… or, what to do when a plan doesn’t come together.
I can honestly say I’ve learned more from my mistakes than my successes. I doubt I’m alone in that. What’s that old saying? “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Obviously, none of my mistakes were fatal and none ended my career… yet.
Some of my biggest mistakes I considered colossal failures at the time, only to learn later that there are actually some things I can’t control. Like the time I lost $1.1B in multi-year resourcing. Or the time I started an international incident in the skies over Younameastan. Or the time I invested in a gold mine (seriously!).
I was fortunate to work for a number of leaders that knew mistakes are rarely intentional, and almost all can be important learning opportunities. I always tried to pass that on to the men and women who worked for me afterwards. Yes, mistakes can be frustrating and costly, but in a corporate setting, they’re rarely life threatening.
One of my favorite mistakes happened during my last fun assignment in the Air Force when I was leading a rapidly deployable group trained to respond to a wide variety of contingency operations. We were deployed to a bare base for a self-imposed training exercise to test our readiness to operate in chemical protective gear – an old-time Cold War, NATO-type exercise. By bare base, I mean a runway and a patch of dirt with zero support infrastructure.
It was only for a few days, but both the days and nights were long and filled with hard physical and mental exertion. The night before the exercise ended, I reviewed the re-deployment plan put together by our logistics planner. My one rule was that we were not going to bring the tents down in the dark. Something always gets broken when we do that.
It was a good plan, but it was clear that he had forgotten about the one-hour time differential between GMT and local, so his assumption about when it would be light was wrong. I asked probing questions about the plan but couldn’t get him to see his error. After all, he’d checked with the weatherman specifically to see when nautical dawn was.
The next morning was busy, and we completed all the assigned tasks by the scheduled tent breakdown time. But it was still pitch-black. I asked that the planner come see me, and when he reported in, I asked his where the sun was.
He stood tall and replied, “Sir, it’s scheduled to arrive any minute.”
I let him know that it wouldn’t be arriving for another hour and that under no circumstances would we break tents down in the dark. And then I let him continue to be in charge of the pack up. Fortunately, that young captain was resourceful and flexible. He assigned some other activities that were scheduled for later and managed to scrounge a light cart from somewhere else on the airfield. Within a half hour, we were breaking down tents and had completed palletizing the entire camp by the time the aircraft arrived for our re-deployment to home base.
He turned a failure into a complete success and learned a couple of lasting lessons:
- Learn to critically examine your plans and listen for understanding when someone asks questions. Maybe the question behind the question is what really needs to be considered.
- Always have a Plan B (and maybe C). Think about it, how often does everything go exactly as planned? Ever?
- Give subordinates every opportunity to try tasks that stretch them without fear that failure will result in humiliation or professional suicide. During the debrief, I publicly praised his original plan (with the notable exception of the failure of the sun to appear on time) and his resourcefulness that resulted in mission success.
Kevin Berchelmann’s Law of Leadership #4: Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job. In other words, let your people take risks without fearing the occasional failure. They need to know you have their back, and you’re not going to fire them if something goes awry.
That was ten years ago. That young captain has been promoted a few times since and is a commander himself now. We still keep in touch (I’ll save the value of mentoring for another piece), and his last note to me read, “Regardless of when/how you learned your leadership style it was appreciated and is part of your legacy. You inspired me to be a better Airman, Officer, and father.”
Doesn’t get much better than that.
What have you taught your employees about making mistakes? The last thing you want is for the mistakes to be hidden behind the fear of your reaction. Just because you’ve stopped hearing about mistakes doesn’t mean they’ve stopped happening.
I looked up from my desk the other day and noticed (again) a retirement present from a good friend and co-worker that says, “It is what it is.” Too often, I hear that phrase uttered in a tone of voice that conveys resignation to an unpleasant situation or acceptance of defeat. It doesn’t have to be that way!
As leaders, a key to success is in understanding the last part of the sentence: “…what it is.” It might be something we have control over, something we can only influence, or something that affects us and our people but is out of our hands. How quickly we ascertain which of the three It is, and how we communicate that to those who work for and with us often determines whether we (the royal WE) are going to rise above the challenge.
In a past life, I commanded an organization responsible for deploying personnel to all parts of Europe and Africa. We were too short staffed in certain specialties to do what were we being asked to do, and getting additional manpower was out of our control. What was in our control was how we used the personnel we had.
Instead of being resigned to playing the victim to the asymmetric workload distribution between specialties, we developed an aggressive cross-training program that enabled the willing, but underemployed, personnel to team with those who were in danger of burning out. As a result, we built a greater number of very capable, cross-functional teams that were scalable and incredibly efficient to deploy and employ… and we significantly improved morale in the process.
This speaks to three core truths of leadership: leaders create “we” organizations; leaders don’t play the victim; and, leaders help others manage change.
As the chief executive, my job was to instill a sense of shared purpose, creating a “we” organization that excelled at overcoming adversity and delivering client success. Those given additional training knew they’d be asked to work harder but were willing to give their discretionary effort to reduce the burden on their teammates. If you know your organization has spare band-width in some areas, maybe you can tap into it through a renewed sense of shared purpose.
When leaders fail, they can’t play the victim. I tried so many times to get additional personnel, they called me Kevin de la Mancha. As frustrating as it was, we didn’t sit around and blame others for not being able to accomplish the mission; we got off our morass and found an alternative that gave us control back. If you’re not encouraging your people to find innovative ways to overcome It, they may not think you have what it takes to lead them to greater successes, and they’ll be wary of following.
Leaders have to model change resiliency; if you don’t have it at the top, you won’t find it at the bottom. By understanding and anticipating resistance to changing the status quo, hierarchical way of tasking, it was easier for me to communicate the positive effects we could generate (both up and down the chain of command) and involve those most affected in the implementation plan. When those affected demonstrated their buy-in, it silenced the nay-sayers and motivated others to want to do more work for the good of the team.
How are you dealing with It? Are you resigned to suffer its impact on your organization, or are you aggressively developing alternative strategies to deliver success by giving your people the tools and opportunities they need to exceed expectations?
Overcoming It depends on you.
Leaders have got to get better at delegating.
Intentional leadership takes time, and there are already plenty of demands on the 24 hours we have. Our jobs certainly aren’t getting easier, and I’m betting that most of your day isn’t consumed by core leadership tasks like motivating, developing and mentoring.
So, how much of your job as a leader should you delegate? I would argue almost none of it, since leading more effectively will bring the most benefit to both your people and your organization.
On the other hand, when it comes to management tasks, I think you should delegate virtually everything that someone else can do. This is how I learned it:
Thought I’d keep it light this month. It’s possible someone told me I’d been a little preachy lately… but what do they know?
How do you know you’re leading? What do you measure? What do you look for?
Consulting the great Google oracle, it looks like 73,300,000 people already know and have written about it. (Heaven forbid the Google breaks; how will I ever conduct my research?)
Since I didn’t see what I was looking for, I thought I’d share a couple of lessons I learned about a decade ago, shortly after I’d taken command of a few hundred motivated and talented Airmen and was voluntold at the last minute that I would be leading the entire wing on its monthly run.
Disclaimer: I hate running.
… never mind, I already know.
I’m gonna try to keep this upbeat, but the underlying issue is sad… and oh so preventable.
So many of your employees have these 8-track tapes running in their head that say things like “what’s wrong with me?” “I screwed it up, again” and “I’ll never get this right.” That’s because all they ever seem to hear about is what they messed up, what they’re doing wrong, and what they’re not doing fast enough.
You might hear it fairly often, too, but this isn’t about you.