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Eight Leadership Principles Professional Service Firms Should Learn From The Military
The military is often called the ultimate professional service firm because it sells, what we can call in plain English, “peace of mind”. There is nothing tangible, no deliverables and no billable time. And to maintain this “peace of mind”, the military must work in close collaboration with the civilian side of society, like politicians (the client per se). By the way, have you also noticed that the military doesn’t have many fee objections? Governments are willing to invest a fair amount in peace.
And while many civilians mistakenly believe that the military is about mass-manipulation, command and control, when you see beyond the veneer, you’ll discover a “community” whose operation is based on deep-seated values and which has lower level of talent attrition than any industry you could name. Also, the military of one of the very few organisations whose members are actually proud of belonging there. But since the military is probably the only institution where commitment and accountability are taken dead seriously, civilians tend to call this level of dedication, due to lack of a better word, to command and control. But there is the same level of command and control in every area of life. And in a society that, in general, is pretty low on accountability, these words have been softened up to be more acceptable.
So, let’s see what we can learn from the army…
Communication is one of the fundamentals in the military. It must be very clear and precise, otherwise the smallest misunderstanding can cause major devastation. Clear communication takes place when the receiver precisely understands what the sender means. You communicate for several purposes. You can direct, order, ask, request, influence, co-ordinate, encourage, counsel, coach, or educate. It is the sender’s responsibility to send the message in such a way and form that it “lands” on the receiver, and s/he can understand the exact meaning of the message at a high degree of accuracy.
And this is where Einstein’s phrase comes into the equation, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This approach makes certain that your message is understood and can be acted upon promptly. And there is another consideration here. Sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult. People just must pack their egos, and realise that just because a comment hurts, it’s not meant to hurt. Every comment is just a comment. It is us who add meanings to those comments.
In professional firms this kind of communication takes place both in-house among the firm’s denizens, and between denizens and clients. We’re living in a society that is becoming politically correct at the expense of clarity. I don’t mean to be politically incorrect or outrageous just for the hell of it, but clarity must come first. If you mean to say bull****, then don’t settle for male bovine solid waste. It may sound nicer and less vulgar, but the meaning gets diluted, and the clarity, urgency and the importance of the message go down the drain. General Patton may have been vulgar in his language but he produced results and his people respected him, which made him a pretty good leader.
2. Developing Associates and Teams
As a leader you must have a strong bond with your people. Leadership by remote control is a sad and rather sick illusion. Ken Blanchard calls it seagull leadership: So-called leaders fly in, make a lot of noise, crap all over the place on everyone and then fly out. Their only contact with their people is when they show up to reprimand and fire them.
Just like warfare, working in a professional firm is a team activity and the battlefield of commerce requires tough and cohesive teams that can work together when the stakes are high and the heat is on. But this requires that teams are trained when the heat is on. And this is where the difference lies. Soldiers rehearse, musicians rehearse, dancers rehearse, actors and actresses rehearse, even politicians rehearse their speeches.
One of the very few groups of people who almost never rehearse their crafts is professional service firm denizens. And not because they are so good that they don’t need rehearsing. No! They don’t rehearse because it’s not a billable activity, and management doesn’t tolerate time wastage. Every single dispensed second must be rewarded.
So, what happens next? Well, we can call it winging. And winging is great when everything goes by the book. Every greenhorn sailor can sail a ship on a calm sea. But there is deep trouble when storm’s coming and all of the sudden 10-foot waves start pounding on the ship. A team that was built on brotherly love and retarded ra-ra exercises will fall to pieces even before the storm reaches its climax.
The biggest part of building “military-calibre” teams is to create trust in-, respect for- and faith in other members abilities to do what has to be done to advance the firm to the next level of excellence. Team leaders must be able to represent the firm to the team and individual members of the team to the firm. Team leaders must be exemplars. They must be willing to do themselves what they expect their people to do. One big destroyer of teamwork is when team leaders shout, “Do as I say, not as I do.” And yes, team members will graciously ignore the team leader and now you have the harbinger of anarchy.
3. Developing Teaching, Coaching and Counselling
The main purpose of leadership in the military is to turn soldiers into leaders, so they can pass on the skills both to the soldiers in their units and their children in civilian life. It’s about helping people to grow as people. The military prepares soldiers for many worst-case scenarios. And since the environment can be pretty stressful, soldiers must become good counsellors and coaches to help people in their units. And since this level of help can mean the difference between life and death, it is taken pretty seriously.
How does this reflect on professional service firms? All right, that is not a life or death situation (depending on the profile of your business), but it does mean the difference between feast and famine. And the famine period can be pretty stressful.
As a practice leader you must be committed to your people’s overall well-being, and must actively participate in your people’s professional development. Professional development is not about more functional knowledge. Technology professionals make the mistake of learning more and more about technology, while they are barely able to carry a semi-intelligent conversation with non-technical people using normal language. Every now and then I get beaten up because my language is not business-like. But I also know through feedback that, in spite of my accent and plain English, people can easily understand my message because it’s not wrapped into flavour-of-the-month fads.
