Monday Motivation: Plan Ahead

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Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 29 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.

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Dynamic Dozen: People Need a Purpose, Not Just a Paycheck

Posted Posted in GeneralLeadership.com, Practical Leadership

S.L.A._Marshall“A man has integrity if his interest in the good of the service is at all times greater than his personal pride, and when he holds himself to the same line of duty when unobserved as he would follow if his superiors were present”
– General S.L.A. Marshall

It was very dark and cold on the flightline at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base where teams of Airmen and a Kuwaiti contractor were working furiously in the desert night to repair a critical fuel line prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The fuel line had been damaged in the 1991 war, and we were racing the calendar to get fuel to the airplanes who would launch the opening of the liberation of Iraq. No one knew the exact date we’d “go north,” but we all knew it was soon. Getting the air base ready for combat was our purpose.

As I made the rounds checking on my engineers and talking with the contractors, I made sure to thank them for the very important work they were doing. The Airmen were in cold and miserable conditions, but all of them were upbeat and positive. “Sir, we know this project is important and we’re proud to be here!” one of them said in the darkness. He knew what was coming and was excited because he was doing his mission. Our Kuwaiti site superintendent gave me the most moving response, however. When I shook his hand and thanked him for his work, in heavily accented English he said simply, “Sir, it is our duty.”

The Myth vs Reality of Military Leadership

Watch almost any military story told on film and you’ll eventually meet the “Colonel Jessup” character–you know, the guy who feels the insignia on his sleeve or collar entitles him to give orders that are followed without question. It’s a popular myth, but it is a myth. While there are certainly occasions for swift and decisive action, good leaders know people aren’t robots and need to know the “why,” especially if there’s danger involved. Further, and more to the point, when leaders give their people a purpose larger than themselves instead of just a paycheck, their relationship transcends the transactional and enters the realm of high performance.

We actually do an exceptional job in the military of giving people a higher purpose to attach to themselves and their work. It’s part of the military leadership model to ensure the team understands and to the maximum extent possible buys into the mission. In war, especially modern war, we expect even the most junior leaders to understand their commander’s purpose and even anticipate that commander’s decisions. The military orders process includes rehearsals and detailed explanations of the plan. We explain how individual tasks fit into the overall plan. Furthermore, military leaders know our work is dangerous and so spend a great deal of energy motivating their teams to understand the risks and why those risks might be necessary.

It’s the same in the day-to-day training environment. Leaders spend energy personally helping the entire team, from the newest “one-striper” the the seasoned veterans understand and appreciate their contribution to the overall mission. It’s common for people to be able to connect even the most mundane tasks to the mission of the larger unit–it’s often the unit motto. “We fuel the warfighter!”, “No comm, no bomb!”–you get the idea. Regardless of whether someone is carrying a rifle, flying a plane, cooking a meal, or repairing an air conditioner, he knows how his particular job contributes to the larger mission.

Private Sector Companies Get It Too

The most successful private sector companies are very good at giving their employees a purpose instead of just a paycheck. There are loads of great examples, but Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) and Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) are among my favorite examples. REI sells outdoor apparel and equipment, and SpaceX is in the space launch business. Despite being in vastly different industries, they have many things in common. Both companies are innovators, with REI crushing their competitors with record sales and profits, and SpaceX setting a new standard for space launch. They also have something else in common: they are impressively successful at giving their team members as since of higher purpose–a mission. For REI, their mission is to get people outside to enjoy the great outdoors; SpaceX is going to Mars.

To these teams, their purpose is a greater motivation than the bottom line. To be sure, profit and loss statements are the lifeblood of any business—but the heart and soul of that business is the purpose. Leaders who can inspire by connecting individual effort to the overall mission of the organization are the ones who can get high performance from their teams. When that purpose itself is inspirational, so much the better. Case in point is the video below—SpaceX employees cheering the launch and landing of their Falcon 9 rocket like it was the Super Bowl. That sort of excitement doesn’t come from a good compensation package. It comes from visionary leadership energizing the team with the knowledge they’re part of something important. It’s no surprise then, that REI is in an elite category for outdoor equipment and SpaceX is about to launch the same rocket for the second time dramatically lowering the cost of space travel.

