following his time as a U.S. Marine, I don’t think he cared if his shoes ever shined again. Certainly, he was never going to shine them himself! Although we never discussed it, I think his real purpose was to instill a work ethic, based on a few principles. The first was that any job, no matter how menial, should be done well. Secondly, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Finally, he believed being lazy was second only to mass murder on the list of bad behaviors.

My dad used busy work as a way to teach me life lessons. Ironically, when I was around 30, my dad informed me that my problem was that I didn’t know how to relax. Funny guy! Busy work, however, has no place in purpose driven organizations, and is a sure-fire path to mediocre performance.

Rule #1 for high-performance teams is that there is no such thing as busy work. We challenge each other to only work on things that matter, and the only things that matter are those tasks that will help us achieve the goals and objectives to fulfill our purpose, vision and mission. When in doubt, ask if and how it fits. The answer “yes, it fits” is not sufficient.  It must be accompanies with an explanation of how it fits, so your teammates can connect the dots.

If you adopt rule #1 the team will become much more productive, driven and willing to take on any task. You will also find that the team derives far more enjoyment and purpose in their work. In the next post I will discuss an important rule for dealing with those outside the team.

Rules for Building High-Performance Teams

In the recent series, entitled Houston we have a Problem, I focused on six factors critical to success for founders of startups within a larger organization. They included: gaining and maintain latitude/autonomy, honoring sacred cows, putting out a BOLO on the larger organization, building grass roots support, adopting a distinct fiduciary approach, and building a high-performance team.

Since it is critical in any group dynamic (not just startups), I am dedicating a sub-series on seven rules for creating a culture and atmosphere for building high-performance teams. These rules of engagement will provide fertile ground for building an elite team that produces unparalleled results.

For this to be effective it is imperative that every member of the team possesses a deep understanding of the vision, mission and purpose of the organization. Developing such an understanding requires a process that takes time. I will provide suggestions for how to do this in subsequent posts.

Once your team members have internalized the vision, mission and purpose, each member of the team should enter into a contract to honor the rules, and hold each other mutually accountable to them. Based on your personal leadership style and the nature of your team you can decide if you want this contract to be explicit or implicit.

The general theme of the contract is that the team will only expend energy on items that correlate to, and are aligned with the stated vision, goals and objectives. In the next post I will discuss Rule #1: No busy work.

Houston We Have a Problem: Building a High Performance Team

In this series we are focusing on six factors critical to success for founders of startups within a larger organization. So far, we have discussed: gaining and maintain latitude/autonomy, honoring sacred cows, putting out a BOLO on the larger organization, building grass roots support, and adopting a distinct fiduciary approach. In this and future posts I want to comment on what may be the most critical factor for success—building a high-performance team.

High performance teams offer the ability to accomplish a great deal with very few resources. Often resembling an elite Special Forces team, they move with a level of alacrity, speed and agility to execute strategic goals with dispatch. All while making it look effortless.

Unfortunately, high-performance teams are as rare as the northern spotted owl. In a subsequent post I will offer my thoughts as to why they are so rare. The reasons may surprise you.   For now, I want to offer guidelines for putting a team in place.

Developing a high-performing team is imperative if you want to build something quickly that is meaningful and sustainable. The approach used will differ based on whether your team is “inherited” or is built from scratch. While the checklist is similar for both, my focus here will be when starting from scratch.

Simply put, the addition of each new team member must be deliberate in order to ensure a strategic fit. While this concept seems obvious, it is seldom well executed. Because time is of the essence, the temptation is to staff up quickly. Often, the first action a new leader takes is to develop an organization chart, then immediately hire to fill the prescribed positions. The belief is that taking this all-hands-on-deck approach spreads the workload and allows for speed of execution. The leader may recognize that some of the hires will be a bad fit, so will be quick to fire members that don’t work out. This approach has a number of flaws. I will offer just a few.

  1. Eliminating a member of the team steals precious time that would be better spent strategizing and building the new venture.
  2. When new hires are quickly let go, it has a destabilizing effect on the entire team. Other team members aren’t given time to evaluate whether or not the termination was warranted, leaving them uncertain of their own security.
  3. It is largely ineffective to develop an organization chart this early in the build process. Even though we often need to include one as part of a funding request, it is absurd to act on it until the business model has been tested, modified and more fully proven. Keep in mind that proposals and business plans are always wrong. To believe yours is otherwise is either naïve or egotistical. Developing a precise business plan does not make it right.  I merely means it will be more precisely wrong.

Instead, the leader should add each new team member based on immediate need and strategic fit. For example, if the leader scores higher on discovery skills than delivery skills, he might look for someone who excels at program development and execution, and possesses strong project management skills.

If you are building a new venture from within a larger organization, your co-founders must demonstrate excellent 360-degree communication skills; have strong interpersonal skills and an excellent reputation within the larger organization. It is also very helpful if the co-founder has experience in the domain you will occupy.

This process will take time. It is important that the leader exercise the necessary patience to choose wisely, have the courage to handle activities during while searching, and faith that the process will yield positive results.

Once the semblance of a team in place, it is important to create a culture and atmosphere that allows for the highest level of performance. I will expand on this in the next post.

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