Move the Chains

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wpid-ap-first-down-line-football-4_3.jpgThe phrase “Hail Mary” to describe a desperate long pass down the field entered the NFL lexicon after a Dallas Cowboys vs Minnesota Vikings playoff game in 1975 when Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach connected with receiver Drew Pearson in what turned out to be the game-winning play.

Despite the glamour of the Steve Sabol narrated NFL films, few games are won with last second heroics. In fact, most NFL games are won with solid defense and relentless offense. In order to score, you have to “move the chains” (make first downs). Put more simply, games are won when you score more points and gain more yards than the other team, and that’s only done when you make first downs and “move the chains.”  “Move the chains” is football lingo for playing for the next first down, advancing down the field purposefully and continuously until you cross the goal. It’s a way of thinking about the game that’s directly transferable to organizational change because it speaks to continuous disciplined progress rather than just sprinting for the finish and hoping for a miracle.

When a team marches steadily down the field each time they have the ball, they demonstrate discipline and gain confidence. That discipline and confidence is what wins ball games, and it’s the same discipline and confidence needed to make organizational change successful. Like football, moving an organization through change seldom comes from “Hail Mary” plays.  Interim goals and steady progress are the keys to success. Just like moving ten yards to the next first down sets up the offense for the next ten yards, so do interim goals plot the way toward the ultimate goal. Furthermore, in NFL the head coach has to have a game plan and then train the players to execute it consistently. So it is with organizational change: the leader has to have a plan and a disciplined team with the ability to execute it.  No plan or an undisciplined team is a recipe for disaster.  Furthermore, a leader who can’t communicate the vision and the plan to get there is headed for a fall no matter how good is his team.

Organizational change, especially revolutionary change, is hard on the people in the organization if all leaders are doing is flinging the ball down the field and hoping for a miracle. Even Peter Drucker thought so. People will very quickly surmise the leader doesn’t have a way ahead, which will in turn manifest itself in workplace discord, a drop in productivity, and eventually a hemorrhage of talent. For the visionary leader, it’s very tempting to want to move an organization quickly: “revolutionary change” versus “evolutionary change,”  but organizations and people are rarely that nimble without a lot of practice. In the NFL coaches will sometimes rely on trick plays, all out defensive blitzes, and long passes when they’re out of ideas. Those coaches don’t usually last very long. People can become disillusioned with their leaders quickly when faced with too many “Hail Mary’s” and not enough “first downs.” This is not to say teams can’t “do” revolutionary change…but like the ’75 Cowboys people can’t make the big plays unless they can make the small ones.

On the other hand, if leaders are focused on the next first down while continuing to point the way down the field…that is the interim goals pointed at the final goal…then the team will continue to work together to get into the end zone. Revolutionary change is possible so long as leaders prepare their teams with solid leadership and clear cut interim goals, and most importantly, a clear destination everyone can buy into. Achieving interim goals on the way to the end zone gives the team confidence. Repeated and consistent “first downs” reinforce discipline in the team, discipline the team will need to score again and again.

The confidence gained by high performance then directly contributes to a team agile enough to make those “Hail Mary’s” when they have to take the long shot. They will develop confidence in themselves and their leaders.

They will become a championship team.

Rule #9: Walk The Horses

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Mickeys Rules, Practical Leadership

Rule #9: Walk The Horses


There’s a great scene in the 1949 John Ford film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that contains a lesson in leadership.  You guessed it: they were walking their horses.

What does “walking horses” have to do with leadership?  Just this: leaders can and must try to get the best out of their people, but no one can go at a gallop all the time.  The savvy leader needs to know when to gallop, when to trot, and when to get off and walk.

Back when I first joined the Air Force, leaders extolled the virtue of working the long hours.  The guy who was at work the longest was considered the “workhorse” and admired for his dedication.  We all bragged about how little sleep we got and how poorly we ate.  That sort of pace can’t last forever, however.  Lack of sleep, long hours, and bad food are a recipe for burnout rather than achievement.  Thankfully, the culture has changed a bit and today’s leaders understand the benefits of managing the workload.

That’s where Captain Nathan Brittles, United States Cavalry, comes in.  It was standard procedure on long patrols for the cavalry to get off and walk the horses a bit.  It allowed the troopers to stretch their legs a bit, and gave the horses a break by taking 200 pounds off their backs.  Having enough energy left in the tank (so to speak) meant that when the troop needed to hop on and gallop, horses and riders were ready. If the horses run too far or too long, they will be too exhausted when it comes time to sprint to the rescue of the wagon train.