Inspire Them, Lead Them

Not everyone is going to Mars or helping people enjoy the great outdoors, but every business leader can help their teams understand their contribution to society and community. Retailers supply the needs and wants of the community, service industry businesses are the fuel for other businesses, city service providers keep the community clean and healthy. All but the most esoteric of luxury businesses contribute directly to the well-being and success of the community. The lesson is this: If you want to lead your organizations to high performance, the inspire them first by giving them a purpose, not just a paycheck.

Originally posted on General Leadership.


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Dynamic Dozen – Keep Your Team Informed

Posted Leave a commentPosted in GeneralLeadership.com

Nothing is as strong as the heart of a volunteer.
-Jimmy Doolittle

doolittle0512784There may be situations in military leadership where the leader must keep the team in the dark–but in 27 years service and commanding five units I’ve never found one. On the contrary, the question asked most often by military leaders and those they lead is, “Did you coordinate that?” You see, military operations are a team sport and our patience with people who act without considering the team is thin. We have to trust each other, and trust is built on mutual respect and transparency.

Military Teams Work In A Collective Environment

Keeping the team informed removes the leader as a single point of failure and takes advantage of the collective intelligence of the team. Leaders can’t be the only one who has the whole picture–the goals of any military operation have to be shared as widely as possible. If everyone understands where the commander is taking them, they’re much more likely to make better decisions on their own. That’s why senior military leaders spend a great deal of time before any major operation establishing clear lines of authority and command. They also put significant brainpower into writing a “Commander’s Intent” statement describing the goals and decision parameters for subordinate commands. By understanding command relationships and the commander’s intent, then “teams of teams” can function across space and time as a single unit, making thousands of independent decisions all focused on a single goal.

In combat, military teams don’t have the luxury of perfect communication or knowledge of each others’ movements. Furthermore, the enemy and Mother Nature each get a “vote” on how well the operation will go. If people rely solely on the leader to make all the decisions then chaos close at hand. The best military leaders set the conditions for success and make sure to pass along as much information as possible. The point is to help others make good decisions, not have “the” leader make them all.

“Team” Isn’t Just a Military Term

The military isn’t the only “team sport” however; so is business. Keeping your employees informed of decisions big and small, and making sure they all understand the goals, boundaries, and limitations of a particular task or enterprise. Doing so enables them to make the same decisions you’d make if you were there. Nordstrom is famous for their customer service focus, and employees are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their leaders to live up to that reputation. Keeping the team informed works in small companies, too. If everyone has the “big picture” then anyone on the team can make the right decision all the time.

Keeping the team informed effectively makes the leader “present” at every decision. Likewise, the same is true for suppliers and customers. An effective relationship with both should feel like a partnership rather than a transaction. That’s a major reason successful companies elicit and take seriously customer feedback, and it’s the reason inviting suppliers into the “circle of trust” makes for successful partnerships. One of my favorite TV shows is HGTV’s Fixer Upper, in part because I’m inspired by hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines’ entrepreneurial spirit. As the interior designer, Joanna maintains a close working relationship with her suppliers–who seem to feel more like family than business associates. The result of working hard at maintaining those relationships is a collaboration where each team member adds value. Sometimes those teammates surprise Joanna with something she didn’t even know she wanted until she saw it!

Building trust and helping the team members make sound decisions are two good reasons for keeping everyone informed. Successful leaders know how to communicate internally as well as to their customers, and when they do they get a big voice indeed!

Originally posted on GeneralLeadership.com


cropped-20141026_102425.jpgMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of six books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.

Three Critical Questions for Strategic Planning

Posted Leave a commentPosted in GeneralLeadership.com, Practical Leadership

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress;
working together is success.
Henry Ford

As a freshman engineering student, I remember vividly the day my professor announced we needed to know the answer before we performed the calculations.What in blazes does he mean? I thought to myself. Then he explained: if we don’t have an idea of what the answer should be when we start calculating, we’ll have no idea if we’ve gotten a reasonable answer at all. You know the adage: garbage in, garbage out. It’s a skill engineers have passed on to one another for centuries–does the answer I calculated make sense? It’s the same with strategic planning. If we don’t begin with the end in mind, and work the process mindful of the constraints we live with, we’re likely to get a glossy publication with high sounding words–but not an executable strategy.