4. Enhancing Functional, Contextual and Personal Mastery
Many professionals believe that the more they know about their functional areas, the better they become as professionals. There are some interesting considerations here. I use the world of sports here. Think of some high-achieving athletes and think of some high-achieving sports coaches. What you find is that most high-achieving athletes have never become high-achieving coaches, and most high-achieving coaches have never been high-achieving athletes. They require two different skills.
In great professional firms you find great functional experts who also great (or at least on the path of becoming great) leaders. Besides the content of their speciality (computer programming), they also understand both the context (IT industry and IT business) and the personal issues related to rendering computer programming as a business. That can include decision-making, emotional intelligence and even personal health and fitness. They all relate to running a successful firm. Remember every business problem starts out as a personal problem and then it becomes a business problem.
Nothing is more pitiful than a computer programmer who learns one programming language after the other, but has no understanding of how those computer codes tie into the big picture of the client’s company. Understanding content while ignoring context is not a brilliant practice. Similarly, improving our business skills while ignoring personal growth is a waste of time and effort. As service professionals, our job is to improve our clients’ condition, but in the process we also must improve both personally and professionally.
According to Harvard Business School research (confirmed by Stanford University and the Carnegie Foundation), regardless what business you are in, your success is only 15% functional skills, and 85% of other skills.
According to Accenture’s surveys of 500 top international executives, the most wanted workforce skills in the next 2-5 years in business…
* Business skills: 68% (Decision-making, cross-functional collaboration, client focused, project management)
* Technical skills 42%
* Flexibility and adaptability: 33%
* Self-motivation: 18%
* Leadership: 6%
* Functionally good at what they do (good dentist, good lawyer, good carpenter, etc.): 3%
These same executives also predict that with time it becomes extraordinarily difficult to come by people with good business skills.
5. Improving Decision-Making
Imagine a shooting competition. The contestants are holding their riffles at the target and are aiming… aiming… and still aiming. The clock strikes noon, and they’re still aiming. Then the clock strikes midnight, and they’re still aiming. At the crack of dawn they’re still aiming.
What you see here is the typical decision-making process in most professional firms. Making a decision over an important issue that would actually advance the firm’s position in the marketplace.
When decision has to be made over an urgent issue, the decision is instant. But some 35% of those decisions are ego-driven. Nearly 66% of executives never consider alternatives once they’ve made a decision. 81% of managers push their ideas using persuasion, position power and edict with no regard for the quality or relevance of the idea. “It’s the boss’ idea. It must be the best idea.”
Because a whopping 83% of leaders and managers are confident in themselves (basically trust themselves), but only 27% of them are confident (basically trust them) in the people they work with. The essential message is that “I’m a genius surrounded by idiots.” But the interesting thing is that in others’ eyes, they are the geniuses and everyone else is an idiot. Well, essentially everyone is a genius and an idiot at the same time. Talking about parallel universes. In his book, The Invisible Touch, Harry Beckwith calls this phenomenon the “Late Wo-Begone” effect: People (especially guys) mistakenly believe they are better looking and smarter than they really are. A great example is your local gym. Some 30% of the guys lift far too heavy weights just to impress other guys.
The military teaches us that firm leaders must be able to make high-quality decisions within a reasonable time frame that are both appropriate for solving the problem and can be implemented by the soldiers. The other point is that every decision must be made at the lowest organisational level. In the military you can’t pester the generals with minutia.
Similarly, in professional firms there is a “chain of command” or “chain of accountability”, and if you expect accountability from your people, you must give them a “room of discretion”, so they will decide what’s best under the circumstances. When I go skydiving, I have people above me in the chain of command as to how the whole jumping day will take place, but they don’t poke their dirty little noses into why, when and how I open my emergency shoot when main shoot quits on me. I’m accountable for carrying out that jump to my best knowledge, and to do that I am authorised to make certain decisions.
The other end of the same equation is that you can only expect accountability from your people if you are willing to be accountable to them. Yes, it must be a two-way street. The traditional “Do as I say not as I do” is just not enough.
6. Perfecting Planning Skills
Planning is the skill that is less and less appreciated in this Internet-speed world. And a few years ago the dot com companies made it even worse. “Never mind planning. If we fail, we just beg for more venture capital and maybe we burn less of it in the next round.” The interesting thing is that over the years information technology and venture capital have become co-dependent. One cannot live without the other.
What amazes me is that when lawyers or dentists graduate, they invest their own money and their own bank loans to start their legal or dental practices, but when some IT gurus decide to start their own businesses, they just go on a begging spree to “raise capital”. Since I find it hard to believe that they all are flat broke, I can only assume that they just don’t have the balls to put their own money on the line.
Planning is a process that is necessary to support tactical-level execution that is vitally important to achieving the firm’s strategy. Saying it in a less pompous way, if you want to make omelette, you have to be ready, willing and able to break some eggs. And some of them may be bad eggs and stink up the whole kitchen, but that’s part of the game. The other option is just standing there and staring at your box of eggs until doomsday.
Planning is also a collective name for such activities as goal-setting, forecasting, defining objectives, formulating strategies, setting priorities, delegating, sequencing and timing, budgeting, and standardising the necessary procedures. Your people want to live chaos-free orderly lives, so they must know they can depend on your abilities to plan for success.
