Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Recommendation: "Playing to Win"

One of the best pieces of advice I got when transitioning out of the military was “Change your reading.” What my well-intentioned friends recommended was I start reading civilian business publications. “Dude, it might be English they are speaking, but it’s a different language.” The Operating Environment—or “OE”—was different “out there”. They contended that by reading business publications and books by renowned business leaders, I would pick up the new language and begin to understand my new “OE”.

The progress was slow, but sure enough, I started to pick up the new language. More than just picking up a few catchphrases and buzzwords though, this new reading habit exposed me to new perspectives on how to lead organizations. I now employ hybrid approaches to leadership and management that I feel takes the best of my military, government, and commercial experiences. Just as well, acquainting myself with current business literature helped me draw parallels between government and military operating practices and strategic planning models and those being described in the materials I was reading about the “civilian world”. Going into job interviews where I had to explain the value of my experience as a military leader and planner, this new knowledge was invaluable.

It was recently recommended that I read “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works” ( I purchased it and have been devouring its wisdom ever since. A.G. Laffley, the CEO of corporate giant Procter and Gamble, and management thought leader Roger Martin have come up with an easily digestible and entertaining work that provides readers real-world examples of how to develop and apply winning strategies in a “P&L” or profit and loss environment. I sincerely wish I’d read this book before I left the military because what I heard from so many interviewers were questions that asked just that: “How do you think that approach would work in a P&L environment.” I might have had better answers had I read this book.

The five questions they introduce are an easy way to understand how a corporate leader should think from a strategic perspective. After the authors’ efforts to scale their approach by describing its application by a leader at corporate headquarters to a woman selling clothing in a local store, I understood the model’s value! I instantly started to draw parallels to the planning processes I used as a tactical, operational, and strategic planner in the military. Because of those epiphanies, I recommend my fellow veterans considering or actually leaving the military read this book. I also propose that those leaving the government space take a look at it as well.

If you have any books, articles, or videos that you recommend for transitioning veterans, please post them here.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

He'll Get Something

I love my co-workers. We have a lively exchange of ideas daily that stirs real intellectual growth. There are nuggets of wisdom that I pull out every day and “put in my kit bag” for later use. I just received one the other day:

He’ll get something.”

The statement above was in reference to leaders who provide direction from a position of ignorance, or worse, arrogance. These leaders ignore a few important criteria. While in the military, we’d evaluate courses of action—or “COAs”—by asking whether they were feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete. These characteristics help planners weed out COAs before too many resources were expended figuring out that their efforts were largely futile.
It’s so very tempting for idealistic leaders to create pie-in-the-sky objectives or provide useless guidance that encompasses their desire to change the world. And while there are exceptions to the rule, most leaders who fail to ask some simple questions like those tacitly presented by the criteria listed above might find themselves providing truly laughable direction. If you are a leader about to give guidance, ask yourself a few simple questions:

“Before I tell people to do this, is this even feasible?”

“Is what I’m about to propose an acceptable solution to the problem?”

“I know what I want to do, is it really suitable considering the type of organization I lead?”

“Can I distinguish this from what we tried last fiscal year?”

“Does this guidance I’m about to put out provide all the necessary details? Is it complete enough for my employees to act upon?”

Asking yourself these simple questions prior to disseminating guidance will first, help others digest it and second, preclude you from providing guidance that your employees will question from the get-go. By answering these questions, you’ll help your employees help you.

This all leads me back to the nugget of wisdom I initially presented. The situation you don’t want is for your employees throwing up their hands and saying, “Well okay; the boss said she wanted that. She’ll get something, alright (but it won’t be that)!”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Don't Be a Naked Emperor

I was lucky to be exposed at an early age to literary works with enduring lessons that I still apply today. One that has had value throughout my life is the classic “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The version of the story I remember is one depicted in a children’s illustrated paperback. The emperor was an arrogant lion that pranced around the empire naked after having been convinced that he was indeed clothed in the empire’s finest. The image of that naked lion has flashed before my eyes many times throughout my professional life, mostly while listening to leaders new to their positions.

The hardest cases to witness are those leaders that are truly well-intentioned and actually care. They are passionate about the purpose and course of the organizations they lead. When they finally take the reins, they waste no time slaying perceived organizational dragons, installing new systems, and creating new initiatives. Too often though, that leader may not have performed the necessary analysis before drawing their sword and slashing away.

He has more than likely known about the future leadership role for awhile and sure—he has planned his initial moves carefully. He has also gathered information prior to moving into his role from those that he is comfortable with and trusts. Together these confidantes have stewed on the company’s problems and plotted how they might change the world or at least their tiny corner of it.

It’s there that the emperor loses his fine clothes.

If you find yourself in a position where you will soon take a leadership role in your organization, I encourage you to first turn a critical eye on yourself. Ask yourself “Am I truly equipped for what lies ahead? What capability gaps do I have? What don’t I know?” Trust me: you don’t know everything going on in your new “empire”. Then, examine your sources of intelligence. Ask “I know we’ve been friends since I started in the company, but how reliable is Derek and Susan’s input? Who else should I be talking to?” A quick dose of introspection may bring to light that you’re not as prepared as you might think. Don’t be afraid to seek out advisors who boldly note you and your organization’s shortcomings.

Because the worst time to find out you’re a naked emperor is after you’ve taken the throne.