There are plenty of strategic planning models out there, but before we even begin planning, we need to ask ourselves three critical questions. They will frame the strategic planning process, no matter what planning method we choose, and will help us understand the output of that process. The Three Critical Questions are:

  1. What is Our Mission?
  2. Who is on Our Team?
  3. What does Success Look Like?

Question 1: What is Our Mission?

Every organization has a mission. We provide a service or produce a product–but in neither business nor the public sector do organizations exist for no purpose. A solid understanding of the organization’s mission will underpin everything with a firm footing, but a misdiagnosed or mistaken understanding will send the team careening in the wrong direction. Mission statements aren’t static; they require maintenance and periodic re-evaluation. Furthermore, we need to write mission statements in clear language so there is a minimal chance of misinterpretation. Begin every strategy session with a review of the organization’s mission and ask: Does this still make sense? Is this really what we’re doing? Is this what my boss, our customers, and our stakeholders expect of us? If you can answer all of these questions to your satisfaction, you can move on to the next question.

Question 2: Who is on Our Team?

It’s not hyperbole to say we have teammates everywhere–even in places we don’t expect. When I was a young Air Force officer in the 90’s, Total Quality Management was all the rage. In a TQM training seminar, we competed with other teams to “manufacture” paper airplanes. By not recognizing either our supplier or our customer as potential teammates, we ended up losing the contest to another team that did. It’s a simple example, but building a network of teams as well as solid teamwork within your own organization is crucial to 21st century success. The world is far too inter-connected for any of us to operate as an “organizational island”–even the famously neutral Swiss cooperate with their neighbors and joined the United Nations. Therefore, when asking Who is on my team? look beyond the boundaries of the organization to partners, suppliers, customers, stakeholders, and even competitors. You might be surprised with whom you share a bond or a common goal.

Question 3: What does Success Look Like?

The last of the three critical questions is sometimes the hardest to answer. If we can’t define success, then all the mission statements and partnering agreements are for naught. We must be as precise as we can, and as honest as we can be about what we’re capable of accomplishing. Defining an end state that’s out of reach is just as useless as defining an ambiguous one. Be specific, reach a little, but above all be clear and realistic. One word of caution about vision statements: they are valuable as aspirational documents, but they are not a concise definition of success. To illustrate, compare the following two statements:

Vision Statement:
We want to be a world-class engineering company, providing the highest quality services on the world’s most pressing infrastructure problems. We want to be responsible stewards of our resources and foster a culture of respect both within our team, and with those whom we collaborate.

Success Definition Statement:
We define success as a 15% overall growth in a healthy company. Specifically: billable hours increased by 20% over last year, costs reduced by 10% over last year, and employee satisfaction ratings up compared to the 2014 employee survey.

See what I mean? Both statements are necessary for their purpose–one to help team members aspire to be better, and the other to give concrete goals to achieve–but they are not interchangeable.

Strategic planning is absolutely indispensable to any high performing team. To create a good strategic plan we have to start with the end in mind, and answer those three critical questions.

Originally posted on GeneralLeadership.com.

General Leadership: So Say We All

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leadership by Experience

Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama, Photo Courtesy of NBC UniversalIn my latest over a GeneralLeadership.com, I talk about leading change while channeling my inner Commander Adama from SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica.

“It won’t be an easy journey. It’ll be long, and arduous. But I promise you one thing: on the memory of those lying here before you, we shall find it, and Earth shall become our new home. So say we all!”
Commander Bill Adama, Battlestar Galactica

Studying fictional leaders is sometimes as profitable as studying actual ones. For example, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) in the SyFy TV series Battlestar Galactica is a great character study in leadership during crisis. I’m a big BSG fan, and consider it one of the best sci-fi TV series ever made. The quote above is from the end of the pilot, after the Cylons have destroyed the entire human race except for 50,000 survivors. The last Colonial warship, the Battlestar Galactica now leads a ragtag fleet of survivors, and the fleet’s leaders must find a way to keep humanity’s last remnants alive and moving toward a goal. That goal is the “Thirteenth Tribe of Man” located on the legendary planet of “Earth.” As a sci-fi nerd and a movie fan, I often see parallels between the storylines of my favorite movies and real life. So it was that as our Air Force embarked on a very significant re-organization I find myself reflecting on Commander Adama as I lead a group of people to a (figurative) new “land” and leave behind much of “the old ways” to learn new ones. Not to be melodramatic, surely no Cylons are chasing us through space, but we are now leading our Airmen through some very significant change.