The experienced leader works with his/her team to develop a “battle rhythm”, a normal pace of business.  Every business process/operation has a natural ebb and flow, with periods of “surge” where there’s maximum effort (“gallop”) and periods with much less demand on their personal/organizational resources.  One officer I worked with went so far as to map out a 90 day period and code days as “red” (high tempo), “green” (medium/normal tempo), and “blue” (slow tempo) so he could plan ahead for things like employees’ vacation planning and training schedules.  As an executive, I’ve made it a practice to look for opportunities to encourage employees when to plan their leave/vacation, and when I had to plan for everyone to be working long hours.

Part of good strategic planning is developing and tracking the pace of operations.  Make time in that plan to walk the horses.

I Really Don’t Like Meetings

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I know, I know, sometimes meetings are necessary, but in my experience very little actual work gets done in most meetings. Yes, of course, senior leaders still need to be informed, so the “status/update brief” is a necessary component of running most large organizations. Yes, sometimes we need to have a meeting to set the stage for something else (like a project kickoff meeting). I don’t mean those.

So having granted the required caveats, I’ll say it again… I really don’t like meetings. I don’t like them because very often they’re not run effectively. Writing in Forbes Magazine (h/t coach / consultant Christine Comaford shares my meeting-aversion:

Too often, participants waste time with what could’ve been relayed via e-mail, social networks, or water-cooler conversation. Debating and sharing can be fruitful activities, but a meeting is the wrong setting. “The goal isn’t to solve detailed problems in the meeting,” notes Comaford. “It’s to assign responsibilities based on requests and promises made.”

Read the rest.

For a meeting to be truly effective, I’d recommend the following prescription:

1. Be prepared.

Read ahead slides / agenda sent to all principal attendees in enough time so that everyone has the opportunity to read and make their own notes.

2. The staff work is done before the attendees walk into the room.

Discussions and if necessary, arguments, happen well in advance. The meeting table is no place for groping for a way ahead, particularly when there are lots of subordinates in the room. It is a place for unemotionally laying out the pros and cons of an issue and making a fact-based decision. Staff work is for one-on-ones & and written communication.

3. Keep to the agenda.

It’s easy to get off the subject. Don’t. The best meetings are those that get to the point then get out of there. Meetings cost money, don’t let your organization bleed money by consuming unnecessary time.

What Got You Here Won’t Make You Successful Here

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership

When I was going through the executive leadership curriculum at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (now the Eisenhower School), speakers and readings continually repeated the notion that executive leadership was different; that the skills we learned as majors and lieutenant colonels would not make us successful as colonels and generals.

At the time, I gave that idea little credence.  “Leadership is leadership” I thought to myself, how could it be that different?  Then I graduated and went on to an executive position at the Pentagon and found that everything they taught me was true.  Executive leadership was different!  I spent a lot more time gaining consensus around ideas and building relationships than giving orders and making plans.  I had fewer people reporting to me on the staff, but more people from whom I needed support to further my goals. Less details and more concepts.  More strategy and less tactics.

Over at Lifehacker today, they’ve borrowed a Harvard Business Review article that addresses that subject:

An internal battle rages inside many high performers who advance from positions where they thrived as individual contributors to positions that require them to depend on others. On the one hand, they pride themselves on knowing more than anyone else about their area and like feeling confident in their abilities to deliver exceptional work. On the other, the scope of their new responsibilities no longer makes keeping up on all the details possible—or even preferable.

Read the rest at Harvard Business Review (via Lifehacker)

5 Secrets of Commanding Time Management

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership, Technique Only

Like all leaders, a military commander must manage their time carefully.  It’s the only resource of which we never get more!  These have worked for me as a commander and leader, perhaps they’ll work for you.

Ikea "Pug" walk clock

1. Organize your day, don’t let your day organize you.

Whatever scheduling tool you use, remember that it’s your calendar and your time (no matter who actually schedules your time or keeps your calendar).  Always ask why something is on your calendar.

2.  Leave your desk.

You can’t get things done staring at a computer screen.  Email and reading may feel like you’re accomplishing something, but most real accomplishments come from talking to people.  Schedule time for that explicitly in your day.

3.  Manage your email.

Email is a great tool, but left unchecked can consume the day.  Ask subordinates to cc you on email sparingly.  Use filters and and rules to sort mail into bins, then read email in the proper priority.  Lastly, don’t be afraid to delete email without reading it if it’s not important (not every email deserves attention!)

4.  Keep meetings short and to the point.

Meetings cost time and money, keep them short.  Meetings are not opportunities to do instruction, they’re for decisions, doing program status checks/updates, and consensus building.  When possible, send out the briefing slides the day before, then be prepared to get right to the point of the meeting immediately.  Never schedule a routine meeting for more than 90 minutes, you’ll lose people’s attention after that.

5.  Don’t fear the technology.

Smartphones and other personal tech can be time savers if used appropriately.  Use them to maintain data you use often (e.g. contacts, calendar, talking points).  Teach the staff how to push info to you, and what info you need regularly, so they can be proactive rather than constantly reacting.

These are some of my techniques, what are yours?

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