There is one more consideration here: As a leader your job is to grow other leaders who will someday replace you in your day-to-day work. And it’s up to you what kind of a leader you grow.
7. Effectively Using Available Systems
Many professional firms take the “we provide personalised services” a bit too far and in the wrong direction. You call the firm and it’s almost impossible to find your way from the voice mail labyrinth to a live person. But when you ask for the same information which ten other prospects have already asked for on the same day, someone starts assembling the information pieces for you one by painstakingly one. In plain English, many firms humanise the trivia and automate the vital.
Many professional firms rebel against using systems because they believe that would dilute their customised approaches, but realistically systems make things consistent and reasonably predictable. And this consistency and predictability are the cornerstones of your brand. I am wiling to fly on an aeroplane because planes have been fairly consistent and predictable at taking people from A to B. All right, every now and then one comes down in unexpected ways, but in general, flying is pretty consistent and predictable.
People don’t buy your services based on what you deliver but rather based on how you deliver it. Think of how Saturn revolutionised the way cars are sold. The first time in history car dealerships selling North American cars treated women with respect and courtesy. Was it rocket science? Not really. Saturn used a car selling system that was drastically different from the traditional slimy and manipulative General Motors approach that regarded buyers, especially women, as high-grade morons with pulse beats, who must be screwed out of as much of their money and as quickly as humanly possible.
Performance expert W. Edwards Deming once said that some 94% of all problems are related to systems. He also said that unless you can map out your work in some box and arrow diagrams, then you don’t know what you’re doing. These are harsh words but certainly confirm the importance of systems. And while I agree that in professional services, just like in the military, it is the people who make the difference, but when you have great people using great systems, then your firm is as good as untouchable by the competition. You must be ready and willing to use every available system that make you better than the competition.
8. Upholding and Enforcing The Firm’s Code of Honour
The US Armed Forces (Army, Navy, etc.) adhere to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The Samurai in Japan lived by the code of the Bushido (Code of the Warrior Soul of Japan). The glue that holds together any team of people is a Code of Honour. This code clearly lays down specific behaviours between team members and between the firm and its clients. And most firms are pretty good at creating such a code. The problem is when it comes to enforcing the code.
The problem is that many professionals refuse to be held accountable for anything. “We’re professionals and no one has the right to hold us accountable for anything.” – They say.
For some this may sound too harsh, but when you’re building a “military-calibre” team, you must know you can count on your people to walk into the arena with you whenever it’s necessary, not only when they feel like. Some people may consider this act as tyranny, but it’s just part of the Code. Some people just refused to live by the Code (which they created), so they were asked to leave. And I believe this is the only way to reinforce a Code of Honour. In this case the firing of those associates wasn’t initiated by partners. It was written in the firm’s Code. And this partner, unlike most partners out there, actually had the balls to reinforce the Code.
When a firm leader or partner violates the Code, that leader must be made responsible for his irresponsible act. In the military soldiers don’t live by what the generals dictate. Both soldiers and generals live by what the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) or its equivalent dictates. It’s a sort of Code of Honour. A sort of constitution for the military. And generals and other officers must become the living embodiment of that Code, so they set an example to soldiers.
Just like in the military, in professional firms too, leaders come and go but, paraphrasing the old Led Zeppelin song, The Song Remains The Same, the Code remains the same. Look at great companies like the retailer Nordstrom. Most employees never meet the top dogs, but they are introduced to the “Nordstrom Code” on their very first days and are told that everyone is expected to live by that Code (or getting fired by breaking it).
So, what is your Code? Is it worth living by? Are you willing to live by it?
So, why can’t most professional firms live up to the “ultimate professional service firm” moniker? It’s lack of accountability. In most firms there is only one kind of accountability: Making money. As long as you perform your assigned number of billable hours, everything else is irrelevant.
This is the equivalent of telling soldiers, “Men, as long as you produce the assigned quota of enemy corpses, everything else is overlooked. All sins forgiven.”
And here let’s revisit the movie Gladiator, respect and how leader earn it. It’s just a little detail but throughout the movie, when Maximus was a slave and his former personal assistant was a free man, yet, Cicero always addressed Maximus as “General”. Again, it may be just a tiny detail but it may be worth discovering how many of your people call you “Stupid Cow”, “Dumb Jerk” or by other innovative names rather than your real name and how many flick their tongues in contempt for you rather than bowing their heads in respect.
Business consultant and former West Point Class President, Scott Snair writes in his book, West Point Leadership Lessons, “The end is never in sight, the job is never done, and for the rest of your time in the Army, no job will ever really get done. What you have to do is concentrate on the process, not on the completion, and try to do some good along the way.” I believe this statement sums it up for professional service firm denizens as well. It’s an ongoing process. Walking the path towards mastery, which we can never reach.
George Washington once said, “The preservation of the soldier’s health should be the commander’s first and greatest care.” The more firm leaders and managers can adopt this basic philosophy, the better off they will be in their businesses. Only excited, passionate and enthusiastic people can attract top-drawer clients with sexy projects with premium fees.
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