Read the rest here.

GL.com: Finding the Sweet Spot and Leading Teams to Acheivement

Posted Leave a commentPosted in GeneralLeadership.com
The Sweet Spot
Which Way Are You Going?

I’m very proud to announce my first contribution to General Leadership, “Leadership Advice from America’s Most Trusted Leaders”!

In military parlance, a Common Operating Picture (or “COP”) is a single presentation of the battlespace to a wide and distributed audience.  The purpose is to provide common understanding and situational awareness for all involved. I’ve adapted this idea to graphically display the “battlespace” a leader has to understand so the team can achieve success. Leaders must harmonize the needs of their organization, their task, and individual team members to prevail. It’s a complex and people-focused job. If a leader can find the sweet spot in the “Leadership COP”, then they’re truly leading teams to high performance.

Read the rest here.

The Power of Silence

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership

Our world is very noisy and very busy. In fact the world is so loud, it’s hard for leaders to find the space for reflection and thinking. The way we fill up our world with noise and activity, you’d think we’re actually afraid of silence.
image Consider this: most of us wake to an alarm and turn on the television to get the news of the day while we dress and eat. We then get into a car and listen to the radio for “traffic, weather, and updates on the 8’s,” followed by entry into a noisy work space filled with telephones, meetings, and perhaps even more media. If you work in an office, there’s email, video, and smartphones. At the end of the day, we’re back in the noisy car to a home where, in most American homes at least, the television is on until bedtime. There’s very little time or space in the entire day that’s quiet enough for a person to be alone with their own thoughts. Time spent in silence or at least low noise levels, therefore, has to be consciously scheduled and quiet space has to be carefully planned.

We need “quiet time” away from the noise just like we need sleep and food. In the September 25, 2013 edition of Psychology Today, healthy lifestyle author Meg Selig describes the physiological response to excessive noise as triggering a stress response:

Why is excessive noise to hazardous to your physical health? The reason is that noise causes a stress response. You hear a loud sound, and a stress cascade begins—adrenalin is released, blood vessels constrict, muscles tense, and blood pressure rises. We are not fully in control of this stress response: “Even though noise may have no relationship to danger, the body will respond automatically to noise as a warning signal.” 

In light of this kind of physiological, and even psychological, response what is the imperative for leaders? Put simply, control the noise in your life and make time to think. Excess noise leads to higher stress levels, which in turn leads to a distracted leader who won’t make good decisions, and is much more likely to lose composure. Maintaining composure, or recovering it quickly when human weakness leads to an occasional mistake, it’s a crucial leadership skill.

Time spent away from the noisy world allows leaders the opportunity to do the one thing they’re actually paid to do: think. That quiet thinking time is not merely “me” time, but time spent in active self-evaluation and organizational evaluation. We don’t always live up to our own standards, and if we don’t spend time in critically evaluating ourselves against our own standards (and our boss’ standards), we may never know whether we’re making the grade. It’s easy to allow events to consume our time and mental energy; it takes leaders to devote that energy to planning and evaluating the organization and oneself.

The idea that leaders need quiet time for reflection is not just my idea. As a student at the Eisenhower School at NDU it was my privilege to hear many highly successful people speak. The two dozen or so senior government officials & military officers, as well as executives from industry all had a similar habits: most were early risers and most used that early morning time for (among other things) reflection. In the quiet of the early morning, they set goals, evaluated themselves and their organization against those goals, read, and planned their day.

No matter how or when you do it, finding time away from the noise is crucial for leaders’ health, and their effectiveness.