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My Ft. Bragg MBA

| 7 Comments

I had an interesting personal experience that gave me some insight into the capabilities of our Special Forces, and the power of the kind of 4th Generation management which they represent.

As a part of maintaining my own "Armed Liberal" skills, I had arranged to be part of a class taught by a former Special Forces instructor now instructing law enforcement and private classes while also contracting back to the military. At the time, I was also contracting for a large software development company, sorting out one of their troubled engagements....

I had walked into a situation in which the team was not only disorganized and badly led, but had that wonderful sense of 'geek entitlement' that was so prevalent during the .com boom years. That spirit is one which suggests that half-efforts by technically competent people are really all that can be expected, and that the messy heavy lifting involved in actually getting things done is somehow less of a concern than shopping for a new Acura or standing in the dining room chatting.

As my loaded tone suggests, it's not a work style with which I fit particularly well, and at one point I was louder and doubtless less diplomatic with two of my team members than I might have been. They had inadvertently shut down the client's system and gone to lunch early, which was a Bad Thing because the system was an e-commerce system which made the client about $100,000 an hour. The client called and was extremely unhappy, and I paged them back to the office and we conferred.

We were in a corridor, and as my voice rose, doors started to open and we collected quite an audience.

One of them was the CTO of the company, my contract officer, who asked me to join him in his office, where he suggested that my skills at managing less-motivated team members might - as he put it - need improving.

He knew that I was taking the class, and hosting the instructor at my home. He suggested that as a former senior NCO, the instructor might have some helpful suggestions to make on 'managing the unmotivated.'

So after I picked the instructor up at LAX and got him set up in the guest room at our house, we went off to dinner.

"I have a funny question," I opened.

He gave me a concerned look, assuming that I was looking for some violent or secret inside stories, which we had agreed in advance would be off-limits.

I went on to explain my problem, and ask him the question: "How did you deal with unmotivated troops?"

He started laughing and sprayed some of his Bohemia beer on the table.

"Your boss doesn't understand. There are no unmotivated troops in the Special Forces. That's the biggest reason why they are special. Most militaries go into fights full of people who would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. The Special Forces are full of people who want to be right here, right now."
He explained that as a trainer for Special Forces medics, one of his jobs was explaining to the physicians who rotated into camp clinics and hospitals that unlike regular troops, who used medical conditions as an excuse not to perform their duties and so exaggerated them, that they had to be alert to Special Forces troops who would mask the extent of their injuries because they did not want to miss training or duty.

"The problem isn't getting them going, it's holding them back," he explained to me.

He then spent dinner explaining his interpretation (and since he'd Been There & Done That, it's the most relevant data that I have on the subject) of management in the Special Forces universe.

My notes are pretty simple (note that the simplistic bullet-point conceptualization is entirely my own, and that his discussions were appropriately complicated, anecdote-filled, and rich in meaning and context):

SELECT - pick your people carefully

PROTECT - protect them from the inevitable petty nonsense, but make sure they know there are consequences from within the team for doing wrong

EXPECT - make it clear that you expect them to succeed, and that you expect that they will help the rest of the team do what it takes to succeed

INFORM - keep them well-informed of what's going on, not only in their immediate environment, but on the broader levels as well

LISTEN - make sure they know that when they speak they are heard and responded to

GET OUT OF THE WAY - once you've set objectives and metrics, let them do their job

I took his advice, and - as I should have done sooner, and have done ever since - on returning to work had the offending sysadmins removed from the project. It worked, and it was the beginning of a long process that eventually got the project turned around.

7 Comments

Good story. What I'd be really interested in, is how you talked the contract officer (CTO) into changing his tack and going along with this approach, instead of trying harder to "motivate" these people.

LOL - I just told him what I'd been told...

A.L.

Actually, I should take that a bit more seriously, as it's a good lesson for we consultants. Having suggested that I go to an outside expert to get direction, he was going to have a very hard time rejecting the advice he'd asked me to get.

A.L.

A.L:

I think I have a slightly better answer to Joe's Q-After your explanation, CTO realized, as you did during your "class", that your answer was correct.

BTW, this is very close to the regular MBA methods.

Phil Winsor CPA, MBA

My dad was an army drill sergeant, though he was out by the time I came along. There's the old adage, however, that you can take the boy out of the army, but you can't take the army out of the boy. When my brother and I came along and got old enough he got us into Boy Scouts and eventually became the scoutmaster. Nothing quite prepares a group of 4 foot tall, 10 year old boys for the motivational and management methods of a seasoned army drill instructor. He had much the same take on things and it's something that, for the most part, stuck. Granted, I don't always apply them in my own management style, and kick myself when I slip up, but the philosophy is sound, whether it be with software development teams, special forces or snot nosed brats in the Sierras freezing their asses off.

On management in the Special Forces Universe...all good points and pretty well tracks with what I tried to do in leading my guys. Just for the record I was a tank rider ( != Special Forces ) and all my guys were also there because they wanted to be. Do right by them and they'd do anything for you.

One caveat, didn't get to pick my folk, had to work with what I got. I could, though choose how to get best effort from them

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