Lesson 1: “No excuse, sir!” You are responsible for everything that happens to you even if it’s not your fault. My Army career started as a plebe (freshman) at the United States Military Academy. At the bottom of the chain of command, regulations dictate every aspect of plebe life. In fact, regulations limit a plebe’s response to questions from upper classmen to “the four responses”: “yes sir,” “no sir,” “sir, I do not understand” and “no excuse, sir.” For example, late returning from morning classes and in a rush I slipped on the stairs scuffing the shine on my shoes. An upper classman noticed and harshly asked why I hadn’t polished my shoes before class. Naturally, I wanted to explain that I did polish my shoes that morning and didn’t plan to slip on the stairs so it’s clearly not my fault. I wanted to defend myself, but was limited to one of four responses. The first three didn’t fit, so “no excuse, sir” was the only response left. At first, it was frustrating, but being required to respond “no excuse, sir” taught me many practical and powerful lessons. In this case, planning and time management. If I had planned my time effectively, I would not have been rushed, not slipped on the stairs, not scuffed my shoes. More broadly and more importantly, not being able to give excuses inculcated individual ownership of my actions and attitude.
Application: Next time something in life or business crashes, you miss a number, or fail to close the sale – don’t create excuses. Instead, own it, spend just enough time looking back to learn and improve and move forward at pace. As Charles Swindoll wisely points out, “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
Lesson 2: Commander’s Intent. In the military, commander’s intent is a “clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state …and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation fails to unfold as planned.” More simply put, leaders must unambiguously communicate why and what they intend the team to accomplish so the team can exercise initiative to achieve success even if the plan goes to hell in a handbasket. Ordinarily, commander’s intent includes purpose of the mission, key tasks, and desired end state. Conceptually it’s simple, but tough in execution, since leaders must push decision making about how to accomplish the task down to the team members. Yet, if you have a capable team, empower them with your intent and stay out of the way – they’ll almost always over-deliver.
Application: If, as a leader, you ever find yourself looking at a KPI scorecard peppered with red and yellow and you’re pushing water uphill to engage the team, ask if you’ve been clear enough on the definition of success. If not, create and communicate your commander’s intent.
Lesson 3: Rehearse everything. A plan’s deficiencies are invisible until the full team practices executing the plan. The Army has an excellent system for this called a Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) drill. Normally, this event happens after the planners complete writing the order but before the operation begins. As a rule, all key players in the unit walk and talk through every phase of the operation on a large-scale terrain model. Furthermore, since no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the commander introduces complexity, such as the enemy destroying a piece of equipment vital to mission success. As a result, the unit must carefully consider and practice their response. Understandably, this requires time to prepare and perform properly, but experience tells us a solid rehearsal drives mission success.
Application: The next time you have a customer presentation, instead of the team finishing the call plan and the deck on the plane ride to XNA, handing you a jump drive while walking into the home office, have the team arrive a day (or two) early. Practice the flow of the meeting, introduce friction in the form of buyer objections or technology failure and rehearse who will, and how to, handle. Carve out the time for a rehearsal and it’ll definitely be a stronger call with much higher odds of success.
*Director, Category Management, Walmart & Sam’s Club – Anheuser-Busch
*Title and company of the author reflect their position at the time article was written.
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